The Case Against LotRO

In a moment of weakness, I resubscribed to another game that’s basically pretty good but which I can’t bring myself to subscribe to – The Lord of the Rings Online. It’s neither horrendously awful nor particularly good – it’s pretty much the same as it was when I last tried it back in June, with more of the same added since. I want to like it. But it doesn’t feel anything like Middle-Earth to me.

Understand, I am not a “Tolkien Fanatic” only in the sense that I don’t dress up as a hobbit and go to conventions. The Lord of the Rings, however, is toward the top of my list of favorite books. I’ve even read The Silmarillion. More than once. I’ve also read two different Tolkien biographies, his book of letters, and own (and have read much of) the complete History of Middle-Earth extravaganza. These are not the kinds of things you associate with “casual fan,” although I still like to clutch desperately at some personal dignity. Bear that in mind when I say that LotRO isn’t a very good interpretation of Middle-Earth.

Aside from the fact that many of the conventions of MMOs do not fit Middle-Earth particularly well (and LotRO is a very conventional MMO in almost every respect,) the art design for the game is clearly heavily inspired by Peter Jackson’s film trilogy. This would be fine, but the game is licensed from the books, not the movies, so the game doesn’t use the very nice designs of the films, and instead of coming up with its own vision of Middle-Earth (or hiring a known Tolkien artist to set its vision for it, as Jackson had the sense to do,) a lot of the scenery looks like cheapened-up versions of the same stuff we saw on the big screen.

This implies a lackadaisical adaptation effort, which I think shines through in a number of other areas of the game as well. The names are an obvious, out-front example. Tolkien took immense care with his names. Places, people, and historical events all had names that Tolkien tweaked to be just right. And there was nobody better qualified to do this than Tolkien. He was a philologist, perhaps the greatest philologist in history. The philologist studies the linguistic structure and historical background of words, how they interrelate, and why they carry the meanings and connotations that they do. Tolkien loved words and understood them on a far deeper level than even the most serious fans of his work, and this is why his names seem so right. It’s also why so many of the names in LotRO feel so out of place.

Again, this is something that the casual fan might not catch. But languages are a passing interest of mine, and I’ve done a little reading of my own in the field, so I have some grasp on why Tolkien’s names work as well as they do. And I’ve read a lot of Tolkien – not just the stories but the commentaries and the formative works – so I also grasp the fact that language is something very fundamental to Middle-Earth – the reason, in fact, that Middle-Earth exists at all. A place to put those intricately constructed, elegant languages. Turbine’s names sound phony to an ear accustomed to the rigorous consistency with which Tolkien developed his constructed languages, and I can smell them a mile away.

Also, The Lord of the Rings itself was very much built on the earlier foundation that Tolkien had already established decades before and would come to be called The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion. Much of the underlying logic behind the setting and plot is found in these works, not in LotRO proper, and are only touched lightly upon even in the beefy appendices at the end of The Return of the King. Without that background, Middle-Earth doesn’t really hang together anymore. And therein is another problem.

The setting of any RPG – tabletop or computer – demands a great deal of miscellaneous background, since play in that setting should be, to one extent or another, reasonably open-ended. A novelist does not necessarily need elements which don’t directly affect his or her plot. But The Lord of the Rings is not a novel in the modern sense and wasn’t written as one. It was written, as Tolkien himself said, as history, in the form of the great mythical/historical epics like Beowulf in which Tolkien was deeply learned. So Tolkien actually did create a lot of that peripherally relevant stuff that you’d need for an RPG setting. And a great deal of it is found in The Book of Lost Tales, The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and other ancilliary works.

Too bad Turbine can’t use any of that.

See, the old man himself sold off the media rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings some time before he died. Those rights eventually ended up in the hands of Tolkien Enterprises, which is run by media mogul Saul Zaentz (who also ended up with the rights to a number of diverse things, including the complete catalog of Credence Clearwater Revival.) But The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and the Histories of Middle-Earth had not yet been published at that time, so their rights are still in the hands of Tolkien’s estate, currently controlled by his son Christopher Tolkien.

With the great success and profitability of the film trilogy and its associated merchandise, a lot of lawyers’ attention has been focused on the rights held by Tolkien Enterprises, which had long been loosely interpreted by such licensees as Iron Crown Enterprises. Christopher Tolkien would dearly love to have those rights back. So not only can Turbine not use material from The Silmarillion and the other books, they cannot even appear to be dipping their toes into those waters, for fear of Tolkien’s lawyers coming after them, or of Zaentz’s lawyers pulling their license out of the very same fear. And because an RPG demands a certain fullness of background, LotRO’s designers had no choice but to make stuff up out of whole cloth, and they did a very superficial job of it.

None of this is reason enough to dislike the game, however. I think I am detached enough to recognize good work independently of adherence to a fixed source text, which is why I think that the Jackson film trilogy is a masterwork of film-making, despite breaking down as an interpretation of the book in a number of places. But LotRO is not a masterwork of MMO design. Indeed, I think the basic gameplay is slightly inferior to that of WoW, EQ2 or Vanguard – or even Tabula Rasa. It does indeed have a couple of neat things in it: deeds are something that every MMO should have – only EQ2 has something similar – and instanced housing neighborhoods and monster play are novel twists on common housing and PvP, respectively. And the questing is generally decent and very neatly worked into the novel’s plot. I thought the use of instancing was very clever when I first tried LotRO back in May, but I’ve since learned that Guild Wars used all those techniques first, and better. But the gameplay is, at the most fundamental level, nothing new, nothing special, and certainly not obviously superior to that of the established games from which LotRO borrows. It’s not bad. But it’s not good enough to overcome a haphazard interpretation of Middle-Earth that rings false to me.

I mean, the point having a Middle-Earth MMO is that you get to adventure in Middle-Earth, arguably the greatest fantasy setting ever devised. But LotRO isn’t Middle-Earth – it’s Generic Fantasy MMO Setting with bits chopped from Middle-Earth’s corpse and papered over with visuals obviously lifted from the films and just as obviously inferior to them. Generic fantasy settings are dominant in the MMO space, and the fact is that in those terms, the settings of Vanguard, EQ2 and even WoW are better, and more importantly were devised with the constraints of MMO play in mind.

So the bottom line is that I think LotRO fails as a way to experience Middle-Earth, and that the gameplay is simply not compelling enough for me to admire it much as a game, despite its good points. That’s why I cancelled my original subscription back in June, and that’s why I cancelled it again last week. And unlike Vanguard, I don’t think I’ll bother to look into it again. My issues with LotRO are so fundamental that I’ll doubt I’ll ever be able to have fun with it.

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