Sauron For the Win

Care to be corrupted by darkness?When a writer puts a story down on paper, one version of all possible outcomes becomes the final version. The ending is part of a carefully constructed framework of theme and comment and all that good literary stuff, and it’s never going to change. For example, the evil lord Sauron is never going to win in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, since that’s integral to what the story means.

But what happens when the same story gets retold in a different format? Does Sauron get a break? Does it still mean the same thing if that happens?

From what I’ve seen, the story almost always seems to be the same. To stick with Tolkien: the recent Peter Jackson movie versions may have tinkered with the plot (and lopped off The Scouring of the Shire, much to the disgust of the hardcore fans), but the bad guys still lose and the heroic good guys still win. There’s danger along the way, but the heroes work together and prevail in the end with a flourish.

What about when the story moves into videogames? The possibility of an alternate result is a common feature of playing videogames, and there have been plenty of Tolkien-inspired videogames, including The Battle for Middle- Earth II. There was even a recent launch of a persistent online world that doesn’t seem to be horrible. All those gamers running around, chaotically forming their own storylines… It’s a long way from one unitary source text.

Now, online games are an unusual case in that each development is permanent — there’s no save-and-reload in an online world, and it’s considered cheating if you do it. But I’ve been doing save-and-reload for twenty years in solo play, so while there’s a possibility of an unwelcome outcome, I’m much more used to getting my own way.

So that’s why it came as quite a shock to me when I played the board game version of Lord of the Rings — and lost badly!

(I’ve been getting into the world of Euro board games lately, which has been a very strange experience — going from one niche interest to an even niche-ier one! The board game Lord of the Rings is a bestselling title from the most prolific designer in the field, Reiner Knizia.)

The game is designed to be played cooperatively — the players are all hobbits, working together to destroy the ring. Sauron is the antagonist, as played by game system, so to speak. The group of hobbits starts at one end of the light-darkness spectrum, Sauron at the other — you can get healing but there are plenty of things to make you “corrupted by darkness” and very few things that move you towards the light. You also play 4 scenarios that pit your band of heroes against events from the book.

Care to be corrupted by darkness?I found the game to be very tense! Sauron is almost always moving closer — and his game piece is scary looking! (see picture right).

In another wrinkle: every scenario board features an event track. Get too far along the event track and the forces of darkness have won this particular scenario. For example, on the Helm’s Deep scenario, the last event is: “Orcs Conquer Helm’s Deep.” The fellowship can continue, but very badly battered. The last scenario board changes that, since if you get to the last event, Sauron wins.

A couple of responses to this. First of all, I really don’t think Lord of the Rings would be Lord of the Rings as such if Sauron won. The original idea of Tolkien’s works better as a heroic fantasy, since that was its origin and informed everything about the trilogy from the language to the characterization. But the board game version presents a challenge to the player — can you live up to the greatest heroes in Middle Earth? Based on my encounters so far, I certainly wouldn’t! It’s still an interesting angle.

And the science fiction aspect of my brain gets going a little bit. If the author really gets to decide how a story ends now, will that still happen in the future? Maybe the future will have a cross between those movie screening response sheets (always a nightmare) with a kind of American Idol voting setup. Or a step further: all fiction will be written by AIs descended from current chess-playing computers, evolving each step in the story in a massively parallel process of testing, rejecting, and solidifying elements to maximize drama and impact. Maybe not, but it’s fun to dream!

I guess it comes down to a matter of expectations. Books are generally written by a solitary author with a solitary vision, and that’s how we’ve come to understand and evaluate them. But what about other things like the games I’ve mentioned? I don’t think we quite understand all the possibilities just yet. And what’s the next big development in how to tell a story? I’m very curious to find out.

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