Shadow of Mordor does a number of impressive things against the Lord of the Rings backdrop: The world is immaculately crafted, the traversal trumps anything done so far by the obvious inspiration, the combat is incredibly empowering, and the Nemesis system enriches the entire genre in unprecedented ways. One of the most impressive things to me, however, happened within the first ten minutes: The tutorial.
Tutorials are typically the dullest part of a videogame, throwing instructions at you in forced encounters that often linger a tad too long. It’s even worse if you’re a seasoned gamer, as the mechanics explained are either identical to what you’ve already done dozens of times or close enough that you would have picked it up via intuition in much less time. I was overjoyed to see Shadow of Mordor buck this trend, weaving together narrative and mechanics in ways that were equally instructive and laden with story.
The tutorial provides an insight into the life of the protagonist, Talion. We learn to fight not by having a ham-fisted battle against an Orc whelp thrust upon us, but by engaging with our avatar’s son in a training session. We’re not forced to be bystanders to the familial scene in a loosely connected cutscene, but to actively take part in it, the player being engaged emotionally and forced to invest in the relationship through the game’s mechanics rather than simply have it shown to them.
Perhaps the best and most charming part of the tutorial was learning how to utilize the game’s stealth mechanics. As Talion, the player must sneak behind his wife and plant a kiss on her cheek in the same way that he will later murder Orcs. Not only does this turn an act of aggression on its head completely, it serves to make the player feel the tenderness between Talion and his wife that wouldn’t have resonated quite so much had they simply been forced to watch it. Like the combat tutorial, this brief part of the game engages players emotionally, invests them in the relationship, all under the sneaky guise of showing them how the game works. Even with the huge world of Middle-Earth being rendered in detail that reaches unprecedented levels of fidelity, this might be the most beautiful part of the game.
With the player invested, what comes next is painful. Through Talion’s eyes, players watch the Black Hand slowly slash the throats of his wife and son. The relationships that the players were thrust into are torn apart, and they’re as helpless as Talion to prevent it. Would this scene have been as effective had players just watched the relationships play out? Absolutely not. By performing the actions with their own hands, players step into Talion’s shoes to a level that cinema can’t dream of reaching. Even players without a family of their own are drawn in and given ample opportunity to relate to the character – albeit in a truncated form – to bolster the emotional impact of the scene.
The effects of this linger for the rest of the game however. Later, by having the player stealth kill Orcs in the same way they previously engaged with Talion’s wife, her ghost haunts them at every turn. By establishing the mechanic with that scene, players will remember her every time they stab an Orc in the back, mirroring Talion’s own inner turmoil. It’s a constant reminder of why he’s on this quest for revenge, of the tenderness with which he treated his wife, and the pain he went through in losing her.
It’s this kind of mechanical storytelling that Shadow of Mordor can hopefully pave the way for, and it’s been a long time coming. Developers have mostly used the methods of cinema rather than utilizing the interactive tools at their disposal, and it’s been to the game’s detriment every time. A recent example was The Last Of Us, a game that was lauded for its storytelling despite it mostly being done via cutscenes, showing little regard for the tools of the medium that make it so engaging. As a whole, it felt like gameplay sequences interspersed with disconnected short movies rather than a cohesive experience.
Heavy Rain at least made an attempt at it with its opening few minutes, even using a similar story of the brutal murder of a son. Perhaps mechanical, emotional storytelling is what David Cage has been trying to do for his entire career, though Heavy Rain fails in a crucial element that Shadow of Mordor’s tutorial executes perfectly. While the player is given complete control of Talion via the game’s mechanics, the same can’t be said of the Quick Time Events used in progressing the story of Ethan Mars. Ethan’s actions are all predetermined, their inputs dictated to the player in the moment to shatter the illusion of stepping into the character’s life. This destroys the player’s sense of agency, forcing them into the role of a passive observer and limiting the scope of their immersion and empathy. The controller is rendered an overly complicated TV remote rather than the gateway that Shadow of Mordor’s tutorial treats it as.
Meanwhile, games that did use their inherent tools to tell its story went largely unnoticed by the mainstream audience. Papo & Yo did a wonderful job of projecting Quico’s frustration with the Monster via mechanics, making for a story that resonated with players and had the emotional impact of a sledgehammer. In similar ways, the control mechanics between the two characters of Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons fostered such a bond between them that audiences suffered an almost violent reaction to the ensuing story.
Admittedly, Shadow of Mordor as a whole isn’t a fantastic example of this. During the latter half of the game, control is often wrestled away from the player at a huge detriment to the game. For example, when going to face the Horned Graug in order to avenge Torvin’s brother, the player is subjected to watching the scene play out rather than felling the mighty beast themselves. Similarly, the final boss who murdered Talion’s family in front of his eyes devolves to a very brief quick time events. While these are egregious examples of everything wrong with storytelling in games, it’s far more important to focus on what was done well.
If developers and their audience genuinely want games to be recognized as a valuable storytelling medium, they have to use their unique tools to do so. Leaning back on cutscenes is just making a movie, using audio logs is just making an radio drama, and text might as well be a novel. It’s the intricacies and execution of gameplay communicating these frustrations, bonds, and heartbreak that will finally see their goal achieved.
There’s an old adage in storytelling used in both fiction and cinema: “Show, don’t tell.” Perhaps it’s time for game developers to drop this. With the medium’s unique tools, games are capable of so much more. Perhaps now that a big budget title like Shadow of Mordor has done such a fantastic job of it and reached a wider audience, they can adopt a new approach: “Engage, don’t show.”