This article originally appeared on VICE Brazil.
The Middle-earth series (Shadow of Mordor, Shadow of War) showcases a more somber side of the Lord of the Rings universe, exposing the cruelty of war and the dehumanization of adversaries. This morbid narrative rarely fits in family-friendly cinema adaptations, which makes developer Monolith's freedom to adapt the original story to games even more special.
"All of us in the studio are really, really big Lord of the Rings fans, frankly; it's something where [we take these new creations] very seriously ourselves," says Andy Salisbury, a community manager at Monolith who went to Brazil to promote the new Middle-earth: Shadow of War. "We even have a Tolkien scholar working with us, Janet Croft, who helps us vet everything before just to make sure that we make the best possible game that's also true to this universe.
"When you have a story like this where so much happens in between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, there's a lot that's known about that universe; there's a lot that we understand about the villains and heroes, but there's also so much that's unknown," he says, adding, "There's so many opportunities."
People who watched the trailer for Shadow of War may not have noticed an important new element of the game: A black character among a sea of orcs and white men.
Although Baranor is the first significant character who isn't white in the Lord of the Rings, Monolith didn't release a lot of information on him—until now. "He will have his own story DLC in The Desolation of Mordor, where you'll learn all about his story." Until now, the only publicly known fact was that an expansion would be included in the game's season pass.
Baranor isn't just important for this story, but for the entire world of the Lord of the Rings. In the second edition of the Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien said that he hated when comparisons were made between his story and events that happened around the world, or between his characters and real historical figures. But it's almost impossible not to notice that the narrative behind the Lord of the Rings echoes or reflect much that we see in our own society. Unsurprisingly, Tolkien's works were called racist by scholars and critics, such as the journalist John Yatt, in an article published in the Guardian.
This is not just desultory criticism. The vast majority of human characters in that universe happen to be white with blue or green eyes while the only black characters, represented by the faceless Haradim, side with the great villain of the story. Perhaps Tolkien could not foresee this obvious problem within his books—but these racial issues are glaringly obvious, viewed from a modern perspective.
"I'm not sure if we looked at [Baranor's creation] as a choice, but it was an easy one to make," Salisbury said, when asked about the representative weight of creating the new character. "I don't think we thought twice about it when we were writing the story and when we wrote Baranor. It was just kind of an obvious character for us to write. We're obviously very happy to make sure that we give everyone an opportunity to see a character that they love, but I don't think it was deliberate. It was obvious."
Baranor is the greatest sign that Monolith is learning how to revamp this universe in ways that even the films did not. As Salisbury described Baranor, he explained that it's very important to create "a character that's well-rooted in the [Middle-earth] universe" but it's also important to design a character that reflects the perspectives of the world nowadays, in a body of work that deserved to be updated.
"Even when we first started doing our initial research, we would read Tolkien's letters to his editor," Salisbury said. "And there were times where he said he built up specific parts in great detail, but wanted to leave other trails for other creators." Perhaps Shadow of War will manage to tie up some of the most crucial loose ends left behind by Tolkien.
Translated by Livia Holmblad.