Daedalic Wants to Make Gollum "Sympathetic" in The Lord of the Rings — Gollum
Daedalic Entertainment has been working on The Lord of the Rings — Gollum for a while now, and I recently had a chance to see the game in action and speak with Daedalic’s Publishing Director, Jonas Hüsges, about it. A good bit of Gollum is as unknowable as the creature himself, though Hüsges and the demo reel did offer some insight about telling Gollum's story and building a world around him.
The footage Daedalic presented is from a mid-2020 build. Hüsges assured us the visuals have changed significantly since then, but that’s not the only difference. The 2020 build was from when the game was still a “stealth and reaction” game, and while Hüsges couldn’t share much about how Gollum has evolved, he did say it’s much different from how Daedalic originally conceived the game.
Whatever the differences are, Gollum’s core gameplay still revolves around sneaking. The demo shown followed Gollum’s desperate attempts to escape captivity. While fans of The Lord of the Rings books and movies know how Gollum’s story ends, Hüsges understands this.
“It’s like watching Titanic,” he said. “You know how it ends already, and we won’t be altering the world."
J.R.R. Tolkein buried much of Gollum’s story in the appendices of Return of the King, which gives Daedalic plenty of leeway to, if not alter his tale, embellish it with some unexpected elements.
Take Gollum himself, for example.
“He’s a fascinating character, and we want to do him justice,” Hüsges said. “In the movies, he’s very much a creature. We want to present a more sympathetic side to him.”
Another unexpected element is seeing Gollum make a friend in Grashneg, another prisoner. I don’t know why he’s there or what happens, but it ultimately seems to make Gollum’s story that much more tragic. “You don’t have any friends. Nobody likes you” as Gollum tells Smeagle in The Two Towers film.
For a time, though, Gollum will partner with other characters and make use of their special abilities. Strength isn’t the wiry Gollum’s forte, but Grashneg, for example, can smash obstacles. Gollum will encounter other characters with unique abilities as well, though Daedalic kept quiet on who they might be and where he’ll find them.
These embellishments and expansions come with full approval from Middle-Earth Enterprises, the license holder for anything related to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
“We are working closely with [Middle-Earth Enterprises],” Hüsges said. “Everything we do, we show and discuss with them. We have two or three bigger calls every year and also try to meet up when that’s possible.”
Friends and temporary acquaintances aside, it seems a good bit of Gollum’s journey will be solo. Traversing Daedalic’s massive rendition of Middle Earth puts Gollum’s superhuman mobility to the test. Each stage has multiple routes Gollum can take, and which one seems the most expeditious at the time might depend on how you play the game.
For example, some routes feature small tunnels Gollum can escape through that force large pursuers to find another route and give him a chance to flee. The short exploration segment I saw had three different paths, and that was just one part of the larger level. Gollum can climb almost any surface, turning it into a kind of Middle-Earth parkour experience.
Other actions include jumping and swimming, though Gollum uses stamina for these. Anything Gollum does makes noise, so just because you can smack a fish against a rock doesn’t mean you should.
The demo I saw didn’t feature it, but Daedalic said the current Gollum build features a listening mode where Gollum can "see" sounds to get a clearer idea of where danger might lurk and how much of a ruckus he’s caused.
Gollum’s open level design and parkour climbing make for plenty of replayability, though what accessibility measures Daedalic includes remain to be seen.
I asked Hüsges about options that might help indicate possible paths or mark obtainable items for visually impaired players.
He said “I don’t know what kind of accessibility features are already in the game, but I’m sure we’ll take this very seriously. Visual impairment is important to address.”
It's certainly important in a game like Gollum. Guesswork is involved in determining whether landmarks are actually ways out or just deathtraps. The demo footage showed no quest markers or other visuals to help guide players either.
While Gollum has changed in the 10 months since the footage I saw, stealth will still play an important role in every level. Gollum can take a few hits and restore health through food — including fish, naturally — but ideally, he’ll stay hidden or in the shadows as much as possible.
Foes who spot him raise an alarm and make hunting Gollum their priority. It’s not just the one enemy who spots him, either. Orcs and other foes spread the word about Gollum’s activities and increase the threat across the entire area.
You might think sneaking behind a nasty orc and throttling them would be the best course of action, but that's not the case. While Daedalic is remaining quiet on how Gollum’s choices affect each playthrough, they did mention a few ways your choices matter.
Killing an enemy might remove an opportunity to exploit them or even get help from them later. Some characters, even friendly ones, might retaliate depending on how Gollum treats them, but playing nice could also convince others to lend a helping hand.
Fortunately, Daedalic is including several difficulty modes. Players who want a hardcore stealth challenge will find it, and those who just want to experience the story can do exactly that.
It's a shame Daedalic can't share more information about how The Lord of the Rings — Gollum has changed in the past 10 months, but not because the old build is bad. Beyond the dated visuals lies the promise of something intriguing, of seeing and experiencing Tolkien's epic landscape from the viewpoint of Middle-Earth's most tragic and detestable creatures, and I can't wait to see more of it.