Q&A: Monolith Creative Lead on the Updated Nemesis System in 'Shadow of War'

Q&A: Monolith Creative Lead on the Updated Nemesis System in 'Shadow of War'

'Shadow of War' doubles down on the procedural-generation elements that made its predecessor so wild and variable Warner Bros.

Monolith is hoping that the prospect of being able to actually a command an orc army will be enough to draw you back to Mordor

Monolith is hoping that the prospect of being able to actually a command an orc army will be enough to draw you back to Mordor

Shadow of Mordor – the biggest Lord of the Rings game in years – had almost nothing to do with the people, places, and storied artifacts we most closely associate with Middle-earth. We barely got a glimpse of Gollum, but we sure did meet a whole lot of orcs with names like Barfa Halfling-Lover, Skak Runnybowls, and Muggrish the Dung-Collector. We have the "Nemesis System" – essentially an engine for procedurally-generating uniquely vile orcs and the gruesome drama they engage in – to thank for these colorful characters and their antics. To quote Monolith's vice president of creative Michael de Plater, Mordor sequel Shadow of War will "double-down" on the Nemesis stuff. Among other things, you'll be able to actually press these execrable (yet, somehow, also lovable) monsters into your service to affect real change in the world. You can use them to conquer territory within Mordor, you can promote and demote them at will, and, if you're especially merciless in your torment, you can even drive them to madness.

After a lengthy demo in which I got to siege an orc stronghold myself, de Plater was more than happy to delve into the specifics of the updated Nemesis system, what it's like rendering Mordor in the fine sort of detail that an open-world game would require, and how Shadow of War will adapt itself to how you choose to play it.

After playing the demo, it's clear that your team has spent some time tinkering with the Nemesis system. How indicative of your ambitions is the stuff in the demo?
What we're able to show in a short session – like, one fort assault – is really just scratching the surface. What we've done a lot this time is focus on letting people genuinely build up these really emotional stories and personal villains over hours, or even days.

After Shadow of Mordor, we spent a lot of time looking at people's stories on Reddit or wherever – who was their most memorable enemy, or their favorite enemy? And then we tried very hard to double-down on that, and to build those stories. So now, orcs can actually earn unique titles based on their particular story events. They can transform into these epic villains with completely unique scars, and their whole personalities can change. They can become complete maniacs and go crazy if you've tormented them too much. They can have blood-brothers or rivals – they'll react to things that you've done to another orc that they have a relationship with.

We've probably put most of our effort into building these big, long-term stories that you can create.

Can you drill down a bit on the sorts of stories you think that the system can enable? Is it possible for the slayer to feel some kind of kinship with these orcs? Maybe even some affection for them?
So we obviously deal a lot – being behind enemy lines in Mordor – with the fact that you're trying to bring down Mordor from within, and you're battling against Sauron. But in some ways, orcs are also sort of victims of this oppression, being forced to be the troops for the Dark Lord. Or for you as the Bright Lord, because you're using this ring of power to control them and turn them against other orcs, and so on.

So there's definitely some sort of conflict or some potential to build up relationships with them and to think about who the good guys are. But as well as that... well, it's war. So it is dark, and it is violent, and it can be pretty grim. So, to counteract that, we put a lot of effort into giving [the enemies] these really colorful personalities. So there's a lot of humor and personality, and that makes some of these guys funny and likable and relatable as well. A little bit like any sort of villain or supervillain. You want them to have some charisma and personality – to want to hang around with these guys. So, our goal is that you – if you're enemies, you love to hate them, and when they're your followers, you sort of hate to love them, because they're funny and they're good to hang out with, but they also do things that are pretty horrible and disgusting at times.

The most crucial thing about the Nemesis system in Shadow of Mordor is that the orcs actually remember you. All of a sudden, your interactions with these random enemies mattered.
One of the ways we've built on that is by just expanding the type of things that they can remember, the type of things they can pay attention to. It might be where you're at in the story, or it might be that you're engaged with exploring the world and gathering collectibles. So they can remember and respond to a richer variety of interactions and events. But also, that some of them will have specific personalities or identities that could cause them to seek you out, because of that.

Just one example: if you are going around collecting artifacts in the world and pursuing history, there's this guy called The Bore, who will turn up. And he'll just start endlessly and boringly lecturing you about lore and history. So we try to make all of the different elements of the game, – from the core gameplay and the combat, to the exploration, to the story, to the personalities, to the tribes – all kind of talk to each other, so we're creating these different, unique stories every time we play it.

Are there a lot of characters like the Bore? Characters that respond to your actions, and sort of drive the player in certain directions?
There are. But even a character like that is a role and personality. So his tribe might vary, or his name, or his class. So even if I meet The Bore in my game, and some of the context's the same, it's still going to be different from someone else meeting that character in their game. And then, you're still going to build a unique history between the two of you from that point moving forward – if he defeats you, or he runs, or you run. Or if you defeat him. Or if he's a rival to someone else who's one of your followers. Or you make him a follower. Or you seek him out and he goes crazy.

So even from those starting themes, through different identity or personality, everyone's going to get to create a unique story. And then there's so many of those guys and roles and combinations that I think it is virtually impossible, ultimately, for any two people to have the same orcs – or stories, or whatever – coming out of it.

Even where we have some element of it that's more crafted, it's interacting with all of the other ingredients in a way that's still going to make it really original. And to create a personal story.

You're making a where a whole bunch of systems ultimately drive large parts of the story, and it's set in Middle Earth, which is certainly one of the weightiest settings available. Do you think that's unusual?
I think we'd probably approach it like this regardless of what our setting was. Because there are these amazing books and amazing films set in Middle Earth, and we don't really want to just retell those stories, it's very important in a game to take advantage of what is most powerful about video games. Which is player's abilities to create and share their own stories. We really wanted to double-down on that element of it. So, here's this rich, amazing world – how do we free players to create their own stories within that world?

