Middle-Earth: Shadow of War & the Truman Show Effect

Middle-Earth: Shadow of War [official site] expands on its predecessor’s innovative Nemesis System and its believable NPCs take us one step further away from the static worlds of most open world games. I’ve been thinking about how that works, and why so many games make me think of The Truman Show.

In most open world action games, there are a few moving parts. I don’t mean the soldiers and the missiles and the vehicles, I mean the actual systems in play. Start a mission and the game might spawn some of those soldiers, missiles and vehicles to obstruct your path, or to give you something to do while you head toward your objective. Complete the mission and you might end up unlocking new abilities or weapons or areas. There’s a process to follow and different elements of the game shift into play as you move through that process.

Shadow of War has objectives and sidequests and baddies. It has collectibles and loot, and on the surface its icon-littered map doesn’t look very different to any of the ones you’d see in a Far Cry or even a Witcher. As in those games, Mordor’s icons are not necessarily moving parts. They’re static objects to collect, dollops of experience to scoop up and apply to your character. Mordor creates movement through its characters though – instead of quest-givers and enemies, waiting to be activated, it has the disruptive entities enabled by the nemesis system.

In the sequel, these creatures can be recruited and led into battle against strongholds. They can act as bodyguards as well as being thorns in your side. However, more important than anything they do while by your side or in your face is what they do when you’re not observing them; they continue to exist, to fight, to squabble and to gain new skills.

Most games treat the player as both the star and the audience. You’re the lead actor, and the most important person in the world, but you’re also the most important person outside the world. NPCs lock their gaze onto you as you appear, either gesticulating in your direction or rotating to face you at all times. They have conversations as you pass by, ensuring you can eavesdrop on even the most incidental dialogue if you so wish. Pull up at an intersection in GTA and traffic will spawn around you, ensuring that you’re rarely alone and that the streets in your vicinity are populated and busy.

I refer to this as the Truman Show Effect. Like Jim Carrey’s character in the 1998 film, you’re the only ‘real’ person in the world and everything around you is fabricated to create drama and incident. No matter how dynamic and alive the world might seem, it often ceases to function the moment you turn your back, and as with the localised weather and cyclical passers-by of Truman’s fake neighbourhood, there’s a set radius within which change can occur.

It’s a useful illusion because it allows us to take on that leading role and to witness all manner of emergent behaviour within eyesight and arm’s reach, without requiring the kind of full simulation that would put needless strain on even the mightiest PC.

The major difference between Truman and the rest of us is that when we play a game, we’re signing up for the illusion. We know the world isn’t real and doesn’t actually have life-like NPCs, no matter how much the marketing might try to convince us that’s not the case, and we often spend our time poking at the edges of believability, trying to find the invisible walls and the broken behaviours. Sometimes that’s a way of gaming the system to make things easier, sometimes it’s just experimentation and exploration for its own sake.

Mordor doesn’t escape the Truman Show Effect entirely but by giving NPCs agency, and simulating their rise and fall as they war with one another as well as the player, it allows for unscripted storylines that don’t involve human input at all. You might learn about a peculiar orc with an axe embedded in his skull and even if you never meet him, he’ll carve his way through his peers, either rising to lead a warband or falling somewhere along the way.

If an orc falls in an axefight and there is no player character to hear its death rattle, does it still make a sound? Yes.

The strength of the Nemesis System isn’t just in the stories it actually creates, it’s in the expansion of the typical open world illusion. When gangsters destroy your apartment in GTA IV, you know that they destroy every other players apartment as well, just as you know that those cars that are suddenly queueing up at a previously empty intersection were created just for you. You are both actor and audience, and the game is determined to occupy your attention at all times, even if it has to resort to using crude finger puppets when it hasn’t got a spectacular setpiece lined up for you.

I spent forty minutes with Shadow of War at E3 and it impressed me more than any other game I played at the show. As with the first game, I’m not wholly convinced by the minute-by-minute movement and combat, but the Nemesis System has been expanded superbly. It’s a game that genuinely makes me feel like a character in a world that hasn’t been constructed as a set for my performance. The orcs have enough personality, and the writing is witty enough, that I believe in them as independent entities.

They rely on the player to give them true purpose, but they’re more like peers than the empty vessels that inhabit most open world games. Maybe I am still Truman as I walk through Mordor, but this is definitely an upgraded version of the show, and I look forward to testing the limits of the simulation. After all, finding the edge of the world is how you discover the real magic.

