On a blustery March afternoon in San Francisco, when the clouds skirting past the tall buildings threatened showers of rain amidst the bashful bouts of sunlight, a handful of wanderers tucked into an office nook for a chat about a game of special significance. Three had come all the way from New Zealand to attend the Game Developer’s Convention (GDC) for the week, while two of the travelers were California locals. It was a merry meeting indeed, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask some questions about the upcoming video game Tales of the Shire: A The Lord of the Rings Game™.

Hailed as the first “cozy” game set in the world created by J.R.R. Tolkien, Tales of the Shire is highly anticipated by fans of the gaming genre and The Lord of the Rings afficionados alike. Made in partnership with Private Division, Wētā Workshop are creating a Tolkien experience unlike any other, centered on the quaint, quiet lives of Hobbits in the Shire.

“This is our love letter to Middle-earth,” said Calliope Ryder, the lead games producer for Wētā Workshop, “looking at it through really cosy eyes. We wanted to build something that was about the Shire, that was about Hobbits, with a visual look no one had seen before. There’s a strong narrative and strong elements of gameplay, but the most important part is that it’s peaceful. It’s about slow Hobbit living.”

Hobbitcore delight

Anyone who has followed my webseries Happy Hobbit on YouTube knows that my sister, family, and friends have been all about “slow Hobbit living” and celebrating a simple life for over a decade now. This game was music to my ears. “It sounds like it’s pure Hobbitcore,” I gushed.

“We are very keen to make all the Hobbitcore people happy,” said Morgan Jaffit, Executive Producer, with a broad smile. “That’s very important to us.”

“Hobbitcore” refers to an aesthetic similar to Cottagecore, highlighting slow living, simple food, friendship with the earth, gardening, cozy settings, and of course, quaint adventures: in short, anything that falls under the umbrella of living like a Hobbit in a romanticized fashion.

While Tales of the Shire is far from the first game set in Middle-earth, its gameplay is unique. Previous games such as the wildly successful Shadow of Mordor (2014) produced by Monolith Studios and Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment, and its sequel Shadow of War (2017) involve gameplay centered on violence, stealth, and killing. While there is a place for such slasher games, having an alternative focused on Hobbits, food, and community is a wonderfully therapeutic accompaniment.

Diversity in gaming

Perhaps it is the female-dominated realm of Cottagecore content giving this impression, but I had a preconceived notion that cozy games, such as my current favorite Wylde Flowers by Studio Drydock, were largely the realm of female gamers, which isn’t the case. As Ryder explained, “If we think about it in demographic terms, the stats that I’ve seen previously say that cosy is roughly 60% women. I think you’d be surprised by the diversity in the cosy setting; It’s more about what motivation that player has to be there, and that’s what we try to deliver.”

These assumptions are not without merit. For decades, gaming was a male-dominated realm, filled with games made by boys for boys. While the gaming industry is still a notoriously toxic space for women, progress is being made, and Ryder’s career is living proof. While plenty of women enjoy slasher games, cozy games have the appeal of being simpler in nature so that, while perfectly suited to longer gaming sessions, one may dip in for 20 minutes between other responsibilities and still feel satisfied having achieved a bit of soothing escapism.

Therapeutic escape

This need for therapeutic virtual spaces became prominent during the global pandemic. The concept for the game was born out of a desire to escape into the Shire amidst the uncertainty and fear of 2020.

“That’s one of the initial inspirations to make Tales of the Shire,” explained Ryder. “It sort of sprang up around that time, and there was this big cosy Cottagecore boom at the time because people want to connect with nature. This was our version of looking at what we know, which is The Lord of the Rings and Middle-earth, [and asking], how can we create something that really gives back, and gives people an escapist experience in a place that they would really want to go to, and leans into that Cottagecore and Hobbitcore aesthetic?”

Make no mistake, this is the game I have been waiting for nearly all my life. “To me, it sounds therapeutic.”

“Exactly,” Ryder replied. “I play cosy games to relax or to process things. And this is a game in which we want people to feel like they can unwind and chill in the Shire.”

Lingering in the Shire

Before the announcement of Tales of the Shire, the closest Tolkien gamers could get to cozy virtual Hobbit content was The Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) produced by Standing Stone Games and Middle-earth Enterprises, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. While segments of LOTRO take place in Hobbiton, and there is certainly much Shire exploration in the open world of the MMORPG, the gameplay centers around quests and is lovingly loyal to the novels, where little time is spent in the idyllic countryside dotted with Hobbit holes and kitchen gardens.

“The engine that drives everything when you look at the journeys across both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is this love of time and place, and it came from Tolkien’s passionate reminiscing of the world that he grew up in,” explained Jaffit. “We don’t spend much time in the Shire on the screen or in the novels, but it’s always there because it’s the thing that drives the engine of everything else. It’s the special thing about which you have a sense of loss, and a sense of wanting, and a sense of home. The Shire is the place that you actually don’t spend much time in but is constantly romanticized. So why not build something there? Everyone’s talking about it all the time. Live there? Yeah!”

