[Gaming] Why LotRO Hits the Spot

Before I get into the actual story, I should provide full disclosure of bias here. I’m on the official LotRO stream team and am privileged to be friends with a couple of the devs at Standing Stone Games. That being said…

I’ve been a Lord of the Rings fan since I was in single digits *mumblemumble* years ago. I was ‘forced’ to read The Hobbit when I was in school, and the teacher of course mentioned LotR, saying it was a bit more mature reading (not as happy/playful as The Hobbit). I remember the school library having two versions of the trilogy on hand: a large hardcover edition featuring nifty fold-out maps and the paperbacks featuring the amazing realistic art by the sadly late Darrell K. Sweet. Fun fact: Darrell K. Sweet’s art was also on the cover of the edition of Elfstones of Shannara where I originally derived my nom de plume of Druidsfire. I also went back years later and found used copies of that original paperback edition of LotR but never found reasonably-priced versions of the hardcover edition.

Another fun fact: despite the awesomeness of the fold-out maps in the hardcover edition, I wasn’t sold on this less-playful Hobbit adventure until I read the foreward by Peter S. Beagle. I was of the age where it was considered appropriate for little girls to be mad for unicorns, so having this book be advocated by the author of The Last Unicorn meant that of course I was going to try it. So I fell in love with the wider lands of Middle-earth. Unlike my peers who didn’t care for LotR very much to begin with, I also happily read The Silmarillion and didn’t find it as unwieldy as even people today sometimes bemoan.

I’ve also watched the Rankin and Bass Hobbit cartoon, the Ralph Bakshi rotoscoped Lord of the Rings cartoon that only captured Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, and the Rankin and Bass Return of the King. The R&B cartoons had amazing songs in them (except that TERRIBLE Glen Yarborough ‘The Greatest Adventure’ that both myself and Professor Corey Olsen are definitely not fans of). In fact, I sang a couple of songs from Return of the King while I was streaming the other night, questing in Lord of the Rings Online around the Towers of the Teeth. Of course, we all know the Peter Jackson live-action movies. I liked his Lord of the Rings trilogy by and large (although I have some severe quibbles with it), but I thoroughly hated his Hobbit trilogy. Don’t get me started on how awful the character of Tauriel and her role in the story was. I’m of a ‘wait and see’ opinion on the newly-optioned Amazon Middle-earth TV series, but I’ll admit to wariness.

Now, I’ve played a number of Hobbit and LotR-themed games, most of my collection being GameCube editions. I’m here to tell you why the PC MMO Lord of the Rings Online is my favorite, why it hits the spot in ways none of the others managed.

Despite the fact that I’ve played or run text-based MUSHes (Multi-User Shared Hallucinations) and there is/was a long-running one based on Middle-earth called Elendor, I never actually played that. Nor have I played the RTS-style LotR games, War for the North, or Shadows of Mordor. The Assassin’s Creed style of gameplay has never been my favorite, and when you take the lore and send it off the rails, meh. Yes, I’m a lore purist.

So, I own two of the movie-themed LotR games (TTT and RotK), the more cartoony The Hobbit, and the JRPG-style The Third Age. The Hobbit was interesting enough, but I never finished it. I remember getting to the goblin caves and might have recovered the Ring, but it’s been a number of years since I’ve played it. The game was a bit of a platformer and played a little bit like a Zelda game, and the color palette and overall game style was lighter and more colorful than most games set in Middle-earth. I don’t remember playing the two tie-in games beyond the first hour or so of gameplay, because they didn’t really capture my imagination or do anything horribly interesting with the known story.

Tie-in games are all well and dandy, but they don’t really go off the rails. I’m of the opinion that if you’re gonna go off the rails, go Lego LotR and be done with it. However, The Third Age brings up an interesting sort of proof as to why LotRO is the far superior game. One of the things game developers have to juggle with LotR-themed games is whether you’re going to play the book characters through their adventures or if you’re going to play other characters. If you’re playing other characters during the War of the Ring, there’s always the big question of do you know about the Quest or are you off doing your own thing?

The Third Age took this latter approach although it was linked to the in-development Peter Jackson movies. In terms of gameplay, it’s well enough as a basic JRPG-style game that plays a lot like Final Fantasy X. However, it made such a point of reinforcing the fact that the party you’re assembling are the second-stringers. You started as a male Gondorian soldier sent to find Boromir at Rivendell and then accumulated a party that went down the checklist of interesting Middle-earth character archetypes (elf woman, Ranger, dwarf, Rohirrim woman who was actually from Minas Tirith, Rohirrim guard, etc.). Throughout the game, you had little knowledge of the Fellowship’s errand until near the end but almost literally follow in their footsteps (being on the floor below them in Moria?), cleaning up quests in areas after the various members of the Fellowship have passed through and had their canonical adventures. Once in a great while, you actually encountered a book character and helped them, such as the Battle of Helm’s Deep, but for the most part you were just these other guys doing stuff in the background and had no real impact on or agency with the story of the Ring. The game also spent too much time using cutscenes to tell you the story of the book characters and it left me feeling like I wasn’t really the star of the story. I also took issue with the romance subplot where Berethor the Gondorian seemed to have an infatuation with the elf woman Idrial, but she brushed him off and pointed him to the Gondorian Morwen as someone more on his level. Sure, Tolkien sometimes got a bit racist and classist and it fits the lore point that there were only a very few number of Man/Elf marriages, but damn, he didn’t slap someone in the face with it like that.

