PART II: ARCHAEOLOGY IN GAME: MIDDLE EARTH: SHADOW OF MORDOR

 


INTRODUCTION


Hello again and welcome to part 2 of the archaeology of Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor (SOM)!  Apologies for the delay – It was in part because I was in Sweden doing research things and playing board games, but also because I have been particularly lazy this last week with regards to writing. This post will build on Part 1 (Which you can see HERE) and cast a critical eye over the examples of fragmentation and enchainment which, somewhat surprisingly, were reasonably prominent and reoccurring themes within the archaeological record of SOM. To this end, the first section of this post will look into what enchainment and fragmentation mean in an archaeological context before  investigating how they have been suggested or implemented in other games. Following this, examples of how SOM leveraged fragmentation and enchainment will be provided before concluding and setting up for the final post (coming soon!) in this mini-saga – which will wrap up some of the analysis and provide some useful suggestions for the future portrayal of archaeology in game-spaces .

Before starting properly though I would like to shamelessly plug a new mini-project which I have started working on recently – Archaeology of Elegy – which is hosted over HERE and is using the game Elegy for a Dead World to explore how game-players conduct archaeology in game space as well as the type of information they choose to publish on. The account allows for 3rd party posts, so if you have your own experiences, thoughts or finds from the Elegy world that you wish to publish feel free to do so! Anycase, back to business with Shadow of Mordor.

As always – spoilers ahead, you have been warned.


FRAGMENTATION AND ENCHAINMENT


Finding whole, undamaged objects in the archaeological record is much scarcer than most video-games, movies or even the popular archaeologist tropes would have us believe, with the majority of finds being damaged or broken prior to deposition, broken during internment or alternatively damaged at the point of excavation (Schiffer 1972 & See Image 2).

Image 2: Handily complete 1000’s of years old pottery a-la-normative media representations. Does not appear like it’s seen many C or N transforms.

Broadly speaking these can be divided into two categories of transformation – cultural (C) and natural (N) – the former describing processes or actions carried out by people (eg. re-use of materials, damage during excavation etc) whilst the latter describes processes which occur well, naturally (eg. weathering, water-logging etc). Generally, these artifacts will pass through numerous contexts and transforms which span the social and natural processes  of sourcing, manufacturing, use, recycling and disposal, and it is worth noting that an artifact can enter, exit and re-enter into the archaeological context at any point during these phases (See Image 1, Schiffer 1972 & 1987).

Systemic and archaeological contexts as outlined by Schiffer in 1972.

Image 1: Systemic and archaeological contexts as outlined by Schiffer in 1972.

In the past, when artifacts were found broken or fragmented it was assumed (in archaeological practice as well as media representations) that the deposition was to be rid of the item (y’know, being broken and so probably not all that useful ergo thrown in trash or discarded), however, since the 1970’s archaeology has been toying with the idea that deposition, fragmentation and breakages can be for specific purposes or to fulfill significant functions in and of themselves (See Schiffer 1972 for more). To this end, there are a number of reasons, which span both the cultural and the natural, which require consideration when studying artifacts which are fragmented or broken  – a handy list of which are provided in Chapman’s (2000) ‘Fragmentation in Archaeology':

  1. Accidentally broken & accidentally dispersed (See Schiffer 1972 for more)
  2. Accidentally broken & deliberately dispersed (See Garfinkel 1994 for more)
  3. Deliberate ritual killing & deliberately dispersed (See Hamilakis 1998 for more)
  4. Accidentally broken & deliberate ritual dispersion (See Bausch 1994 for more)
  5. Deliberate breakage for enchainment – between objects, landscapes and populations (See Chapman 2000 for more)

It should also be noted that it is possible to refer to a whole object as a fragment when it is part of a larger set or grouping (deliberate or otherwise) (Refer to Image 3), in other words, a set of pots could form a related collection, thus removing one entails breaking the set, even though the individual object remains in-tact (See Schiffer 1972). In light of this, and in conjunction with the above list of possible reasons for breakage, it can be implied in many cases, that any of these dispersions, groupings, removals etc  could be seen as integral elements in establishing a relationship between the object, the landscape, the individual or the larger cultural body – in other words, these practices can be interpreted as enchaining things to other things, establishing relationships which can be observable at a physical, material level, or perhaps even non-evident at a material level as a function for non-visual embodiment or connection (Chapman 2000, Gamble 2007).

Image 3: showing part / whole, whole / set relationships (Image from Chapman 2000).

Image 3: showing part / whole, whole / set relationships (Image from Chapman 2000).

So, to quickly summarise. Not all broken things are accidentally broken, not all things that are broken and put in the ground are put there because they no-longer serve a function, some things are purposely broken and fulfil a purpose in this broken state, not all whole things are actually whole (can be part of larger set), things which are parts (and sometimes wholes) can be used in practices of enchainment, or the establishment of relationships between varied entities and finally this enchainment can be meant as a visual thing, or alternatively can operate on a non-visual level. Phew. Ok.


