When Monolith Productions released Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor back in 2014, it received great praise for its innovative nemesis system. It was creative, it was new, and it brought life to otherwise unmemorable enemies. Throughout video game history, developers have copied, adopted, or built upon great ideas in other games to make the most of their own. After all, this is why the souls-like and rogue-like genres exist. Mike Blithell, developer of the game Thomas Was Alone, reportedly stated that the system was “pretty damn repeatable.” Interestingly, until today, there have been very few games that have attempted anything similar to it.
What is the Nemesis System?
The nemesis system is a game mechanic first featured in Monolith Productions’ two most recent games, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, and the more recent Middle Earth: Shadow of War. Here, the most common enemies are the Uruk-hai, which are similar to orcs, but better, stronger, and meaner.
This game mechanic revolves around Uruk’s social standings. Those with high standing receive a unique name, look, skills, and personality. Some wield crossbows, some bear scars from a seemingly long history of violence, and others like to sing. All of these characteristics come from a huge pool of random, though intelligently linked traits. As the player’s enemies, confrontations with the Uruk-hai must occur. If the player successfully defeats a notable enemy, the Uruk’s military position will eventually be taken by another. Likewise, enemies that succeed against the player benefit from it. They may take upon a higher military rank or gain new abilities. Because of the huge pool of possible attributes, players have a nearly endless source of unique enemies to fight.
However, the most notable feature of the nemesis system is something else. What really makes it special is the way it allows the characters to “remember.” In Middle Earth games, the player can defeat a named Uruk, only to have them come back later, evidently resenting their defeat and bearing scars to show it. If a player is defeated by an Uruk and later returns for a second try, they may be met with mockery for their past failure. These features make fighting the armies of Sauron feel more important and organic. Allowing for a unique experience for each player and boosting the games’ replayability. Without these, the games would have been much less memorable.
Where Did it Go?
Because of the amount of praise received by Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, many people expected game developers to start replicating the nemesis system left and right. However, notable usage of similar systems has proven to be extremely scarce in the six years since its debut.
The best and most notable implementation of a nemesis-like system is in Supergiant Games’ award-winning rogue-like: Hades. Although the game didn’t feature randomized enemy generation, bosses and certain characters remembered and reacted to the player’s failures and triumphs. Because of this system’s harmonious integration into the game’s main story, Hades became a common game of the year contender. Comparable to AAA giants like The Last of Us Part II and Ghost of Tsushima. Ubisoft also gave it a try in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, though this “mercenary system” wasn’t as well-received as the rest of the game.
Why Should It be More Common?
The nemesis system, or a variation of it, can bring an unprecedented level of life to a game. It can lead to the birth of vendettas between players and characters, a more organic and adaptable game world, and unique experiences in countless separate playthroughs.
For instance, you could speculate on its implementation in a Far Cry game. This series revolves around map control, having players attack enemy outposts to take over. In the event that a player takes an outpost but fails to kill every enemy, the survivors may return later to try to take it back. Better yet, they may have adapted to the user’s play style. If the player takes the outpost stealthily, returning enemies might be more weary and trigger-happy; if the player used explosives extensively, they might refrain from grouping up to avoid being taken out in bulk.
In a game like The Outer Worlds or XCOM, players could have the option of avenging a fallen squad member. Perhaps the player could get a mission to track down a more confident and dangerous version of the enemy they’d once lost to. In truth, the narrative possibilities are endless. For now though, it seems we will have to settle for the few gems that are currently available.
Because of recent, patent-related, news, I eat my words.