I don’t know how to feel about The Lord of the Rings in 2023. After years of a dearth of opportunities to see my favourite books realised on any sized screen (we don’t talk about The Hobbit), we’re being bombarded with adaptations, from TV series to anime, to game after game after game.
The latest in this long line of Tolkien adaptations is Tales of the Shire, a “cosy” game from Wētā Workshop & Private Division. There’s very little information out there at the moment, but people are already making Stardew Valley comparisons. In an era where the quality of Tolkien adaptations varies wildly from one month to the next, this could be the perfect game. To explain why, I need to take you back about 20 years.
I’m of the age where the Peter Jackson films were a formative experience for me, and watching the reverence with which director, producers, and actors held the books in the mammoth behind the scenes appendices turned me onto Tolkien proper.
From The Hobbit, I graduated to The Lord of the Rings and then The Silmarillion, the standard reading order as you immerse yourself in Tolkien’s deep, fantastical lore. After a couple of rereads through my teenage years, I moved onto the Histories and Christopher Tolkien’s expansions. These are deep, detailed treatises on JRR’s notes and scribbles, on potentials and hypotheticals, in many cases reading more like academic journals than novels.
I’ve got tomes of Tolkien’s collected letters, each one a tidbit of his thought process, I’ve got stories embedded in my head, from the Oedipal tale of Turin Turambar to the angelic ascension of Eärendil. Since reading the books, I have reevaluated the ‘00s film trilogy and accept it, as many do, as a flawed but impressive adaptation. Some compromises must be made when translating anything from page to screen, and it’s up to you to decide where you draw the line.
That’s why I’m torn on the current era of excessive Tolkien adaptations. After decades bereft of Tolkien in popular culture, the rights have been quickly sold off and the likes of Amazon and Embracer are keen to cash in. I’m happy to ignore bad adaptations (they don’t impact my reading of the books), but I’m wary of too many gaps in the Legendarium being filled by minds other than Tolkien’s.
I’d love a limited series based on the Children of Hurin, for instance. It’s a Tolkien story prime for a Thrones-esque adaptation, a portion of the great author’s work that will be unknown to Joe Public but resonate with his readers. I can’t even begin to envisage how someone would adapt the Ainulindalë, but I almost want to see someone try. A creation myth wrapped up in an ethereal song, I’d be interested to see what a creative director could do with the opening of The Silmarillion.
Return to Moria looks like a lore-centric adaptation of what happens after the events of The Lord of the Rings, building off a few sentences in an appendix. Gollum, on the other hand, offered nothing in terms of story or gameplay, and I struggle to think of a good reason for its existence. The Rings of Power toes the line, but I think we’ll need to see all five seasons before evaluating it truly.
It’s for all these reasons that I’m excited about Tales of the Shire. There will likely be a story, but it ultimately won’t be that important. This looks like a game that will be about tending to your vegetables and going to the Green Dragon for a swift half after a long day of sitting around smoking pipeweed. Stories will be about interpersonal relationships with other Hobbits, not timeline-altering Elven misdeeds and without a lore-bending Balrog in sight.
I wonder if we’ll get some semblance of the Scouring as an evil force in the game, or some very Stardew-esque element of whether we side with the industry of Saruman versus the rural lifestyle of the Hobbits. Either way, this looks like a game that can’t contradict Tolkien, and that’s worth something at the very least.
The Wētā connection likely means Tales of the Shire has those New Line licences, so expect a close copy of Jackson’s Shire. I believe the films’ Shire sequences are some of the closest the Kiwi gets to perfectly replicating Tolkien, so that’s fine by me.
We know little else, though, so it’s too early to say whether iconic characters like Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin will be present. I’d love a Fourth Age setting where Pippin is Thain of the Shire, Sam Mayor of Michel Delving, and his little Elanor wants to ride to Gondor to become maid of honour to Queen Arwen Evenstar. In fact, Elanor would be the perfect protagonist, providing that link to the recognisable book characters, while offering a new sense of adventure. Second-place would be playing as Bullroarer Took complete with Orc-head golf minigame, but his stature and hotheaded nature would lend themselves a little too much to combat for a game of this nature.
Tales of the Shire could be the perfect Lord of the Rings game. The concept has low stakes in terms of the canon and contradicting Tolkien’s stories and, for want of a better phrase, the vibes will be immaculate. Hobbits are the creatures that draw us into Middle-earth, and their simple lives are the perfect fodder for a cosy management game like this. Settle into that comfy armchair in the living room corner and dust off that smoking jacket: Middle-earth is about to get cosy, and I can’t wait.
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