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Hidden Wonders of the Digital World: Lord of The Rings Online

You could live in LOTRO’s The Shire. (All screencaps by Eric Grundhauser) 

Visiting Middle Earth is every fantasy fan’s (sometimes literal) dream. To J.R.R. Tolkien, the setting and cartography of his fantasy world was as important as any of the characters—and his locations, like blasted Mordor or the idyllic Shire, have become the inspiration for just about every fantasy tale ever since, not to mention a number of direct translations of the books to movies, radio, comics, and just about every other medium including video games.

So when a game company called Turbine, Inc. released The Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO), an open-world game that set out to create a living Middle Earth, it was no small task. They also had to do so without rights to the films or other media based on, or related to J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal works of fantasy—no visions of Frodo’s hobbit house from the movies, or a Gandalf that looked like Ian McKellen. Their source material had to be the text of the the novels and their own designs.

Somehow, though, those limitations have made LOTRO one of the most faithful visions of Tolkien’s world.

The game launched in 2007 as The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar, although the latter part of the name was later dropped, and now it is simply known as The Lord of the Rings Online. An MMORPG in the vein of World of Warcraft, LOTRO received strong initial reviews that rightfully praised the title for how faithful the world was to Tolkien’s work. It even garnered a few Game of the Year honors from sites like Gamespy and MMORG.com.

Success was fleeting, however. Despite a huge boost in both membership and revenue when they moved from a subscription-based model to a free-to-play system in 2010, over the last five years, Turbine’s Middle Earth has become less and less crowded. Turbine is tight lipped about their exact number of registered users (they declined to comment on the question for this piece), but in 2015 they closed down 19 of their servers.

However the doomsayers may be being a bit hasty. Because in its indomitable, hobbit-like way, the game still seems to be an active, growing world.

Random ruins are about as common as hobbits in Middle Earth.

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The main storyline that players quest their way through runs parallel to the main events in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, often running into major characters and events from the original books. Each expansion to the game, in addition to expanding the world, has extended the storyline further along that of the books, currently reaching to the Battle of Osgiliath, around the beginning of the Return of the King.

The landscape is a mix of places Tolkien invented and places that Turbine invented. Many of the most famous set pieces from the Fellowship’s journey made it into the game, like the ruins of Weathertop and Helm’s Deep, as well less prominent locales like the dwarven region of Thorin’s Gate. “Where Tolkien left some details vague or unfinished, we have often invented locations of our own,”  said a representative from Turbine’s development team, “and as such, many of the locations we visit in Rohan are original, as the Eastemnet especially was not fully described in Tolkien’s universe.” Their job, he said, was fleshing out places that Tolkien never got around to describing.

When players start the game, they can choose to create a character based on one of Tolkien’s friendly races. Either Human, Elf, Dwarf, Beorning, or of course, Hobbit. You then choose from a list of fantasy classic jobs like Guardian, Burglar, or Minstrel. While halfling characters are not my favorite type to play, if there ever was a game where it was appropriate, it is LOTRO, thus the latest incarnation of Baerf the Digital Explorer became an unusually attractive hobbit. A hunter to be exact.

That’s one attractive hobbit.

As a hobbit, you start your life (after a quick story adventure where you run into Frodo and Sam and help Aragorn defend a city) in The Shire. Unlike in the films, where it was presented as just a sort of clump of hobbit holes, The Shire of LOTRO is a sprawling, hilly series of little towns. From the capital town of Michel Delving to the more famous Hobbiton, the area is all green grass burms and round doors, set into the ground. Relaxing music and the peaceful nature sounds help complete the Shire’s bucolic vibe.

Then there’s the perfectly hobbit-y tasks and quests the people of The Shire are dealin’ with. Maybe it’s retrieving an old recipe for ale, or helping deliver the mail, or trying out a pie. Sure there are a few instances where you are asked to clear some wolves off a farm, or something else of a slightly violent nature, but in the end it is all very quaint. For lack of a better description, it’s nice. While that might not seem like a compliment in an adventure game, The Shire of LOTRO is so warm and pleasant that some players never actually leave. Above all, it feels like the kind of untouched symbol of goodness that Tolkien had in mind.

In fact, in a perfect mirroring of the expansive, naturalistic tones of the books, much of the game feels sort of serene. Other players may ride past from time to time, or one might come across the occasional roadside NPC, yet for the most part, it seems very much like you are out there on your own. Thanks to a game-worldwide chat channel, the you can easily find people to team up with (forming a “Fellowship”), and the game doesn’t feel empty, but while wandering down the long roads of Middle Earth, it’s easy to get lost in a personal quest.

