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I’ve just scratched the surface of Lord of the Rings: War in the North but I’d been looking forward to this game for a while. What drew me in was its promise of an original story set in Middle-earth’s less-visited locales, like Mirkwood or the ruined city of  Fornost, all rendered with a mix of the movies’ art style and original visions of Tolkienesque landscapes. Plus it promised a chance to face down Orcs and Trolls in a cooperative slugfest, which sounded like it’d be fun if I could get anyone else to buy the game with me. (No luck so far.)

War in the North faces the problem that so many Gamemasters face when telling stories in licensed worlds, though. How do you get players invested in this tale when we know that the main thrust of the War of the Ring involves, you know, that infamous ring? Who cares about the stories Tolkien chose not to tell?

For me, it’s as simple as getting a chance to see artists tackle parts of Tolkien’s world that haven’t been painted so many times before or rendered in CG-enabled faux-helicopter shots in Peter Jackson’s grand trilogy. If I get a few charming side quests, some rollicking boss monsters, and some engaging combat, I’ll be happy. I’m hungry for this just as I turned out to be hungry for Lord of the Rings Online, only here I expect more bloody battles and fewer quaint quests. (Though I love both those things, when the mood strikes me.)

Middle-earth is a world of many, many narrative sketches. Tolkien’s histories of Middle-earth suggest all sorts of drama and strife that could’ve made for great tales. That he chose not to tell them left them open to our imaginations in a way that’s sort of wonderful. It makes Middle-earth feel, to me, more vast and varied.

Does that mean we should limit the games inspired by Tolkien’s works to those stories he chose to detail as novels, to respect what he chose to focus on? Or does it mean craftspeople like game developers, sound designers, and concept artists have as much right to wonder and explore Middle-earth through their work as we readers do?

Here’s a bit from Greg Tito’s review of the game from The Escapist:

Even the characters’ battle cries are authentic – my heart leapt every time I heard Andriel exclaim “A Elbereth Githoniel!” as she bashed an orc across the face with her staff. War in the North also allows drama to emerge from events that are only described in the books. It is undeniably sad to hear Elrond’s sons discuss their mother’s abduction by orcs, and her subsequent departure across the seas to Valinor. Knowing that she was held captive is one thing, but watching Elladan and Elrohir describe her torture is quite another, and War in the North adds emotional value to cold character details.

Tito, like me, seems eager to see lesser-known aspects of Middle-earth dramatized in the game. Part of the charm of the experience comes from seeing Tolkien’s ancillary lore used as inspiration for new scenes, new dialogue, new adventures. I enjoy seeing creators working in Tolkien’s style, with Tolkien’s palette, riffing on his sketches.

In contrast, Kotaku’s Mike Fahey seems to reject the whole premise of playing in Middle-earth without taking part in the grand, familiar quests. Here’s an excerpt from Fahey’s review at Kotaku:

My party of three was tasked with delaying a gathering army to the north, giving the ranger and his hobbit friends time to escape the clutches of the Black Riders. For a brief, shining moment, I was an active part of the main story.

The feeling didn’t last. Soon I was off on a mission to take down an evil menace never directly mentioned in The Lord of the Rings proper, a generic villain perfectly suited to my generic heroes. Though well designed and rendered, the familiar locations I passed through might as well have scenic postcards from distant friends, informing me how much they wished I was with them on a mission with more meaning.

(Emphasis mine.) I wonder if Fahey’s the sort of player who would find a session of a licensed tabletop RPG unsatisfying, knowing that Luke and Leia are off thwarting the Empire somewhere. To be fair, he may simply have wanted War in the North to better persuade him of its own importance, but that bit sure sounds to me like he rejects the very premise of a licensed game that roams away from “the main story.”

I get the appeal of being the big, epic hero, especially in a game. Whether it’s a video game or an RPG campaign, though, I am sort of baffled by the notion that a story isn’t worth hearing if it isn’t the single most pivotal event in world history. (This may be why I tire so quickly of many other fantasy epics.)

Maybe it’s connected to the fact I play games like a tourist—I’m happy just to get off the beaten path and take in the sights sometimes. I like seeing my Middle-earth adventure glance against the scenes and characters of the novels, sure, but I’m also happy to explore the forgotten city and the remote barrow. I don’t need to meet Han Solo or serve on the Enterprise for the journey to feel worthwhile.

What about you?