Screenshot: Stardew Valley/Chucklefish

Keyboard Geniuses is our weekly glance at a few intriguing, witty, or otherwise notable posts from the Gameological discussion threads. Comments have been excerpted and edited here for grammar, length, and/or clarity. You can follow the links to see the full threads.

Gettin’ It Done`

Over in this week’s What Are You Playing This Weekend? thread, Wolfman Jew mentioned picking up the farming and simple country living simulator Stardew Valley but struggled to explain what exactly they’re liking about it:

My experience with life simulators is limited to Animal Crossing, but I’ve been really liking what of it I’ve played of Stardew. I’ve gone through about a week or so of in-game days, just unlocked the ability to make a scarecrow, and have started learning more about the town. It’s just nice, even though I’m worried I’ve started to exhaust my supply of fallen branches and stones. It’s also led me to thinking about how different games explore the mechanics of fishing and recreating the experience of pulling on the rod, keeping the fish on the line, not overexerting yourself, and the waiting period.

I dunno…it’s really hard to fully express what I’m enjoying, which might lead to why life simulators are both popular and kind of amorphous. Part of it is the loops; you gotta keep track of some things during the day and repetition can be satisfying. Stardew also leans more on that drip-feed instead of letting you have access to all of it immediately. I’m also wondering if part of the appeal is letting you design your space.

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Shinigami Apple Merchant gave their explanation of the appeal:

What I’ve liked most about life sims in the past is the controlled routine of it all. I can determine the pace and the focus of that routine, and I maintain it at my volition. Real life can induce so many chaotic variables at any step and turn, but a well implemented life sim adds new layers that keep you engrossed while also granting that perpetual sense of systemic accomplishment.

“I built that house from all the components I gathered. I organized a party of like-minded NPCs to develop this town project to fruition. And no one called in sick or decided randomly they’d always hated the color blue or some other such nonsense. And no one knocked over my house of cards just to watch it tumble.” Effort expended, fully realized, and maintained to the utmost result.

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EmperorNortonI’s explanation was a lot more, let’s say, dispiriting:

Life simulators let us feel what it would be like if it were actually possible to accomplish anything in real life. If we were actors in the world, with the power and possibility necessary to achieve things. For are we anything more than plebes and cogs in a system of overlapping oppressive layers, all designed to insure that we can do nothing, accumulate nothing, and keep nothing? A system that crushes our independence and freedom, and drains the fruits of our productivity to feed into the veins of an obese and obscene over-class?


The Real Villain

Screenshot: Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

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I continued on with my multi-part review of Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War this week, dropping a second installment that dug into its orc “domination” concept and how the game starts to approach commenting on it. I’ll have more to say about that next week when I wrap up this series, but down in the comments, readers pointed out this isn’t the first time Monolith has started addressing the series’ moral elephant in the room. Arisen ran down how this question was handled in some DLC from Shadow Of Mordor:

This is not the first time these Middle-Earth games have dealt with this issue. Celebrimbor was always a villain and Talion was always, at the very least, an enabler overlooking the hard questions for his personal gain. Granted, in the first game there were few instances where this was discussed. As such, most people hadn’t noticed it at all. But in the Celebrimbor-focused Bright Lord DLC it was on full display. It even ended with a fight against Sauron and a horde of orcs pleading to the Dark Lord to save them from you. You were very obviously the villain. In the very last moments you even see that Celebrimbor wasn’t taken by surprise by the ritual that bounded him to Talion. He was aware and quite pleased by it, as well as eager to take control and seek revenge. That DLC has been my favorite piece of this series so far.

Ultimately, I think Shadow Of War will not take this questioning to its logical conclusion. The game is, at the end of the day, a power fantasy above all else. Questioning his morals would undermine that, and that’s pretty much the whole point of the game. I have the feeling the developers are interested in doing that, but this is still a big-budget game, after all. I used to think they would have been able to have their cake and eat it too. Celebrimbor is clearly a bad guy. He’s even making a new ring of power, which goes against what The Lord Of The Rings has taught. The game is trapped by canon, so no matter how much they build Sauron as the villain, this series can never end with the hero defeating him. The alternative, to both deal with the moral implications and end the series with a satisfying conclusion, would be to drive a wedge between Talion and Celebrimbor in this second game, and set up the latter as the villain in the inevitable third game. But alas, the game seems far too enamored with its domination mechanic and how it plays alongside its Nemesis System. Sadly, these games may be fated to forever brush up against the obvious ethical questions it brings up, but never addressing them satisfactorily.

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Mr Smith1466 was also a fan of how Bright Lord played up Celebrimbor’s villainous side:

I really loved the sleek brutality of the Bright Lord storyline. A very simple story on paper (Celebrimbor tries to fight sauron, loses horribly) but one made powerful by the actual game mechanics. The game was fairly nonchalant about the whole thing. “Go here. Conqurer this tower. Brainwash an orc. Repeat” and then spun it completely on its head with the Sauron boss fight. “We’re not so different you and I” is a cliche, but Bright Lord actually made it feel powerful. Celebrimbor became a dictator over two hours of play and it happened because we went along with it.

Elsewhere, the conversation inevitably turned toward the orcs’ various canonical origin stories and Tolkien’s intention for them. Corvus6 started things off with a question:

Didn’t Tolkien say the Orcs were created by evil and they themselves could have no possible redemption? They aren’t a true species with good and bad?

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And Medrawt dug into LOTR lore to make things even more complicated:

He did, and he also contradicted himself and he never resolved the contradiction, as far as I know. Tolkien himself pointed it out in correspondence. If he wanted the orcs to not have souls, he shouldn’t have kept giving them personalities. He felt the way he portrayed individual orcs in his published works contradicted the idea that they had no souls. This is why there’s basically two orc-creation stories floating around Tolkien’s notes: 1. That they were created in a mockery of life by Morgoth, but since only Iluvatar could truly create life, they weren’t “real” people the way the Elves and Men and Dwarves* were; and 2. That they were corrupted perversions of Elves, in which case they were “genuine” sapient beings with souls. His storytelling impulses drove him to use orcs as guilt-free arrow fodder, and his theology meant that to be guilt-free arrow fodder the orcs couldn’t have souls, but then he also had them bicker with each other and scheme and politic and cower in fear of Sauron, all of which meant (to him) that they had souls after all.

* Dwarves were created by Aule, but didn’t have true life until Iluvatar granted it to them.

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That’ll do it for this week, Gameologerinos. As always, thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all next week!