The lights are on
Lego the Lord of the Rings is one of, if not the, best Lego games that TT Games has created so far. We spoke with the game's director, James McLoughlin, to find out about how the team approached the game's iconic characters, memorable battles like Helm's Deep, and a fantastic item called the Mithril Disco Phial.
Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to do a huge, open-world Middle-earth?
We started with the original Tolkien maps of Middle-earth, and we started drawing a path between the geography, where everything goes and where it needs to be. From that, we blocked it out. We had a few size comparisons from a few other games – was it going to be as big as Gotham was in DC Super Heroes? And we thought about the different ways of approaching it, and when we blocked it out, we realized that the original scale we blocked it out to was actually spot on, and we kept it. At that point, we realized we had a lot of world to fill, and the quest thing went hand in hand. We’d used similar quest things before, and we wanted to make sure that we filled it with everything we could and as many quests as possible.
There’s more of a focus on puzzles and exploration in LOTR as opposed to straight-up combat…
Definitely. I think one thing that we were very keen to stress at the very start was always having it feel like the actual film, like in the quests you go through the entire area, from Hobbiton and right the way through. We wanted the player to feel as though they’d actually traveled somewhere. With that in mind, you could just happen to be running around in space, so we’ve put puzzles, lots of quest elements, loads of free play areas where you can run around. My girlfriend went from Hobbiton after the prologue, and it took her two hours to get to Bree because she was just running around, smashing everything. That kind of exploration is what this is all about. That’s what the journey they take is, and we wanted the players to feel that as well. We think we’ve achieved that.
Tonally, it’s much darker than previous games. Were there concerns about when to stick with the film’s overall mood and when to dial it back?
I think we made a game that’s definitely got loads of kiddy moments of course because it’s a Lego game and Lego fits itself to be a kid-friendly game full stop, always. But it’s definitely a darker subject matter than we’ve ever done before. I suppose, the Lord of the Rings is in many respects quite dark. I think we did take the slant off how dark it was with the whole fire-extinguisher moments. Loads of times when we realized that it’s a bit scary we’d put a joke in, like a clown hat or something. It’s good for the people who know the license so well, because they’ll see the bit where Eowyn shows up for the first time and Aragorn sort of wants to give her a kiss but she’s not very interested. There are lots of little nuances that we thought were really funny. Obviously the adults will get it, and the kids might not.
The act of putting the ring on is such an important part of the story, and then you have the Lego minifig, who doesn’t have any fingers. Was that a design challenge?
It’s funny, because when we found out we were doing this license I didn’t actually know how the ring was going to work, myself, because you think, “How is it going to be?” Is it a bangle? It kind of looks a little like a bangle the way that it fits on his hands. For a while, we didn’t know, because we didn’t have the model. And then we got sent it from Lego, and we thought, “Ah, that’s how it works.” We thought it might be a chain around his neck, but it would have been enormous on his chest. So we have the way that the minifig actually wears it, which is having it sit on top of his hand. So when we got that in we started to realize what Lego Frodo was about, because he’s a Hobbit and very integral to the story, but until he gets the ring he can’t go invisible and you can’t see the Ring Wraith world. When we got that it was pretty cool because we could start to put it together at that point.
Were you always planning on using the original voice recordings?
Yeah. That was really interesting. I remember Jon [Smith] coming down and he grabbed me and said, “I’ve got something really exciting to share.” So we went downstairs to the animation department, and the animation department was working on a little still. It was actually a little scene and it was the setup where Bilbo is explaining to Gandalf about how he wants to see mountains and he feels like not enough butter spread over too much bread and stuff. I walked in just expecting the normal “mumble mumble,” pictures of mountains, pictures of bread, pictures of butter. Then I saw what they’d done, which was the whole voice acting on miniifigs – they weren’t even the real minifigs, they were just generic minifigs talking. I realized, wow, this is Gandalf, this is Bilbo, and I think that really let us connect with the characters a lot. There’s always the cuteness of the “Mmmm mmmm” and all the noises, and we still do that as well alongside the voices where we didn’t have a piece of audio that could fit what we wanted to teach, or it didn’t work with a joke. The idea of when one of the orcs gets shot at Helm’s Deep and then it all goes quiet and there’s a clearing throat sound, and that would feel awkward. All that’s classic, and it makes people laugh because you’re so used to the theatrical acting at that point, and then you hear all the mumbles and it works really hand in hand. I think at the start we realized that it would be really cool to have them together.
Was it a smooth process coming up with the different categories of classes? It seems like the Lord of the Rings characters lend themselves to archetypical move sets and roles.
