Daedalic Entertainment has announced that it’s working on a new adventure game centered around one of the most iconic characters in all of fantasy. The Lord of the Rings: Gollum — unfortunately the only art or asset available is the logo shown above — will focus on the titular character’s life before at least some of the events discussed in JRR Tolkien’s novels.
In a recent interview, Daedalic Entertainment CEO Carsten Fichtelmann discussed the developer’s plans for the character. “We’re concentrating on the character of Gollum, and we’re telling his story before we learn about what happens to him in the books,” Fichtelmann said. “So it’s definitely new content that we’ll see.”
This won’t be the story of the version of Gollum popularized by Andy Serkis, because Daedalic Entertainment has the rights to Tolkien’s books, not the Peter Jackson movies. Fichtelmann says Daedalic’s story will “tell Gollum’s story from a perspective never seen before, in any storytelling medium, all the while staying true to the legendary books of J.R.R. Tolkien.”
That’s not going to be easy. Tolkien’s legendarium is, well, legendarily difficult to adapt for video games. But of all the characters we could possibly follow during a different period of their lives, Gollum is probably going to be the hardest to capture in a manner that’s both true to what Tolkien wrote and actually fun to play.
The Most Interesting (and Possibly Worst) PC in the World Middle Earth
Consider what we know of Gollum’s life. While pre-Ring Sméagol is described as inquisitive and curious-minded, he had already turned dark before he found the Ring, becoming obsessed with “roots and beginnings” and ceasing to look at the natural world around him. “His head and eyes were downward,” Tolkien writes. As Gandalf explains to Frodo, Gollum’s possession of the Ring began with the murder of his friend, Déagol. Sméagol, as Gollum was then-known, used the Ring for petty grievances and hurtful purposes. In return, his relatives grew to scorn and despise him.
He became sharp-eyed and keen-eared for all that was hurtful. The ring had given him power according to his stature. It is not to be wondered at that he became very unpopular and was shunned (when visible) by all his relations. They kicked him, and he bit their feet. He took to thieving, and going about muttering to himself, and gurgling in his throat. So they called him Gollum, and cursed him, and told him to go far away; and his grandmother, desiring peace, expelled him from the family and turned him out of her hole. He wandered in loneliness, weeping a little for the hardness of the world.
Gollum follows the river Anduin into the Misty Mountains, then finds his way beneath them. There, Gandalf says, he “wormed his way like a maggot into the heart of the hills, and vanished out of all knowledge.”
The Hobbit Formerly Known as Sméagol is neither hero nor anti-hero. He is obsessed solely with his own desires and needs, seeking literally nothing but to retrieve his Precious or, failing this, to be as close to it as possible. Frodo travels to Mordor because he believes he must. Sam goes for love of his Master. Gollum? Gollum wants a fix. Of all those who possessed the Ring, he appears to understand its nature the least, despite possessing it for the longest period of time of any character save Sauron.
Gaming is full of fell-eyed heroes and murderous anti-heroes, but I’m hard-pressed to remember a well-loved character that steals and devours children in their cradles. Gollum does. He isn’t simply described as evil, but as broken, despicable, pitiful (to those like Frodo, who had some understanding of his torment) and wretched. He bites, kicks, grovels, spits, and whines, not just at the end of his life, but throughout his entire ownership of the Ring.
Gollum didn’t go on adventures, unless you count being tied up and dragged around by others. He may have plumbed the Misty Mountains with the vague goal of finding secrets, but they eluded him. Here’s Tolkien:
All the “great secrets” under the mountains had turned out to be just empty night: there was nothing more to find out, nothing worth doing, only nasty furtive eating and resentful remembering. He was altogether wretched. He hated the dark, and he hated light more: he hated everything, and the Ring most of all.
Tolkien’s depiction of Gollum is unremittingly grim. Many of his characters are motivated by (or contend with) a desire for the Ring, but Gollum is the only character willing to murder to get it before he’s even touched it. I am not a formal Tolkien scholar, but this distinction seems significant. While the Ring may possess some power to mesmerize on sight, it primarily influences the individual who physically possesses it. No other character, including Boromir, is instantly driven to kill upon a glimpse of the band. Sméagol is either affected by a larger degree than other characters or was intrinsically willing to murder for a trinket without any “assistance” from the Dark Lord.
Gollum is a fabulously interesting character and I love his inner monologue with his own fractured personality as much as Fichtelmann does. I’m also open to the idea that the right game, built the right way, could somehow square this particular circle. But honestly, it doesn’t seem as though it’ll be possible if the goal is to remain true to the books.
Gollum isn’t noble, heroic, or even anti-heroic. He is depicted as entirely self-interested and self-absorbed, and while he may occasionally show a glimmer of human emotion, Sméagol — the personality that embodies these traits — is depicted as the weaker, subordinate mind that loses arguments to Gollum outright. There is no archetypal Hero’s Journey for him to embark upon. He is a character virtually devoid of redeeming values who saves Middle Earth by tripping. The degree to which he possesses a will of his own is itself debatable.
Gandalf notes Bilbo’s self-description of himself as “thin and stretched” in The Fellowship of the Ring and declares that this is “A sign that the Ring was getting control.” He also tells Frodo that there was only “a little corner of his [Gollum’s] mind that was still his own” and that there is little hope for him. Ultimately, even that small hope is false. Gollum may save Middle Earth, but he does not find redemption. The power of the Ring is stronger than he can withstand. If we are sympathetic to Gollum, I would argue, it is because Tolkien shows us that Frodo will inevitably share his fate. Choosing pity over cruelty bought Frodo and Bilbo time and minimized the harm they took from holding the One Ring over the short-to-medium term. It was never enough, in and of itself, to change the long-term outcome of attempting to possess “a trifle that Sauron fancies.”
A game built on Tolkien’s Gollum would seem to revolve entirely around acts of petty cruelty, the joys of catching fish in pitch-black caves, and an existence defined by murder, hatred, and (possibly, depending on time period) a burning need for something he’ll never possess again. Setting the story in the distant past would simply invite the player to experience the beginning of the wretched tale rather than the end, with no hope of positive story progression or a meaningful character arc. Tolkien gives no sign that the miserable creature’s existence ever included the kind of adventure that players typically want to experience. This makes it difficult to imagine an enjoyable game that would remain true to Tolkien’s own work, unless maggot-worming, foot-biting, weeping, and a nonstandard arrangement of phonemes that would make Yoda blush have all become far more popular game mechanics than I’m aware of.