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Matt Graf, Nerd of the Rings: What can you tell us about your experience moving to Tales of the Shire? You’ve been at Wētā for a long time, and now you’re here working on the video game. 

Steve Lambert, Art Director: Yeah. I mean, it’s been a really, really fun trip being given a privilege to revisit this whole world again and bring some other thoughts to it and other approaches to it. It has been really nice.

We’ve been rethinking it more from how I felt reading The Hobbit as a child rather than how I’ve experienced as an adult. Bringing back some old memories.

NOTR: You’re heading the art department here with the game. 

Steve: Yeah. 

NOTR: What can you tell us as far as what players can expect from Tales of the Shire?

Steve: I think a much more childlike and storybook approach. We’re thinking about the world from a softer approach. The Hobbit was written for children and has a more naive look at the world.

So I think there’s a darkness off on the horizon, but it’s still not as dingy and gritty as where we go with [Lord of the] Rings in the film. So we’re trying to soften that approach and have a more friendly look at the Shire. 

NOTR: From what I’ve seen of the bits and pieces that have been released online, even the design of the logo has a more whimsical… 

Steve: … A much more musical, softer feel, yeah.

NOTR: Back at your desk you had the prop book that was used in the teaser, which is really cool. It’s a beautiful, beautiful leather-bound book. You were telling us a bit about the behind the scenes of making that flip to the right page. So tell us a bit about that process.

Steve: Yeah. Well, we wanted obviously to flip this book to very specifically land on certain pages. One of my prop masters, Chris, rigged up an amazing contraption where he’s using fishing lines and wires. That meant that whenever we had a wind-blower coming and going through the pages and flipping it over, it would be able to stop on the exact pages we wanted. Every take we had to cut, we’d reset every single one of those fishing lines. Before we wrapped for the day, we finally got them landing on the right pages perfectly and for the right amount of time. 

The Tales of the Shire prop book

NOTR: Now, your history here at Wētā was with the more practical effects stuff. Video games are a pretty different realm that you’re in now. How do the two methods of storytelling and creating compare? 

Steve: It’s been quite a challenge getting my head from one to another. And we’ve done some games before [Tales of the] Shire, but, we’re trying to think of that non-linear approach and the way that the player experiences the world and comes to it from the way that they can move where you don’t expect them to move within the bounds of the controls and the kind of limits that you can put on it. Having the player be able to do and go anywhere is quite different for me. You’ve got to let go a little bit of that control and to give it back to the player, which is an interesting experience.

NOTR: What are you most looking forward to in seeing the reaction of fans who pick up the game? 

Steve: Knowing what people have been asking for, knowing what we’re delivering. Hearing the “Oh my God, I get to do this,” or, “I get to live as this!” 

I think people will be pleasantly surprised.

NOTR: Next up, we’ve got Mark Barrett here from Tales of the Shire. Mark, what is it that you do on the video game? 

Mark Barrett, Lead Game Programmer: I head up the programming team, so, I get to represent the excellent work that my team does to various external parties. 

NOTR: So when one of the QA guys has issues, you’re the one that they forward those to and say “Hey, fix this!”

Mark: Yeah. Mostly I say “No, we’re not going to do that right now.” [laughs] “Right now we’re in our special feature time where we’re just going to break stuff!” Then, but then every so often I’ll say “Yes, okay, fine, it’s time to harden up this build to make it better.” And then we have to have conversations. 

Lord of the Rings has been such a positive thing throughout my life, so it’s wonderful to be able to contribute to this.

NOTR: I asked this earlier around the office here a little bit: What are you most looking forward to gamers experiencing? 

Mark: I am so excited for people just to see what the thing looks like.

It is extraordinarily pretty. Such a strength of the game through its entire duration has been how gorgeous the visuals are. It’s going to really, I think, wow people with the choices that Steve’s made and the way that that’s been implemented by the entire art team. There’s just so many immense talents that we work with. The game’s going to be gorgeous to play.

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NOTR: All right, next up, we’ve got Calliope Ryder. Thank you so much for joining me. Let’s just dive right into it. So what is your role here at Tales of the Shire? 

Calliope Ryder, Lead Game Producer: I’m the lead producer on Tales of the Shire, so I run the small but growing team of producers here who are making the game come to life. 

