Hello again! It has been radio-silence around these parts for some time now due to my MSc taking over my life (entirely) for the better part of 6 months – between travelling to do interviews, building a game and writing the darn thing up I didn’t have much time to indulge in anything outside my poorly lit writing dungeon. But results are back, I’ve had a rest, and with that I’ve had the time to binge out on all the games I wasn’t able to play during the last year. So, hopefully over the coming weeks I will be able to pull together a couple of blog-posts to justify the excessive amount of time spent in virtual worlds these last two weeks. As always, potential spoilers ahoy, care as necessary.
One of my most recent single player gaming exploits took me on a 46 hour romp through the latest offering from the Tolkien Universe, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, and before we go any further I feel the need to stress how good it is as a game, and I thoroughly recommend playing it for yourself should you have a spare 40+ hours on your hands (hah). The aesthetics are stunning (the landscape is nice to look at, so is Talion’s finely chiselled physique – Refer to Image 1), many of the mechanics (such as the Uruk nemesis system and wraith-world switching) are novel and super interesting to engage with, and finally the narrative, whilst sometimes a touch disjointed, is laced with a veritable ton of knee-wobbling lore which provides justification, intrigue and motivation to explore all that the lands of Udûn and The Sea of Núrnen have to offer. On the whole the game hit all the right notes for me as a Tolkien fan-girl, a gamer and also, somewhat surprisingly, appeased me more than many games have, as an archaeologist.
Many games have an ‘archaeology system’ – find-for-reward side quests, completionist objectives or levelling opportunities being the most common forms that I have come across. Most of these, whilst potentially entertaining in a superficial manner, or fulfilling a ludological requisite, are pretty dire from an archaeological point of view, using artifacts as a currency to be exploited for personal gain, or existing abstract to the world which the game (or indeed our own world) inhabits. Examples of casting archaeology, heritage and artifacts as x-marks the spot, non-essential elements of economic gain can be garnered all corners of the gaming world ranging from Skyrim’s find and retrieve system, through World of Warcraft’s Loot + Leveling system, through the 2013 Tomb Raider’s abstract-artifact-in-a-box (Image 2), and even extending into casual titles such as Animal Crossing: New Leaf’s artifact for remuneration system (Click here for an old post I wrote on AC: New Leaf).
Image 2: What’s in the box?!? If you answered a handily placed piece of material culture with a tenuous relationship to the greater archaeological contexts you would be right.
Shadow of Mordor (SOM), whilst not entirely removed from the majority of these paradigms, tried some new things, and it is these glimmers of difference alongside some of the still firmly entrenched issues that I want to explore here. Naturally there is so much that I want to talk about and as such this will be broken down into three blog posts – the first here covering background information and a brief investigation into the object-as-multiplicity discussions and the representations of archaeology itself, the second will look into dealing with fragmentary records and concepts of enchainment and finally the third will be somewhat of a ‘wot i think’ – summarising the archaeological aspects of SOM which I thought were exceptional, and offering some suggestions to how we could continue to improve the representation of archaeology in the video-game media in the future.
FIRST THINGS FIRST: ARTIFACTS, ITHILDIN AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL PRACTICES IN SOM
In SOM archaeological / heritage collectibles fall into two broad categories – physical artifacts (Image 3) which come in varied forms and are located in the ground, and Ithildin fragments (Image 4) – ancient symbols forged from Mithril by kingdoms past that are invisible to all but those existing outside of the living-world, and whilst fragmentary and disparate combine to create a larger mural over time (Image 5).
As per norm, both artifacts and Ithildin are optional side-quests which are accessed via an X-marks the spot methodology and provide you with a minor Mithrin bonus, some tasty lore and the sweet satisfaction that can only be gained through the pursuit of arbitrary completionism.
When you locate and interact with either an artifact or and Ithildin you gain a small Mithrin bonus which helps you buy upgrades so you can slay increasing numbers of Uruks in increasingly more colourful (and arguably button-mashingly badass) ways (Image 6).
