Shadow of Mordor is a 2014 action game developed by Monolith Productions. Now that I've had a chance to play through the whole thing, I'm ready to ask the question: how does it stack up, thematically, to Gilbert and Sullivan's 1885 light opera, The Mikado?
The most obvious and prominent thematic link between the two works are beheadings. In the case of The Mikado, all of the beheadings are off-screen, or threatened in the future. As a choice this feels wise because there is a sense that the brutality of beheading is best served as a way to motivate the characters than as a gruesome 'reward' for characters doing well. Indeed, the Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko is most surprised to find that he is expected to behead people for real, rather than simply in theory:
"My good sir, as Lord High Executioner, I’ve got to behead him in a month. I’m not ready yet. I don’t know how it’s done. I’m going to take lessons. I mean to begin with a guinea pig, and work my way through the animal kingdom till I come to a Second Trombone. Why, you don’t suppose that, as a humane man, I’d have accepted the post of Lord High Executioner if I hadn’t thought the duties were purely nominal? I can’t kill you – I can’t kill anything! I can’t kill anybody!"
Both are keen to emphasise the finality of beheading, with Shadow of Mordor representing this by ensuring beheaded Uruk captains never return to battle, and The Mikado with its trio revealing that for all their honourable gestures, all of them have ready excuses to avoid their potential fate:
"To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
In a pestilential prison, with a life-long lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!"
And, of course, the finality is rather lampshaded by the amusing rhyme:
"As in a month you’ve got to die,
If Ko-Ko tells us true,
’Twere empty compliment to cry
‘Long life to Nanki-Poo!’
But as one month you have to live
This toast with three times three we’ll give
‘Long life to you – till then!’"
While the theme of beheading is at best a superficial similarity between the two works, it is undeniable that as a device Shadow of Mordor uses it in more varied ways. The sheer variety of ways in which Uruk warriors are beheaded is impressive, and the threat - actually carried out in the game - will often change the balance of power in a way that feels genuine and personal.
Appropriation of Cultures
A full understanding of The Mikado must put it in its proper cultural context. The setting of Japan was a response to an on-going craze in 19th century London for Japanese art and imagery. One can quite imagine a modern setting of the opera to be based on Anime visuals, and the joke would survive quite well. What we see, when we watch The Mikado, then, is not depictions of Japanese people, but depictions of how wealthy Victorians hamfistedly imagine Japanese culture.
This is highlighted, particularly, by Gilbert's self-deprecating winks to the audience, peeking over the fourth wall to acknowledge that it's simply set-dressing rather than reality. The most obvious of these moments might be the couplet:
KO. Congratulate me, gentlemen, I’ve found a Volunteer!
ALL. The Japanese equivalent for Hear, Hear, Hear!
In the case of The Mikado, then, the siphoning from another culture for one's own satirical ends is played very self-consciously and importantly self-mockingly, which helps to insulate it from accusations of unthinking cultural appropriation.
The picture in Shadow of Mordor is more literal, and more complicated for it. The Uruk hordes of Mordor are necessarily presented to be a culture. They have to be, in order to give the player the relatable enemies they need for the Nemesis system to be effective. Barbaric they may be, and certainly violent, but they defy categorisations of simple mindless beasts, despite occasional attempts by the game's dialogue to cast them in this light.
In the end, the player doesn't win by fighting against the tactics the enemy, however, but by mimicking them and mastering them. In a very real way the game celebrates the very foes it sets the player against. While the game's dialogue does move in small ways towards questioning the ethics of such tactics, the answer in the end seems to be that there is no other choice.
In The Mikado, an obsession Japanese culture is used to tell a story about very British characters, while in Shadow of Mordor you must, in a very literal sense, take over and inhabit Uruk culture to win, which could be seen as thematically confused, or at least not explored to its full extent.
Manipulation of Hierarchies
The way in which this happens bears some further examination. Central to the themes of The Mikado are the politics of power, and people doing what they can to find (or lose) a place within that hierarchy.
Ko-Ko is given power in order to create a short-term legal loophole to the problem of too many people getting beheaded:
"And so we straight let out on bail
A convict from the county jail,
Whose head was next
On some pretext
Condemnëd to be mown off,
And made him Headsman, for we said,
‘Who’s next to be decapited
Cannot cut off another’s head
Until he’s cut his own off."
Pooh-Bah simply accumulates titles by several offices being rolled into one. Katisha and Yum-Yum make their desire for a place in the hierarchy perfectly clear, with the latter's beautiful but inflated song about her own self-worth, and Katisha's duet with the Mikado in which she repeatedly interrupts the Emperor with declarations with her own importance.
Nanki-Poo's own response to being part of this hierarchy is to hide from the responsibility it imparts, and in this and otherways, the powerplay going on is rather more subtle than that in Shadow of Mordor.
In the game, initially the hierarchy is very simple. The ultimate goal for any Uruk is to rise to Warchief, and they do so by being promoted up the ranks. Where it becomes political is where the player can interfere with this process. Helping to resolve events, and later even commanding Ukuk captains to take certain positions in the ranks turns the politics to the player's advantage in ways that feel unprecedented in videogames, but are still limited by the unsuble power structure of the orcs.
In future games, I would like to see more roles to play than what can feel like a simple Orc Leaderboard of Captain - Bodyguard - Warchief. What if the individual titles they had were more meaningful, or you could manipulate it so that one particular chief you controlled accumulated multiple titles, becoming a sort of Pooh-Bah of Mordor, with multiple capacities that could be exploited to the player's advantage?
As an aside, the main character himself is a very literal take on one person with multiple capacities. While Pooh-Bah pretends to be multiple people acting independently, but ultimately proves to be self-interested, Talion and his Wraith possessor are very much two people in one body, who work in different ways towards common ends.
In many ways, for all its advancement, Shadow of Mordor sounds like the first draft of a system that could become a lot more interesting through iteration. On the other hand, The Mikado feels like a very assured commentary on power structures that had long been in place and satirized in many different contexts for a long time.
And that's the ultimate problem with Shadow of Mordor when compared with The Mikado. It's not its fault, but while the game is a promising but ultimately limited hint of future brilliance, the groundwork for the opera had already been laid, and so it sparkles effortlessly.
I rate Shadow of Mordor: Not as good as The Mikado