NOTR: We’ve seen a lot of activity here today. It looks like you guys are hard at work. We were talking a little bit earlier about that 2024 release date, and now that is the date on the calendar!

Calliope: Yep! It’s vague for the world, but it’s very real for us. [laughs] It’s seared into all of our retinas, I think. We’re really excited. It’s been quietly in the background for a long time, so it’s going to be really great to finally show people what we’ve been working on.

NOTR: One of the descriptors of this game that I think a lot of fans have focused on is the word “cozy”. 

Calliope: Yes. 

NOTR: So what can you tell us about the experience of making a Middle-earth “cozy” video game? 

Calliope: It’s kind of a dream come true. I grew up in New Zealand, so Wētā Workshop has always been the creative goal, right? I was a kid growing up, being creative, and thinking I was going to work in film, art or do something along those lines. Then on top of that, I’m a cozy gamer. I love cozy games. I think that the world really needs more of the kind of befriend mechanics that we often find in cozy games. The world needs more of a softness, the slow pace, instead of checking the boxes. For us to be able to do the first real shot at a cozy game placed within Middle-earth in this way before… I’m just so delighted that we get to do it here in New Zealand at Wētā Workshop and give the players something new and fresh. 

NOTR: Well, it seems kind of fitting. Middle-earth is such a good retreat for everyone. For a lot of us, it’s our cozy place to go when we need some comfort, so to now have, literally, a cozy Middle-earth game seems right.

Calliope: Yeah. It’s a huge fandom, right? So everyone’s got specific areas that, for them, really strike home. For me, it’s things like Tom Bombadil or the Shire in general that- Oh yeah, the Shire in general, they always felt like an idyllic version of where I’d like to go on holiday. 

An idyllic vacation is just to be in the Shire, because you’ve got all the nice things. You’ve got your silks, and you’ve got all your little fancy things that don’t seem to be anywhere else in Middle-earth. You also have that rustic feeling and it’s mostly peaceful. It just seems like an ideal place to hang out. 

NOTR: It seems nice! I’m sure there’s a lot of folks, myself included, looking forward to a nice vacation in a cozy Shire setting.

Another Tales of the Shire prop

NOTR: Next up, we’ve got a special treat here: Darren Ormandy. Darren, tell us about your unique experience in Middle-earth. You’ve got quite a number of years of experience in Middle-earth, actually!

Darren Ormandy, Creative Writer: I’m very lucky! I discovered Tolkien when I was in my teens. I lived in the West of England. It’s kind of like Middle-earth; there were valleys and rivers and streams and moors with standing stones on them and everything else like that. But I never thought it would play such a big role in my life. 

I used to be an actor, and when I was an actor, I played Thorin in a big tour of The Hobbit that went around the UK, which was an absolute rush! It was just when the films came out – it was between Fellowship and Two Towers – we were selling to huge theaters. Absolutely selling out. People were crazy for it, you know. So that was a real privilege. Then, later on, I went and did a postgrad as a mature student, and I was lucky enough to get into Oxford. 

I did my Masters, and then they invited me to teach because I had lots of Shakespeare experience as an actor. That got me into teaching Shakespeare courses. More recently, I had the opportunity to teach at Merton College, which, as you very well know, is the college most associated with Tolkien. They said, “Do you want to teach your Shakespeare course in our college?”

I thought “Yes, but can I also offer… [Tolkien studies]?”, and they went for it, so I said “Yeah, sure!”

NOTR: So you taught a Tolkien class there! 

Darren: I taught Tolkien in Merton!

NOTR: Wow!

Darren: In fact, the very last session I did was on this place called the Tolkien Table, which, in Merton, is where the old city wall is. And there’s a turret with a wooden table and benches around it. And Tolkien used to sit there. There’s lots of photographs of him there. I was teaching Beren and Luthien with all the students just sitting out on the place where [Tolkien sat]. It was amazing.

NOTR: That is wild! 

Darren: It really was powerful.

NOTR: It’s got to be pretty surreal. 

Darren: It was incredible. It’s an incredible privilege. Imposter Syndrome overwhelms you with something like that. 