In order to locate the artifact, or alternatively to see the Ithildin fragment, you have to enter into ‘wraith mode’ (Image 7) which *spoiler alert* is a unique ability that Talion gains when hes victim of a blood-sacrifice which sees him twinned up in the same body with rings-of-power-forger-turned-Annatar-betrayer-turned-undead-snarky-wraith-accomplice Celebrimbor (swoon).
In the case of artifacts, once you have acquired them you can rotate the item to uncover a ‘memory’ – voices from the objects past play to offer some archaeological context, lore and snippets of information about the object itself. By contrast the Ithildin fragments hold no rotate-to-find-the-hidden-mark interaction, but the words of the fragment are read before you exit back into the living-world. Once back in the living-world Celebrimbor engages you (Talion) in conversation about the object before you carry on towards the next objective marker, or if you were foolish enough to conduct archaeology in an Uruk patrolled area, engage in a hack-n-slash battle for your immortal-life.
Anycase, for the sake of clarity – the archaeological process in SOM can be essentialised as:
- Decide you want to stop hunting the Black Hand or take a break from branding Uruks for awhile to do some good old-fashioned archaeology side-questing
- Go to an archaeology location, handily marked with an X
- Enter wraith-mode
- See the un-seen
- Find an object / Ithildin fragment
- Look harder at object to reveal more / listen to Celebrimbor rattle on about the Ithildin
- Get Mithrin bonus
- Chat with Celebrimbor about the importance of what you found
- Use Mithrin bonus to make fire arrows and combo-moves to slay some Uruks
- Rince and repeat till everything in Udûn and The Sea of Núrnen is found and the wall of Ithildin is completed / you have enough upgrade slots on your weapons to effortlessly slay the Black Hand of Sauron.
THE FINE PRINT: EXAMPLES AND RAMBLINGS
As mentioned above, the process of archaeology in SOM is hardly unique – and indeed holds a great number of proxies to existing games (Tomb Raider 2013 being a particularly clear proxy including both the X-marks the spot and rotate to find more info methods – Refer to Image 2) – but there are certain things which set SOM apart, and made the pursuit of artifacts and Ithildin valuable at a significantly higher, and arguably more archaeological level than the immediate economic value for reinvesting into killing baddies.
The first of these points that will be covered is the treatment of objects in SOM as a multiplicity, simultaneously a physical thing, a reflection of social-structures, a witness to events or expressions, a holder of meaning and even as a potential actor (Refer to Image 3 – note the different levels of examination and different explanations of narrative provided). In other words it was as if the developers had read the closing chapters of Hodder and Hutson’s ‘Reading the Past: Current Approaches to Interpretation in Archaeology’ and Kopytoff’s (1968) ‘Cultural Biography of Things’ and had attempted to incorporate the multitude of discussed paradigms and practices into the interpretation of the Middle-Earth material record – which at times was confounding, but on the whole was a total breath of fresh air regarding the roles and relationships between the object, the archaeologist (Talion) and the construction / mediation / understanding of the presented narrative.
For example, *major spoilers*, in The Sea of Núrnen area you find a Mûmak Tusk (Image 9) which depicts an event and individuals a third-party talks about during the main-quest. The main text is spoken by Talion, and takes the form of a material analysis, stating what the object is and speculating that the craftsmanship was somewhat unusual, perhaps the result of a skilled worker being under the influence of ale. As a player, this initial sequence explores the material value as an economic resource in relation to the chaîne opératoire of the object – the process by which it came to be sourced, processed and produced and in turn the economic value it held as a cultural commodity (See Soressi and Geneste 2011 for more).
The detailing and discussion that occurs at this preliminary level of object analysis already surpasses many other games – even those which employ overtly archaeological premises (I’m looking at you Tomb Raider 2013), and whilst some of the speculation is confounding and tautological at times it is saved by being explained that those comments are exactly just that – conjecture and speculation.
