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An MMOmoment: Shadows of Angmar

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MMOGs not usually being renowned for their effective storytelling, it’s worthwhile mentioning when a good example comes along unexpectedly. This one is from Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online, which in its first ‘volume’, Shadows of Angmar, presented a complex and mysterious tale that spanned over a year of content releases and covered most of Eriador, from Bree to Rivendell to Angmar and further.

Along the way it sometimes falters into corny dialogue, doubtful quest design, and nonsensicality, but at its conclusion it draws together the genre’s strengths and delivers a moment of emotion and reflection rarely seen in any genre.

Sparing the details, it involves a servant of Sauron, Amarthiel, and her quest to reforge a ring in the same forges where the rings of power (including the infamous One Ring) were made. Caught up in her plan are two elves: Laerdan and his daughter Narmaleth. To accomplish her goals, Amarthiel corrupts Narmaleth and inhabits her body. Rather than heed advice that his daughter is lost, Laerdan does all he can to get her back, including deceiving the player to ensure no one will stop him, however hopeless his quest is.

Before Amarthiel (in the body of Narmaleth) can succeed, her master Mordirith returns, after having been defeated by the player in earlier quests. Rightly wary of her ambitions, he strikes her down, cuts off her hand, and takes the ring. Before he can finish her Laerdan arrives, and to save his daughter he enters a fight with Mordirith he has no chance of winning. He is killed, and Mordirith leaves Narmaleth in her sorry state. Seemingly rid of Amarthiel’s spirit, Narmaleth helps the player in a final battle against Mordirith. In the fight she is finally defeated, and with a last effort she kills Mordirith. Successful, the player returns to Rivendell alone.

In Rivendell is the final resolution to Shadows of Angmar. You return to Laerdan’s room, where another elf gives you a parcel she discovered that Laerdan addressed to you, perhaps knowing that he wouldn’t return. Attached is a letter, in which Laerdan thanks you for your help, and begs forgiveness for his deception. Referring to the parcel, he writes, ‘Perhaps this will help you understand why I have done all that I have.’ Opening the package, you find his reason, his motivation, and his defence: it is a portrait of his daughter Narmaleth.

In LOTRO players have houses they can decorate with various items, including paintings. The story over, with enemies and friends all slain, the player can return home and hang the painting on a wall.

It’s one simple in-game object, but this painting communicates more meaning than blocks of NPC text ever could. Rather than trying to explain everything as a book or a film would, LOTRO explains it as a game can. In that painting is a constant reminder of all the effort we put in over the previous year, and (fantasy nomenclature aside) the very human story at the heart of it: a father’s love for his daughter, and his will to do anything to save her.

In a fantasy setting like Tolkien’s, it would have been easy to lose sight of those personal stories in an attempt to tell an epic adventure. What Turbine did right was to bring everything back to these two characters, and close their story in a way that allows us to remember it every time we go home.


Written by John Pike

14 March 2011 at 6:23 am

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