Hobbit life sim Tales Of The Shire is so jolly and joyful it creeps the hell out of me

Tales Of The Shire unfolds in a world without shadow. There are shadows, technically, but they’re so mellow and fuzzy they might as well be stray pools of sunlight that have forgotten to glow. In this latest chunk of Lord Of The Rings memorabilia from developers Wētā Workshop and publisher Private Division, you are a custom-created hobbit who has just taken up residence in the charming Tellytubby town of Bywater, there to spend your days foraging, fishing, feasting and fraternizing with your fellow halfings, all of whom wear expressions of rosy-cheeked humour so intense in their winsome affability that your own face soon forms a merry rictus in response – like that terrible smile from Disco Elysium, but cosy. Oh god, no. Oh god, get it off me.

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Here are some things you won’t be doing in Tales Of The Shire (coming soon via Steam and the Microsoft Store): receiving any ominous parties of wizards and dwarves, giving large hooded riders directions, hiding any dreadful magic rings, or even stubbing your furry toe on the doorstep after re-carpeting your burrow. You don’t even run in this game, an action which, after all, suggests a touch of agitation – you skip, instead, radiating good vibes like a wholesome isotope. After ten minutes with the game at Summer Game Fest, I started to feel incredibly distressed, as though I were being exposed to some deranging source of high frequency sound, and took to begging the PR for hints about dark forces abroad, like a child seeking reassurance against nightmares who secretly hopes the nightmares are real.

Will the Ringwraiths come? No, they won’t. Will I get to see Bilbo descend into madness? No, you won’t, though there is a quest where you prepare a series of dishes artfully flavoured to celebrate his adventures, which, yes, are now entirely over and done with, The End. Tales Of The Shire is every bit the extraordinarily happy Hobbit life sim it appears to be. The worst thing that’ll happen to you here is that you might slice your onions too thin during the cooking minigame and slightly sabotage the mood at dinner. Slightly.

Playing Tales Of The Shire at Summer Game Fest has reminded me that the point of the Shire is to be a departed paradise, perpetually eroded by dire events in the East, insert World War-era colonial subtext here. It’s Tolkien’s Green Hill Zone, a gust of sunshine before the plunge into Moria and Mordor. Take away the plunge, and the gust of sunshine grows sinister – intriguingly so, like a hearty overture that’s always threatening to switch to a minor key. I don’t mean any of the above as criticism. This seems as fine and diverting and inconsequential a cosy life sim as any – hardly inventive as a collection of minigames and cottagecore DIY linked by dialogue and some very gentle exploration, but with LOTR fittings to tempt you away from the likes of, say, Dave The Diver. What captivates me about it, though, is what it isn’t, and how it relentlessly thwarts my instinctive sense that everything is about to go to hell. As Sylvia Plath wrote, the flowers are too vivid, too excitable. The air is too balmy.

A hobbit cooking with a frying pan in Tales Of the Shire

A shot of an outside feasting table under wooden arches in Tales Of the Shire

A sunny day in Tales Of the Shire with a path rolling up to a hobbit house with a big green tree on top

A scene of a hobbit hole with autumnal trees above in Tales Of the Shire

Image credit: Take-Two Interactive

Notwithstanding the PR’s assurances that all is well, I dare to dream in my characteristic fashion that Tales Of The Shire is a horror game in disguise. Perhaps the sunshine is bait, and the second half of the game consists of The Scouring of the Shire. The other way of looking at it, of course, is that the Shire is actually the worst place in Middle-earth, by dint of being an idealised portrait of rustic middle England where the gables and bunting hide endless peevishness and mistrust, and any passing traveller is immediately branded a disturber of the peace. I don’t get the sense that the game’s writing will explore the gossipy, back-biting side of Hobbit society either, but again, fingers crossed. I can imagine people getting murdered here. There are certainly a few hobbits that have it coming.

I guess I should stop wringing my hands and roll through a few specifics. There are three things I especially like about Tales Of The Shire as a Hobbity Stardew Valley. One is the waypointing system, which consists of birds. Slap down a marker on the storybook map, and plump blue wildfowl will perch on fenceposts and stumps to guide your steps, as though swooping down to gobble up another game’s breadcrumb trail. It’s a clever flourish that stops the HUD interfering too much with your enjoyment of Bywater’s undulating hills and houses, which I found surprisingly difficult to navigate, because every pub, fishing hole or vegetable garden is as picturesque as all the rest.

The second thing I like is the cooking, which is satisfyingly elaborate and ceremonial, with bulging recipe books ushering you through such minigames as tossing a frying pan or chopping ingredients to make indicators move in the direction of Sweet or Savoury, Smooth or Chunky. The challenge, inasmuch as there’s challenge, is gathering ingredients, whether from your own allotment outside or in town, and working out their flavour profile. Nailing the recipe is important, because wining and dining other hobbits is how you’ll progress through the game’s story. Don’t fret too much if you screw up, however. There’s no odds of becoming a village pariah for oversalting the soup – you just have to keep trying. Again, the sunshine is relentless, and in any case, you can postpone advancing the narrative forever.

A conversation between two Hobbits in Tales Of the Shire
Image credit: Take-Two Interactive

The third and final thing I like, albeit partly as a kind of defence mechanism against the wholesomeness, is giving your hobbit a makeover. Tales Of The Shire is, in general, pretty free with the customisation opportunities: you can shunt around both cosmetic furniture and your cooking facilities, alter the wood panelling of your hobbit hole and add decorations seemingly without having to worry about gathering any resources. You can also totally re-engineer your hobbit at whim, from how they stand to their default expression to the exact hirsuteness of their feet, which is sure to earn the game some social media traction, though I don’t think it’ll bring about the second coming of LOTR memes.

During my hands-on, I tried to make my hobbit look as villainous as possible, combining a smug demeanour with caved shoulders and a dark green cape to produce a credible proto-Gollum. My proto-Gollum won’t be going on any nasty underground escapades, but perhaps she’ll give the other diners a chill during elevensies, reminding these offensively good-natured homebodies that there is a big scary universe beyond the Shire where there is only time for one breakfast.

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