Lord of the Geeks

Tolkien provided the blueprint for one generation of computer games after another. But have today's whizz-bang graphics brought us any closer to Middle Earth?

By Andrew Leonard
Published December 30, 2002 8:30PM (EST)

Computer programmers have long been infatuated with "The Lord of the Rings," says Scott Bennie, the producer of an early '90s game based on the trilogy, because J.R.R. Tolkien's epic was "laced with the two factors that geeks admire most: sustained escapism and obsessive attention to detail."

Anyone who has spent hours pondering Tolkien's painstakingly constructed Numenorean genealogies or Elvish syntax rules can probably relate. How much different, really, are Tolkien's minutiae from those encountered banging one's head against assembler code or making every graphics pixel line up correctly? But Bennie goes even further. In his view, Tolkien midwifed the entire emergence of geek culture.

"Tolkien didn't invent geek culture," he says. "That honor probably belongs to the American SF novels of the 1930s-'50s. But 'Lord' probably turned on enough 'proto-geeks' that the geek audience built up to a critical mass, transforming it from a cult to a subculture. All subcultures have their seminal works, and 'The Lord of the Rings' was 'geek' culture's."

One need look no further than computer gaming to see the truth of Bennie's observation. It's been about 25 years since computer programmers started making games based, explicitly or implicitly, on "The Lord of the Rings" and its derivative nephew, Dungeons & Dragons. Tracking their progress -- from the bare-bones text simplicity of Will Crowther's Adventure to Electronic Arts' new, turbo-powered Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers for the PlayStation 2 -- is a crash course in the history of computing and the evolution of computer gaming. It's also a lesson in what computers can do that is different from the experience offered by films or books, as well as a reminder that some quests may be never-ending.

Increases in processing power and improvements in graphics are two of the traditional methods for measuring computing progress. And if one could line up a string of screen captures from the hundreds of games that have been inspired by "The Lord of the Rings" over the last couple of decades, one would be hard put not to agree that there has been vast improvement. In Adventure, players were told via text messages that, for example, a dwarf had thrown a dagger at you. In The Two Towers, your game controller actually shivers as you are hacked at by three-dimensional technicolored Orcs while symphonic music blasts away.

All such technical achievements are but means to an end -- the end of better implementing a programmer's vision, or dream. Which leads to a third measurement. Call it the Middle Earth factor: Progress in computing can be judged by how well the state of the art enables the evocation of that Ur-territory of dwarves and goblins. From the mid-'70s onward, computer programmers have marched, if not directly toward the gates of Mordor, then toward that moment when anyone can log on, don a wizard's robe and start hurling thunderbolts. If Tolkien is the Lord of the Geeks, then computer programmers are his prophets, and the computer is the vehicle of digital Middle-Earthian transubstantiation.

Right now, as millions flock to theaters to see "The Two Towers," it may seem a bit odd to judge computing progress by how well it lives the dream of Middle Earth. Aren't we already there? Aren't the astonishing special effects in Peter Jackson's films evidence enough that the promise of computer technology has been delivered? Who needs a computer game when you've got Ian McKellen on the big screen?

But what if you want to be Ian McKellen? Interactivity is a much abused word, but when we're talking about computer games, we're talking about tools for "sustained escapism" that really do improve with each microprocessor generation. By allowing an interactive relationship with the "text," computer games offer the possibility of evoking a Tolkienesque experience in a way that other fantasy books or movies cannot match. And since the goal of reading or watching fantasy is essentially to escape from mundane, humdrum reality, then what better way to realize Tolkien's world than to allow participation? The mad vision of the computer programmer is to grant us entry into the realm of fantasy in such a way that our thoughts and actions, however mediated by mouse and keyboard and game controller, have a real effect.

"What interactivity brings to Tolkien's world is a chance for the fans to participate in a more visceral way," says Daniel Greenberg, creative director for Tolkien games at Vivendi/Universal. "Tolkien's stories, in particular 'The Hobbit,' were designed originally to be told. The storyteller who is weaving a story modifies it based on the reaction from the listeners. Interactivity, in an indirect way, returns an element that is lost in a simple linear film version. You can do things with interactivity in terms of bringing fans more deeply into the world. Even beyond 'The Lord of the Rings,' this is a reason that video games have caught up with movies in terms of dollars -- because we want participation. A film can be transporting, but it will never let the fan, the audience, have their own personal, private experience of it."

The sad truth is that, despite so many great advances in the technology, true masterpieces of gaming are few and far between. Graphical progress, particularly, has proved to be a double-edged sword. Computer-game production values are approaching the best that Hollywood has to offer. But what are the gaming companies doing with all that power? Hack. Slash. Hack. Slash. Hack. Slash. Truly interactive story lines that surprise and delight are rare.

There's a paradox here. The graphics really are qualitatively better with each and every year. In 2002 alone, in the fantasy realm, games such as Dungeon Siege and Morrowind and Warcraft 3 and Neverwinter Nights pushed the capabilities of new computers to new, dazzling heights. But these games don't quite reach the level of "masterpiece" -- even if they do better, in my opinion, at evoking the spirit of Tolkien than, for example, Electronic Arts' The Two Towers. At most, all these games still tantalize with possibility, without establishing truly imaginative creative benchmarks. If the tools are getting better, shouldn't the games be following their lead?