The Shire. It makes me warm just thinking about it.

Who needs adventure? Just look at how nice the scenery is.

But as beautiful as life in The Shire was, Baerf needed to explore, like Frodo and Bilbo before him. So after helping a number of my neighbors with their cooking and party planning, I hit the road. My plan was to walk to the elf city of Rivendell, just as Frodo had done in The Fellowship of the Ring, and see how many famous locations from the book I could come across.

Leaving The Shire by the main road, I first came to the Buckleberry Ferry which Frodo and the gang used to escape the Black Riders on their way to Bree. Unfortunately it was closed.

The Buckleberry Ferry isn’t moving.

Not far past that, just as in the book, I came to Bree itself, which is one of the major player hubs in the game, providing a hustle and bustle that you didn’t find in The Shire. Player characters were in relative abundance in Bree, just riding through or hanging out. A small crowd of three to five adventurers could be found milling around each of the town gates most times.   

The player community in LOTRO is notably friendly and seem to enjoy roleplaying in the world, in comparison to some of the more toxic MMORPG crowds. The global chat channel is full of people congratulating each other on marriages and IRL events. So, even though Bree was a metropolis compared to The Shire, it felt more exciting and welcoming than dangerous.

Bree, the Chicago of Middle Earth

Leaving Bree, I continued east down the road, passing famous location like the Midgewater Marshes and the Barrow-Downs. I eventually came to Weathertop, the old ruins where Aragorn fought off the Black Riders and Frodo was stabbed. They rose up from their hill in the distance, and I decided to try and get up there, a dangerous proposition as I was getting into higher level areas the further east I went. However I was able to climb to the top and get a great view of the surrounding Lone-Lands, with its dry plains and ancient ruins.

As I stared out at the landscape, Baerf was killed for the first time, by a giant bug. Middle Earth is a dangerous place for a hobbit.

Weathertop in the distance.

Continuing on, I passed into an area called the Trollshaws. In contrast to the open plains of the Lone-lands or the hills of The Shire, the Trollshaws is a densely forested area teeming with aggressive creatures. But Rivendell was just on the other side of the map. As I entered the area, the game warned me that it was far too difficult for my level, and more worryingly, that due to the game’s somewhat confusing payment system, I would need to purchase full access to the area with in-game currency. In other words, I could explore it, but at my own risk.

Baerf pressed on, getting attacked by every boar, bear, and elk in the forest. The surroundings were lovely, but I was now being hunted, and the game’s serenity turned to a frantic chase. Every so often a high-level player would ride past, and while I thought to ask for help, they were usually long gone before I could get a word out.

Eventually Baerf was gored by an elk, waking up back in Bree, about 20-30 minutes from where he died. Undaunted, I set out once again for Rivendell, this time making it as far as the Ford of Bruinen, a simple river crossing where the enchanted waters washed away the Black Riders that were chasing a wounded Frodo. Here too, the Ford was able to save Baerf from the bears that were chasing him. Standing in the safety of the river, excited to have made it as far as I had, it dawned on me just how similar my journey had been to that of Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring, without even trying to make it so. It was as close to the experience of adventuring through Middle Earth as any interpretation I’ve seen. Unfortunately, it was also about as far as I would go.

That elk was the one that killed Baerf as I took this screencap.

Taking refuge on the Ford of Bruenin

On the far side of the Ford were more bears, and I quickly lost the trail to Rivendell, finally being brought down by one of the rabid animals. For a small hobbit, the road to Rivendell seemed to be as dangerous as it was in the books, and I couldn’t reach the city.

Looking to see some of the other architecture of the world, I traveled to the dwarf area, Thorin’s Gate. The design was appropriately brutal and geometric, with statues and monumental sculptures of proud dwarf heroes. By contrast, I then visited the small elf town of Celondim, which was full of the kind of delicate, ethereal design that screams “ELVES BUILT THIS.”

Thorin’s Gate is definitely for the dwarves.

Celondim is definitely for the elves.

Without leveling up further, I couldn’t visit many of the places left in the game world, like the Witch King’s kingdom of Angmar, the contested city of Osgiliath, or even Rivendell.

Even though it might not be as big as it once was, LOTRO’s Middle Earth refuses to die, and according to the developers, they are nowhere near finished, “We’re fond of telling ourselves and our players about the places we could go after Morder—Northern Mirkwood, Rhûn, Aman, Umbar, Angband. Minas Morgul, Númenor… maybe as a memory?” the developers say, ”But the truth is, we dream just as much about the stories we can tell in those places. As with [the books], narrative and cartography are inextricably linked.”