Kevin Stephen On Nemeses, Fortresses And Naming Middle-earth: Shadow Of War

After the success of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, a sequel was never really in doubt, and Monolith and Warner Bros. have now revealed what they’ve been working on for the past few years. This is Shadow of Mordor taken much, much further, with a Nemesis system that now affects how the world evolves, raising your own army, and so much more.

We definitely liked what we saw of the game – read about it here – and following that demonstration, we spoke to Kevin Stephen, Studio Head of Monolith Productions, about the game’s bigger scale, stealthy kisses and picking a name for the game.

TSA: Let’s start with where this game picks up the story. The presentation said it’s right after Shadow of Mordor, but is it literally straight into the game, or is there time for the relationship between Talion and Celebrimbor to change and evolve?

Kevin Stephen: It’s pretty much straight after. We don’t say how long it’s been, so I think it’s fine to think it could be minutes or it could be days, weeks, months. It doesn’t really matter…

TSA: How long has he been hammering away at this ring?

Kevin: [laughs] We don’t really say. How long does it take to create a ring of power? I don’t know!

Also, we don’t really know how long people played the first game for, so the duration of the events of the first game, and with resurrection too, we don’t know how much time goes by. Time moves forward, but we don’t really define if it’s the next day, a month later. So as far as Talion and Celebrimbor have been building that relationship in the first game, it could be years, but it’s really not defined.

TSA: The other thing is that people could be completely new to this game, so there’s bound to be a bit of a tutorial again, but do you get to stealthily kiss anyone in Shadow of War? Or is that a spoiler? [laughs]

Kevin: [laughs] Yeah, I don’t really want to comment on that!

TSA: I think that was one of the nice things to come out of the first game, that people latched onto this and yes, people mocked it a little bit, but it was nice to have that kind of meme evolve.

Kevin: Yeah, we were surprised at how people picked up on that. We didn’t expect it to be such a big thing; some people liked it, some people didn’t like it.

TSA: Was it a bit of a joke in the game within the studio as well?

Kevin: Well the funny thing that we didn’t ship was a placeholder animation for Talion’s wife – I always pronounce her name wrong. So for a long time, you’d go up and you’d do this stealthy kiss and she’d head butt you… Now that was funny!

I don’t think we were trying to make a deep commentary or anything, we just thought it was a nice moment. We were trying to teach stealth and we thought it was a nice idea to have him do this. As a Ranger, you could imagine him playing stealth games and sneaking up on her, so we wanted to give that moment of tenderness.

TSA: Obviously, one of the biggest things in Shadow of Mordor was the Nemesis system, and I think a lot of people saw this as something that would influence where other open world games, a little like how Arkham Asylum’s combat proliferated. We haven’t really seen that happen, though, why do you think that is? Is it time? Complexity?

Kevin: My theory is just that it’s really hard to do.

Well, I have a few theories. I think the key one is that it’s hard. It took us a long time to build the system and we were very focussed on it. […] I also think that the fact that time always moves forward in our game means that if somebody goes, “OK, we’re going to do this,” and starts thinking about what they need to make it work, it’s a bit more complex than some people think and how your game systems really need to support it.

That’s probably the key reason, but I also think that designers don’t like to copy other designers, so there’s some ego involved too. Even if they want to do it, there might be people pushing back and saying they can do their own thing.

But I don’t know. I don’t have insight and a game could be announced tomorrow that has something like the Nemesis system – they wouldn’t call it that, I’m sure. It would be great to see other games do something similar.

TSA: Yeah, I think it’s one of those things where you get to inject your own personality and how you play the game into how the game evolves.

TSA; It feels like with Shadow of War, you’re really just exploding everything you’re doing with the Nemesis system in so many different directions, with the most noticeable side of that is with the fortresses. Was this a key goal to make it so that the actual environment changed based of your actions as well?

Kevin: Yeah, we had a bunch of goals with the game. I think that any time you do a sequel, one of the first things you do is think about what are the things that didn’t work as well as we wanted them to? Let’s fix those. What are the things that worked? Let’s make those better.

Going back to what you just said is exactly how we think about it. These are personal stories that the player is making, and we had these individual nemeses, but how do we expand on that? The followers were a logical thing, where we have all these hate relationships, but how can we have some kind of love relationships?