It may be, at least for the games that explicitly attempt to capture Middle Earth, that the goal is wrong. The goal should not be to duplicate Middle Earth. The real goal should be to give us an experience like Middle Earth. Help us in building our own Fellowships, rather than forcing us into the grooves already cut by Legolas, Gimli and friends. Frodo ultimately (with a little help from Gollum) dropped Sauron's ring into the Mountain of Doom, and his quest was over. But even after 25 years of great progress, computer gaming's quest still seems to have hardly begun.

Fredrik Ekman is a freelance technology writer in Sweden who has devoted a good deal of his life to collecting computer games derived from "The Lord of the Rings." His set of Web pages devoted to the topic is a museum worth visiting, if only for the names. Angband and Angmar, Elendor and Eodon, Mordor and Morgul and Mines of Moria 3. The Bridge of Catzad-Dum, Isildur's Bane, Orcs: Revenge of the Ancient. And how can one ignore Bored of the Rings, The Boggit, Bulbo and the Lizard King, and Fuddo and Slam? Or my favorite title: Where Hobbits Dare.

There are 120 games on Ekman's list, and that doesn't even include the onslaught soon to come from the current chief licensee of the Tolkien estate, Vivendi/Universal, which is planning a host of games, including action/adventure, real-time strategy, and a massively multi-player online role-playing game à la Everquest or Ultima Online. (Electronic Arts owns the rights to games derived from the movie version.) The list also doesn't include the thousands of games that are descended from Tolkien's world, but not directly connected. In fact, the entire role-playing genre of computer gaming is directly copied from the paper-and-dice game Dungeons & Dragons, which itself was inspired by Tolkien (along with the cruder narratives of the sword-and-sorcery genre).

Ekman's Tolkien computer game pages are a testament to computer platforms and gaming companies long gone. The ZX Spectrum, the Commodore Vic-20, the Apple II -- for every new platform there were scores of computer programmers cutting their teeth writing games for machines with resources laughably minuscule by today's standards.

Whether or not Tolkien actually did bring geekdom up to subcultural status, it's not all that surprising that these programmers were drawn to his fantastic world. Mastery of code isn't so different from mastering magic. It's no accident that so many programmers styled themselves "wizards," whether they were just socializing in chat rooms or role playing in multi-user domains (MUDS). The ability of a computer to emulate anything, to create from ones and zeros a vast panoply of productive tools and entertaining amusements, is akin to Gandalf's ability to blow whatever kind of smoke ring he chooses. So no wonder programmers have long succumbed to a practically tribal instinct that requires them to attempt to duplicate in silicon what Tolkien did in text.

The movies, again, are succeeding, with the help of computers, in bringing Middle Earth alive. But bringing Tolkien to life on the big screen is not the same as bringing us into Tolkien's world. As Ekman notes, "No movie can ever bring you actually into the story in the same way as a good computer game. But paradoxically, this is also the curse of the games, because you can never make them absolutely true to the books. If you did, they would become extremely predictable and boring."

Which is precisely my problem with the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, for the PlayStation 2, from Electronic Arts. The game, at first glance, might seem to be as close to the "real thing" as you can get. It's liberally interspersed with footage from both the first and second installments of Peter Jackson's trilogy. One of the very first missions is a scene from "Fellowship of the Ring" in which Aragorn is defending Frodo from the Ringwraiths. You can't win the mission until you realize that you must use a lighted torch, and not your sword, to fight the Ringwraiths. And you've got to keep relighting the torch from the fire every time it goes out.

On a big-screen TV, it's quite a production. The action frequently morphs into "cut-scenes" that advance the plot, or actual footage, or both. And if you fail to fend off the Ringwraiths, you will be forced to watch one of them actually kill Frodo -- which made me feel quite pathetic the first time it happened. Hardly 10 minutes into the game, and I'd already doomed Middle Earth to eternal Sauronic subjugation!

But at the same time, the end result felt stale -- a hopped-up version of countless hack-and-slash fests before it. And for some reason, my fascination with Middle Earth doesn't quite intersect with the necessity for memorizing the game controller button combination that will make Aragorn charge forward, jump, and then deliver a killing blow. The PlayStation 2 game, as a technical feat, looks stunning, but in terms of intellectual challenge, you could go back to The Hobbit, a text adventure game from the early '80s, and be more stimulated.

Except that you can't really go back. Except in rare cases, old computer games are frustratingly limited after you've become used to new ones. The puzzles that challenge you the first time around aren't interesting the second, and bad, clunky graphics just look dumb after you've gotten used to the new, new thing. For me, it's like watching the original "Star Wars" after having become used to the production qualities of, for example, "The Matrix" or "The Fellowship of the Ring." Man, but don't those storm troopers look silly. And Darth Vader? Evil? Give me a break.