43 Comments

  1. TychoCelchuuu says:

    One small thing I appreciated about Prey is that the world doesn’t seem like it’s waiting around for you 100%. If I set up a turret somewhere often I’ll come back and it’s killed a Typhon and the only evidence this happened is that there’s a new corpse on the ground that wasn’t there before.

  2. Walsh says:

    I think it also helps that the Orcs in this game have what seems like hundreds of voice lines and lots of variation in appearance (like the drooler, the painted, etc.).

  3. Fnord73 says:

    I am so psyched to hear about this new AAA Mordheim-sequel ;-)

  4. Kefren says:

    I thought Mordheim was a Warhammer game, not a Lord of the Rings game?

  5. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    A game I thought did this well was M&B Warband, where the various kingdoms would declare war, fight battles, win/lose castles, etc., regardless of anything you did.

    • Premium User Badge

      AceJohnny says:

      Also “Sid Meier’s Pirates!”, where the ports owned by the four nations would spawn raiding or supply fleets, and thrive or wilt depending on what happened. It’s the reason I loved the game, which otherwise had boring mechanics.

      Limit Theory is an in-development Elite-like that also promises a living world (er, universe?).

    • Gomer_Pyle says:

      I just wish Bannerlord would come out already :/

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      Captain Narol says:

      CK2. Even the most unsignifiant character in it has an agenda and makes plots to reach its personal goals.

      • Premium User Badge

        teije says:

        Or EUIV, nations acting based on their “personalities” (historical foci). Always enjoy checking a far part of the world after 50-100 years and seeing what’s happened without my nation being involved in the slightest way.

  6. Premium User Badge

    AutonomyLost says:

    Great article. Can’t wait for this to come out!

  7. Imperialist says:

    I for one look forward to slaying orcs and picking up Wyrdstone with my armless peg-legged warband in Mordheim: Shadow of War.

  8. baud001 says:

    It sound like a shill piece (but I’ve yet to play Shadow of Mordor).
    But if it’s true, it will be great game!

    And are there any editor who proof-read your copy or the New Management (TM) has removed that?

    • theblazeuk says:

      Are there any editor indeed.

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      phuzz says:

      Muphrys Law: “If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.”

      • baud001 says:

        Would you mind pointing my mistake? English is not my first language, resulting in some bad grammar from time to time.
        And I was referring to the first word of the article, which was Mordheim instead of Middle-Earth (even if the link was pointing to the right tag), which explains some of the first comments. I has been since corrected.

  9. Daymare says:

    You know, people say a lot of bad things about Gorgûm Foul-Spawn. That he’s got bad teeth, that he’s got this irritating squinting tick with his eyes when he speaks to people, and I’ve heard even his closest friends compare his mouth to a lot less appealing orifices.

    Some of his more considerate peers think that might be how Gorgûm Foul-Spawn got his name in the first place.

    But everyone agrees that, washed-out looking orc though he may be, Gorgûm Foul-Spawn’s always worn a slick hairstyle.

    • Aetylus says:

      Gorgûm Foul-Spawn? Never ‘eard of ‘im. Now Pushkrimp Dwarf-Killer, fweeeew…. Pushkrimp, he was one mean son of a gun.

      • Daymare says:

        Pushkin who?

      • UnholySmoke says:

        Pushkrimp? Sounds like a Ukranian politician. Now, Flak the Rhymer, he was a real bastard. Even after his throat was cut and he couldn’t rhyme any more, he kept coming back for more violence. A real arsehole of an Uruk, and _no one else has ever heard of him_. Arkham combat is seriously getting old now but I will be making an exception if this reviews well.

  10. Synesthesia says:

    I think this is why dwarf fortress works well, too. Game spaces that exist despite you are always a delight.

  11. lokimotive says:

    See also, Rainworld.

  12. pelwl says:

    Mordheim is one of the few games where a nemesis system would really work completely, given that you meet the same factions so often anyway and characters rarely die after a fight.

  13. Jmnea says:

    can I have sexual relations with the ork?

    • SaintAn says:

      Mordheim would be a pretty awesome setting for a Warhammer game like this. Needs to be done. Especially with Skaven as enemies.

      • SaintAn says:

        Not sure why this replied to someone. Probably should spend some of that money from the sellout to upgrade this site. Sometimes I wonder if the internet broke and I’m using a version of this site made in 2005.

