My Take on the Philosophy of Borderlands

Recently, I stumbled upon a series of books called Pop Classics. The #8 on that series is called Ain’t No Place for a Hero: Borderlands. Since I enjoy the series very much and I do believe it has much to offer in terms of a message (whether intentional or not), I decided to order it. As of this writing, it has not arrived yet, but hopefully it will before I leave for holiday next week (not to worry: I will be moving from an area with no new covid-19 cases in quite some time to another area in a similar position). I plan to read the book and review it, but before I do that, I thought I would write down a few words on the subject, so that I can contrast my opinions with those of the author (Kaitlin Tremblay).

Spoilers.

Since the book was released in 2017, I do have the added benefit of having played Borderlands 3, but that only seems to make certain things clearer, rather than changing my opinions.

Anti-Corporatism

There are no nations in Borderlands. The largest political entities in 1, 2 and Pre-Sequel seem to be the various bandit clans. Well, besides the corporations who rule (at least) this particular part of the galaxy. They control whole planets.

Pandora was once a Dahl mining colony, but they decided to leave, leaving behind their armies of workers, who then formed the bandit clans, and Tannis. In the first game, Atlas has arrived to take over Pandora in order to access the vault. In the second game Hyperion is taking over. In the Pre-Sequel Dahl, once again, has it’s fingerprints all over Elpis. In the third game Children of the Vault are a new political entity, which extends over huge parts of the universe, but we also meet Maliwan trying to take over Promethea and Athenas, Atlas is running Promethea and Jacobs runs Eden-6. While Atlas seems to be beneficial for Promethea (these days) and Jacobs seems to be beloved by the swampfolk at Eden-6, Dahl has previously practically strip mined planets and abandoned countless people on them, Hyperion tried to “civilize” the galaxy by killing all those who Jack deemed bandits (including the PCs), Maliwan sees war of conquest as just business as usual and while we haven’t really encountered Vladof yet, we know from Moze’s history they were more than willing to kill off their troops for no particular reason despite their image as revolutionaries.

On top of all that, pretty much all of the named corporations are weapons manufacturers. We see at least some of them have other businesses as well (and yes, I know Pangolin and Anshin don’t manufacture guns, but they do manufacture grenade mods), but from the player’s point of view, not much else matters. The corporations are very exploitative. They know that in this part of the galaxy weapons sell, so they make them.

The corporations are clearly bad, but what about the player characters? In the beginning, not much better. In the first game, we just rampage through the land, picking up jobs without caring about the consequences. We just kill a bunch of people, because someone gave us money to do so. Sure, some of them clearly did something wrong, but usually not enough to warrant death. These villages we eradicate might not be very peaceful, but that doesn’t mean we have the right to just march on in and kill everything that moves. We still do it, over and over again.

Even Athena, who sees in the Pre-Sequel what’s happening, still follows orders, because there is money involved. Of the 20 playable characters, only three (Nisha, Wilhelm and Aurelia) are depicted as bad guys, but all the others are very opportunistic in the way they approach their work.

What does all this mean? I guess someone is afraid of corporations growing out of control. And it’s a valid concern. It’s actually happened before in much the same way as it’s happening here. Much of the colonization of the world was done by companies. Sure, the many East and West India Companies were often closely tied to and chartered by the royalty. These companies did take over various places all over the world.

So, remember that when Apple introduces their iGun and Amazon starts offering their ammo-subscriptions with one hour guaranteed delivery by drone. Or Redbox starts offering cheaply made assault rifles or rental.

Anyhow, the bandits could be seen as natives of various areas or perhaps as poor people trying to resist gentrification, but in the end, we are ending their lives for profit and usually very little profit at that. Gladly (yes, that a joke), we have a tendency to go and shoot at Maliwan when testing weapons, so I guess that’s somewhat better. They are, after all, invaders. Unlike us, who are just raiders.

Gender Politics

Oh boy, I’m going to mess up the pronouns at some point here, but let’s just say that I’m not trying to offend anyone, except 20 fictional characters.

Of the 20 playable characters, most that we know of are heterosexuals, but there is room for more here. Athena is homosexual, Axton is bisexual, Maya is asexual (although she mentions an older man, but I’m guessing this was not consensual) and Zer0 is… loreleisexual. Yes, that’s a word now. Some we don’t really know and for Fl4k this seems inapplicable. If we go further, we find many gay characters, most notably Sir Hammerlock, his future husband Wainwright Jacobs and Janey Springs.

These are not something anyone ever comments upon within the game. All of this is natural. Except that it… it’s problematic. I know men, who are willing to play women in tabletop RPGs, but would not dream of that character being a heterosexual, so if they happen to play a female character, she will be a lesbian. Why? I guess putting themselves potentially in a situation, where they would have to portray being interested in a male just seems dangerous to them. Now, even though the world has plenty of people with various sexualities, only one of the player characters is a male with interest in other males and sadly, that was actually a bug, which they just decided to keep in the game (although they do have several heterosexual females as playable characters, with Nisha being very sexually aggressive at times).

But here’s another way to look at the gender:

In Borderlands 1, we have four playable characters. Roland is kind of the default soldier character (points for making him black), Mordecai and Brick are two different playstyles and we have the token woman in Lilith. Sure, she’s become the central character, so I’m guessing she was pretty popular among players (and oboe shoes joked about her being the default choice in his story recap).

In Borderlands 2, we start with four playable characters. Axton is again the default fighter type, although Salvador is much better at it. Zer0 is probably thought of as male by many, but it’s actually not that. We don’t know what it is exactly, but probably some sort of robot. Maya takes the role of the token woman from Lilith, but I’m guessing she was again quite a bit more popular than the other three. Then we got Gaige and finally Krieg. So, we moved from one out of four females to two our of six (while males went down from 75% to 50%).

