Kenneth Chen

Kenneth Chen

Digital Media PhD Student

Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.

When Shadow of Mordor came out two years ago, I thought its Nemesis System was going to be revolutionary. I thought all the major studios would be tripping over themselves trying to put their own spin on it. I thought there would be Nemeses in MOBAs and MMOs and FPSes and all sorts of games. I thought we were going to enter a new age of emergent narrative in pop culture. I thought wrong. Looking back at the way RPGs and stories have evolved over these past two years, why hasn’t there been anything in the AAA space following Shadow of Mordor‘s footsteps?

WARNING: Slight ending spoilers.

Problems With Emergent Narrative

The Nemesis System sounds like a Peter Molyneux idea, except it’s actually real. When you defeat enemies, they evolve and adapt based on your interactions, developing fears or resistances every time they see you again. This way, each nemesis grows stronger to become a unique character perfectly suited to be your mortal enemy. Their attributes are generated from a large pool of possibilities, and they’re scattered throughout the world along with their henchmen so you can run into them while you’re wandering around.

Shadow of Mordor makes this work really well for the first few hours as it drip-feeds the player with various upgrades that provide new ways to play with the sandbox. But after a while, players and reviewers run into a problem: it’s short. It can be cleared in around 15-20 hours, and that’s not entirely acceptable for a modern open world game. There are various side quests and collectibles, but not a lot. Most of the burden of content generation is put onto the Nemesis System.

Theoretically, a player would experience their own side quests based on how they are interacting with their nemeses. Maybe you’re having trouble defeating a particularly tough enemy, so you proactively decide to go after one of his henchmen and interrogate him in case he knows any of his boss’s weaknesses. This is not a side quest authored by a human: it is a quest that the player sets for themselves.

But in Shadow of Mordor, this emergent behavior drops off sharply over time, because eventually you get to the point where you no longer need to set your own personal side quests. You get strong enough that you can walk into any orc camp and kill them whenever you want. Did they just miss the mark on balancing, or is there a reason why they needed to allow the player to gain power creep over their enemies?

For a game with such a complex AI system, it’s a pity that it’s possible for players to just bypass it completely if they are skilled enough. Shadow of Mordor should have been grossly overtuned in favor of enemies. It should have been as hard as a Soulsian game. Death is the primary narrative language in the Nemesis System. Player deaths generate emotional reactions, and enemy deaths generate stronger attributes. If deaths are so important, then why is it so easy to not get killed?

The mechanics that they use aren’t great for one-on-one boss fights, either. Shadow of Mordor takes Arkham-style freeflow combat and merges it together with Assassin’s Creed stealth and parkour. This is a fun combination when it comes to fighting many dumb enemies, and Shadow of Mordor tries its hardest to make sure that these are the most common scenarios you find yourself in. But it goes against the idea of an ultimate showdown with a single powerful nemesis.

Endings and Continuity

Shadow of Mordor‘s ending brings all of these problems together. In the first stage, a special orc is picked out to be your “true nemesis” based on who you’ve had the most history with. This should have been an epic climactic battle between two bitter archenemies making one last stand at Sauron’s gates. For some people, that may have actually happened. But for me, the game decided that my true nemesis would be some guy named Krakhorn One-Eye who I barely knew. I killed him so many times and he had been so insignificant against me that I forgot who he was.

After this, you fight against Sauron in a quicktime event, and then the game’s over. Quicktime events are terrible, but Monolith backed itself into a corner with its game design. First, their combat mechanics could not deliver a satisfying boss fight against a single powerful enemy. Second, the whole battle was weakened from a narrative perspective because you’ve never met Sauron. He was not a nemesis who built a history together with you: he was pulled out of nowhere to be a deus ex machina boss.

But third, and most importantly, the very nature of an emergent narrative makes it difficult to draw one to a close. The whole point of an ending is to bring all the threads together, show that every little thing had a purpose in the grand scheme of things. When every single battle could potentially generate a new nemesis, that’s a lot of loose ends that need to be tied up. In the end, they simply didn’t bother: the ending of Shadow of Mordor is utterly meaningless. You don’t stop Sauron, you don’t make a dent in his army, you just keep wandering around doing ghost things.

Part of this is because they were limited by the IP. It’s not as if they could just insert Talion’s legacy into the books and the movies (Shadow of Mordor happens before Lord of the Rings). Later, in the DLC, Monolith tried to create a more mechanically interesting final boss fight, but there still wasn’t a way to make it more narratively interesting.

And surprisingly enough, we seem to have moved into an age where endings matter in story-driven games. The Witcher 3 and Life Is Strange are highly praised for their powerful endings, while the Deus Ex reboot series is constantly hounded by their bad endings. Industry statistics point to the high number of people who never finish their games, but a strong satisfying ending generates press attention and good reviews, perhaps inspiring people who won’t play to completion to buy the game anyway.

Shadow of Mordor had plenty of problems with the execution. It was a fun and functional game, but it wasn’t a revolutionary game. Emergent narrative needs to be more than a system tacked on top of a Batman game: it needs to be one of the central design philosophies that warps everything from the combat system to the boss fights. There were too many external constraints with Shadow of Mordor which may have made it a suboptimal choice for integrating a mechanic as complex as the Nemesis System.