What makes Lord of the Rings Online different is that players’ stories are integrated into the overall story of the Fellowship. The devs made such a point of ensuring that you, the player, eventually learn about the Quest and actively help ensure its completion without interfering with those bits of the story where the members of the Fellowship are on their own. One of my favorite side quests that shockingly isn’t part of the epic questline is where you go on a series of quests to locate a non-canonical item called a Silithar. Without this gemstone, Elendil’s sword Narsil cannot be reforged. The questline isn’t required and the story will progress without it, cheerfully ignoring whether you’ve done it or not, but it’s a rich story in and of itself about the sorts of things you can do that would aid the book characters without getting in their way and still feel meaningful.

To be fair, LotRO has the advantage over any other Middle-earth game or movie in that they have the ability to cram in every little nook and cranny of lore. All of the other games and movies have to perforce sacrifice sometimes even major bits of the canon in order to fit a certain timeframe. That’s why no movie based on a book is as good as the book because fans will expect all of the details and never get them. Things will either be dropped or if you’re Peter Jackson’s team, wholesale altered to be something unfamiliar, and there has to be at least one version of a LotR video game that adheres to the canon as tightly as it can.

LotRO, being an MMO, gets to be that expansive world where the devs could comb the canon within their license and build out all the familiar places and sprinkle all those little nods and things throughout the landscape. Even a description of what something looks like can be used by the art team to create something magnificent. The gameplay isn’t too divergent from basic holy-trinity-based MMO tactics, but where LotRO excels is in its environmentals and its storytelling. Quite frankly, the Shire is downright gorgeous. The quests you do in the Shire make pure unadulterated sense for what you would expect in the pastoral home of the Hobbits. The fact that you can level up by running pies or mail around the Shire is utterly delightful to me.  Another bit that I loved was getting to see all those little scenes that the movies perforce couldn’t include, such as a moment when a Rohirrim discovers to his delight that his King has arisen from dotage and is riding to Isengard to face Saruman.

The use of the Session Play mechanic is such a stroke of genius as well. For those who aren’t familiar, Session Play is a solo instance where you play through a historical vignette of some kind as another character. This way, the devs let players experience things such as the discovery of the Balrog in Moria, the Oath taken at the Stone of Erech early in the Third Age, the Breaking of the Fellowship, etc. It lets players fulfill their desires to actually participate in the canonical events without breaking that canon by having their characters at places they wouldn’t be, such as Boromir’s attempt to steal the Ring from Frodo at Parth Galen. Sometimes you play a book character, sometimes you merely interact with them as another character, but as a history and lore nerd, it makes me happy to get to play through all of them.

Now, with a decade of live uptime and some years of pre-launch dev time under their belts, the LotRO devs finally get to make their own path. While there’s still some canon to work through (Scouring of the Shire), the Ring has been destroyed in the live game. I’m still amused that I called how they would have players participate in that monumental event months before we saw it in live (obviously it would have to be Session Play, but I called whose PoV it would be). Mordor has been a bit rough because the difficulty ramped up, but I’ve actually found it rather refreshing to have to work to complete content. Okay, it was sometimes frustrating, and perhaps it’s tweaked a bit too high, but it’s a nice change from previous content that could easily be completed on-level.

As a Tolkien nerd, but not as immersed in it as deeply as my friend the Tolkien Professor, LotRO truly does hit the spot. In all fairness, the fact that it’s an MMO is 3/4 of the reason why it succeeds at being the best take on Middle-earth, but there’s also so many ways the dev team could have turned it into something as bad as the Jackson Hobbit trilogy in terms of sticking to the canon. I was privileged to get to visit the Standing Stone Games studio earlier this year and had the honor of meeting most of the team, including chief loremaster Chris Pierson and Senior Designer Jeff ‘MadeofLions’ Libby. I hope I managed to express how much their hard work and clear love for the lore and making it right meant to myself and other players like me.

In all, I can’t currently imagine a more faithful and fully-expressed version of Middle-earth coming anytime soon. While the Amazon TV series will hopefully have plenty of time to worldbuild and flesh things out, it will have the advantage of not being set during either The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. Its framework lore is mostly a clean canvas other than rather broad strokes as to what’s going on around it, so the showrunners will get to go their own way. Also, it’s being made for a TV audience, so there’s likely to be a Hollywood executive mentality and meddling going on. I know some out there are worried that it’ll be a Middle-earth version of Game of Thrones complete with ‘hobbit boinking’ (thank you Cordovan for branding that phrase in our minds 😛 ), but LotRO has thankfully been able to avoid those sorts of pressures to go off the rails.

The final treasure that Lord of the Rings Online brings to us is its community.  It survived ten years due to its community being willing to stick around and keep playing and to forge their own stories via roleplay or the music system or other social activities that aren’t core facets of the game itself.  The annual Weatherstock music competition brought over a thousand people together back in July.  Professor Corey Olsen (aka the Tolkien Professor referenced before) actually teaches an academic class in a lore hall built for him specially by the devs and leads players on field trips throughout the game.  His discussions of architecture, lore, and tapestries during the middle of instances are utterly delightful.  Lifelong friends have been made thanks to this game, and I’m happy to be a part of the stream team and help keep the Twitch channel moderated as a safe place for even new players to roll up and ask their newbie questions and get a serious and respectful answer.

In the end of the day, I’m happy to remain a high-end player of Lord of the Rings Online, having played since day one of open beta, and I’ll be there until the game invariably passes into the West, may that day be long in the future.