You just see the impact that Tolkien has on people’s lives, and, especially for me, when I look at people 20-30 years younger than me. The way things have changed within my lifetime with that, and I really, honestly think that it’s going to be better. It’s going to increase. My sense of that with how younger people are responding. Within my family. One of my daughters in particular is a massive fan, and seeing how that’s part of their childhood as well is really inspiring and exciting.

We hope that what we’re doing now with the game is a part of that. It’s just a part of that way that we’ve been allowed to express Tolkien’s work and his vision. And as I’ve been working on this game, that wonderful statement that Tolkien made about “other minds and hands” coming in and working on it, you think, “Well, I can’t.” I doubt Tolkien ever dreamed of what we do for a living, creating video games… something well beyond his experience. But just the sense of worldbuilding and being able to flesh out those blank spaces that he refers to. You just think “What an incredible privilege to be able to do that!”

From my point of view, as a writer, to sit between two stools, because – and I sometimes joke that I’m sort of Smeagol/Gollum in this game because on the one hand, I’m the writer, so I want to get in everything we can! But I’m also coming here to make sure the law is right. So I’m sort of having these arguments: “Well, I could do this.” “No, you can’t.” “Well, could I maybe do away with it?” “No, no you can’t!”

And I have these sort of conversations in my own head where I try and find a way to utterly honor the law and utterly honor what Tolkien wrote, and then also marry that against “But what do I want to do if I’m picking up a game and I’m playing a game set in the Shire?” 

NOTR: Yeah.

Darren: What do I want to do? I want to explore my Hobbit hole. I want to… I’m not quite sure what I can say now, I’m giving stuff away! But there’s… there’s a lot of…

NOTR: You’re going to get yanked off the stage with a giant cane! [laughs]

Darren: This is Wētā Workshop! This is an ejector seat. [laughs] The roof opens up and that fireplace swallows me. And those come to life. 

NOTR: So, among the staff here, you’re not only the guy who says “Um, actually…” You have to do it to yourself as well. 

Darren: I do it for myself harder than anybody, actually, because I don’t argue with myself much. I’m exactly that person. But I’m glad I am. The guys are great. I think you’ve met Steve Lambert, our art director, and he’s just always so open to what I’m talking about. Steve’s got his own visions and everything, and he’s so good at what he’s doing, leading his art team, that the last thing he wants to do is stand in the way of that.

So we just sort of go, “Okay, well, look, this is the situation.” And there’s a difference between compromise and not following the law. I think anybody that has really got a deep, deep level of knowledge of the Shire  would go “Well, yeah, actually, you’re right!” 

It’s been very carefully considered. And what we’re doing is marrying up what I would want and what other people would want as their experience of walking into Middle-earth or walking into this corner of Middle-earth that we’ve so carefully created and, in some ways, giving people the dream, really. What would you do if you found yourself in that corner of the Shire? “Well, I’d love to do this, and I want to do that, and I want to find these and I want to do this,” and that’s what we want as well. 

NOTR: Well, that mostly answers my next question. What are you most looking forward to fans experiencing or reacting to without giving anything away? 

Darren: From a personal point of view, the writing – in the sense of how we’ve developed the characters. A few of the characters are canonical, but most of them are characters who we’ve created to fit into the world that we also feel are very true to the world. We also want to expand the world because we want to be the “other hands and minds”, you know?

But just generally, I’m really looking forward to the reaction videos, especially, you know, obviously looking forward to yours! But I’m looking forward to those reaction videos of just the discovery of it. This is something I’m so incredibly proud to say I’m a part of. And I think that people do love this environment, and love this world, and are going to have so much to explore and discover, and I think that’s wonderful. 

But what I’m really hoping is that… it’s a game that brings a lot of joy, and I’m slightly coding my language because I don’t want to give away too much about how it’s actually put together. But if it makes people smile and makes people laugh and it brings joy, because I think that’s what the Shire is. But then within that as well, I’ve also been able to work in some moments where it is a little bit transcendent because it is Middle-earth. The stars up there are the same stars as in our world, but they’re also the same stars in Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. And they mean something

And just occasionally – within character – that kind of meaning or sense of that meaning can come across. Yeah. So there are a few grace notes of just where you kind of go… [excitedly nods]

And so far, it seems to have landed really well. But I won’t really know until the game is launched and see if I got it right.

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