Shadow of Mordor interview: lore, exploration and keeping up appearances

One thing is for sure: there are a lot of games based in Middle-Earth. In the last five years alone there have been twelve across platforms ranging smartphones, consoles and PC. It's obviously a lucrative property, but as a video game it's never reached the heights of say, the Arkham series.

Is that about to change with Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor ? It's sensible to remain sceptical of games based on licenses like The Lord of the Rings, but from what we've seen so far Shadow of Mordor looks pretty great. Crucially, it introduces unique systems to the traditional third-person action genre which we've rarely seen in a game of this scale, namely the Nemesis system. You can learn more about it here , but it's basically a dynamic system which generates unique player/enemy interactions. This feeds into the way the world is presented and the way combat plays out.

Ahead of the game's release, I had a chat with design director Michael de Plater and art director Phil Straub about what the open world of Mordor has to offer, and whether it will all prove a bit baffling to Lord of the Rings newcomers.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor will release September 30 in Europe and North America, and October 8 in Australia.

PC Gamer: Shadow of Mordor takes place between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Is the region of Mordor different during this period?

Michael de Plater: Yeah absolutely, and that's one of the reasons we were so excited about using Mordor. We do cover some of the same areas that Frodo and Sam see when they go through Mordor later, but this is 80 years before that. This means Mount Doom hasn't erupted, Sauron has been away for thousands of years and Mordor is a lot more overgrown and wild. There's human tribesmen and Gondorians that have been stationed in there.

While it's not the blasted hellspace we'll see later, it's still the most dangeous, intense and active place within Middle-Earth. It's different from the Mordor that people have seen, yet still very iconic and recognisable as Mordor.

PCG: It sounds like you've had a fair amount of creative license in your approach.

Michael: Yeah, that's definitely correct. I think even more than that, our brief and our mandate and what we wanted to do, was to be very authentic but also to do something new and to show people something they haven't seen before. I just started reading Lord of the Rings again, and the thing that struck me so much is that in every single chapter you're seeing something new. So for us it was really important that this isn't just a rehashing of stuff that people have already seen. There needed to be a sense of discovery and sense of exploration.

Phil Straub: That was part of our DNA when developing: understanding that this was a cornerstone of how Tolkien presented the stories and that there was always this constant revealing of something new. We wanted to follow suite with that in our presentation of Mordor.

PCG: Will exploration be rewarded in Shadow of Mordor?

Michael: Very much so. Within each area you're free to go wherever you want at any time. Each one of the environments is very open, whether you want to go and explore the taverns, climb the towers or unlock secrets. There's so much depth and history and lore within Middle-Earth, so we've used exploration to reward players by uncovering all of that lore. Exploration will allow the player to dig deeper into how our story connects with The Hobbit and with the Lord of the Rings, and with the deeper history of Middle-Earth as well.

PCG: When the games begins will the whole world be available, or is there a process where areas are progressively unlocked? How will the exploration work?

Michael: Areas are unlocked progressively. We begin in Udûn, just inside the black gates where you start the game. Then you can explore anywhere within that area, which is many hours of gameplay. Then after that section of the story we open up an entire new area many hundreds of miles deeper into Mordor around the Sea of Nurnen. We unlock new areas but then within each area it's completely open. We also put a lot of effort into making each one of those areas into a living breathing place, both with the Nemesis system and in the way the world comes to life.

The AI, eco-system, creatures, orcs and slaves... it's all very dynamic, so there's that sense of exploration. Even if you're revisiting the same stronghold you're going to see new events take place and you're going to meet new characters there. There will be new opportunities to save the slaves there and so on.

PCG: Given the time period in Shadow of Mordor will we see diversity in the world's environment? Can you describe the different environments?

Phil: There is a nice diversity of environments. There are obviously many inspirations - the lore and the films - but another thing we talked about a lot was thinking about this as a wild frontier and thinking about what a place like Udûn or the Sea of Nurnen would look like without the influence of Sauron. What does all that look like when nature has had a chance to return?

We did some early concept paintings where foliage had come back into the Udûn area. Udûn still does have a dark overtone to it, it definitely feels like Mordor, but we also contrast that with a place like the Sea of Nurnen which has a lot more foliage, it's a lot greener, it's along a sea, it has big bluffs. To some extent it's kinda beautiful, and I think that in itself is a bit of a surprise from a player's standpoint, in terms of what they might expect from Mordor.