In the Pre-Sequel, Athena is now the unabashedly the main character (well, Jack is really, but of the playable ones). Initially, she is joined by Nisha, Wilhelm and Claptrap, and later on by Timothy and Aurelia. So, now it’s 50-50. Not only that, but we are missing the vanilla fighter male character that most games have, including the previous two installments. I guess Wilhelm could be that, but he is not vanilla with his single-mindedness and longing to become a robot. On top of that, Timothy is often depicted as a bit of a coward, while Claptrap is a joke (you need to confirm several times when selecting him in the starting screen). Athena, on the other hand, is a cool warrior and assassin, Nisha is by attitude alone probably the biggest badass of all the 20 playable characters and while Aurelia can afford to have even less manners and lacks in badassitude when compared to the previous two, is still literally cool.

When we get to Borderlands 3, the young virile male fighter type is completely gone. The only male of the four is actually called elderly by the CoV (“DEATH TO THE ELDERLY!” is one of their battlecries). We have two women, Moze and Amara, and one malfunctioning robot (Fl4k), which may or may not be of the same model as Zer0. That’s a big step from the long-time “wisdom” of game designers of emphasizing male characters, because that’s what young men apparently want to play.

I think I’ve mentioned this before at some point in the blog, but it bears repeating: at some point the number of players who had finished the game with Emily was about double that of who had finished the game with Corvo. The difference is now much smaller (28.5% vs. 19.9% on Steam), but still significant. Borderlands has freed themselves from this thinking. We didn’t even have female enemies before the third game (some, but they were quite rare), while now we can kill women indiscriminately as well.

Of course, the movie also sees sexuality as a positive. Both Moxxi and her daughter Ellie are overtly flirty with any character they meet and they are never criticized for their behaviour. They do still avoid having a male character do this, though, and I guess that would feel very different since we (the players) still live in a real-life context.

Nature vs. Nurture

In the Pre-Sequel we have a series of ECHOs for each of the first four characters (there’s a series for Timothy as well, but I don’t recall one for Aurelia). In Nisha’s series it recaps her youth with an abusive mother. It’s quite dark. This is the last one (from Borderlands Wiki on Fandom):

That night, mom did her usual thing. She hurled a glass at me. I tried to catch it — I’d gotten good at catching whatever she tossed — but it bounced off my hand and fell on the dog. Not hard enough to hurt it, but… its eyes went even redder. Lips even bluer. Foam dripped from its jowls, and it lunged at me. Sunk its teeth into my neck. Over my own screams, I could hear dad whimpering. The dog snarling. And my mom… laughing. After dad patched me up, I grabbed a shovel and bashed the dog’s brains out.

If you’ve played the games in the order they were released in, you already know Brick hates Nisha because she killed his dog. She mocks his reaction, but from the ECHO we know that she has learned from an early age not to show her feelings.

This is all quite straight-forward, but Jack is somewhat more problematic. We have a mission in Borderlands 2, where you go and check on Jack’s grandmother, who is at tthat point dead and you only find a buzzaxe in her bed. Jack tells you how horrible she was, so he has similar background to Nisha’s. Pre-Sequel is largely about his fall into madness.

However, we see Angel’s picture on his desk in Helios. We know from Borderlands 3 that at that point she was already locked into her containment cell. How much is that for her benefit and how much is he calculating his benefit from the situation at that point? Hard to know. Of course, his wife had already been killed by Angel, so that might have had an impact on Jack as well.

Of course, we also have the bandits themselves. Sure, they were (at least some of them) prisoners before being abandoned on whatever planet. The trauma of their new existence has driven them into their current form. You can see this best on Handsome Jackpot, where the same thing happened as on Pandora, after they were all locked into the casino. Whoever was left in there had to fight for survival, so they did their best to join the gangs (although certain people just continued playing as before). Constant killing among the gangs has driven some of them insane.

It seems to me that the franchise goes out of it’s way to show that these people are not inherently evil. It seems to side with nurture. We see this with various corporate troops as well. Crimson Lance and the Maliwan troops under General Traunt are a bunch of assholes, but that seems to be part of their corporate culture. Atlas soldiers under Rhys have a very different outlook. They are friendly and apprecitiative of your presence.

Game Design

There is a side mission on Nekrotafeyo (had to check that one) called Transaction-Packed, which is a critique of many of the unhealthy practices in the business, like early access and micropayments. It’s actually probably my least favorite mission in the game as in order to get their message across about the nature of escort missions, uninspired enemy design and dangers of too immersive AR games, they actually have to put you through a boring escort msision with very little variance in enemies, microtransactions and you walking into groups of other enemies.

Of course, while they didn’t technically have early access and I wouldn’t exactly count paid DLCs as micropayments, they did still basically use paying customers as beta testers and those DLCs do cost money (that latter one I have no problem with, as they are good content, but apparently communication is difficult and they didn’t exactly get their message about paid DLCs across).

I think the real key to the success of the franchise is that while it definitely has messages in it, it’s never that overt about them. Generally in entertainment, you don’t want to tell people what to think, you want to bring up issues and points of view letting the audience make their own minds up. The franchise does this pretty well. No-one ever comes up to you and says that Jack had a horrible past. You learn it through gameplay (I guess the visit to the grandma is sort of that, but it’s a side mission, so I don’t mind). No-one ever points out that someone is gay, they just are.

Wow, that’s way too many words. I guess I’ll stop here.

1 thought on “My Take on the Philosophy of Borderlands

  1. Pingback: Review of Ain’t No Place for a Hero: Borderlands (by Kaitlin Tremblay) | Guild Blog

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