Interview: Troy Baker and Michael Plater Talk Middle-earth: Shadow of War’s Tonality [SDCC 2017]

The team behind the next dark epic in the Lord of the Rings universe is wrestling with the huge challenge of pushing the sequel past its predecessor. This time around, the focus is on uniting the gameplay and story behind one unified theme, making sure the player knows why they're on this adventure.

While finding that unity is a challenge for anyone making a game as violent as Middle-earth:Shadow of War, it’s even more challenging for Monolith Productions as they step lightly around the characters and world that Tolkien built.

“Without Tolkien there would be no Game of Thrones, Star Wars, no anything,” said Troy Baker, the Motion Caption Director and voice of Talion for Shadow of War, “What he was creating was so much more than a world of wizards and dragons.”

And that’s what the entire voice cast is trying to do: show that the world that they are creating represents Tolkien’s writing as accurately and honestly as possible. “We’re very precious, not just by what we’re constrained to do,” Baker said, “But by the respect and admiration we have for it, all we want to do is get it right.”

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Getting it right is about a hard a task as they come, striking a balance between the emotion of the story and the intense violence of the gameplay is rarely done well in open world games like Shadow of War.

“It's the hard part of designing any game, we have to make a pretty ambitions more than two hour film and then we have to make a 60+ hour game,” said Monolith Productions VP of Creative Michael de Plater. “And then we have to make them talk to each other”

It's always a weird feeling interacting with important NPCs while covered in blood from the 15 people you just killed, acting as if nothing out of the ordinary happened. That happens all the time in games like Watch Dogs 2, Assassins Creed, and Grand Theft Auto, at times compromising the believability of their worlds. The violence you're part of is rarely reflected in game narratives, but Shadow of War's development team is looking to change that.

The violence you're part of is rarely reflected in game narratives, but Shadow of War's development team is looking to change that.

“The themes were always consistent, it’s a game about violence and revenge and that is what you’re doing moment to moment,” said de Plater. “The story is there in part to give context, meaning, and emotion.”

They did that well enough in the first game, but building off that foundation gave them an interesting challenge: how do they add more charm to the game without losing the consistency they worked so hard to achieve?

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The answer that de Plater and team found was the juxtaposition of two new characters: the silly Australian sounding Bruz the Chopper and the intense and emotionally invested giant spider-woman Shelog. Two characters who share a very similar message that's delivered in a completely different way.

“Why would I do that, ringmaker?” said Pollyanna McIntosh, the voice of Shelob in a the newly released SDCC trailer, “You and Sauron are one.”

You may remember a very similar message from Bruz’s reveal back at E3, which served as a highlight for many fans of the game. “Bright lord, dark lord, it’s all the same thing really.” They're both referencing how Celebrimbor and Sauron are more connected than things may seem, but the feeling of the message couldn't be more different.

That different tone for the same message diversifies the feeling of Shadow of War, especially for a game that has you continuously beating Orc’s into a bloody mess. “If it was totally dark and soulless and didn’t lighten up then it would be grim and depressing, and if it was just funny then you wouldn’t take it seriously,” said de Plater. “The spectrum of tone is important, especially in a feature length game.”