If you know anything about Shadow of War, you’ll be familiar with the process of ‘dominating’ Orcs. Basically you stick your hand on their face and mind-control them, and after that they join your army. The main thrust of things is in capturing the captains, because you use them to besiege the forts in each area. I always had a couple questions about that process, though; for instance, most captains will have some sort of Orc entourage. That’s why they’re captains: they’re in charge of shit. But when you brainwash them, their subordinates don’t magically all switch sides as well. Mostly they panic and run off. So who do the newly brainwashed captains get to command? It’s sort of implied that they get a cohort from within your ranks, but there’s never any concrete numbers or figures put on your ranks – it’s sort of just hand-waved away. Which, you know, is fine. It’d probably be really fucking boring gameplay if you had to make up your forces by going round mind-controlling hundreds of individual Orcs. It’s just interesting to note what’s foregrounded and what’s ignored within the game. In this instance, it creates an interesting dynamic of permanence and impermanence.
The basic point here is that your actions are only ever really permanent if you’re interacting with a Captain in some way. If you brainwash a random Orc, they might help you in a fight, but once you leave the area they essentially just vanish into the ether. From a narrative perspective we can assume they go off and join your numberless Orc army, but from a ludic perspective, they actually stop existing – they stop having any meaningful impact on the game. Your Orc army is inexhaustible in its size. There’s no ludic effect from adding Orc regulars to your numbers. In a sense, they are impermanent. Contrast the Captains: if you brainwash one of them, you can send them on missions, help them level up, save them from trouble – they exist as characters in a way that the regular Orcs don’t. Captains have permanence. The best point of contrast here is when you get murdered by a regular Orc in a fight. If you had run away from that fight, you’d never see that regular Orc again. But if it kills you, it becomes a Captain. It gets a name, a level, characteristics – it’s fleshed out in a way that it previously wasn’t. And, most importantly, it becomes permanent. It will continue to exist as a stable character. It has ascended.
As a player, then, you have this curious relationship to the fictional world. Your typical relationship to the world is one of impermanence: that is, in most circumstances your actions don’t have a permanent effect on things. This is actually the case in a lot of games. In the Assassin’s Creed games, for instance, you could spend literally five years killing guards, but there will always be more. The guards are impermanent. They don’t exist in numerical terms consistent with the game’s fiction. Similarly in GTA, you can run over fifty million pedestrians, but you won’t depopulate the city. There will always be more pedestrians. Your actions don’t permanently affect the world that you exist in. One of the things that’s interesting about Arkham Asylum, by contrast, is that it’s one of the few games in which your actions do have a sort of permanence. Bad guys don’t respawn: if you clear an area, and come back later, you won’t find a fresh group of baddies, unless there’s a specific narrative event that’s brought them there. As long as you’re following the narrative, it doesn’t really matter, because you’re always being directed to the next group of bad guys. But when you go off the beaten track – in search of Riddler trophies, say – you quickly realise how deserted the game feels. You revisit all these areas, and they’re just empty. It’s weird, but it also demonstrates that there aren’t just an infinite supply of thugs. Your actions have a tangible and permanent effect on the fictional world.
In Shadow of War, then, you’re often disconnected from a broader causality within the fictional world. You can go to an Orc camp and brainwash every single Orc in there, but it kinda doesn’t matter. It has no impact on the story or on the fictional world. For the most part, you’re locked out of the causal chain, forced to move through reality without creating change or difference. It’s almost purgatorial. The only relationships that have a meaningful effect on the fictional world are relationships with Orc captains. They ground you, give consequence to your actions. Whatever happens to those characters has permanently happened. It makes the game so much more exciting – makes the stakes so much higher! I once had an Orc captain who I killed, who managed to survive the killing and come back and murder me. I caught him and brainwashed him, made him my soldier, but he betrayed me, so I pushed him into a fire. And then he ambushed me again when I was out hunting a different captain. I planned to brainwash him again, but he had a weakness where if you shot him in the head with an arrow, he’d instantly die. I forgot about it, shot him in the head, and killed him. It was a very aw fuck moment. Your actions are permanent, so he’s not coming back. There’s no way to fix what you’ve done. It’s not a huge deal, narratively, but it is an instance where the permanence of your actions lends dramatic weight and impact to what’s going on. It matters if you kill the captains, accidentally or otherwise, because you can’t change those actions. The random Orcs don’t matter in the slightest – they’ll entirely cease to exist once you leave the area, so you can do what you like on that front.
There’s not really an immediate ‘so what’ in terms of Shadow of War. I don’t think that the developers thought about this dynamic in enough depth to add any kind of thematic significance to it. But it’s an interesting way to look at a whole bunch of different games, particularly open-world ones, where enemy respawn happens pretty quickly after you leave an area. Supposedly, open-world games are about experiencing a world that’s interconnected, that shows the relationships between parts. But given the extent to which your actions skate over the surface of an environment, rather than having any tangible long-term effect, is the genre really a success? Or is it only capable of spatial connection at the expense of meaningful agency within the fictional world? It seems to me like the open-world game fails most spectacularly in the area of its greatest strength. Don’t get me wrong – I love the spatial unity – but it’s ultimately really superficial. It puts you in a cohesive world, but it robs you of your basic roots in the fiction.