Shadow of Mordor

Back in the 90’s I used to play Middle Earth: The Lidless Eye which was a collectible card game about being a Ringwraith. Unlike Magic The Gathering and similar games, MELE was not as much about defeating the opponent, but about being the best minion of the Dark Lord possible. Your mission was to recover ancient artifacts, recruit powerful allies and convince major Middle Earth factions to side with Mordor. Whichever Ringwraith secured more resources won. You could also play against someone with Middle Earth: The Wizards deck, who would be doing the same thing, but for the good guys. The players could only fight directly if their minions visited the same location at the same time (a rare occurrence, and easy to avoid if you did not want a direct confrontation) and instead they would try to thwart each-others efforts by playing environmental hazard cards as the enemy minions traveled.

It was more of a board game with quasi-RPG mechanics, but this was why I loved it. Most of my Friends had Istari based decks, full of Dwarfs, Elves and Hobbit heroes. My deck was full of Orcs, Trolls and evil men and I loved it that way. So did they actually, because it was fun to play these good vs evil games. It felt like there was much more at the stake.

You know what I loved best about that game? That Orcs, Trolls and The Nine fallen kings were given names (not always cannon names mind you, but I did not care). It is a simple thing really: give an entity a name, and it becomes a person. It becomes imbued with life and personality. I could write an entire sitcom worth of stories about Gorbag, Grishnákh and Muzgash – the three plucky Uruk Hai minion-friends who got into all source of trouble all across the Middle Earth.

In Shadow of Mordor I became frenemies with Ronk The Flame Monger, who just wanted to learn how to ride a caragor beast while wearing his absolutely awesome flame hat.

Ronk Flame Monger

Ronk Flame Monger

No, seriously guys, lets take a moment and take in the glory that is Ronk’s hat. As far as I could tell it was unique in my game, and I have never seen it repeated on another Orc captain. I don’t know how it works, or how Ronk prevents his head from being over-heated, but I do think the looks magnificent. He quickly became my favorite and I was overjoyed to help him win duels with other, less fashion conscious Uruks. I loathed having to kill him but the game said I had to. It is a systems thing: in most video games your objective is to bring about a positive change via destructive force. You are always killing enemies, destroying their infrastructure, toppling evil tyrants and etc.. Hardly ever do you get to affect the game world in a positive way by adding something to it – you are almost always a force of destruction and erasure.

Ronk died without ever fulfilling his dream because he had the misfortune of being an Orc leader whose path intersected with half-man half elven wraith assassin and the titular Shadow of Mordor. Oh, you thought that was about Sauron? Nope, that’s you: the protagonist. The silent assassin, ghostly killer, Robert Neville of Mordor but without the “I am legend” epiphany. Your objective in the game is to perpetrate a campaign of terror against the Uruk-Hai natives of Mordor. You use bodies of slain Orc captains to get to their War Chiefs and you use their deaths to draw out and slay the big-boss minions who take their direct orders from the Dark Lord. And when taking Orc lives is not enough your Wraith-half, teaches you how to take over their bodies.

The void that the death of Ronk Flame Monger left in my life was not filled until I met Lûga the Literate One.

Lûga the Literate One

Lûga the Literate One

Perhaps he did not look as cool as Ronk, but his love of literature has won me over. From the moment we crossed swords, I knew this was going to be a long lasting bromance. At that time I had already learned how to “brand” orcs, making them into friendly NPC’s. And so, after defeating Lûga I used my wraith powers to convert him into my own minion. This was really the only way to save his life. If he was not one of “my” Orcs he would continue being an obstacle in my way, and would have to be toppled. We had a good system going: Lûga would challenge another captain to a duel, I would swoop in and either shank his opponent in the back, or brand him. Lûga would take the credit for the victory, quickly rising in the ranks. Soon he became a War Chief and helped me to either brand or topple all the other War Chiefs.

My Minions

My Uruk-Hai Minions

I had a full control of the local Orc society – all of the War Chiefs and captains were branded, and loyal to me. When I heard there was a new captain who rose to power on my turf, I quickly sent Lûga to challenge him. I dodn’t want him dead – I just wanted his eyes to glow blue. As I was branding the plucky upstart, I had a sudden epiphany: I was the new Dark Lord or Mordor. And it felt good. Almost too good. I presume that this is precisely how the Nine Kings fell and became Ringwraiths in the service of Sauron. Because they were offered the same kind of power.