Childhood inspiration

Jaffit’s enthusiasm is palpable and doesn’t just originate from a love of a fictional locale. Growing up on a farm in Victoria, Australia, he and his large family, “worked on the land and worked with horses in a small country town. Certainly, my upbringing is about rural town living and what that means. And this is a game about rural living and what that means, and it means something very special because it’s also progressively fading away.”

“Not to make my childhood sound incredibly idyllic,” Ryder added, “but I also grew up on farms in the Waikato region of New Zealand which, if you know much about The Lord of the Rings films, is in the same region the Shire was filmed. Something that would make me really happy is if players can feel just a little bit of what I felt when I was growing up feeding chickens, when I was only this big,” Ryder paused to hold her hand a few feet up from the floor. “They were actually terrifying dinosaurs!”

Having likewise grown up with a family garden, chickens, horses, and other livestock, I have a keen connection with the land and forest surrounding my home. Many people are not as fortunate to have had the same experiences as we three, and providing a digital space for others to connect with an agricultural lifestyle, the cycle of the seasons, and living in friendship with the Earth is a means of keeping a fading way of life alive and accessible.

“I really want our players to get a sense of the best bits captured in my memory of what it was like growing up in Waikato, New Zealand,” said Ryder.

“As we lose our living links to the past, we see that resurgence in interest as we realize that we have to ask for those stories from our parents or else miss the opportunity to hear them,” explained Jaffit. “You have to ask about the stories of the people you meet, otherwise you miss the living link.”

Return to a pre-industrialized world

The irony of discussing how Tolkien created the Shire out of nostalgia for the pre-industrialized world of his childhood, as we shared our mutual love of farm life in that room in San Francisco, against the backdrop of the Silicon Valley, surrounded by skyscrapers representing “big tech,” was not lost on anyone. “We live in such a busy world,” I offered, “and in a world where there’s so much negativity being crammed down our throats from every angle. I think that the timing couldn’t be better for a game like this.”

“It’s a bit bleak that ever since we started, we were being like ‘oh, the timing couldn’t be better,’ but it’s still like that. Now the timing really couldn’t be better,” agreed Ryder. “People need this cosy game. People need cosy things and people need that link [to the natural world] you are describing, and I really hope that they will get a little taste of that experience.”

While not everyone can have access to idyllic spaces like the Shire in real life, a virtual experience brought to life by Wētā Workshop is the next best alternative.

“Wētā Workshop is better at place than anybody on the planet,” said Jaffit. “What this game is about is building a place that is warm and gentle and beautiful, that you can get to visit and be inside and understand and appreciate. I think it’s really special.”

Handcrafted with care

“This game in particular feels very handcrafted,” Ryder elaborated. “So even though we have this enormous IP that is beloved world over, it’s a very handcrafted, loving take on an experience that feels more indie. Many of us working on the game haven’t come from film, or haven’t had other experiences with LOTR, but we do come from the indie scene, and we really infuse that love and care and the closeness that we want to build with community in an organic way.”

“It is a very ‘creativity first’ approach,” I offered, and both Ryder and Jaffit agreed. As a former Wētā Workshop crew member myself (helping pen Middle-earth from Script to Screen with Daniel Falconer), I greatly admire the way the Company not only honors but celebrates the creative process and collaboration. The team behind Tales of the Shire was able to draw upon Tolkien experts Daniel Falconer and Sir Richard Taylor for feedback as the game was developed, to ensure attention to detail and accuracy; both of which are incredibly important to a fanbase known for its love of lore.

Well-known characters – and a mystery duck

Set in the Third Age of Middle-earth, Tales of the Shire promises to have some familiar faces appear. While we seem to have already glimpsed the Wizard Gandalf in the teaser trailer, Tolkien fleshed out a great many of the Shire locals, and gamers can expect to encounter them. “We have some more [obvious characters] I think most people will recognize from the world they know, and then we have a lot of subtler ones for the hardcore fans who are really deep into the lore… and you’ll have some moments with them.”

One seemingly original character who caught the imagination of fans from the very first images released from the game is a duck wearing a Dwarven helmet. TheOneRing.net’s Discord and broader social media in general has been alive with speculation over the mystery duck. “Yeah, she is in herself a bit of a tease of something to come that we haven’t seen yet,” shared Ryder. “She’s a hint. She’s the Easter egg. She’s got a name. I won’t give you a name right now, but she has one.”

While the identity of this Mystery Duck remains a closely guarded secret for now, the presence of other fine-feathered friends didn’t escape my Hobbit senses. “In both teasers, the sound effects of chickens are featured heavily,” I said, before going in for what is likely the burning question all fans want answered. “Can we expect chickens to be integral to the game?”

“They will,” Ryder laughed. “Maybe not as much as we’ve hinted, but they are definitely there. Yeah, we have had quite a bit of fun.”

The full trailer for the game and release date have yet to be announced, so I remain in suspense amidst my fellow gamers as to the role of chickens and the identity of the Mystery Duck in Tales of the Shire.

Tales of the Shire will be available on PC and consoles, with a mobile version to be released via Netflix. Watch the announcement trailer below.

Kellie is known as “Kili” on Happy Hobbit, but also writes Fantasy novels and hosts a podcast under her pen name, K.M. Rice.