There is a moment early on in the computer game Dungeon Siege when, after fighting one's way through assorted Krug soldiers and lightning-shooting bats and zombie skeleton archers, you rescue the scribe Ulura. She volunteers to join your party. You gladly accept, equip her with your spare boots and gloves, hand her a bow and suddenly you are no longer alone in your quest to save the Kingdom of Ehb from evil. You are a member of a fellowship.

The moment is notable both for what it promises and for what it doesn't deliver. Dungeon Siege broke new ground in 2002 with spectacular graphics and an incredibly easy-to-use interface. It was the kind of visual breakthrough that instantly makes everything before it look hopelessly old-fashioned. I found myself spending time just zooming in and out and around the scenery, more entranced with the pageantry and surroundings than with the actual chore of slogging through hordes of demons to get to the next level. And I was just delighted when I began to pick up and hire companions whose character and abilities I could mold. Here was Tolkien's Fellowship evoked, not duplicated, and it was good.

As a story, however, Dungeon Siege is not quite so satisfying. It is generic fantasy, with no opportunity for nonlinear interaction and essentially no plot. Your ability to influence the shape of the game, as a player, is basically limited to dressing up your characters with cool armaments and deciding whether you want to rely more on wizard firepower than halberds or crossbows. Everything looks great, but after playing the game through to the end, you don't want to return to it, and it doesn't really spark the imagination.

A few other games released this year addressed different pieces of the puzzle. Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind offered vast possibilities for nonlinear interaction, along with a mind-boggling level of complexity in the various tactics one can use to play the game. But even though it looked good, it missed the sublimely easy-to-use interface of Dungeon Siege. Warcraft 3, a real-time strategy game with role-playing elements, offered a fun story line, but wasn't really that much of an advance on the scores of real-time strategy games that preceded it. The onslaught of massively multi-player online role-playing games has given anyone with an Internet connection the opportunity for more "fellowship" than is humanly consumable -- but such fellowship often seems to boil down to little more than a chat room where people speak in fake medieval accents.

All of these games share one thing, however. They all look great. But for some game designers, that's part of the problem.

Gamers have been arguing for years over whether true immersion requires perfect graphics, all the way up to as-yet-not-perfected virtual reality (think: Star Trek holodeck), or whether the industry-wide obsession with graphics has actually resulted in a decline in the quality of games.

Mike Singleton, a successful game programmer in the mid-to-late '80s, wrote one of the more popular early strategy games based on "The Lord of the Rings": War in Middle Earth. By today's standards the game looks silly, but at the time it was a revelation.

"Immersion can be many things," says Singleton, who notes that if you go back and look at accounts or reviews of his games that came out at the time, "you'll find the degree of perceived immersion was very great, despite the fact that the graphics were chunky, the soundtrack was often nonexistent, and [in some cases] there was absolutely zero real-time animation."

"Immersion does not necessarily require photo-realistic rendering at 60 frames per second and Dolby Surround sound," says Singleton. "Imagination can play a huge part, too. Witness how immersive Tolkien's books themselves are. In some ways, the lack of concrete images can be even more evocative. Readers of Tolkien each have their own different and unique mental images of Frodo, Aragorn and Galadriel and doubtless many of them were puzzled and disappointed by the actual depiction of them in the recent film, despite all the efforts of the director to remain faithful to the spirit of the books. In that respect, the BBC radio serialization of "Lord of the Rings" (with Ian Holm as Frodo, rather than Bilbo), enables the listener to keep his figurative imaginings but is equally or perhaps more immersive than more solid depictions."

Singleton believes that modern games, in general, are less creative in their storytelling and interactivity than older computer games. Ironically, advances in graphics are their own kind of straitjacket. "Another thing that has suffered somewhat is open-ended plot; so often we see linear plots and often this can be ultimately traced to the sheer cost of producing additional graphics that may not be seen every gameplay," says Singleton.

And yet who wants to go back to text games like Adventure or Zork, or even the legendary Nethack, after having been blinded by the dazzle of modern graphics? Criticizing the focus on modern graphics as coming at the expense of a true art is useful for pointing out an imbalance in the current creative process, but it's kind of beside the point. They're a fait accompli, and we can't go home again. Older graphics just look dorky, even if once upon a time they did a better job of creating a collaboration with the user's imagination than today's cinematic fireworks.

What I want is a game with the graphics of Dungeon Siege, the storytelling of Warcraft, the complexity of Morrowind and the spirit of Adventure. I want a Peter Jackson to emerge in the world of computer games who will seize the medium and give us something that doesn't require us to spend 20 hours killing demons to get to the end of the story, but still delivers to us an escape from this earthly realm into unexplored territory.

Because, when I look at the games that are being released now, for personal computers and consoles and even handhelds, it seems unarguable to me that the wizards of computing yore have, in truth, achieved their dream. Generations of programmers and engineers have built a tool that can and will deliver new experiences. Perhaps not qualitatively better than the epiphanies that result from reading a great book or watching a great film. But they don't have to be better. Just different. Different enough to require their own geniuses, who will, some day, create their own masterpieces. With or without hobbits.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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