In fact, I realized that perhaps my power was actually more sinister than than theirs. Both the Nine Kings and the game’s antagonists such as The Hammer of Sauron and The Tower ruled by fear and respect. Orcs followed them either because they dared not to refuse their orders, or because they looked up to them as strong leaders. But a disgruntled Uruk-Hai in their armies had options: he could walk away, challenge his superiors, plot revenge. My minions could not do that: my power over them was absolute. I don’t even know what books Lûga liked to read, because I was using him as a tool. He became a weapon in my arsenal without any agency of his own. He was an empty shell, forever bound to my will.

Tûmûg and me did not get along very well.

Tûmûg and me did not get along very well.

The Uruks of Mordor keep human slaves which is one of the many ways the game tries to justify the terrible violence and destruction you unleash upon them. But even though their bodies are bound and broken, the spirits of these slaves are free. As you explore the game world, you can often hear the slaves talk amongst each other: they tell stories filled with hope, they sing songs and sometimes even laugh. Orcs whom I branded can’t do any of that. They just stand there, their eyes glowing with the unearthly wraith energy. What I have done to them is a hundred times worse than what they have been doing to the humans. I have chained not their bodies but their minds. I became a monster: an absolute, irredeemable villain masquerading as a hero of the people. I have fallen lower than anyone in the Tolkien lore, and I did not even have a cursed ring to blame for my moral lapse.

You might be tempted to blame Celebrimbor for this, because it is his power that was used in branding, and he has been guiding your hands throughout the game. But while he is not necessarily a good guy, his ultimate goal was to strike a blow against Sauron, and put things right after his own greed and lust for power destroyed his own kingdom and put all of Middle Earth in peril. At the end of the game, he is ready to move on and leave the mortal realms behind. I thought this was a good thing. Both Celebrimbor and Talion would get their final rest, and all the Uruks who survived their reign of terror would be freed from under their influence. They would go back to doing whatever it is that Orcs do when they are not being lead to war by some dark power. But at the last minute Talion convinces Celebrimbor to stay and continue their partnership – you know, in case of a sequel. And that’s absolutely frightening.

It actually shows how little self-awareness the designers had when they crafted the games mechanics. At the very core, the game is very much an exploration of colonialism. Talion is a “civilized” outsider who finds himself among “barbarians” who he neither understands, nor respects. He sets out to disrupt and neutralize their power by coercing or assassinating their leaders to impose his own cultural and moral values onto those people. Mechanics reinforce this, but the story refuses to acknowledge these dark undertones and instead it pretends to be a heroic power fantasy. It is almost as if the story and the game mechanics were designed by two separate teams who did not communicate with each other – which seems to be a common trend in modern video games.

You can’t divorce game mechanics from the story any more than you can do with visuals and music. All of these parts contribute to the overall player experience, and all of them come together to tell a story. Shadow of Mordor is a great example of a really fun game in which the story and mechanics are at odds with each other. You can identify with Talion as a heroic figure only up until you actually realize the implications of the “branding” mechanic which becomes fairly important in the later game. An apt storyteller would try to capitalize on this, and depict Tallion’s inner struggle. But the hero never actually thinks about what he is doing to the Orcs. He hates them, and considers them inhuman monsters to be used as tools in his campaign against the Dark Lord… But you wanted to represent them as sub-human monsters, then why give them all names, goals, dreams and fears? The answer is obvious if you read the developer interviews. It is mechanics: engineered and designed completely separately from the story.

I want to give the writing team some credit for capturing the essence of Tolkien’s Uruk society, for crafting cool villains and aptly telling the story of Celebrimbor despite having to work against conflicting mechanics. But can I really do that? I mean, they did enough research to do deeply hook their story into Silmarilion lore, but not enough to comment on the Orks as subaltern people critiques of the text? The discussion about colonialism in Tolkien’s writing have been an academic staple for decades now – it’s not like we’re breaking a new ground here.

Perhaps this is a symptom of what I like to call a “professional fan fiction writer syndrome” – which is what happens when you tell a die-hard fan to write an adaptation of their favorite thing. They tend to be too close to the source material to step back and objectively look at the critique of the text, and thus unknowingly amplify the source works biases and problematic themes. So perhaps I could forgive them for being over-eager fans and trying really hard to do Tolkien justice.

But if I’m going to do that, then I also have to mention that their story would be ripe for Tropes vs. Women analysis. There are three female NPC’s in the game: first gets put in the fridge to provide motivation for the protagonist, second is remote controlled by Saruman and the third gets damseled and you literally have to carry her out of an Orc stronghold.