Definitely. The Lego Lord of the Rings is definitely a more physical game than a lot of the others. Obviously we didn’t have technology to rely on, obviously Batman is very technological, there are loads of switches and robotic devices which are cool, and we’ve got the magic of Harry Potter, which has chairs running around, which always adds humorous elements to it. But with this, we had to work out what can dwarves do, what do Hobbits do? There happened to be a few other things that we knew would work in the Lego world. Small hatches, strength – and we’d already had magical build-its before, so we thought Gandalf has to have magical build-its, because people are used to seeing them and it fits to bring them back. There were a few new ones, like the arrow shooting and the arrow targeting and the shooting twirl poles into the wall – we had a lot to work from. It’s such a rich source material, and you see it and you go, “OK, Gimli’s strong, and he can barge through things.” We had to have tossing dwarves; there was no question about it, we had to have it. The fact that you never hurt him, you throw him into something and he destroys it and he stands up. I think that helps. It wouldn’t have been a Lord of the Rings game without that. That’s the thing that most fans like. Can you pick a dwarf up? The minute you can it’s like, “Ahhh!” I think a lot of them did write themselves in many respects.
Can you talk about what appears to be a Goonies reference in the game?
There are a lot of amazing coincidences in the world that we live in. [laughs] Pipe organs are coincidental sometimes, and they show up in strange places
Pipe organs made out of bones?
Made out of Lego bones. There are no pirate ships anywhere, though there are the corsair ships. Maybe there was a dwarf who liked to play organ music so it’s hidden in the mines.
Can you talk about how you approached designing big battles like Helm’s Deep?
I was one of the lead designers on [Lego Star Wars III: The] Clone Wars as well as this, and when we did Clone Wars we did the massive battle system. We talked about whether or not it would be that, whether or not we would bring that back into the world that we’d used. It really didn’t fit because there weren’t as many battles that we wanted. In Clone Wars there were loads of battles – it was about battles in many respects. There’s a lot of stuff in there. With this, we thought we wanted to play as individuals and not have thousands of troops that you could control. The battle is on and you are in the battles as individuals. At the start, we realized that we actually wanted to be in the battle and while the battle is going on and have it feeling as hectic as it would. You wouldn’t be controlling the thousands of minifigs but they would still be there. That really dictated the story of Helm’s Deep, and of course the film has the story. The level is quite faithful to it. To do that, you play the sections that we deemed the most important part of the films. You have defending the walls, getting up on the walls in Helm’s Deep, and of course the battle where you ride out with Theoden and everyone. Besides the bonus level, which is cool, Helm’s Deep is probably my favorite, especially the ride-out section. That’s pretty awesome.
Did you try to stick to the theatrical cuts of the films, or did you just take an anything goes approach?
We were almost 100-percent faithful to the original cuts, with a few exceptions. The fact that the Mouth of Sauron is even in it, we obviously used some of the expanded editions. We actually made a point of only using the theatrical release because someone may not have seen the extended edition, they might not know what they have – those crazy people out there who may not have seen them a million times. We thought, let’s base it on the vanilla version, let’s base it on the version that they’ll know. For example, my girlfriend has never even seen Lord of the Rings; she’s only played these games. Now that she knows the story of Lord of the Rings, she takes the Blu-ray off the shelf and says, “I should watch it, shouldn’t I?” “Yes. You should have watched it seven years ago.”
Talk about the game’s standard references and Easter eggs.
It’s a Lego game thing, and I think that people who know Lego games would expect a dancing skeleton. There’s got to be some kind of disco vibe going on, no matter what game we do. There is actually a Jacuzzi. We normally have them, and it’s hidden in the prologue. There’s a piano. There’s a pig on the piano, which is a two-for-one. You also have a piano launched in Pellinor Fields and a pig on the trebuchets. There’s the guy eating the carrot in Bree. They’re all classics. We’ve got the carrot bow in this one, which you craft. And there’s obviously the mythical disco phial, which is one of the best things we’ve ever made.
What’s the story behind that one? Where did the music come from?
That was the sound guys completely. They deserve full credit for that. That is genius, that song. That’s a cut-down version as well. The version we originally made had a lot more references in. For a start, it was really long, so we had to cut it down so it would loop properly. That one we needed more items, and we needed to come up with supermithril, which were the 10 blacksmith recipes that were hidden on the hub. We wanted them to be cooler and mainly funny, but they were in places that you’d have to find, and players might not even know they were there. A few of the things we came up with were a phial, and it was like, “Let’s make something that makes everyone dance.” And we were like “Yeah, yeah,” and then someone said, “Why not make a disco phial, a disco ball upside-down, and then the light coming off it would still light up areas, but it would change to a disco ball?” When we talked to the sound guys about it, they were like, “We’ll make a little disco riff for you.” We thought it would be a little jazzy riff. We didn’t expect them to make a remix. They came back and we knew it had to go in. There was more pressure on that going in than anything else. Let’s get it in. even if the players never found it, we had to get it in.
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