Weather was also a big thing to us, how we present the presence of Sauron and how we present the passage of time, and the narrative and the tone that we wanted to communicate relative to the gameplay and the story. We have another location which is very sandy, sandstorms happen and that obviously changes the presentation of the world as well.

Michael: Day and night are meaningful as well. [Depending on the time] creatures come out, the population behaves differently, the ambiance is very different.

PCG: It must be tough to reconcile the influences of the films and the novels. Is the game more influenced by the films or has the studio taken its own route, consulting the novels first and foremost?

Phil: Authenticity is a word Michael and I use over and over again. Everything needed to feel like it was from the lore and consistent to the lore and authentic to the lore, but to take that one step closer, we needed everything to be authentic in terms of how a real world would be presented. In a way, we thought about our world and the presentation as if it were a historical piece. This is not a high fantasy game, it's not a high fantasy IP, and we just really wanted to make sure that everything was right.

For example, we really wanted to make sure the foliage was realistic relative to the type of foliage which would grow in a volcanic area, and we wanted to make sure geography was authentic and was consistent with an area with volcanic activity. The team did some on-location shoots in Eastern Washington, which is awesome for us because it has quite a lot of volcanic history. There's a place called the Columbia River plateau where there's all kinds of volcanic activity, floods and so forth. We looked at yellow stone for the world, we looked at some photography from Iceland and New Zealand.

The lore was important, but we also wanted to take that further and present the world in a way that had never been seen before. There's only so much of Middle-Earth which has been visualised in the films, so we wanted to take that and present something visually new.

PCG: Regarding the Nemesis system, you've spoken about encounters with enemies and how that shapes future interactions. Can these relationship dynamics be experienced outside of the main storyline?

Michael: The short answer is yes. The living world of the Nemesis system primarily exists by itself outside of the story, and then there's certain key beats in the story where the story and the Nemesis system come together, and you interact with it to move the story forward. The most memorable bosses that you'll find in the game are going to be the ones with a character totally unique to your game, and that's been created by the player rather than the authored story that we've written about.

We're really proud of working with [lead writer] Christian Cantamessa from Red Dead Redemption, but equally we're very excited about giving players a world in which they can create their own stories and their own boss fights and their own memorable moments.

PCG: Given that it's an open world game I'm assuming there will be side missions, does the Nemesis system influence those also?

Michael: The Nemesis system, as well as generating unique enemies, also continually generates various side missions. So we have things called Showdown missions which is when you face off against the war chiefs, who are powerful orcs who've risen to the top [in order to] command the different strongholds and so on.

We also have constantly created side missions called Power Struggles, where orcs compete against each other to rise up within their society. These can be executions, duels, or they're off on hunts or getting drunks at feasts. We also have vendettas which are social missions, where if you get killed a side mission is dynamically created in your friend's game, where he or she can go in and avenge you.

On top of that we have all the other type of missions, such as hunting and survival challenges, exploration missions, discovering artefacts and more. You'll also be rescuing the slaves. An interesting thing about Mordor during the time of the game is that the humans living there are now cornered and trapped by the return of Sauron and the rising up of his forces. Saving them earns you rewards such as intel and so on. Weapons also have their own side quests, which involves building the legend of each one of your weapons: the sword, dagger and bow.

PCG: How has the team balanced the game for both Tolkien tragics and those who have never delved into the series? Has that been a challenge?

Michael: Yeah, absolutely. We took our inspiraton from Middle-Earth in the sense of making a story that really works as a standalone story. You could read The Hobbit and the Lord of The Rings as standalone stories or you can look at them as part of the big epic history of Middle-Earth. That was important: we wanted to tell a story which, even if you have no previous experience with Middle-earth, still totally works.

Equally, if you've read or seen The Hobbit it works as a sequel to that: you can explore more of what happens to Gollum after, what happened to Sauron after the battle of five armies and what are the consequences, and aslo as a prequel to Lord of the Rings and setting up that. In particular, getting to see more of Sauron, getting to know the origins of the ring and the power, and unlocking some more of the lore of Middle-Earth which is usually buried deep in the appendices. We wanted everyone to be able to enjoy it.

Shaun Prescott

Shaun Prescott is the Australian editor of PC Gamer. With over ten years experience covering the games industry, his work has appeared on GamesRadar+, TechRadar, The Guardian, PLAY Magazine, the Sydney Morning Herald, and more. Specific interests include indie games, obscure Metroidvanias, speedrunning, experimental games and FPSs. He thinks Lulu by Metallica and Lou Reed is an all-time classic that will receive its due critical reappraisal one day.