FRAGMENTATION AND ENCHAINMENT IN GAMES


The majority of games choose to present archaeological finds as unbroken and in arbitrary discard contexts (see Part I of this series for more on this), or alternatively as discarded due to breakage  – effectively circumventing any discussion on fragmentation or enchainment.  A notable exception to this trend is the Triforce from the Legend of Zelda series, which – over the course of the various games experiences just about every possible form of fragmentation,  dispersion and enchainment proposed by Chapman (2000) (See Image 4).

Image 4: Link reuniting the triforce elements again in Adventure of Link

Image 4: Link reuniting the triforce elements again in Adventure of Link

Other examples can be found in many adventure-based games (especially prominent in the Tomb Raider series)to fulfill the function of search-reward, multi-layered puzzle or retrieve-reward systems – in other words, an object is broken and scattered across the landscape or in different puzzle areas, and you have to bring it back together so its *insert whichever slightly trite game convention you desire here* can be restored and you can be rewarded with *XP / GOLD / ITEMS / INFO*.

Further to this, the process of representing a whole item in a set (ie: a horde or cache) is reasonably common practice, although as in Tomb Raider 2013 it appears that most of these serve the purpose of justifying a higher cash/xp reward, and the cache system rarely defines the rationale for inclusion in the set – again largely circumventing any discourse on fragmentation and enchainment in favour of exploiting the idea of collections or hoards as an easy justification for greater, or more tangible rewards (See Image 5).

Image 5: Caches of items in Tomb Raider 2013. Collections of materials to warrant higher rewards?

Image 5: Caches of items in Tomb Raider 2013. Collections of materials to warrant higher rewards?

Overall, with few exceptions any discussions or examples of fragmentation are uncommon in games, ideas of enchainment are largely ignored – or used purely as a find and retrieve mechanic rather than engaging into enchainment proper- and ideas of whole / part relationships, whilst present, are generally not leveraged in a meaningful manner. There is a lot of ground which could, and potentially should, be explored in this area, and SOM attempted – with varying successes – to engage with a handful of these ideas, which we will turn our attention to now.


FRAGMENTATION AND ENCHAINMENT IN MIDDLE EARTH: SHADOW OF MORDOR


Shadow of Mordor has two major forms in which it attempts a discourse with enchainment and fragmentation – firstly through broken artifacts and secondly through Ithildin (It could also be argued that the fragmentation and re-forging of Acharn could be read as enchainment, but to circumvent a discourse about re-re-re-appropriation or altered states in enchainment, and also in the interests of time / word-count, we will leave this one alone for now).

Several of the artifacts in SOM are found in a broken state – the most notable of which is the halved Medallion featuring the Two Trees of Valinor (See Image 6) which is found in two parts, both located in the Sea of Núrnen.

Image 6: One of the halves of the Medallion of Valinor.

Image 6: One of the halves of the Medallion of Valinor.

The first of the halves describes the original context, iconography and forging of the medallion – of interest here is that it has significant relevance to an ancient bond forged between Elves and Men, a fact which plays a part in establishing part of the possible back-story of enchainment. Closer inspection to the memory of the artifact reveals a moment in which a wounded Elf is assisted by a man who then is offered half the already broken medallion as a momento to his efforts and as a reminder of the bond which still exists between the two races. The second half of the artifact reveals that similar medallions were often carried into battle for inspiration, to remind the bearer of their history. At this cursory level it is already evident that the fragmenting of the artifact played a significant role in its life and the nature of the artifact would seem to make it a prime candidate for a reading of enchainment and fragmentation.

At a slightly deeper level the case for fragmentation and enchainment is furthered when it is noted that the halves seem to have been created when a “wicked blade wielded by a powerful foe” struck the medallion, although no further reading is given to describe how the halves ended up in their depositional contexts. This memory contained within the artifact describes a type of ritual-killing (Type 3 of Chapman’s ontology) – a fragmentation of the item to alter its state of importance or to spread its power spatially etc – although as mentioned previously the deposition contexts seems to lack any deliberate dispersion characteristics (an issue discussed in Part 1).

Image 7: The other half to the medallion prior to exposing the memory of the object

Image 7: The other half to the medallion prior to exposing the memory of the object

Indeed, this is a trend across all of SOM’s artifacts (and arguably in the wider game-sphere), as even those with potential for enchainment or fragmentation studies, are never positioned or excavated in such a way as to warrant how or why fragmented pieces are found in disparate locations, why the fragmentation of these items matters, how the fragmentation types differ or any indication of how enchainment could have been carried out (other than the accidental dropping of items into the sub-soil which seems to be the norm).

