The Video Game Where You Play As A Tortured Wretch Isn’t Very Fun
3:38 PM EDT on June 6, 2023
Among the first objects you see in The Lord of the Rings: Gollum are a pair of desiccated fish skeletons, framing the muck of the eponymous character's cave. The image calls to mind one of the most memorable Gollum scenes in Peter Jackson's The Two Towers, when he is in the Forbidden Pool and singing a little song about how much he loves to fish. It's a tiny moment of levity within a story arc that will soon turn tragic. Remembering a beloved movie after looking at a dead fish was about the most fun I had playing through The Lord of the Rings: Gollum, a baffling game whose only similarities to the film series are the presence of Gollum and the feel of something created 20 years ago.
As the title suggests, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum puts the player in control of the corrupted hobbit as he squirms and scuttles. The experience of piloting a weird little creature through a video game should be fun and jaunty—the two Middle-earth games, Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War, were enjoyable because they reveled in the silly joy of giving depth to their Uruk characters—but every aspect of the gameplay in Gollum is a slog. I can't believe they released this game in 2023, a full decade after The Last of Us. Every frame looks muddy brown, character models are all pointy angles and uncannily shaded planes, and light reflects off surfaces in contradictory ways. The only design choice I enjoyed was the early-game buttholes.
Oh yeah, I should mention: they spew fire.
So what do you get to do in this world? The game is essentially a chores simulator, where you move down a hallway—sometimes climbing, sometimes sneaking. You press a button when it's time to perform an action: go to sleep, kill, or beg. Gollum spends the first half of the game imprisoned in the Barad-dûr slave pits, tasked with running around and performing actions for various bosses; the second half is with the elves in Mirkwood, in which he also runs around to do tasks. As I played through Gollum, I kept wondering whether the game would ever open up or give me more to do, but no, each level is on rails, with one pathway for you to either platform, sneak, or occasionally run through. You can collect various pieces of garbage and flotsam, though they don't do anything. Oftentimes, you will reach the objective but be unable to actually complete it because you have to wait for an offscreen character to finish talking.
Linearity might be less common in today's adventure games, but it's not necessarily a drawback. The real issue with Gollum's Gollum is that he moves all fucked up. At this point in his miserable life, he's roughly 380 years old and has a Stan Kroenke toupee, yet he pings around the map like a monkey on amphetamines, jumping way too high and depleting the bizarrely tiny stamina meter in seconds with his sprints, turning the drab level design into a blur. He feels out of control at the wrong times, and then far too slow and leaden when the situation actually calls for dynamism, like in climbing sequences. Dying as Gollum was a short relief, as I was subsequently punished with a sentence worthy of Barad-dûr: having to play more Gollum.
I kept having to remind myself that this was a PS5 game, ostensibly made years after Hitman, Celeste, and the Uncharted series, despite it playing like a movie tie-in from 2004. The majority of Gollum is spent platforming, with all the thrill and variety of plugging a cord into a wall outlet; the jumping and moving are somehow orders of magnitude better than the stealth. How is it possible to have designed such stupid enemies? Evade danger by hiding behind the thinnest of objects in any given room, or walking into the ample tall grass that's always there. A stealth game is only as good as the enemies you have to evade and the actions available when you blow your cover, and Gollum spectacularly fails both tests. The only combat option is choking orcs from behind, but only orcs, and only when their neck area is unprotected.
One of the ways I amused myself in between sets of chores was by moving the camera around to find the weirdest-looking angle from which to view Gollum. This would have been a highlight of the game if the camera didn't get stuck upside-down or inside an environment, forcing me to reset from the latest checkpoint (thankfully these are ample) and redo my chores. I got stuck at pause screens, waited minutes for a cutscene to load, and died in a bunch of stupid ways for no reason, like this person:
The events of the game take place between the end of The Hobbit and the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, which serves as an indication that nothing of consequence will unfold. The main thing that happened to Gollum in that ringless, inter-book period was that he was captured by Sauron's orcs and tortured until he narced on Bilbo Baggins. Eventually, Gollum escaped and joined Bilbo's nephew Frodo after encountering the fellowship in the Mines of Moria (the game ends in Moria, but before Frodo and his fellas come through). The escape could have been more entertaining in the right hands, but the game lingers in the slave pits for too long and fails to recognize which parts of its own tale are the interesting ones.
The story begins with a frame narrative of an uncannily conjured Gandalf interrogating Gollum about his time in Barad-dûr before the action resumes. The intended point is to flesh out the Gollum lore. There are ample cutscenes, often long ones split by about 12 seconds of rote gameplay. The player occasionally gets to pick whether Gollum or Smeagol, his alter ego, will respond to a given situation. The choices don't meaningfully change the outcome.
All of which leads to the question: Why does this exist? And some followup questions: How did Daedalic make a game in 2023 without learning any of the lessons of the past two decades of game design? Is releasing this the same month as The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom some kind of pain-based performance art? Why the buttholes? It feels like a game Marge Simpson would accidentally buy for Bart instead of what he actually wanted. Whatever promise there was in an adventure centered around a wretched little guy is nowhere to be found in the finished product. Gollum's existence is a sad mistake.