Syp at Bio Break has been playing LOTRO recently and one of his older posts was about how LOTRO helped him to get back into reading Tolkien. I’m the opposite of him. I have read Tolkien but have no desire to play LOTRO. Thinking about it leads me to several reasons.
Games destroy and abbrievate story. All adaptions of a work do this, but games especially are corrosive to a licensed property. It’s because they have to interweave a totally alien system with a fictional world. Tanking or buffing simply do not exist in fantasy novels, and having to time button presses to do events demand pivotal events to be rewritten or handwaved away. I think that is why so many games have you being the schmuck who runs errands for the fellowship or the good guys while they save the world offscreen.
Games destroy mood. A game has to be paced differently from a book. A book can have chapters or long stretches of time doing nothing but delivering exposition or setting tone or mood. Tolkien has several scenes like this in the Hobbit: Beorn for one being entranced by Gandalf’s story and the dwarf party entering in by twos is something impossible or very hard to do in a videogame. Players simply wont stand still or read text enough to let a mood set in.
I think they still can evoke mood in general, but when you have events that set up a specific tone in a licensed work it gets much harder. A lot of mood setting requires a passive observer and players simply wont stand for it.
Players metagame and act out of character. The big draw for me in LOTRO would be to play in Tolkien’s world. But Tolkien’s world is now inhabited by very modern-day players who are as alien to it as the orcs are to the hobbits. So you are relying on a license to draw people in, yet those very same people make the license harder to immerse yourself in.
This is an issue even with unlicensed games, but I think the disconnect is much greater when you play something with a very specific world and pre-established setting.
A counter example is Final Fantasy XI. FFXI is a licensed game, but the license is based on a series that has no real events in common except very general mechanical ones. You have chocobos, you have the summons, you have spells. No plot exists in common to be shoehorned into a game and clash with it, and so FFXI escapes this. I think licenses can only work in this way. The more specific and detailed the plot, like Tolkien’s works, the harder it is to transform it into a game.