The Most Important Book To Gaming
In 1937, a professor of linguistics at Oxford University set out to develop a sequel to a children's fantasy story he had written earlier in the year. The project ended up taking JRR Tolkien over a decade. and when it was finally published, it became a landmark work of fiction.
The book, or books as they eventually became, was called The Lord of The Rings, and the impact it has had on writers, filmmakers, and game developers is hard to overstate. The books tell the story of a quest - a long, intricate journey to destroy a seductive, magical ring.
Along with a handful of earlier writers and contemporaries such as C.S. Lewis, Tolkien defined what people think of when they refer to "fantasy"; kingdoms modeled after medieval Britain, spellcasting Wizards, brutal Orcs, stoic Dwarves and agile Elves.
These characteristics, which can be found in video games as diverse as The Elder Scrolls, Warcraft and The Legend of Zelda, all stem indirectly from Tolkien. Each of these games, of which only one is a traditional RPG, also owe an immense debt to the pen-and-paper roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons.
Tolkien was a literary magpie, drawing on influences from Norse and Celtic mythology, fairy tales, and even surroundings from his childhood in the English Midlands. In turn, Dungeons & Dragons creators Garry Gygax and Dave Arneson adapted many of their concepts and mythical beasts from Tolkien.
As Dungeons & Dragons became the template for early computer role-playing games in the West, the meme soon spread to Japan and returned in the form of games like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and The Legend of Zelda. Tolkien's influence is so profound that many of his concepts - the modern meaning of an "Orc", for example - now act as generic fantasy terms.
With such a deep-rooted impact on the culture, it's surprising that video game adaptations of Tolkien's works have been rather thin on the ground, and mixed bags at that.
Games based on The Lord of the Rings can be divided into three groups. First, there are those modeled on the books, released in the eighties and nineties. Secondly, there are games based on the trilogy of films (which EA has the license to produce). Finally, there are several games ostensibly based on the books, but released in the wake of the movies' success - these last two groups emerged at the start of the 2000s. There have also been several games based on The Lord of the Rings' predecessor, the Hobbit.
The first notable Lord of the Rings game was a direct sequel to an earlier Hobbit game. The Lord of the Rings: Game One was a text adventure released for a whole galaxy of computer systems in 1985 (Mac, Dos, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, etc). Game One began a long tradition of peaks and valleys. The Hobbit text adventure had been lauded, but Beam Software's sequel didn't receive the critical acclaim its predecessor enjoyed.
In the early nineties, Interplay had a stab at it with a game called The Lord of The Rings: Volume One. Two very different versions were produced; a PC and a SNES edition. The SNES version was slandered while the PC game was a quality product, yet neither sold well.
It took a whole decade before The Lord of the Rings was ready to be revisited in the gaming world.
In 2002, Universal Interactive went up against EA with multi-format releases for the previous generation of consoles. Peter Jackson's film trilogy was gathering steam, and The Lord of the Rings was a hot property.
The Universal Interactive (Sierra) effort, The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring was a rather pedestrian action-adventure affair based on the books. The EA edition, licensed from the movies, had a bit more flair. It wasn't a perfect game, but the greater emphasis on action and the film footage weaved into the game gave it an extra punch. EA followed it with a similar title based on the third film, Return of the King, one year later.
Since then, EA has had success on the real-time strategy front with the well-received Battle for Middle Earth franchise (appearing on PC and Xbox 360).
Meanwhile, Turbine tried its hand at tackling World of Warcraft's supremacy with a PC MMO based on the granddaddy of fantasy. However, while The Lord of The Rings Online is well respected and has a devoted fanbase, it's a bit like putting a Hobbit next to an Ent in terms of revenue and subscriber numbers.
Some of these games are poor, some just underwhelming, and others are commendable. But, there has never been an unqualified, genre-defining home-run either; a game that faithfully encompasses the entire trilogy and all of its nuances. Perhaps it's the epic scope of the story that makes turning the saga into a triple-A videogame difficult. In fact, all of the games released so far have either focused on just one book in the line-up, or on elements outside of the core narrative.
It's also possible that Tolkien's world is too restrictive to make a smooth transition into video game territory. Wizards are rarities in The Lord of the Rings universe, intended to be a mysterious, almost angelic race, and not a the products of a simple profession. Such a detail can cause a dilemma, especially in an MMO; stay true to the source material and restrict players, or make it accessible and less accurate.
This doesn't mean that a definitive The Lord of The Rings game is impossible to make. For years, the books were deemed unfilmable, but thanks to Peter Jackson's drive and talent, The Lord of The Rings received worthy adaptations that have become cherished favorites. All it takes is a visionary studio and the right license (EA currently own the rights to make games based on both the books and the films) and gamers could get the flawless Lord of The Rings experience they've been waiting for.
Who could be worthy to take Tolkien's fantasies and bring them full circle into the medium they inspired, and with the respect they deserve?