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.
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.