If I had a nickle for every time I heard someone use some version of the phrase “it’s a world I want to live in” when referring to an open world game I would be...well, not a rich man, but a richer man. It’s a cliche, but like a lot of cliches it effectively conveys a common idea. We love games because, more than any other medium, they can transport us to new worlds. Open world games, with their vast land masses, detail-oriented design, and complex systems make us feel like a part of something. 

That’s why Shadow of War was such a disappointment and why it does something that few other open world games achieve. The folks at Monolith designed an open world that doesn’t immerse players but alienates them.

The Nemesis System is still a fascinating dynamic storytelling device and the combat is simple but fun. As a Tolkien fan(atic), I was entertained by how Monolith took the good professor’s lore in wacky new directions. But there’s something missing in Shadow of War’s open world, something that left me wanting at the end of the game: immersion. And I think that’s part of what makes the game so interesting.

The emptiness and lack of ways to interact with the open world outside of murder work together with a number of other elements in order to actively alienate and isolate the player. Unlike in a lot of open worlds, I never felt like Mordor was “home,” largely because it isn’t my home. As Talion, I’m an invader, an outsider, lurking and watching other creatures live their lives. It’s a bold move for a AAA game to take this approach (almost as bold as building an entire game around a system of enslavement) but one that works within the story Monolith is telling. 

Talion’s job as a ranger is to scout and explore wilderness and  hostile lands. He’s a man of the road, a traveller, and warrior. It makes sense that he’s in Mordor, entirely behind enemy lines, but with little to no contact with friendly NPCs, Talion and the player are isolated and alone.

In order for an open world to feel like “home,” there has to be the potential for non-combat encounters and the presence of non-hostile areas. Part of what makes games like the Witcher 3 or Breath of the Wild such compelling open world experiences is that there’s tangible contrast between the untamed wilderness that you can explore and peaceful, or at least non-hostile, towns and safe havens. A completely hostile environment full of orcs that want to see you dead, Shadow of War’s world offers very little relief from its harsh environs. 

What Monolith has done is create a world without pause. Friendly towns and villages change up the pace of open world games, letting the player know that there’s at least a small slice of peace and calm in the midst of an otherwise dangerous world. Shadow of War doesn’t want you to feel safe. Even though you can level 50 orcs on your own, danger still lurks around the corner. There are few breaks from the murder and mayhem, little time for conversation, and absolutely no time for companions. 

The few sources of friendly conversation in the game are minimal and mostly just serve as reminders of the player’s isolation. As a Gondorian ranger in Mordor, Talion’s only companions are the few human NPCs he encounters and the looming presence of the wraith Celebrimbor, who constantly belittles and contradicts Talion. The only “safe” area in the game is in the inner circle of Minas Ithil, but (*spoiler alert*) Sauron’s armies quickly take over this human fortress at the beginning of the game. For the rest of the game, Talion is surrounded by enemies, his only companions a wraith that constantly argues with him and an army of enslaved orcs that have no choice but to support him. All of that works to create a world that doesn’t immerse you so much as alienates you, making you feel like the outsider you truly are. 

Will you be my friend?

Everywhere you go, you see orcs living their (violent) lives. They bicker, shoot the ***, tell stories, and joke around. This is their home and you’re an intruder and an invader. There wasn’t one moment in Shadow of War that made me feel part of this world and that’s because I’m not. At first I thought Mordor was just an empty digital landscape devoid of any interesting activities outside of feeding the Nemesis System - part of me still thinks a strong case could be made for that - however, the more I think about it, the more I’m fascinated and unnerved by Monolith’s world. 

I can’t name another world in games outside of From Software’s body of work that made me feel as isolated, intrusive, and even voyeuristic as Shadow of War. While every open world game aims for immersion, Shadow of War strikes a different target entirely. It’s unnerving to feel like a total outsider, especially in a world you’ll be spending 40+ hours in, but it ends up being an effective design choice.

In Mordor, there are plenty who can hear you scream. They just don’t care.