The whole idea is about having relationships with the AI. in a multiplayer game when you’re playing against people it’s easy to have those relationships like, “Oh, that guy just killed me. I’m going to get him back!” Or you’re playing alongside your buddies, which is awesome. We want get those feelings in a single player experience, so that’s where I think the followers come in.

As for the fortresses, that comes back to what you do in the world, the choices you make and how much the world reflects those choices. When you pick the Overlord [for a fortress you capture], that actually changes the way the environment looks, and it changes the missions, so it’s not just visual. It also affects how a region plays out after and that changes depending on the type of Overlord.

We thought a lot about that. It always comes back to how the decisions we make can make it so more people have different stories. That’s the way we always thing about this.

TSA: You’ve got so many possibilities that are all interwoven. I can only imagine that’s a complete nightmare to manage.

Kevin: Yeah, it is! It’s super challenging…

TSA: Even just having it so that there’s dialogue for all the Orcs to cover all the possible eventuality.

Kevin: Well, I don’t think we cover every eventuality, but yeah, we have great system designers, who spend a lot of time working out the mechanics of when different things can happen, and then we’ve just got great writers and we try to hire really good VO talent to bring the whole thing together.

If you start trying to work out all the different actions, […] there’s only so many actions you can do, so you can simplify the problem down, but then you still want to create stories that are more complex than the simplest bits. It’s a complex problem.

TSA: You’ve also tried to add more variety in the kinds of enemies you’ll encounter, so you’ve got these different tribes. Can talk about the kinds of things you can expect to see from that? You mentioned three in the presentation, but are you spreading the net wider than that?

Kevin: There’s more than three…

TSA: So four, then? [laughs]

Kevin: [laughs] There’s more than four, and I’m going to stop there!

There’s a lot of tribes, and the key thing is that they feel like different cultures. We want people to feel like this fortress with this tribe is not the same as if you stick in another tribe. The music will change, the looks will change, the missions in the region will change. It really is like if you think of movies where there are warring factions, so that is really important.

The way we think of it, Shadow of Mordor was just one tribe and so we really want to make it that if you interact with someone from the Feral tribe, that’s not going to be the same as if you interact with somebody from the Terror tribe or from the Mystic tribe. You’re getting these different personalities coming through, and it impacts the gameplay too where they can do different things.

TSA: I guess a good parallel would be how the kingdoms of man differ?

Kevin: Yeah! That’s a good reference, obviously, but it could be like the houses in Game of Thrones or the factions in Mad Max. If you think of it like that, you’re on the right track.

TSA: You’ve also got the Nazgûl kicking around, but how are you representing them in the game? Do they have an integral part to play, or are they having to hang in the background because they’ve got important things to do afterwards in The Lord of the Rings?

Kevin: They’re pretty integral to the story, for sure. You interact with quite a few of the Nazgûl and there is some opportunity to dive, like we did with Celebrimbor, into their backstory, which I think is pretty cool.

TSA: That’s a good point, actually. I had big boss fights in mind…

Kevin: Oh, we have those too!

TSA: Finally, I think a lot of people find the title Shadow of War a bit bland and it needs the Middle-earth before it to really ground it in the series. Did you ever consider Shadow of More-dor?

Kevin: [laughs] Yes, actually!

More-dor, More War… We had Shadows of Mordor, because some people like that. Every combination came up in our discussions.

There’s a couple of big reasons for Shadow of War, but one of the big ones was we’re not just in Mordor and we’re hopeful this is a long franchise. So we didn’t feel it made sense to do Shadow of Mordor 2, because then you’re kind of stuck.

We wanted to be able to expand outside Mordor and have it make sense, and the ‘War’ was really important because we wanted people to know this is a big, epic game. The promise of Lord of the Rings is these giant battles, and that just wasn’t what Shadow of Mordor was. This is definitely a sequel, but it’s more than just the same game in a different place, it’s a much bigger, more epic scale experience and we thought it was important to have the name reflect that.

Thanks to Kevin for taking the time to chat about Shadow of War with us. You can read our preview of the game here, and we’re definitely looking forward to seeing more of it in the run up to its release on 25th August.

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