“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
This will contain spoilers, you have been warned
I’ve been a borderlands fan for a long time, I’ve played since the first game, spending countless hours hunting skags, crimson lance, bandits, and most importantly, loot. I’ve scoured the surface of Pandora for hundreds of hours, from Fyrestone to Tartarus Station, so when I heard that there was a sequel on the way I was exhilarated, and then I played it.
It started as a whisper, the faintest murmuring at first, I ignored it, it was nothing, a passing notion, a flighting fancy, but it didn’t go away. That nagging little feeling gnawing at the back of my mind, slowly grew and grew over hundreds of hours of playing, until it slowly became all-consuming, a deafening cacophony whenever I started the game, at first, I didn’t know what it was but gradually I came to realise what it was. Like an unflattering partner in a bad relationship, I didn’t like the game, I just wanted to like it, and telling myself I liked it, but the lie was driving me insane.
What was it then? Why was the game doing nothing for me? Well, it wasn’t the mechanics, they’d only improved from their predecessor, polishing out a lot of the chunkiness, the graphics weren’t to blame either, they’d never been prettier, especially once I got a PC that could crank the thing up with full Nvidea PhysX. There was something though, the game looked more colourful, too colourful, it didn’t match the faded, grimy, washed out wasteland aesthetics of its predecessor. This was the first discrepancy, but it was only a sign of worse to come.
Some of you have probably already cottoned on to what I’m on about, I’m certainly not the first to notice it, though I’m perhaps one of the few to see how deep it goes, borderlands 2 has really, really, bad writing. You might think I’m being hyperbolic, but you wouldn’t believe how bad the writing is when you really look closely at it and compare it to the originals, which is why I’m going to do that right now.
For starters, let’s talk about the games atmosphere, or lack thereof. One of the things I loved about Borderlands 1 was its atmosphere. The sense that you were out in the wasteland on your own, with nothing but your gun and your wits to keep you safe. I wasn’t sure why I got this feeling from the first game but not the second until I went back and played Borderlands 1 again and I think one of the factors might surprise you, though it’s obvious when you think about it, there’s far less dialogue in borderlands 1. Now this was likely due to lack of budget more than it was intentional, voice actors cost money, money gearbox likely didn’t have, so using them sparingly and filling in the bulk of quests with written dialogue was much cheaper.
Contrast this with Borderlands 2 where you can barely walk five feet without some NPC whining into your ear and you’ll see why it’s a lot harder to get immersed 2, the written dialogue of Borderlands 1 also meant you could imagine the voice in your head how you wanted, and not in the grating, nasally tones they often end as in 2. I’d also argue that some of the aesthetic choices didn’t exactly contribute much either, the relative washed out and brown desert that made up most environments gave more contrast when you ran into something interesting, such as the crystals in the crystal caverns, but I believe this is ultimately a much more minor issue and if I could lop out about 50% to 75% of the spoken dialogue while leaving the colour palette intact, I’d take that deal.
And since I’ve already touched on them, lets move onto characters, I’ve heard it said that you can tell how good a character is by how many words it takes to summarise them, and almost all of them fall into one of two categories, boring or annoying. Sir Hammerlock, posh British guy, boring. Ellie, fat sassy mechanic, boring. Tiny Tina, why for the love of god why, what possessed someone to put this annoying little urchin of a character in the game. I’ve heard complaints about characters not having arcs, but this character doesn’t even have a character, you could pretty much write this literary abomination by pulling clichés out of a hat.
Even the established characters aren’t safe, Claptrap has regressed from a quirky little robot to that guy at parties nobody wants to hang out with, complete with bad music taste and nails on chalkboard voice, and lest we forget we spend the entire first part of the game stuck with him on an ice shelf. Lilith seems to have re-entered puberty becoming a bitchy teenage girl, Moxie has essentially become innuendo on a stick (don’t think about that one too hard) and no, she didn’t used to be like that, go back and play the Underdome again. Yes, I know it was the worst of the four DLCs, do it anyway, she used to have more of a bloodlust than actual lust. As for Roland… alright I’ll give you Roland, he always had the personality of a plank of wood.