I think it's got a lot in common not with computer games, but with the pen-and-paper idea of role-playing – of actually having a shared world and then getting to improvise and create your own stories and experience, and explore that world.

And that was also a big part of choosing to go into Mordor, and to focus on that – so we can be back behind enemy lines in a part of the world that's simultaneously more unknown. So we've got a lot of a certain amount of freedom to create new stories, but also, that's many ways the most intense and dangerous part of the world as well. So we can tell these original stories that also have really high stakes. That takes out a lot of the limitations that can sometimes come with trying to tell new stories in a very familiar world. We've sort of found a more unfamiliar part of it.

The films rendered Mordor in some detail, but given the nature of what you're doing – making a video game – you have to render it in even finer detail. It's a place that we've come to associate with hazard, and mystery in that world.
It's really fascinating and exciting because one of the things about Mordor is – even from reading the books and watching the films – you have have this notion, okay, that's where Sauron's armies reside. And, I think the question of – "How would that actually work? How do these guys get fed, how are they organized? What's society like there?" – and actually taking the challenge of turning that into a real, functioning place, and a genuine, functioning society, is a really interesting challenge.

So it's the balance of two things – of having this very kick-ass powerful hero in this world that's extremely dangerous, but also in a way where we can authentically deal with Tolkien's themes of power and how to battle against evil.

Thinking about the orcs and orc society, and how that all works – it's interesting as well. Because the times that we see orcs as characters, particularly in the films, they're usually at each other's' throats. So when the Uruk-hai meet the Mordor orcs, when they're trying to carry Pippin and Merry, it leads to a bloodbath. They break down in a fight, and you know, they start eating each other. And then when Sam and Frodo get into Cirith Ungol, again they start fighting over the mithral shirt, and that turns into a massive bloodbath, and the whole fortress is decimated.

So, that seems like a really fun thing to play with. They have to move their armies around, and be equipped and feed each other, and be adequately coherent and organized to function as a society. But there's always this tension there. And sort of playing with that, and being a virus in that system, or a spark in that powder keg, and setting that off. It felt like you, as a single individual, can still have a really massive impact. And it's always fun to kind of poke that ant's nest and see what can happen as well.

So there were a lot of advantages, I think, mechanically and thematically and narratively that made it a lot of fun to explore Mordor.

The only way to make that credible is to have the player character be this super-powered being. That's really the only person who would even have a chance to survive in that place.
Yes, that enables it. And that was definitely one of our goals as well. It's really interesting in Tolkien, because on the one hand, we want to have a very strong power fantasy, and have this really powerful hero. But on the other hand, we also want to deal authentically with the themes that are in Lord Of The Rings – of what power does, and how it corrupts. Talion, of course, he's very inspired by Boromir's desire to use the one ring to defend Gondor and to raise armies, and go and kick Sauron's ass. And Celebrimbor is very inspired by what Galadriel said would happen if she had taken the One Ring.

So it's the balance of two things – of having this very kick-ass powerful hero in this world that's extremely dangerous, but also in a way where we can authentically deal with Tolkien's themes of power and how to battle against evil.

Do you ever feel worried that by rendering Mordor in such fine detail, that you could make it feel more ordinary? That you would rob it of some of that mythic weight?
Yeah, absolutely. That's always a fear. Actually, Tolkien himself – I don't know if this was in one of his letters – but he was asked why he so often draws the mountains at the edge of his map... the maps never covered the whole world. There was always another vista.

I think that idea is really important and fundamental. You don't want to show everything. You want to reveal the mysteries and show something new. But also, at the same time, you want to introduce other mysteries. There's still another mountain off on the horizon, or another mystery out there. Otherwise, you really run the risk – with any sort of expanded universe – of ending up making that universe feeling smaller or feeling less wondrous.

And that's absolutely the opposite of what we want to do. We want to show these really cool elements, but also do it in such a way that we open up to new vistas. To explore. Our goal is to make the world always feel bigger, not smaller.

In another interview, you mentioned that Shadow of Mordor was kind of a test-bed – it was an opportunity for your team to feel out the process of building an open-world. How has Shadow of War benefited from that?
It wasn't that we necessarily set out to treat Shadow of Mordor as a test-bed – It's just that we learned so much along the way. I think we sort of bit off more than we could chew, in some ways, In terms of the scale of it and the story. Lots of our ambitions were a little bit crazy. And so, having developed that game and shipped that game, it gave us a much better idea of our capacity. And we also learned how to produce and wrangle these vast amounts of content that are needed.

As you were saying before, we're a very system-based game, and all of those systems are interconnected. So the complexity of that is fairly high. And the requirement for every team and every discipline to communicate and work really close together is really high. So it sort of requires innovation in not just the technology, but in the design – even in the way the team is organized and how we collaborate. So it was just an enormous learning process.

It also meant that, in certain ways, we had to scale back or cut things in Shadow of Mordor that we didn't really want to. The potential example was that we were definitely aware that the ending was a bit more abrupt and the story wasn't kind of as satisfactorily resolved as we wanted. Also, I think some of the promise of the Nemesis system – that we wanted you to be able to dominate and build this army, but we weren't able to fully give you satisfying goals of what to do with that army. Now, we can actually pay off all of those things. So you're getting in there behind enemy lines, forging your army – you're actually conquering fortresses and fighting these epic battles. You're building up your kingdom there in Middle Earth, and defending that against Sauron's counterattack. So I think now, we can sort of pay off and realize a lot of the promises we wanted to make in the first game.

This interview has been edited and condensed.