Date: March 26, 2023
I thought I knew what to expect while I was headed to Daedalic Entertainment’s booth at PAX in order to preview The Lord of the Rings: Gollum. I expected to see a by-the-numbers third-person stealth action game where you play as Gollum, trying desperately to get the ring back with a health dose of “isn’t it fun to play as a villain?” thrown in. And that would be fine, but what I was dreading was yet another story featuring Gollum where he would be relegated to the role of simple villain with a simple motivation, all in service of characters and concepts bigger and broader than himself — a problem seen in the original series of books as well as in every game and movie released since. About the former thought, I was partly right. But about the latter, I was dead wrong.
That is because The Lord of the Rings: Gollum puts not only its story first — already a surprising feat for video game adaptations of Lord of the Rings — but puts Gollum (the character) first. Rather than simply accept that he is a bit of a one-note villain whose gimmick is his internal conflict between his two halves, the creators of the game clearly endeavored to explore this split in a deeper way, and to use this opportunity to fill in the blanks on Gollum’s story to do far more than that.
Let’s get the simple part out of the way before I explain what I mean by that, though. Gollum’s core gameplay is that of a stealth action platformer, where Gollum will use his agility and guile to maneuver past any person, creature, or monster who stand in his way in order to find his way to Bilbo Baggins, the sneaky little hobbit who stole his precious ring all those years ago. Essentially, it exists to inform us what Gollum did between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, where previously it was only known that he was kidnapped and tortured by Sauron’s minions to discover the whereabouts of the One Ring.
And if that’s all it was, it would already be off to a solid start. Gollum is possibly my favorite character in the franchise, and seeing more from him is always a pleasure, and its premise implies an exciting journey through Middle Earth to see how Gollum got from the Misty Mountains to Mordor. But this game is more than that, as it also seeks to truly explore the psychological journey of the character, which has always been the most fascinating part.
While Gollum’s split-personality between the dark, cruel, obsessed Gollum and the caring, regretful, worried Smeagol has always been at the crux of his character, few stories featuring him do any more than use that as a foil against the other characters (usually to demonstrate the tumultuous consequences of falling pray to obsession are). But The Lord of the Rings: Gollum uses that concept as the centerpiece for its most interesting mechanical decision: to have you play through the conflict in Gollum’s head in order to decide on your path through the game. And it doesn’t do this merely by presenting you with a cutscene or a simple dialog choice: instead, it makes you play through the tumult, creating an authentic exploration of Gollum as a character by having you face the struggle with him.
Let me explain.
While you are playing through the game, you might find yourself coming to a choice of some sort. Whether it be a simple choice (like the decision of how to get past a worrying bug) or a morally complex one (like whether to kill someone who saw you or risk leaving them alive), you’ll enter a separate screen where you must debate with yourself. You’ll be free to choose whichever option you wish — Smeagol or Gollum — but it is not so simple. Next, you’ll have to convince the other to go along with you.
To do this, you will be presented with a few arguments that you can make in order to convince the other of your point. For instance, you might need to convince Smeagol, as Gollum, that the risks of leaving someone alive make it worth the cost of killing them. In that case, you might be presented with two or three options for what that risk is: maybe that the survivor might alert “The Dark Lord”, or “the Spiders”. Whichever you pick, you’ll see an argument play out between the two of them, and if you chose the stronger choice, you’ll persuade the other to agree with you. Do this two out of the three times, and the game will continue with your decision. Fail, however, and it will represent you having lost that argument, forcing you to go along with a plan you didn’t want to do in the first place.
Combined with sharp writing, challenging stealth gameplay, and the amazing world and lore of Lord of the Rings, and you end up with an experience that is quite riveting. It not only allows you to take control of the body of Gollum as he traverses the lands of Middle Earth, but also forces you to perceive those lands (and the people and things in them) through Gollum’s perspective, and deal with the torment caused by his ruptured personality.
Gollum is a tragic character, not a villainous one, and it is refreshing to see a story finally take that idea and run with it. This story might seek to fill in the blanks of Gollum’s story, but it certainly seeks to do that in a new, creative way that helps you understand him better, and in a way that represents his unique struggle. After all, filling in the blanks doesn’t mean following the rails.
Overall, I walked away from Gollum impressed, excited, and — most importantly — vindicated. Finally, a story-centric Lord of the Rings game that seeks to explore one of the most derided characters in the franchise, and one that plays well and is unique as well. Even though I know the start and the end of the character’s journey, I couldn’t be more excited to see where this game goes, and what it has to say about Gollum and all the things he meets and places he goes. After all, Lord of the Rings has never been about the destinate, it’s been about the unexpected journeys one takes to get there.