The Lord of the Rings: Gollum will mix Prince of Persia-like stealth action, feature a branching narrative, and expand on the hints given by J.R.R. Tolkien about the Stoor-formerly-known-as-Sméagol to create a brand new Lord of the Rings story that aims to fit alongside the books.
Daedelic still isn’t showing off gameplay footage of its 2021 next-gen stealth project, but the game’s developers spoke exclusively to IGN about Gollum’s mixture of stealth-action and interactive narrative gameplay, how they’re expanding on Tolkien’s original fiction, how they tried to create a version of the character you actually want to spend time with, and more.
We can also reveal a first CG teaser trailer, giving you a better look at this take on Gollum, and the Mordor he finds himself stranded in.
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum’s Stealth Gameplay
Gollum will be a game broadly spent in two distinct states – either stealthily making your way past the various hulking threats living in Mordor, and making narrative chocies as the warring personalities of Sméagol and Gollum fight for control.
The former should be familiar to many: “The game mixes stealth with vertical climbing parkour,” explains lead game designer Martin Wilkes. “If you want a reference you might think of it as similar to Prince of Persia. It is mostly a non-combat game, but Gollum will be able to stealthily take out enemies. However, this will not be easy and always come with big risks. We want players to carefully weigh these encounters. After all, Gollum’s strengths lie in cunning not combat.”
That focus on cunning over combat means you won’t be directly taking on enemies – instead you’ll be relying on scavenged items, environmental hazards, and even newfound friends for help. Wilkes continues: “Gollum doesn’t use weapons, but he can distract enemies with throwables. In parts of the game, he will also profit from the abilities of special allies and can use the environment to his advantage.”
That mention of “special allies” is interesting – will we meet familiar characters along the way?
“You will!” says lead narrative designer Tilman Schanen. “We cannot wait to talk about this but it’s still a bit early for that. Keeping in mind the scope and timeline of our narrative, we have to closely consider who Gollum would even be able to meet, where, and when. This means that for the most part, they will play smaller – but in some cases very significant – roles in the story.”
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum’s Narrative Gameplay
Between those stealth sections, Gollum will be forced to make decisions and dialogue choices, choosing from responses proposed by both his gentler Sméagol personality, and the Gollum psyche that emerged after he was corrupted by the One Ring. So, do those decisions mean there’s a branching narrative to play through?
“There is,” explains Schanen. “Also, the decisions you make affect the way the game feels. You always either play as Sméagol or as Gollum as the ‘dominant’ persona and that can influence animations, soundscapes, certain gameplay situations, and in-game dialogue.”
Daedelic’s quick to make clear that it won’t be changing the source material – this is a prequel to the Lord of the Rings books, meaning Gollum has to reach a set place by the end of the game, but the journey there can change:
“We naturally stay within certain limits,” Schanen continues. “It won’t be like you’re going to end up destroying Middle-earth because you never made a Sméagol choice. In the end, of course, Gollum’s fate is pretty much determined by the books. But your decisions can and will have effects, for example, for other NPCs in the game. Some decisions will have a bigger impact, others very little. Just as in real life.”
Wilkes adds that it’s “sort of” a morality system as seen in other narrative-focused titles (although we won’t see any physical changes in the character, a la Fable), “but a bit more twisted than in most other games. It’s not as simple as, ‘Choose Sméagol to be good, choose Gollum to be evil’. Our first rule is to stay true to the character (or our interpretation of him at least). Since you play two personalities in one character, choosing sides will give you some control. But it’s more like maneuvering a truck with two flat tires and trying not to drive it off a cliff.”
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum’s Level Design and Structure
Middle-earth is a huge place, and we’ve seen other games adapt it as an open world, but Gollum will take a slightly more curated approach.
“The game is, for the most part, structured in sets of levels and hubs,” Wilkes explains. “When Gollum arrives at a new location the places where he can go from that hub are limited until he either works his way in (for example, the prisons of the Dark Tower), finds secret passages or information, or manages to scheme his way into otherwise restricted areas.
“Some levels are completely open in all three dimensions and can be explored freely, while others are more linear but often with alternative routes where players can, for example, decide if they rather sneak around some guards or take a risky parkour route in vertiginous heights to pass the next segment.”
The idea seems to be to balance player choice with allowing for satisfying puzzle solving and perhaps even platforming, with Wilkes saying that, “Verticality plays a big role in our levels, and the outstanding climbing skills of our main character not only provide us with epic views but also really open up this dimension for the players from a gameplay perspective.”
As for the look of the world itself, Daedelic’s environments are in part inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s own drawings, but without straying too far from expectations of what Middle-earth should look like because of the film series:
“Peter Jackson’s movies are fantastic but our game is based on the original book license,” says Wilkes. “The source material for both is, of course, largely the same. Our world follows the same descriptions and is also in parts inspired by the same artworks as were the movies. Their influence on popular culture has been tremendous, so we have to be mindful of players who might only know Middle-earth from the two film trilogies.”
Art director Mathias Fischer adds, “Our approach is therefore to create a unique and distinctive style but at the same time not deviate entirely from the iconic shapes that are familiar from the movies. Sauron’s Dark Tower will still look like a tower and not like a broad fortress, even if the books would allow such interpretation.”
So what are we doing all of this stealthing and inner warring for? We knew previously that the game would be set in the relatively unexplored time period before we meet Gollum in the Lord of the Rings books, and now we know how this new story begins, with Schanen explaining:
“We start our story parallel to the first book when Frodo is still in the Shire and knows nothing about anything. Gollum at that time ventures to Mordor still desperately looking for Bilbo Baggins and the Ring. Unfortunately, he gets caught by Sauron’s servants and this is basically where our story begins.
“Gollum’s overall goal in the game?” adds Wilkes. “Well, that’s a bit more complicated. Obviously, Gollum wants to escape his captors and retake the Ring (and hopefully get his hands on some nice fish along the way). After some time, though, the Sméagol-side causes trouble and distractions and opens up new, conflicting goals that we cannot talk about yet.”
The Daedelic team says they’ve worked closely with Middle-earth Enterprises in order to stay respectful to Tolkien’s work (a process that has apparently been “an absolute pleasure”), but they’re having to create their own story as they go simply due to a lack of direct source material:
“We follow Tolkien’s story quite strictly and only take some freedom for purposes of gamification or sometimes simplification,” says Schanen. “Tolkien doesn’t describe Gollum’s story before he appears in the book in great detail. So mainly, we draw from small notes in the appendices and second-hand reports from characters like Gandalf. Since we need to fill in many gaps, it gives us quite a bit of creative freedom to pursue our narrative vision.
“At the same time, we would have never gotten the chance to work on this project if that vision would not be in tune with the source material. Think of it like taking a few verses from the bible and extending them to a novel without changing the overall narrative.”
And what of Gollum himself? As many pointed out after the first screenshots emerged, the character looks like a slightly more wide-eyed take on the version Andy Serkis made famous. As it turns out, that’s more or less the point. Fischer explains the goal with the design of their anti-hero:
“With Gollum himself, our goal is to make him more relatable, as players have to be able to slip into his skin for the course of an entire game. That’s why our Gollum looks less creepy (and has more hair) than the movie version.”
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The Lord of the Rings: Gollum will come to PS5, Xbox Series X, and PC in 2021