But wait, I hear you cry, you’re missing out the most important character, you can’t say borderlands 2’s characters are bad, Borderlands 2 has one of the best villains in gaming, Handsome Jack. Ohh Handsome Jack, where should I begin, well, Handsome Jack is another character who can be summed up in one word, mediocre. Think about it, why exactly is he famous? All great villains have some defining characteristics, perhaps they’re tragic and sympathetic in some way like Magneto, perhaps they’re terrifying in their intellect and inhumanity like Hannibal Lecter. Jack doesn’t have any such defining traits, he’s famous because he’s funny, supposedly, if you have the humour of a twelve-year-old. Or arguably he’s famous because he makes you hate him, not by being particularly inhuman, just by being generally annoying and unlikable, which seems to be the speciality of borderlands 2’s writer.
In fact, I’d argue he’s so annoying it makes his character somewhat unbelievable, leaders tend to require a certain amount of charisma, either to be respected, or feared. Jacks grating personality doesn’t persuade me he has much in that department. You need friends to be able to climb to the top and stay there, and if you don’t have friends all its going to take to end your reign is one disgruntled Hyperion employee and a loaded handgun. The difference between them deciding weather or not to use it is if your replacement is going to give them a raise for their actions or throw them out of an airlock, which do you think is more likely in Jacks case.
But it’s certainly not like Borderlands 2 is any stranger to bad storytelling either, I’ll skip over any complaints about it being somewhat predictable, as other than one or two twists the original wasn’t exactly Shakespeare, instead I’ll focus on a few of the more glaring issues. For starters, the New U stations, I never found this out in game, which is another oversight, but we won’t get into that right now, but apparently the New-U stations are no longer canon. Yes, you heard me, a major gameplay feature, one even referenced by the games main villain, is not canon. To declare a previous element to be non-canon is lazy writing as it is, to then actively keep it in the game and even reference it is slovenliness I had henceforth thought impossible.
And to prove it to you I’m going to fix it, and bear in mind I came up with this solution in about half an hour while daydreaming. Just have Angel hack the New U station at the start of the game, why not, she hacks pretty much everything else and it is Hyperion tech. Jack would probably already have fixed it, so the established characters had their patterns wiped and locked out from the system but through some computer jiggery-pokery angel would make it so yours can’t be wiped without deleting the entire database, including Jacks pattern, and we all know how much Jack has no interest in death, specifically his own. This could even be used to frame the final boss battle as it would give a reason for Jack to respawn in different more dangerous and heavily armed variants each time, and the players task would be to keep him distracted while another character offscreen exploited a backdoor left by Angel into the Hyperion computer system to find a way to kill him permanently, and they eventually find out how to do it, by hacking his bank account and setting it to zero, meaning his has no money to pay to respawn.
Another glaring plot hole is in Control Core Angel when the player breaks in to take the vault key and, at her request, kills Angel, the siren who was using her powers to charge the key with Eridium. After having killed her Jack appears, killing Roland and kidnapping Lilith to charge the key instead, yet Maya can be in the chamber as well and he makes no attempt to kidnap her. On a gameplay front this is perfectly understandable since you can’t have one of the party abducted to do nothing for several hours, but from a story perspective it’s a grating oversight, one that again, I can easily rectify. Instead of just needing the vault key to open the new vault, have it also protected by what is essentially some form of Eridian electronic lock that Angel’s been working to break, but due to the massive complexity of it compared to traditional tech its been slow going. Having seen Lilith teleport Sanctuary earlier in the game, Jack realises upon Angel’s death that he might not need her after all and instead kidnaps Lilith to force her to teleport them directly inside of the vault, bypassing whatever security measures Angel was struggling with. Of course, kidnapping Maya for this would be pointless since her powers couldn’t help him open the vault either way.
I feel I should also add I was never really a fan of the reveal of the Angel character, the mystery surrounding her was always one of the most interesting parts of the original borderlands to me, though I suppose I can’t entirely blame the writers of borderlands 2 for this since it is hinted at in the ending of borderlands 1 that she has a connection to Hyperion. Personally, though I wouldn’t have made her a Siren, I’d have made her an AI, it would likely have changed little about her character and ultimately, I think made her more interesting.