There is about 20 minutes of game play between the moment you meet the brave warrior Litrhaiel and the point where she gets super-damseled and you need to carry her to safety.

This is quite sad, especially seeing how that entire rescue mission was not only pointless but annoying from purely mechanical standpoint. It combined all the worst qualities of an escort mission while at the same time forcing you to move at an excruciatingly slow rate. I guess the writers really wanted to have a heroic moment for Talion to remind players he is not just a shadowy assassin and they figured the best way of doing so is to throw a woman under the train.

There is also that thing where your assassination tutorial consists of sneaking up on your wife to give her a surprise snog which is is weird and unsettling for a whole plethora of reasons.

Did I have fun though? Hell yes. Painting the Orc leader-board blue with my Wraith Flame was more satisfying than it had any right to be. The game actually helped me to find a whole new level of appreciation for Frodo and the temptation he must have felt while carrying the ring. I did not even have a ring, and I was having way to much fun being a pseudo-Ringwraith. The Nemesis system is really cool, and I hope that procedural NPC generation really catches on. I’m looking forward to seeing what other games will do with it.

That said, once I have killed or branded all the Orcs on the board, the game lost a little bit of it’s charm. The only thing left for me to do was to hunt for collectibles, do timed trial missions (bleh) or finish up the story. I wish I could have done more with my hordes of minions. All I really wanted was to be able to issue constructive orders. Like, how awesome would it be to order my underlings to free their slaves, to put Uruks to work repairing strongholds or rebuilding villages. If the game suddenly turned from revenge power fantasy into a city building simulator where you get to manage your armies, make sure they are fed, equipped, trained and have to resolve local disputes as an impartial judge, I would not mind at all.

In fact, I kinda wish the whole branding mechanic would not even be there. After all, Orcs follow strong leaders, no? So what if you could simply defeat an Orc leader in a duel and take his place as a leader? What if you could earn loyalty and gratitude of orcs by sparing their lives, helping them win a duel, or rescuing them from a Caragor. Wouldn’t that make more sense? Wouldn’t that remove at least some of the uneasiness that came from enslaving hordes of Uruks and using them as weapons?

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Make Your Web Forms Time Lord Friendly

This was a conversation rolling through my Twitter feed lately: how do we design good web service signup form? One that is unobtrusive, intuitive and inclusive. How many fields do you need? What is the best way to arrange them? What kind of questions are important to ask your users? Turns out that there is a lot of disagreement on this, and a lot of misinformation and false myths floating around.

For example, is this a good sign up form?

Facebook Signup Form

Facebook Signup Form as of Oct 2014.

I would argue that it is not great. In my opinion splitting the users name is absolutely pointless. Even, assuming your service needs to use the legal names of your customers (which 99.9% of web services do not “need” to do, they just choose to do so because of reasons) you really only need a single field. This is not a very popular opinion, and a lot of programmers are very, very defensive of their first name/last name split.

I get it, though. I too was taught the mantra of “always be normalizing” when it comes to a database scheme design. The software engineer in me wants (even needs) to have human identity split into two or more clearly labeled forms so that it can be properly sorted. But, asking for first and last name does not work for everyone. As soon as you normalize this way, you are automatically starting to exclude swaths of users whose names do not conform to the particular pattern you chose.

You probably heard of this little factoid: in some cultures you list your family name first, and your given name last. That alone should give you a pause, and make you re-consider using a two field strategy. Some people think that simply labeling the fields as “given” and “family” instead of “first” and “last” will do the trick. I also saw a developer claiming that his app is going to be primarily used by English speaking Americans so it does not matter. But that’s wrong too, because even in that narrow demographic you are going to have a number of people whose names do not fit into the first/last pattern. You want examples? How about Madonna, Eminem, Pink, Xzibit, Nelly, Sinbad, Rihanna, Kesha, Mr. T, Lady Gaga or “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”. There is a strong history of performers adopting mononyms or stage names which either become their legal names, or at the very least are more publicly recognizable than their birth names.

The fact that I could rattle a dozen names of the top of my head, all of which belong to prominent and recognizable celebrities is a proof that this practice is very much part of western culture. Mononyms and funky stage names are as American as apple pie. So you can’t really use “culture” to defend the over-normalization of the name field, when your own culture has a large group of very prominent outliers.