In other words, there was a brave attempt to play with the under-represented concepts of deliberate fragmentation (brave due to it’s scarcity in other game contexts) – but the attempt stopped short of the contexts or explanations of the items. Which is unfortunate, given that these items have so many more stories that could be told so easily, with so little extra needing to be done from a design perspective, if the simple questions of ‘why’ (it was broken, discarded or deposited), ‘when’ (was it broken, discarded or deposited), and ‘how’ (was it broken, discarded or deposited) were asked. In the case of the Medallion of Valinor we have answers, or at least easily inferred data, for the first of each of those categories, but nothing for the remainder.

We will now turn our attention to Ithildin (Refer to Image 8) – with a focus on reading the dispersion and re-combination of the fragments as both a land-based enchainment and a re-focussing of meaning through re-combination. Ithildin, which technically refers to the material which the glyphs are painted in rather than the glyphs themselves (basically its mithril again, but super refined and enchanted), are manifest in the game as collectible elements only accessible through wraith-mode (not entirely sure why, rest of the non-wraith LOTR crew seemed to be a-ok with seeing Ithildin on the Doors of Durin at Moria, but hey, games n stuff).

The glyphs, which are dispersed across Núrnen and Udûn, totalling 32 overall, mark places of importance from an ancient kingdom (again kinda dubious at times when they are on modern-wooden structures or in areas which are not of a similar structural identity, but again, whatever, games n logic n stuff). As you collect the fragments you gain insight into the power of the past, the role which Celebrimbor played in forming the current world, and your inter-connection to both that past society and the physical places in which the Ithildin are located.  Collecting more and more fragments means the forge-tower wall gets filled in – revealing Elven prose and an image *spoiler alert* which can be seen below in Images 8 and 9.  In other words, the Ithildin fragments represent an attempt by people of the past to enchain places of importance to the collective who valued them, and through finding those pieces and re-combining them in the modern-game-era you begin to understand this history and develop a connection to it.

Image 7: The Ithildin wall prior to collecting all the pieces

Image 7: The Ithildin wall prior to collecting all the pieces

Image 8: The finished Ithildin wall after all the pieces have been collected

Image 8: The finished Ithildin wall after all the pieces have been collected

I thought this attempt at enchainment was, overall, reasonably well conducted and should be commended – it’s rare to see enchainmnet portrayed in video-game contexts this clearly, and even rarer for the attempt to be conducted through non-physical or non-visible material culture – I was particularly fond of the attempted interplay between the original enchainment of the past commune and the meaning that was garnered by Talion in the modern age by bringing those pieces back together to create a whole, there was a kind of elegant duality or empathy to the changing role of archaeology over time and space which is so rarely touched upon in games.

Additionally the process of accessing these glyphs provides a novel understanding about how the landscape and cultural structures were navigated and understood in the past, they provide an understanding of the interrelationships between the parties who created them and the places in which they are located, and finally they provide a novel platform for Talion to engage Celebrimbor about his connection to this enchained and multivariate past.

There are however some significant issues with such an approach – foremost of which is the split-layering of these fragments into a modern-context and secondly is that the majority of the collection serves the purpose of side-stepping the past in favour of discussion about Celebrimbor and the growing connection which Talion feels to these places in the modern-game-age. This approach knocks a clear divide between what was, and what is, and through choosing to focus entirely on what now is the importance of the Ithildin and their function of enchaining is all too easy to overlook entirely. The overall impression is that the Ithildin were included as a somewhat interesting way to encourage players to explore parts of the environment and map which would otherwise remain un-chartered and the back-ground discussions provided by Celebrimbor are the reward for player effort. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, more just that it leaves some significant holes in the justification and placement which could easily be overcome to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the role which Ithildin have, could and do play in the SOM world.


CONCLUSIONS


There is so much more that could be said on the topic – but at 3,000 odd words this is already starting to get a little bit long for a blog post. Overall SOM demonstrated a clear attempt at  understanding and portraying fragmentation as more than simply accidental breakage and accidental discard, and to this end it took significant steps towards presenting a more holistic material record. The presentation of enchainment was admirable, but substantially more problematic – the strong disjuncture between the past and the present during the discussions afterwards and the inconsistent or non-specific placements holding the player back from engaging more fully with the ideas of fragmentation and enchainment, and indeed preventing a more developed understanding of the world which SOM cultivates. Many of the issues presented here should not be difficult to overcome, and indeed could be integrated into the existing structures with minimal effort – a concept which we will return to in the final section of this three part investigation.

Next post (due in a week or so!) will take the critiques and attempt to present rationale for developing them alongside some practical solutions – but till next time – Guren níniatha n’i lû n’i a-govenitham.

← Previous post

Next post →

1 Comment

  1. Very nice article, totally what I needed.|

Leave a Reply