Speaking of returning characters though, perhaps one of the most glaring for me was not an inclusion, but an omission, that of Helena pierce, tragically killed in death offscreen by audio log. Though part of me is somewhat thankful for this, Helena Peirce was one of my favourite characters from the original Borderlands and seeing her name dragged through the mud would have been a travesty for me. However, her removal does open the door to some fascinating insights, not so much because of her specifically, but for what she represents.
Helena pierce was a tough, resourceful no-nonsense woman who didn’t take any crap from anyone, she was perfectly willing to stand up to those who were more powerful than her, such as the crimson lance, and you. I’m sure you remember how she initially wouldn’t let you pass through into the salt flats, and how she insisted you clean up your messes when you did a dodgy deal for Marcus or some two-bit scheme in Jaynistown went south. The way Helena and the other NPCs treat you offers a perhaps surprising insight into the game that most people likely overlook, you’re not a hero.
This requires some clarification, the way the NPCs address you isn’t with any sort of reverence or awe, you’re just another guy. Another mercenary out to make some money, little better the hordes of bloodthirsty bandits you’re slaughtering by the dozen, you’re not on some adventure to save the world, you’re here to get paid, hell, the only reason you go after the Crimson Lance is because they get in your way. This is perhaps a case of death of the author, where I’m reading too much into something that was never really intended by its original creators, but even if this was unintentional I still think its intriguing.
This is of course only noticeable when you contrast it with borderlands 2, where NPCs fawn over you in Sanctuary and praise your every deed, while this doubtless becomes tiresome within the first five minutes for most players there is a deeper more sinister aspect to it. Borderlands 2 is a quite linear game and therefor there isn’t a lot of choice in it, meaning your path is already laid out for you and it is obviously the right path, the path the writers want you to take. Now, if the game is telling you that you’re a hero, then obviously whatever actions you’re talking must be the correct ones, after all, you’re the hero, even when those actions are re-igniting feuds for financial gain and slaughtering dozens of otherwise uninvolved third parties, such as in the Hodunks and Zaphods questline, or setting wild animals on Hyperion staff in Mordecai’s revenge quest, or murdering those who speak ill of you such as in the Hunter Hellquest mission.
But wait, I hear you cry, its okay when we do it, we’re the good guys. Sure, you are, that’s what every tyrant, every murderer, every monster in history has told themselves while they carried out their crimes, and its what borderlands 2 is telling you right now. Maybe the reason I didn’t really like Jack that much is he reminds me too much of the players character, after all how much difference is there really between them, you’re just two sociopathic dogs fighting over a bone, and god have mercy over anyone else who gets too close.
Perhaps then that’s why Helena Pierce had to die, after all, the first step to descending into the heart of darkness is to kill your conscience, and so that’s what the writers, subconsciously or otherwise, did. It certainly does make me question their motives though, and if they’re the sort of people I’d trust to have around to a dinner party. After all, the most terrifying monsters are those that don’t know that they’re monsters.
But I feel obliged to end on a positive note, so I’ll list some of the things I liked as well as some changes or improvements I’d make. Upon some consideration I really like the idea of Eridium, I think it was an excellent way to advance the plot, I also, perhaps somewhat grudgingly, kind of liked Captain Scarlet from the DLC of the same name, that DLC overall was fairly good, I liked the hover skiff and getting back to a desert setting full of scrap and bandits, or pirates in this case and just hunting for treasure without having to worry about saving the world.
But anyways, onto what I’d change about borderlands 2 and how I’d fix it. I’ve divided this into two parts, how I’d write Borderlands 2 if it was up to me, and how I’d write Borderlands 3 to try and patch up the issues from Borderlands 2.
