It's hard to believe that it's been 10 years to the month since The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring came out in movie theaters. It's even harder to process that Peter Jackson will be bringing us back to Middle-earth with the two Hobbit films starting a year from now. The Jackson trilogy, while beloved by many (including, I assume, gamers), hasn't gotten a lot of space in this column to date. The general consensus from the community is that the films and the MMO are separate interpretations of the same source material, and never the twain shall meet -- nevermind all the other LotR games, like War in the North.
While that may be true, they do meet in the hearts of those who simply love this franchise. I adore the movies, am a huge fan of the game, and like (yes, just "like") the books. But I think that it's worthwhile to go to the films for LotRO players because they do give a different perspective and perhaps clarify a few plot points that shoot over our heads in-game. If nothing else, if the movies can revitalize our excitement about exploring the lands of Lord of the Rings Online, then they've done well by us.
I mention all this because this past week saw the release of the first Hobbit trailer, which I must have watched a good dozen times, and it got me pumped up once more for this game world. In today's column, I want to use this trailer to springboard a discussion of how LotRO and the films share a common bond and how the Hobbit movies use many elements that Turbine's been working on for years now. Plus, a bonus Hobbit Tribute Tour!
"I'm looking for someone to share in an adventure."
There are many differences between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, the primary one being that the former was written as a simpler children's book and the latter is a more complex, grown-up tale. As such, The Hobbit embraces adventure and comedy in a more gleeful way than LotR. The quest isn't so much about the fate of Middle-earth as it is about stealing back treasure from a big, bad dragon, and the Dwarves and Bilbo are meant to be amusing rather than taken seriously.
While I do appreciate the story of Lord of the Rings Online, oftentimes I find that it is a little too prim, proper, and serious. True, there are moments of humor, but I've always thought that the Rangers and other NPCs come off as less realistic because they're forever stating things with grim purpose and resolute steel. There's nary a fart joke to be found.
Except, that is, in rare pockets of the game. The Shire and the rest of the game are like night and day in tone, and a large part of that is the personality, humor, and trivial silliness that our favorite diminutive friends display. They feel more "real" because of it. There are also moments here and there (such as in the currently-running Winter-home) when the game lightens up enough to crack a joke and show that not everything is a matter of life, death, and the fate of the One Ring. It's something that the game could use more of, to be sure.
"I can't just go running off into the blue. I'm a Baggins of Bag End!"
One of the main themes of The Hobbit is Bilbo's personal growth from a secluded Hobbit to seasoned adventurer and burglar. His journeys don't just change the world around him; they change him as well.
I was thinking of how -- if at all -- LotRO conveys a sense of personal growth and story. I mean, sure, there are numerical increases (levels, virtues, gear, new and better abilities) and the progression through the epic storyline, but those are universally shared. My character doesn't really have a game-supported backstory, nor does he have a chance to express why he's going on these adventures and what personal struggles he's attempting to overcome during them.
This is probably completely fluffy and ludicrous, but wouldn't it be cool if Turbine added an optional character growth system? Here I'm thinking that we'd be given a selection of backstories to choose from and an ongoing personal story that would run parallel to our standard adventures. I'm particularly intrigued with how Guild Wars 2 is focusing on one's personal story, and I wouldn't mind seeing this idea transplanted in some form into the game. Let me make choices that affect my character for good and forge relationships with certain NPCs that not everyone else gets to have.
"Allow me to introduce..."
Apart from Gilmli, The Lord of the Rings is quite devoid of Dwarves -- unless you count the dead ones in Moria, that is. I've always felt this was a shame, since the Dwarves are personally more entertaining and "human" to me than the Elves. They're not just pseudo-Scottish miners like the fantasy MMO stereotype; they're strong, honorable folk who are steeped in tradition and have identifiable flaws.
The Hobbit is the flip-side of the Human/Elf focus of Lord of the Rings when it comes to Dwarven-folk, and it makes me long for more of that in the game. Yes, I know we have Moria, and that's probably more than anyone could ask when it comes to Dwarf culture, but it saddens me to think that we'll be seeing less and less of these tough shorties as we head into Rohan, Gondor and Mordor.
I'm not sure how well the game does in portraying Dwarves beyond stubborn greed and brash actions, but perhaps Turbine devs will watch the Hobbit films and revisit the book to see other ways the race can act. While we're at it, the Elves need to be knocked down a peg or two from their high-horse infallibility; in The Hobbit, the Wood-elves are neither kind nor noble peoples, but you couldn't tell that by playing through LotRO's Mirkwood.
"You'll have a tale or two to tell when you come back."
A year ago I expressed my desire to see Turbine take advantage of the upcoming 2012/2013 Hobbit films, something I still advocate and think would be foolish to let pass by. Even Age of Conan did this earlier in the year with its Savage Coast adventure pack, and you just can't buy that kind of publicity. Well, I guess you can buy it, since you're paying developers and all, but still.
How Turbine could capitalize on the movies is up in the air. I could see it going the "flashback" route, for sure. But it would also be quite interesting to visit the locales of The Hobbit to see how they've progressed and changed since the momentous events of a generation past.
In the meanwhile, players who are starting to get excited over the coming of The Hobbit can certainly go on what I call a "Hobbit Tribute Tour" of Middle-earth right now. There are plenty of mentions of the book in the game, and I would recommend hitting the following highlights:
1. Meet the company of Dwarves (Dwarf prologue): Because the Dwarf (and Elf) prologue takes place in the game's past, players have a unique opportunity to meet the 13 Dwarves as they're about to head off on their quest to the Lonely Mountain. Make sure to say "hi" to Thorin Oakenshield and warn him about his upcoming demise.
2. Catch up with the remnants of the Dwarven fellowship (various places): Several of Bilbo's Dwarves are still around. Dwalin is the master of Thorin's Hall, Balin's tomb is in Zelem-melek, Dori needs some help to be freed in the North Downs, and Glóin is at the appropriately-named Glóin's Camp in the Misty Mountains.
3. Stop for eggs and bacon at Bag End (The Shire): While Bag End has seen better days and is currently deserted, it's still explorable by players who might want to stand in the room where Bilbo entertained the Dwarves and began his journey.
4. See Bilbo's trolls (Trollshaws, 31.2S, 18.1W): It's in the wilds of the Trollshaws that Bilbo and company met the three trolls -- Bill, Bert and Tom -- and where Bilbo bested them by keeping them arguing until the sun came up and turned them into stone. They remain as stone figures to this day, and small replications can be purchased at the gift shop.
5. Catch up with Bilbo in Rivendell (Hall of Fire): Bilbo is long past his adventuring days, but he's still alive and kicking in the Last Homely House. Here players can indulge him a series of riddle quests and even celebrate his birthday.
6. Collect Bilbo's buttons and visit Gollum's cave (Goblin-town): Goblin-town is the site of one of Bilbo's darkest and finest hours, as he eluded the goblins (apparently leaving behind many buttons in the process) and came upon the sanctum of Gollum -- and Gollum's "precious." While Gollum has moved on, his cave and fishbones remain. While you're there, check out the art on the walls -- it always made me laugh.
7. Revisit Gandalf's trip to investigate the Necromancer (Mirkwood epic storyline): The Necromancer was a sinister threat to the fellowship in The Hobbit as they crossed through Mirkwood, and Gandalf leaves to investigate this figure in the middle of the book. Players can see what happened with Gandalf's infiltration during one of the later chapters of the Mirkwood epic quest, and the revelation is quite startling.
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