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Reclaiming the Middle-earth from before the movies

You could be forgiven for not being interested in Daedalic’s Gollum game. The early development materials I saw during a studio visit in 2019 left me with mixed emotions – fascination and admiration, but also apprehension. To pick one of the more ridiculous elements: a Gollum game in which Gollum can wall-run doesn’t sound very Gollumish. Of course, Gollum is known for his agility – imagine him in The Two Towers descending a cliff “like some large prowling thing of insect-kind” – but you can’t parkour over the line between “creeping menace” and “Prince of Persia,” especially when your title character is nearly 600 years old.

Together with other cliches, such as throwing objects to distract guards, it suggests a studio with little experience in action-adventure clinging tenaciously to conventions at the expense of its premise. But perhaps the real issue is that no one wants to play a true Gollum game. After all, the whole point of Gollum is to avoid becoming him. The Hobbit who fell, his mind and body splitting around a terrible obsession, is the cautionary tale Bilbo and Frodo must learn from during their struggle with the Ring.

On a more practical level, casting Gollum in a game where you guide the character from behind appears to be a waste of his distinguishing features. Back in 1937, The Hobbit described him as “a small, slimy creature… as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face.” To begin with, the rest of Gollum’s body is only hinted at – most shocking of all, if you come to the books from the Jackson films, is the revelation that he has pockets. This ambiguity explains the wide range of interpretations of the character by Middle-earth artists over the years, including looming Grendel figures, purple lizards, and Ferguson Dewar’s affable boatman from 1964, who appears to be angling for a New Yorker caption.

Daedalic’s Gollum is obviously inspired by Andy Serkis’ Gollum, but it’s also an attempt to blend all those different Gollums into something that younger and older Tolkienistas might recognise – and in that engagement with the history of Middle-earth in art lies the spark of something wonderful. In some ways, Gollum is a throwback game. To begin, it takes place before the events of The Fellowship of the Ring, with Gollum separated from his Precious and imprisoned in the fortress of Barad-dûr by Sauron’s army. I’ve never seen this location depicted so thoroughly in a videogame – indeed, you never really set foot in it in the books – and for those who object to the Unreal glower and dinginess of it all, there’s the prospect of lush Elven woodlands down the road. More important than where it falls in the timeline is Daedalic’s goal of rediscovering Middle-earth aesthetics prior to the films, which was encouraged by Middle-earth Enterprises licence holders who were impressed by Daedalic’s previous adaptation of Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth. Though shaped by the Jackson sextet, its art direction harkens back to Tolkien’s original descriptions as well as his sketches and paintings – some of which were printed in the books, while others were drawn as imaginative aids during writing.

This is what makes Daedalic’s game so interesting, and it’s what justifies Gollum’s choice as protagonist, because Gollum is above all a wanderer, propelled through the crevices of a glorious, awful world by his yearning for the Ring, watching from the shadows “with his pale eyes like telescopes.” Casting him as the lead allows us to delve deeper into a world that has become synonymous with cinematic battle scenes (and memes), much to the chagrin of Tolkien’s family. Meanwhile, Daedalic’s struggle to create a game out of those drawings and paintings reminds us of the complex role illustration plays in Tolkien’s storytelling.

Tolkien could be dismissive of illustrations, and not just because he thought his own abilities as an illustrator were lacking. He wrote in his celebrated essay “On Fairy-Stories” (PDF) that the problem with visual art is that it “imposes one visible form.” It calcifies the magical world into a single thing, rather than letting your mind run wild in the enchanted wood. Written description, on the other hand, “is both more universal and more poignantly specific. If it speaks of bread, wine, stone, or tree, it appeals to all of these things, to their ideas; however, each listener will give them a specific personal embodiment in his imagination “..

Tolkien’s illustrations, perhaps as a result of this viewpoint, have a powerful irresolution. They favour landscapes over figures and strike a balance between naturalistic proportions and the mazy regularity of a stained-glass window, influenced by Art Nouveau and Japonisme. Take a look at The Hobbit’s original 1937 dust jacket design, with its serried negative spaces and eerie, Uccello-esque withdrawal of trunks and embroidered foliage towards the maw of Erebor on the spine. These works don’t feel like settled views, but rather glimpses of a world he was struggling to enter, and thus invitations to the reader to fill in the blanks. They are intricately woven into the prose, and not just in terms of where they appear in the published books. According to Anna Smol, Tolkien writes like a painter, with “the use of some basic colours modified by qualities of light, along with an artist’s attention to the composition of the image.” I’d argue that he also draws like a writer, with sketches that appear to sprout from letters during initial composition, squeezing their way out of paragraphs like germinating seeds.

Consider this handwritten manuscript page from The Return of the King, which describes Sam’s first clear view of Cirith Ungol after Frodo is imprisoned on the outskirts of Mordor. The tapering shape of the tower emphasises its height, with “pointed bastions of cunning masonry […] diminishing as they went up,” according to Tolkien. When Sam looks at it, he gets a “sudden shock of perception”: the tower, built by the forces of Gondor after Sauron’s first fall, was “built not to keep people out of Mordor, but to keep them in.” Readers will experience a “shock of perception.” The manuscript contains a pencil sketch of Cirith Ungol down the left margin, but rather than being neatly boxed off, the image intrudes on the text, its fortifications lining up against the prose. As the writing descends the page, it is pushed sideways by the growing mass of the drawing, which is compacted against the righthand margin, as if Cirith Ungol were crushing and choking attempts to recall it in words.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did Tolkien draw the tower to better describe it? Or did the image appear on its own during the writing process? If you look closely, you’ll notice that the cliff line behind the tower appears to emerge from the middle of the sentence describing it. Perhaps the drawing started out as nothing more than a stray pencil stroke.

