"He said your life was a sad story," Frodo says to Gollum in Peter Jackson's film adaptation of The Two Towers, desperately trying to pry some information from his uncooperative companion. It's certainly been a sad story for Lord of the Rings fans of late, who have had to endure a rather poor string of video game adaptations of their favorite universe.
The latest attempt to make good on Tolkien's famous universe is Lord of the Rings: Gollum, a new game by German developer Daedalic Entertainment, which is mostly known for a string of merely decent point-and-click adventures. Gollum is Daedalic's highest-profile release to date; an opportunity to make good on the still-prestigious Lord of the Rings license, which is only a couple years removed from being attached to a major triple-A franchise. It's already being cast as a next-gen showcase of sorts, with new screenshots released today being billed as a "glimpse into the future" of the Xbox Series X and PS5.
On paper, Lord of the Rings: Gollum makes a certain amount of sense. Gollum, or Smeagol as he is known, was the breakout star in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. He represented a large leap in computer graphics for the time, and he made a star out of Andy Serkis. Phrases like "My Precious" and "We wants it," all bracketed by Serkis' raspy cough, have remained embedded in the collective pop culture consciousness even as Lord of the Rings itself has fallen by the wayside.
Smeagol is perhaps the best-known element of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings adaptation this side of Gandalf, and it's easy enough to repurpose his journey into a stealth game. Throw in some Lord of the Rings lore, like an appearance by Legolas' father, and you've pretty much got yourself a game.
But here's the thing: Does anyone really want to play as Gollum? Does anyone really want to scurry around as Tolkien's nasty little gremlin, with his lank hair and unnaturally slippery smooth skin, periodically biting into raw fish?
Gollum is gross, to put it mildly. He's a creepy villain in The Hobbit, and a cautionary tale in The Lord of the Rings—a sad reflection of what can happen if the Ring "poisons your mind" over the course of hundreds of years. When you look at Gollum, you're supposed to be equal parts repulsed and fascinated; he's not a character you're supposed to want to inhabit for a long period of time.
His territories encompass some of the most unpleasant areas of Middle-earth. Gollum spends most of his time around Mordor, which is grey, rocky, and choked with volcanic smoke. In one of the screenshots released by Daedalic Entertainment, we see Gollum fleeing a half-dozen giant spiders, bringing to mind the harrowing Shelob chase from Return of the King. These areas are certainly memorable, but they aren't really places I want to spend large amounts of time visiting in a video game. It doesn't help that Daedalic's game has a highly stylized look to it, making it seem like Lord of the Rings by way of World of Warcraft—not exactly the Xbox Series X or PS5 showcase people have been pining for.
Then there's the fact that we've been here before. Monolith Productions' Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was also primarily set in and around Mordor, with Gollum being a key figure in the story. It also dug around at the edges of The Lord of the Rings lore, only instead of Legolas' dear old dad, it featured Celebrimbor—the elven smith who forged the Rings of Power. Lord of the Rings: Gollum isn't even out yet and it feels like it's retreading old ground.
The truth is that the world doesn't need another Mordor game, and it definitely doesn't need a game starring Gollum, its most disgusting denizen. There are far more interesting areas of Middle-earth to explore, starting with the Battle of Fornost, in which the Witch-king of Angmar battles Eärnur, the Crown Prince of Gondor. The rights to Lord of the Rings are rather complicated, restricting some of what is possible, but the imaginations of the Middle-earth games have been painfully limited of late. Surely there's a Lord of the Rings game out there that feels true to Tolkien's vision of Middle-earth? Maybe someone should make Animal Crossing, only it's set in Hobbiton, and your main character spends most of their time smoking pipe-weed. Tolkien would no doubt approve.
At the end of Lord of the Rings, Gollum is finally able to retrieve his Precious, only to tumble along with it into the fires of Mount Doom. His story is written; there's no more insight to be gleaned from the tale of the hobbit formerly known as Smeagol. The best case scenario is that Lord of the Rings: Gollum finds some new angle on the well-worn Lord of the Rings lore, though game developers have a rather mixed record on that front.
It all points to a game that will garner a decent amount of attention because it's on PS5 and Xbox Series X, but will otherwise disappear into the Crack of Doom that we know as the "next-gen launch window." It's a pity: with the disastrous Hobbit films receding into memory, the time is ripe for a new take on The Lord of the Rings universe. Let's just hope the next one stars a hero more interesting than poor Smeagol.