As such, the role of Talion, when acting as an archaeologist, is not to tell the player, in absolute terms, what the object is from an authoritative position of knowledge, but rather to engage them in thinking about how or why he, and in turn we as the player, think about, understand or know the things we do about the given object. It’s a far-cry from Tomb Raider 2013 or even Animal Crossing in which the designated specialist tells the player what the object is and possibly some supporting evidence – in much the same way that one would read the specimen card on a museum display. And whilst I truly believe there may still be a time and a place for the show-and-tell style of archaeology in games I took great delight in welcoming the show-and-discuss archaeological overlords to my gaming experience. It was nice to be made overtly aware of the process of construction and interpretation, and also comforting to engage in the process alongside a character who encouraged you to actively participate in the (at times) messy and multivariate process of knowledge forming.
But the example doesn’t end here, using a click-drag motion you rotate the Mûmak Tusk through three dimensions to find ‘the memory imprint’ – a glowy-blue-whispering-thing which when activated plays a key event in the objects life (See Image 10). In this case the memory is from the forging of the Tusk and acts to tell us something about the social-structures and roles which influenced the creation, as well as the position of the object as a witness to the event, and catalyst in provoking ongoing action afterwards.
The object, in other words, is described as being shaped by human (well, dwarvish) actors who were influenced by the structures and social entities of their culture, the carving on the object tells one narrative of their story, the embedded and unseen memory tells another narrative, and finally our knowledge of these actors – garnered from ethnography, prior experiences, and comparison to other material culture as well as our archaeological actions, form yet another narrative (pauses for breath). All these strands of differential narrative and interpretation fight with each other for supremacy and attention, challenging us to think of the object in non-linear terms and highlighting the reflexive roles which exist between maker, object, narrative and interpreter.
The Tusk, like the dwarves that were part of its original chaîne opératoire, has a reflexive social life, and this social life is explored and understood differently in the seen-world (the physical attributes of the thing) and the un-seen-world (the memories extracted from it) – the object being simultaneously understood as an isolated aspect of any one of these things, and an amalgamation of all of them, together, simultaneously. It is through this reflexive approach that the objects can be assessed differentially and value can be understood differentially with regards to emotional, aesthetic, spiritual, knowledge or pure economic entities. Furthermore comparisons of scale include the player in discussions of differential value ascription due to scale – at times comparing what an object means to one person, agains what that object could have meant to the many (see Appadurai (1986) for more on the social-life of things and Renfrew (2001) for more on value ascription).
The SOM developers also tried their hand at exploring differential interpretation of events – an approach rarely seen given the standard linear presentation of history-as-fact that dominates much of the archaeological representation in game-worlds (ie: there is one history that can be definitively told from the material record with absolute certainty). For example, the object called ‘The Herald’s Scroll’ (Image 11) provides significant variation to the common narrative in an attempt to expound both an individual and collective perspective of Orcs following the “battle to unfairly gang up on the Orcs”. The conversation between Talion and Celebrimbor which follows the formal evaluation of the object brings a momentary glimmer of empathy and humanity, or orc-ishness, to those which you have slaughtered ad-infinitum up until that point.
Thus ‘The Herald’s Scroll’ uses its multiple social-memories as a way to challenge the players understanding of the events leading up to the present day in the game-world, and provide a different perspective to the otherwise wrote-lore which tends to villify the Orcs and justifies the players actions. Alongside this, the actions of Talion/Celebrimbor as examiners and post-processual archaeologists acts to guide the player through the various strings of narrative – carefully mediating the subjective past through exploration of the various understandings and negotiating the various values held in the multitude of perspectives – the result is powerful and ongoing – the objects are not simply things of inherent, static or purely economic value, but rather complex parts of a larger puzzle which is often at odds with itself. Rather than learning a single fact about life in Middle Earth you are encouraged to engage with the how and why, and through doing so, develop a more holistic and reflexive understanding of the world which the game (and arguably our own) operates in.
As somewhat of an aside it is also worth noting how pleased I was to find objects from all walks of life – so often in games we are limited to engaging with only artifacts of the elite, or only artifacts from funerary contexts. SOM takes a step away from this, with the 42 artifacts including scrolls, hoe-blades, branding irons, blades, ornate cameos and a multitude of things between which cover everything from war to daily life to religion and the elite. All of them are given due care and all of them are allowed to tell their stories in their own way.