Daedalic’s game is based on a similar, albeit more pragmatic, tension between artforms: the stranger intricacies of Tolkien’s aesthetic versus the needs of videogame exploration and traversal. Tolkien’s landscapes, according to art director Mathias Fischer, are made up of “parallel lines that fly into each other, building bigger structures.” This phrase has a quasi-Sublime sense of the world as an ongoing encounter between wood and water, stock and stone, frozen by the mortal onlooker’s gaze. It’s difficult to stop looking for those flying parallel lines once you start. Take, for example, Tolkien’s drawing of the view east from Rivendell, in which the sky, cliff, and forest appear to be charged with the joyful energy of the river curving through them. “It’s as if the illustrator gets lost in some corner of his world,” Fischer observed. Daedalic, on the other hand, doesn’t want you to get lost in the game: the goal is to create navigable spaces from those hyperactively worked surfaces. This appears to be easier in Barad-dûr, a constructed world of cranes and furnaces, fortresses within fortresses housing sleeping quarters and kitchens – strange little oases of Orc domesticity where iron and steel fittings emphasise routes and entrances.

There is also the issue of light and colour. Tolkien painted some lovely night skies, but his paintings are rarely dark or obscure; instead, they have a lethal, faerie lightness, with unearthly watercolours disappearing into the canvas, as Galadriel does. The author’s painting of Barad-exterior dûr’s is nothing like the film – all gaseous greens and Victorian brickwork, with a fitful twist of lava in the bottom corner, like a motorway through drizzle. Daedalic’s version is more in line with the movies and other games’ volcano levels, but there’s a reason for that: at this point in the storey, Gollum is without his invisibility-granting Ring, and a stealth game requires shadows.

Their creatures are shaped by the environments in which they live. The Orcs of Sauron’s Tower have been hewn and worked like stone, their pale skin and armour adorned with close-nested curves, having been born and raised in a lightless abyss. I haven’t seen the Elves you’ll meet later in the game, but they’re said to be more grounded than their cinematic counterparts. The main character is presumably Daedalic’s interpretation of Thranduil, Legolas’ father, who appears in concept art as something akin to a dryad, with a branching crown that changes with the seasons and flowers sprouting all over his body.

Daedalic, a seasoned weaver of point-and-click yarns, has big plans for Gollum’s dual personalities. During crisis situations, you’ll have to choose between them, selecting reactions as they swirl around the character’s head. There’s some familiar short-term versus long-term decision-making at work here – you can have Gollum throttle a guard to prevent him from raising an alarm, but the more you play as Gollum, the more hostile your interactions with potential allies become. While the execution looks suspiciously like a QTE cut from Mass Effect, I’m intrigued by Daedalic’s argument that Gollum and his former Hobbit self Smeagol aren’t simply antagonists and allies. Smeagol is a kinder soul, but also naive and craven; Gollum is a murderer, but he is also a shrewd survivor and protective of his other half, and it is this, as much as the Ring’s influence, that drives him to be so vicious.

Flowers, please! Curves, please! Watercolors that are unearthly! Oh, no. Time will tell whether these Tolkien excavations are sufficient compensation for the game’s more mundane aspects, but I’m already glad to be having the conversation. Because condensing a fairy tale into “one visible form” does more than just ruin the magic; it’s also part of the process by which fictions become franchises that resist experimentation and change. Nowadays, The Lord of the Rings’ look and feel is the look and feel of the films. Other Middle-earth art traditions have been abandoned, ranging from Cor Blok’s minimalist renderings to Robert J Lee’s Hobbit scenes for The Children’s Treasure of Literature (described by Tolkien as “vulgar, stupid, and entirely out of keeping with the text”).

Tolkien’s characters, once beings of myth and archetype, are now real-life celebrities and everlasting internet characters who cast an irresistible spell. The New Line film aesthetics are captivating in and of themselves; created in collaboration with seasoned Tolkien illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe, they are a loving and comprehensive exploration of a world whose afterimage appears in thousands of works of fantasy literature. The issue is more about capitalism’s fundamental dysfunction, which is its proclivity to overconcentrate value and bulldoze alternatives. There can only be one aesthetic that rules them all.

This is something that we see in videogames as well. Take, for example, the Mass Effect remaster, which “beautifies” many of the original game’s artistic choices in order to keep up with the march of graphics hardware, or Nintendo’s remake of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, which (in my opinion) reinvents one of the sadder Zeldas as a piece of plastic merchandise. Again, these projects may be enthralling in and of themselves; the issue is presenting them as the “definitive” representation of the fiction, the only one worth experiencing. I don’t want to portray Daedalic’s Gollum as some kind of radical resistance to all of this – after all, it’s a corporate artwork with a wall-run. But, like demaking, it’s a reminder that there are many ways to describe, imagine, and enter even a world of this commercial stature – and an engrossing exercise in discovering what happens when you weave two very different artforms together, as Tolkien did.

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