People make a lot of assumptions as to how people’s names work, but all of them are false. Yes, all of them. The single, uniform field for name is not just something I pulled out of my ass for the purpose of this article. It is actually the best practice recommended by W3C.

Same goes for sex. Why does Facebook think it is necessary to ask its users what kind of genitals they have? I can see how this could be a valuable data point for a dating service, since people use those specifically to facilitate mutual mashing of genitals together. So it makes sense to let people sort and filter potential future romantic partners based on their sex and gender preferences in addition to other criteria. Facebook however, like most social and anti-social web apps in existence has virtually no business to ask this question.

Don’t even try to sell me on “demographics” and “advertising” argument because it is bullshit, at least with respect to Facebook since they track your behavior and browsing habits anyone. There is nothing your sex tells their advertisers that they could not get from analyzing your posts, likes and social graph interactions. In fact, the tracking data is more valuable and more accurate way to target advertising than an empty data point that designates you as “man” or “woman”.

Also, why is it a strict binary choice? I mean, unless you’re building something like Christian Mingle type service (where religious dogma only allows you to recognize an arbitrarily chosen set of genders and appropriate parings), why would you want to wantonly ignore biology? If you are going to ask this question (and you have no business doing so in the first place), why not ask it the right way?

Is the Facebook form asking for sex, or gender? Because I honestly can’t tell? This is an important question to ask because Facebook has weird “real name” policies that could result in the suspension of your account if their support staff determines you “lied” on this question. So what do you put down biological sex does not match the gender you identify with? What if you don’t identify neither as male nor as female?

I think Twitter does this right:

Twitter Signup Form

Twitter Signup Form as of Oct 2014.

A single field for “full name” and no unnecessary questions about sex and gender. This is how it should be.

My personal rule of thumb for designing web forms: make them Time Lord friendly. Whenever you want to add or normalize a field, think how the protagonist of BBC’s Doctor Who series would fill it out. Your form should allow one to use The Doctor as the single and only personal identifier.

  • The Doctor does not have a first name
  • The Doctor does not have a last name
  • The Doctor does not have a middle name or middle initial
  • The Doctor does not have a set of initials based on name
  • The Doctor is not a given name
  • The Doctor does not have a family name
  • The Doctor does not use a honorific – it’s just The Doctor
  • No, you can not abbreviate Doctor as Dr. or anything else
  • The Doctor does not have a short name or nickname. You address him as Doctor
  • You can’t use Doctor’s date of birth to calculate age because he is a time traveler
  • The Doctor’s age won’t fit in your two-digit age field
  • The Doctor’s does not have a fixed height, eye color, hair color, etc..
  • The Doctor does not have a fixed ethnicity or skin color
  • The Doctor does not have a fixed gender

If you keep these things in mind you can avoid common pitfalls of web form design and build signup forms that are not only intuitive but also maximally inclusive.

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Sleeping Dogs: Real Gansters Wear Panama Straw Hats

First thing I noticed when I started playing Sleeping Dogs was that it isn’t Watch Dogs. It took me a little while to actually realize this because on the surface the games are nearly identical. You run around and open world city as a brown haired dude and you “hack” things with your cell phone. The main difference is that in Sleeping Dogs the steering wheel of the car is mounted on the passenger side because the game takes place in Hong Kong and not Chicago. Also, your brown haired dude is an American of Chinese descent which makes him marginally more interesting than the “epic signature hat” dude from the other game.

The second thing I noticed was that you could customize your outfit, and I immediately knew this game was going to be a blast. I spent about an hour ignoring gravely serious story missions visiting every clothing store in the game to put together a perfect look for my serious undercover policeman hero:

Stylish as Fuck

Stylish as Fuck

How did the game react to my strange attire that included a shitty straw Panama hat, gray sweat pants, converse sneakers and an ill-fitting pair of pink sun-glasses worn without a shirt? It didn’t. Because outfits in video games do not matter. And so, whenever they let you customize your clothing, and give you a few “silly” options it can lead to unintended hilarity. Like the scene where I took a girl on a romantic evening date looking like this:

Romantic Date

A Romantic Date

It is probably worth noting that I had to fist fight bunch of dudes on my way to the date, so my sweat pants and panama had some blood stains. But my date said nothing of it. Then there was that one time when I parked a car in the hotel lobby, half-way up the stairway. The NPC’s in the lobby were a little confused and they stared at the smoking wreck of my vehicle for a bit, but eventually they decided to just roll with it. The car stayed in the lobby for another three or four hours reminding me that I as the player character am the undisputed lord and master of this puny universe.

