Middle-earth: Shadow of War is amazing. Middle-earth: Shadow of War is terrible. Horza the Dead taught me that. I love him and I hope I have the strength to let him go. To let him get some well-earned rest.
Developer Monolith Productions's newest game is set in the Lord of the Rings universe. Players take control of a Talion, a dead ranger haunted and animated by Celebrimbor—the elf who forged the one ring. The pair both hate Sauron and criss-cross Mordor killing his soldiers and building an army of orcs to take him down. It's a great game with solid systems, but enslaving the army of orcs to hunt your enemies is the real draw.
These orcs aren't your typical video game NPC cannon fodder. They have backstories, passions, and conflicts among themselves. They're so well rendered that I've become deeply uncomfortable playing the game. The heroes treat them terribly. The wraith and ranger abuse and slaughter orcs and dominate their feeble minds.
There are consequences to your actions. The orcs remember things, hold grudges, and react to your leadership accordingly. In most games, this would be fun, but in Shadow of War, the orcs' AI and personalities are so vivid that it's also an emotional burden. I'm serious. I feel bad about Talion's—and by extension my—treatment of the orcs.
I first met Horza the Dead in Cirith Ungol in the game's opening hours. He was just another orc. He stopped me in the street and made a speech about how he couldn't die, and that no matter how many times I killed him, he'd just come back. He was pale and black veins ran down his face. The bones of his enemies adorned his helmet like a morbid galea. I thought he was awesome, then I killed him.
Image: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
I wanted him in my army but this was before I'd learned how to subjugate orcs to my will, so I slaughtered him in the street assuming he'd make good on his promise to never die. He did. Hours later in the lush forests of Núrn, he found me.
He found me. I was hiding in a bush and there he was. He called to his fellow orcs, said he smelled manflesh and pulled me out of hiding. After he tossed me to the ground, he told me he was older than the dirt below me and (once again) mentioned that he'd never die. Fair enough. I beat him down, broke his will, and made him my personal bodyguard. Later, he gave his life yet again protecting me in battle. And then he came back to life.
I was on my way to start another quest when he found me again. He wasn't the orc I'd fallen in love with, but a twisted wreck. His body bore the scars of his recent deaths. The bone galea was gone, replaced by a wrought iron mask enshrining his broken features. Stitches criss-crossed the limbs he lost in his most recent battle. Someone had sewn him back together.
He was furious with me for leaving him behind, for forcing him to fight and die, for using him so badly. We clashed, I won and I reached into his mind to pull him back into my fold but he resisted. So I killed him. Again. Hours later, he found me. The undead orc would not leave me alone. Thankfully, this time I was able to dominate his mind … but Horza had outleveled me. In Shadow of War, the player can only dominate orcs at or below their level. All the combat and death had made Horza too strong to control.
Thankfully, the game allows you to humiliate orcs to lower their level and make them more compliant. I pushed the button to shame Horza and his mind broke in my hands. He screamed in pain, gibbered, and said, "When is my rest?" Over and over and over.
I tracked Horza through the forests of Núrn and found him near a cliff muttering to himself: "When is my rest?," he repeated in different intonations. He begged, he pleaded, he wondered aloud to himself. I pulled him close to me, dominated his weakened mind, put him in my orc stable, and immediately shut down the game.
I haven't played it since. I can't get Horza the Dead off my mind.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War is so good that it's terrible. Horza the Dead was a proud and immortal orc, an undead monster who chased me across the lands of Mordor and hounded me for hours. Now he prays for a death that will never come. It's messing me up. This game is massive and though I've played for several hours, I'm still in the early stages. There will be more orc tragedies.
This isn't the first game to give players a group of soldiers or followers. In the X-COM series, those soldiers are like paper dolls. Their personality is what the player projects onto them. Death is permanent, and you're sad to lose people, but you shrug and move on. In the Mass Effect series, players develop relationships with the NPCs and some of them die and sometimes it's your fault, but there's still a narrative remove.
The other problem is that the NPCs of Mass Effect and X-COM are heroes, soldiers, and colleagues. There's camaraderie between them and the player. The orcs of Shadow of War are slaves. The player kidnaps them and uses magic to destroy their free will. They have no choice. Which might be kind of OK if Talion didn't then constantly treat them like garbage.
He and his wraith companion talk about the orcs as if they were discussing brood mares and racing horses. They compare their relative traits, discuss what might make a good slave—I mean soldier—and then constantly belittle orc culture. I mean, they're orcs. They eat people, cause chaos, and murder their own, but that doesn't stop me from empathizing with them.
Shadow of War has gone to pains to make the player care about the orcs. The advertising tagline is "Nothing Will Be Forgotten," live action commercials depict orcs lovingly caring for players years after they've stopped playing, and holding grudges for decades. I get it. It's a game, the orcs aren't real. But playing still makes me uncomfortable. If we can believe people such as Elon Musk and companies such as Google, then we're on the precipice of human-crafted AI systems that are hard to distinguish from actual, flesh-and-blood humans. Will we treat them as Talion treats the orcs?
Will they just be toys and tool for our amusement? Science fiction has been warning us for years that our treatment of robots and artificial intelligence can and will backfire on us. I think about that every time an orc I've wounded or humiliated crests a hill, stares me down, and threatens my life.