Shadow of War: Realism and Interface

We’ve been talking a lot recently about Shadow of War. Most of the posts have been relatively high-concept, in the sense that they’ve often been dealing with the game as a whole. In this post, we’re getting down into some nitty gritty detail. It’s not the most important point in the world, but it’s an interesting little case study into some of the game’s dynamics – particularly the way it deals with realism. 

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Normally when the Orcs are running around, they’re all dressed up in red. You can see it in the image above – there’s two Orcs on the right, and their armour has red highlights. It’s most noticeable on the shoulder pads, but also that Orc on the left has little red booties. In the next photo, I’ve killed the Orc with the booties, and I’ve dominated the other one, so he works for me now. His shoulder plates are blue, his leggings have turned blue, and he’s got a giant blue hand-mark on his face. All pretty clear indicators.

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So given that change, here’s the question. Are the colour changes happening within the fictional world, or are they just visual cues for the player? We already have a bunch of elements in the game that we know don’t exist within the fictional world. That mini-map isn’t literally floating behind Talion as he walks through Mordor. There’s no goal up top left, and there’s no prompt saying push B to level up. We can think of these things as game interface. They’re aids for the player, almost more like subtitles than anything else.

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In a sense, the armour colouring is in a different category to the mini-map. The armour is fixed to a character walking around in the virtual 3D environment, and the mini-map is almost like an overlay, an item that’s located in a particular spot on the physical screen rather than in the virtual world. A closer example to the colouring would be the little markers in the screenshot above. You can see the little blue arrows marking my Orc captains. The yellow diamond/circle marks my goal, and the white diamonds to either side mark the goals after that. All of those markers are tied to characters or locations in the virtual environment. If the characters move, those markers move. Compare the two little symbols in the center-bottom of the screen. They’re summon signs for my bodyguard and so on, and they’re going to stay in the middle of the screen no matter where I am in the virtual world. So the colouring is probably closer in style to these markers than to the symbols, because it’s actually integrated into the virtual world.

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The key difference between the markers and the colouring is that the markers are still definitely part of a HUD. Even though they’re connected to characters or locations in the virtual environment, they still clearly don’t exist in the fictional world. None of the Orcs are looking up and pointing out the floating markers above their captain’s head. By contrast, the colouring could almost pass as an element of the fictional world. It’s not immediately clear whether it’s a literal change within the virtual world, or just a really lovely and subtle visual cue for the player. Basically the question comes down to this: does Talion’s domination power make Orc armour turn blue?

The immediate and simplest answer is probably not. It seems weird to say that the armour literally turns blue within the fictional world. You’d expect the red Orcs to cotton on after a while – if they see a buddy unexpectedly wearing blue armour, you’d think they’d realise that something’s up. It’s also never something that’s really explained or justified within the fictional universe. Nobody acknowledges it or points it out. It’s like the soundtrack in film – most of the time, nobody’s going to stop and ask ‘Hey where’s that violin coming from?’ At the same time, we might suggest that the blue hand is real. I thought I had a better photo of this, but you’ll have to make do:

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This is Shaka the Backstabber, or as I like to think of him, Shaka Backstakka. I dominated him, but he went rogue and turned on me. You can make out under his helmet there, he’s actually got the red imprint of a hand on his face. He actually looks a bit like a burn victim – you can see it’s melted through his cheek at one point. You can also get dudes who you’ve humiliated, and they’ll turn up with similar hand-marks on their faces. I thought I had a photo, but there’s nothing in my library and uhh I may have accidentally deleted the game, so I’m reinstalling it at the moment.

So maybe the hand mark is real? Because this burn doesn’t seem like just a visual cue. It seems like something that’s really there in the fictional world. We know that Talion kinda burns his control into the Orcs when he dominates them, and it seems like the ones that get away that end up with this facial scarring as a marker. On the other hand, it’s not very consistent within the narrative. For example, the Orcs that are serving you don’t have any facial scarring. It’s only when they escape a branding that they’re left with something to remember you by. So maybe it is a visual cue after all. It’s definitely inconsistent, and that inconsistency might be evidence of visual cue – in the same way that the blue armour is a visual cue – or it might be evidence of a narrative element that’s not fully fleshed out. It’s hard to pin it down one way or the other – and that’s not necessarily what I’m trying to do, anyway. It’s just an opportunity to think about the different types of representation available in the medium of video games.

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