If I were writing borderlands 2 I’d keep the Eridium idea, but I’d make it a little bit less one sided, in my version rather than Hyperion vs the locals, you’d have several corporations take an interest in the new mineral deposits and make plans to stake claims on Pandora, probably Hyperion and Dahl though others could also show up. Anyway, it’d be inevitable that sooner or later hostilities would break out between the rival corporations, possibly all out war, and where there’s war there’s profit. The locals would be caught in the middle of all this and while in my version the corporations aren’t there to subjugate the local population, they’re certainly not here on a humanitarian mission. Meanwhile all the Eridium popping up everywhere has been having some interesting effects on the old Eridian ruins, previously dormant technology seems to be coming back to life. Personally, I’m unsure if I’d add in a new vault, on one hand it kind of cheapens the first game, on the other without it there’s not as much incentive to play, the stakes aren’t quite as high, there’d definitely be some involvement with Eridian technology though.
As for how I’d write borderlands 3, well, if I had carte blanche I’d pull an X-Men days of future past and wipe out the entire post Borderlands 1 timeline, but I doubt even a head writer position would give me that kind of power and it’s more interesting trying to fix such a mess without being able to nuke it, so lets do that.
I think I have a nice little hook that explains a lot of the discrepancies between Borderlands 1 and 2, it turns out Eridium isn’t just an energy source, turns out its actually basically the blood of the Destroyer from Borderlands 1 that’s seeped out through dimensions and into the earth of Pandora, and as you might expect exposure to the blood of a dead god has some rather nasty side effects. Insanity, more or less, but a rather interesting type of insanity, your vision seems to grow more colourful and intense as your moral scruples become less and less relevant as you fall under its influence. This could make for some pretty interesting hallucination sequences if done right and would also allow for endless opportunities to rib the previous games shortcomings. As for the plot, well the pre-sequel already heavily hints at something, such as potentially the return of the Eridians or some other threat, I’d definitely keep that as part of the game and perhaps throw in a hostile corporation, because that’s kind of become a tradition, maybe Dahl this time.
I think the most interesting thing I’d change is that you wouldn’t be playing as the heroes, the mighty vault hunters who are going to save pandora are already there, you’re just some b lister chumps who are going to be helping out on the side. Furthermore, these vault hunters are psychopathic ■■■■■■■■, reminiscent of the likes of the pre-sequel vault hunters, and have now qualms about what jobs they take or how they accomplish them. You gradually must work your way up, gain reputation, convince the original vault hunters that these guys aren’t the way to go and beat them in a boss fight near the end of the game and then take on the big bad. I really like the idea of the bad guy vault hunters, it allows for a slightly different perspective on the story and would mean NPCs perhaps address you in a different manner than to borderlands 2, I also think it would make for an excellent satire of some of the more unsightly aspects of borderlands 2 while still being interesting and not too preachy.
As for returning characters, well, I have plans for quite a few of them, I’d love to develop Tina’s character into being one of the bad guy vault hunters, I think her psychopathic nature would fit the role perfectly and since she embodies so much of what I dislike about the series it would be a superb fit. However, I suspect there’d be a certain amount of potential fan backlash about making her a bad guy, I think I could perhaps make it work with some good writing, perhaps cast her as something of a likable villain along the lines of the sheriff of lynchwood and maybe give her a redemption arc at the end where she realises what she’s became and sacrifices herself to help defeat the others. A fine line to walk, perhaps, but I think it could be done, and if it was easy it wouldn’t be fun.
I’d consider bringing Angel back as an AI, why? Because I think having her in a post corporeal and post jack existence could make for some interesting character development, and it’d be a nice big middle finger to some of the writers at gearbox. I’d also have claptrap set back to his factory settings and become more like his original self from Borderlands 1, or at least less annoying. I’d also write something for Mr Torgue, either an arc where he gets a girlfriend and then over time finds out that she’s a complete bitch, so he finally realises all women aren’t queens. Or a storyline where he meets some quint old fashioned conservative lady and over time falls for her and the two of them have a sort of chalk and cheese thing going on where they complement each other. I’m not exactly a huge fan of Mr Torgue but I can see why some people like the character and he’s not the most awful one out there.
That’s all I can think of for now, though I may come back and amend this at a later date, overall this entire experience has been quite cathartic, its been good to finally get all of this off my chest after having had it pent up for so long. Overall I think this has been a good thing, even if nobody agrees with me, and with that said, I think I’m going to go and play some more borderlands, after all, ain’t no rest for the wicked.