This is where I park my car

This is where I park my car

At this point, you may be wandering: “isn’t this type of shenanigans precisely what Saints Row games are all about?” and “Aren’t the Saint’s Row games better at player agency, freedom to do ridiculous stuff and character customization?” The answer would be yes to both questions. Sleeping Dogs is neither as customizable not as silly as those titles. It’s actually not trying to be either.

The game actually treats its story very seriously. You play an American-Chinese cop who goes back to the city of his birth for a super-dangerous undercover assignment that has him infiltrate the triads. You start as a street enforcer and slowly work your way up in the hierarchy. In the process you have to make many morally ambiguous choices. Your cop supervisors expect you to obey the law as much as possible, but your gangster buddies demand that you prove yourself to them by being ruthless and uncompromising criminal. It’s not supposed to be silly. But it is, when you’re wearing the right hat.

After being a grunt you start to spend spend a lot of time rubbing elbows with the rich, powerful and dangerous people. For example there is a scene where you are driving around an American “investor” around the town:

Not as cool as it should be

Not as cool as it should be

It is supposed to be really, really cool. The camera shows you exiting the car in slow motion, and you walk around the front and flip the keys to the valet without breaking a stride. But in my game I actually crashed the car a few times before I reached the destination, so it is a steaming wreck. The guy sitting on the ground behind the car is someone I ran over just before the cut-scene was triggered. He was literally thrown up in the air, and landed behind the car. Every bone in his body is probably shattered right now. But no one blinks. No one says a word. The scene plays out as if nothing happened. I couldn’t stop grinning at the ridiculousness of it.

At another point in the game you go to super important meeting that are supposed to be these quaint moments reminiscent of good mafia films, but… Well it doesn’t work when you dress the way my character, does it?

Meeting with one of the triad lieutenants.

Meeting with one of the triad lieutenants.

The problem I had with Saint’s Row was that the game was too self aware. The designers knew that the player is going to make a fat guy with a lizard tail, put him in a bunny costume and have him beat people with gigantic rubber dildo. Hell, they counted on it and they made mini-games and challenges for all that shit. They were in on the joke, and they built their setting to be inherently wacky. This approach was initially amusing, but it quickly lost appeal. I got bored of the silliness.

Sleeping Dogs does not know it is being silly. It is fantastically conservative as far as plot and story goes. It even includes a pre-fridged woman: the oldest and most popular video game character motivation plot device. I presume that the writers wanted it to be bloody, violent and heart-wrenching and only occasionally humorous. But because I was able to strut around in my sweat pants and panama hat I was giggling throughout most of the scenes. It allowed me to subvert itself. It allowed me to be this silly, off-kilter agent of pure chaos in an orderly and ordinary world. It allowed me to be the one genre savvy character in pulp Gun-fu action story. In a way it allowed me to make it’s story my own, in a very silly immature way.

Bloody, Violent and Heart Wrenching

Listen buddy, these stylish sweat pants cost me like $1 at Wallmart and you bleed all over them…

This is probably the sole reason why I spent over 30 hours with Sleeping Dogs but only around 6 with Saint’s Row 3. Because it was exploitable. Because it played the straight man to my wacky comic relief character. This is an important lesson about games and comedy: let the player be the clown of the setting. Being the bumbling, spastic buffoon is a natural state of the player character and working against it constrains player agency.

La Noire tried to do this by limiting your range of movement / interactions and giving NPC’s awesome car dodging skills so you couldn’t run them over… Unless you tried really really hard. In fact, tricking the game to let me to run over pedestrians with my car was probably more fun and more satisfying than “winning” the interrogations. Saints Row did the opposite: it tried to make the player to be the straight man and the hero by skewing the setting toward silliness so that player antics seem pale in comparison to the madness exhibited by the NPC’s. Personally, I did not enjoy that role at all. When all the NPC’s are in on the joke, and you (of all people) are the most reasonable person in the entire game world, the possibility of mischief and misbehavior is lost.

Just let me break your game and completely ruin your story on my own terms. No matter how funny you think you are, or how awesome your plot is, I can make it better by way of silly hats or ridiculously absurd behavior. As soon as I install the game on my computer it is my story, to be experienced my way. If you want your audience to experience the story “as is” without possibility of altering it, make a movie or a series instead.

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