However – despite the excellent efforts outlined above involved in teasing out the artifacts values , how those values came into existence and how these values have changed over time, the fact still remains that once you exit the screen and finish listning to Talion and Celebrimbor’s chatter you are granted +50 mithrin and the artifact is logged in the catalog, before simply moving on with life – essentially reducing the discussion of differential value ascription to a factor of immediate and personal economic benefit. I mean, I get it, I really do, the Mithrin acts as a reward system, providing rationale above completionism or pure curiosity to pursue investigating the artifacts, but I also get that perpetuating the idea of antiquities being valued or sought for their value in the current-time is potentially problematic. By removing the object and leaving only an economic entitity in its place the multivariate values and differential narratives are reduced to a factor of upscaling for war. Perhaps that was the developers intentions – a surupticious narrative about the value of antiquities as fuel for warfare, a timely exposition to explore given the recent discoveries of illicit Nazi art hordes or the revelations that illicit antiquities are in no small part responsible for financing ISIS (check out this neat reddit AMA for some more details)
To continue with the down-buzz of above- The representation of archaeology is further problematised in so far as the X-marks-the-spot methodology is rather trite and the objects are found in illogical, non-explainable and same-ish contexts. The mechanic and justification for X-marks-the-spot is easy to understand and to a large extent it mostly worked in SOM – it made it easy for the player to engage with, it ensures the player will find the items should they wish to and is somewhat justified under the premise that the twinning with Celebrimbor allows Talion to see-the-unseen, in much the same way that *insert archaeological survey technique of your choice here* allows us to see the unseen, predict the best places to work, and make evaluations of data which otherwise would remain hidden. It very almost works. Almost.
The part where the immersion and justification breaks down is when you discover that all the artifacts are all found just beneath the surface, in an otherwise ruined landscape, in contexts which often make no sense to the construction, life or death of the object. Without getting into it too much (as its a topic I wish to revisit in greater detail in Part III of this series (coming soon)) the result is that you leave an artifact encounter somewhat baffled as to how it ended up there, the life it had through the various cultural and natural transformations following deposition, and why it is that it is only this specific object, from the thousands of potentials, that is important enough for your wraith-vision-thing to pick up. There are no easy answers to this one, as it sits on that uneasy middle-ground between entertainment and overload – on the one hand the lack of context being a baffling invocation of selective and reduced histories (which sits in stark contrast to the depth and richness of discussion afforded to the object itself) whilst on the other it would be almost impossible (not to mention seriously un-fun and a massive system drain) to wade through the entirety of the Middle Earth material record (though I would be totally down for that).
TO BE CONTINUED…
The examples provided above demonstrate a handful of the ways which SOM attempts to engage with archaeological practices and the interpretation of the material record. Many of these attempts are a breath of fresh air, a welcomed departure from the archaeologist-as-inherent-know-all and artifacts-as-currency tropes we so commonly see employed in video-games. Some of the implementations are less fleshed out, and a further handful still hold onto the all too familiar and problematic representations. The forth-coming installments (due in 2-3 days and 4-7 days respectively) will grapple with the good, the bad and the ugly of representing fragmentary-remains and the ideas of enchainment which can be drawn from several of SOM’s artifacts and Ithildin, before critically examining how these factors are, could and should be balanced with game-play – suggesting practical avenues for different representations.
Till next time – Na lû e-govaned vîn.
Appadurai, A. (1986). Introduction: commodities and the politics of value. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 3-63.
Renfrew, C. (2001). Symbol before concept: Material engagement and the early development of society. Archaeological Theory Today. Polity, Cambridge, UK: 122-140.
Soressi, M., Geneste, J.-M., 2011 The history and efficacy of the chaîne opératoire approach to lithic analysis: Studying techniques to reveal past societies in an evolutionary perspective. Paleoanthropology: 344-350.