        • Daymare says:

          So … you’re saying you DON’T think Mordheim would be an awesome setting for an orc-dating sim with Skaven as your common enemy?

          Welp, guess I’m on my own again.

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      Grizzly says:

      If only you could woo to the monsters.

  14. bill says:

    Is the main character still a human in this?
    Isn’t that kinda weird?
    It seems like this game would be 100% better if you were playing as an orc too. Plus also make sense.

    • sharpmath says:

      100% plus?!

    • laiwm says:

      Completely agree! Shadow of Mordor felt like a game that was simulating a world where everyone is always down to brawl, and that’s fun. The aspects where you’re a human effectively enslaving this lesser species lent things a weird tone in the late game though. It’d be more fun if you were an orc getting rowdy with other orcs, instead of Captain Bland & Angry Ghost.

  15. Chiron says:

    I refer to this as the Truman Show Effect. Like Jim Carrey’s character in the 1998 film, you’re the only ‘real’ person in the world and everything around you is fabricated to create drama and incident. No matter how dynamic and alive the world might seem, it often ceases to function the moment you turn your back, and as with the localised weather and cyclical passers-by of Truman’s fake neighbourhood, there’s a set radius within which change can occur.

    It’s a useful illusion because it allows us to take on that leading role and to witness all manner of emergent behaviour within eyesight and arm’s reach, without requiring the kind of full simulation that would put needless strain on even the mightiest PC.

    This is the reason I struggle to enjoy Skyrim and Fallout, the game just feels… empty.

  16. Glacious says:

    Hang on a sec. So the solution to the in-game Truman Show Effect, is to paradoxically make the player character less central to the proceedings of the whole game world, which convinces the player herself that her experience is uniquely her own, thus engaging the Truman Show Effect on a meta level. I think?

  17. Premium User Badge

    Captain Narol says:

    Funny how this article also examplified the Streisand Effect :

    Adam wrote “Mordheim” instead of “Middle-Earth” in the first line and almost everyone in the comments suddenly focused on how great a Shadow of War in the Warhammer universe (in which Mordheim is located) would be great, instead of speaking of the actual game !

    Too bad he corrected it without a comment, that was a fun and interesting mistake.

    PS : As far as I am concerned, I would also adore to play a “Shadow of Mordheim” game !!

    • SabreCat says:

      That’s… not the Streisand Effect. Streisand effect is when you try to censor something via legal action or threat, but the act of attempting to squelch it draws more attention to it.

      • Premium User Badge

        Captain Narol says:

        You’re right, it would indeed apply more to the way Adam sneakily corrected his text to remove the “Mordheim” word without telling.

        Now all the ulterior readers wonder why some of first comments are about Mordheim instead of Middle-Earth…

  18. frymaster says:

    What this immediately reminded me of was STALKER: Clear Sky, where in the tutorial map is was perfectly possible for the tutorial goodies to have defeated the tutorial baddies faction by the time you’d blinked twice, leaving the whole “introduction to faction wars” thing a bit abbreviated

    This goes to reinforce that it’s not just a living world players want, it’s a carefully calibrated one, so that they can still make a difference

  19. Sly-Lupin says:

    I’m not sure the Nemesis system is really… even half so effective as this article (and the oh-so-many like it) make it out to be.

    Ultimately it’s a very superficial and gamey mechanic–and one that is mostly irrelevant. 95% of the time, when you first encounter an orc… you kill that orc. This means that in order to “show off” the Nemesis system, the game has to *revive* dead character. Yes, it’s pretty cool the first time you meet an orc that “survived” being burned alive or beheaded (and is scarred) or headshotted with an arrow (and is missing an eye)… but the second time? The third time? The fourth time?

    It’s just… nowhere nearly so groundbreaking or effective of an idea as these fluff pieces paint it. The only way for the Nemesis system to work effectively is for the player to *frequently* lose to enemy orcs, but here we have the same problem that prevents most games from having memorable or even meaningful villains–it’s No Fun To Lose, so the Player Always Wins.

    Maybe Shadow 2 will make things more interesting when the competing armies, but I’m doubtful. Plenty of games have had the enemy factions’ numbers shift this way and that, mostly in the realm of strategy, and I fear that–especially in a stealth action game–these shifts, determined by the “Nemesis System AI,” will be indiscernible from random number generation.

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