Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Sometimes an Orc is just an Orc

I've been murdering Orcs this weekend. Hundreds of them I'd say - thousands, perhaps? I've set some on fire, and loosed giant dog monsters onto others. Some of them I mind-controlled first before sending them to their unwitting end against their fellows. I have manipulated their politics and sliced their throats, pinned them with ghostly arrows, made their heads explode.

I'm playing Shadow of Mordor. It's really quite good.

Chris Plante wrote a rather good piece about it, describing it as compelling but morally repulsive. To quote:

"The concept of this game is shocking when you think about what's actually happening. As an ultra-powerful white dude, you use fear and extreme acts of violence to manipulate an enemy's behavior, destroy its militaristic structure, and ultimately gain control of it in the form of living bondage despite being outnumbered by the thousands. Really, chew on this: This is a video game about a spurned man terrorizing an entire foreign culture, literally killing, branding, torturing and enslaving hundreds of living beings. And really they're only tangentially connected to the man's real enemy: another ultra-powerful white dude."
Chris also loves the game, by the way, describing it as incredible fun despite what he sees as moral repugnance. I only mention that because when I was searching for his article I discovered many incredulous forum posts (mostly Reddit) appalled with his criticism, then proceeding to characterise him as a handwringing antifun social justice warrior. I assume that anyone reading this has a better reading-comprehension level and understanding of cultural criticism than the redditors, but hey, I don't want to mischaracterise Chris. But I don't agree with him either.

As a symbol in the construction of narratives I find Orcs, particularly the Orcs portrayed as they are in Shadow of Morder,  to be almost entirely meaningless. They have been reduced below the level of a trope - in fantasy fiction they aren't even wallpaper, they're wallpaper paste. Used as they are here they are simply so bland a cultural artefact as to be morally inert.

When Tolkein invented the modern fantasy Orc he was reconciling contradictory tendencies; on the one hand, he was borrowing from Nordic mythology the racially-evil Svartalfs (dark elves or dwarves) to help him achieve his poetic epic for England, a tale of triumph by divinely-inspired mortals against apocalyptic adversity; on the other, in the story he was telling he needed a credible geopolitical military by which Morgoth and then Sauron could do battle against the knights of Numenor, the Elves, or Gondor. The resulting species / culture / entity has a reality only as large as the pages of Lord of the Rings. As M John Harrison describes in his essential essay "What it Might Be Like to Live in Viriconium", a story is a device whereby an author exercises his beliefs and interests, and while we can speculate beyond the edge of the page all the content we find there comes from our self, not the author. Orcs aren't real, they're a device.

Those Orcs as originally conceived are racially evil but geopolitically organised. They have material and territorial ambitions but their personal motivations come from mythic cycles and folk tales in which the arbitrary violence of the natural world is externalised to malevolent humanoid entities. This makes them utterly unlike anything you will find in real life. While there have been violent, destructive and cruel human civilizations, they have always contained an internal logic that makes sense of their actions in relation to the environmental conditions around them, and they have contained the capacity for beauty, kindness and love. The Orc race exists solely in antagonism to other races - it has no internal construction, only boundless cruelty, malice, cravenness and ugliness. It exists purely to realise a narrative conflict between mankind and the other. That's why it was invented. That's all it can do. Look inside it as a literal rather than a narrative construction and it makes no sense.

This tension is a classic conflict point in DnD. At some point a group of players will come across the women and children in an Orc settlement. The Monster Manual tells us that Orcs are Evil. Do the party therefore murder all the Orc babies, destined to grow into monsters? In roleplay we construct a world in our heads following the rules of the world as we understand them - narrative, physical, or some other logic. In narrative logic there are no Orc women and children - Orcs exist as strong, ugly, violent, male stand-ins for the universal forces that seek to undo human work, ready to be killed in an act of aimless yet somehow universal justice. If we encounter Orc women and children then physical logic intrudes. Presumably Orcs have a domestic society and a material culture. Presumably they make war for a reason. Presumably they could be raised to be gentle and kind.

Monolith Productions, the developer of Shadow of Mordor has gone to great pains to reinforce Orcs as absolutely evil. So far I've only encountered male Orcs and I'm confident this continues to the end of the game (I presume that the Orcs in this version of Middle Earth are born from gooey pods in the earth as they are in Peter Jackson's trilogy.) The AI barks for the Orcs always see them revelling in cruelty or spouting off about how great they are, like psychopathic frat boys. They spend their time in constant infighting, betrayal or murder, and when one of main character Talion's brutally murdered victims is discovered, his compatriots write him off as having been pretty rubbish in the first place. The only actions they take in the games are violent (against one another or the player) or cruel (to the mysteriously immortal slave humans dotted around the landscape,) They exist purely for the player to exercise power against them and realise their narrative purpose - as a universal evil, a function of reality, something as inevitable and thoughtless as your child drowning in a pond, a snake biting your lover's heel - yet physicalised, something we can enact a crude justice against.

An old metaphor is like a coin passed around so long all the writing has worn off. Everyone knows how to use it but nobody knows what it says. Just so with these Orcs. Tolkein said his piece sixty years ago, and whether or not he intended it his Orcs were metaphors for the soldiers in both World Wars, and the industrialised urban workforce, and the many forces changing the pleasant English countryside. They were the West Indians arriving on the Windrush and the grant of Indian independence. They were the twentieth century crashing down on a man who was otherwise isolated in a shining fortress of words.

By the time the Orcs arrive at Shadow of Mordor all the meaning has been battered out. Orcs are bad. That's what Orcs are for. Where you have a hole in your fantasy story that requires a bad thing, put an Orc in it. Shadow of Mordor has all the politics of a Saturday morning breakfast cartoon, and it gets that third hand from other sources. Interpreting the Orcs as a culture is like interpreting the Masters of the Universe as the UN - something you can do, but a shallow vein for enquiry and not one you'll draw revelations from. Whatever violence was done to Orc culture was done by Tolkein when he invented it.

If I find anything morally repugnant, it's that I and a huge number of grown adults have spent dozens of hours engaging with a narrative with all the moral complexity of a children's cartoon. That's not new though - that's just videogames.


On an entirely unrelated note - wouldn't a wrestling game featuring Shadow of Mordor's procedurally generated enemies and nemesis system be utterly perfect?

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