A deep dive into the groundbreaking and bestselling video game series
The critically acclaimed first-person shooter franchise Borderlands knows it’s ridiculous. It’s a badge of pride. After all, Borderlands 2 was promoted with the tagline “87 bazillion guns just got bazillionder.” These space-western games encourage you to shoot a lot of enemies and monsters, loot their corpses, and have a few chuckles while chasing down those bazillion guns. As Kaitlin Tremblay explores in Ain’t No Place for a Hero, the Borderlands video game series satirizes its own genre, exposing and addressing the ways first-person shooter video games have tended to exclude women, queer people, and people of colour, as well as contribute to a hostile playing environment.
Tremblay also digs in to the way the Borderlands game franchise which has sold more than 26 million copies disrupts traditional notions of heroism, creating nuanced and compelling storytelling that highlights the strengths and possibilities of this relatively new narrative medium. The latest entry in the acclaimed Pop Classics series, Ain’t No Place for a Hero is a fascinating read for Borderlands devotees as well as the uninitiated.
About the Author
Kaitlin Tremblay is a writer, independent game developer, and narrative producer in video games. She is the co-editor of the speculative fiction anthology Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories and has written about video games for Playboy, Vice, and the Mary Sue. She is a narrative design mentor in video games and can always be found ranting about video games and storytelling on Twitter at @kait_zilla. Kaitlin lives in Toronto.
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The Lay of the Land
In a 2013 panel at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas took video game storytelling to task. Lucas said, "Telling a story, it's a very complicated process ... You're leading the audience along. You are showing them things. Giving them insights. It's a very complicated construct and very carefully put together. If you just let everybody go in and do whatever they want, then it's not a story anymore. It's simply a game."
This criticism of games ignores the fundamental beauty of the potential of storytelling in games: you're creating a story along with your audience, rather than just giving them a story to consume in its entirety. Roger Ebert, famously, took down video games by referring to them as being inferior to literature and film. "Video games," Ebert said in a follow-up Q&A post on his own website, "by their very nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control." This loss of complete and total authorial control isn't to be feared, but rather to be embraced.
Players will always bring an element of themselves to the story they're experiencing (be it their understanding of their character, the way they believe their actions fit into the world, their perceptions of the events in the world, etc.), and a writer and narrative designer's job is to create a story that can account for this level of interactivity, the emotional and mental input from the player. It's about giving players the tools to experience a story in a less rigid, or traditional, way. There is still structure and authorial control, but the author's intentions are no longer the only factor at play. Rather than being a strategy that limits narrative impact, inviting in player agency dramatically expands the potential of what a story can say, achieve, and mean to the audience. Just because it's different doesn't mean it's less than. Yes, it's a game. And yes, this comes with its own unique challenges. But it's not "simply" a game.
While apprehension toward the quality of storytelling in video games is not new, dictating that video games will never be able to achieve great storytelling feats is incredibly shortsighted and misinformed. Film directors who don't engage in video game storytelling won't know the potential inherent in video games, especially when there's a basic misunderstanding of how traditional storytelling devices are employed. For example, at the same USC panel, Lucas went on to say, "By its very nature, there cannot be a plot in games."
All due respect to Lucas, Spielberg, and Ebert, but they vastly underestimate what video games have achieved and join a long history of naysayers who've decried the quality of storytelling in this art form. Plot is the linked events that cause a story to move forward, and we see plot in the entire Borderlands franchise, within and across games. In Borderlands 1, you open the Vault, which releases Eridium (a form of special currency introduced in the second game) into the world, which enables Jack to imprison Angel to charge the key to open an even greater Vault so that he can try and become the ruler of the world in Borderlands 2. Eridium also makes Lilith stronger; she becomes a force to be reckoned with in taking down Jack. Plot is arriving on Pandora as a mercenary to become something like a hero, only to have your actions create the ultimate villain who drives the events of the next two games.
Not only does plot exist in video games, the mechanics serve to reinforce the story, especially in games like Borderlands and other shooters. The game mechanic is to defeat increasingly challenging enemies by shooting them, which directly echoes the plot: shoot a lot of enemies that are trying to kill you while you try to find the Vault. As you play, you become more skilled, and your character also becomes stronger, leveling up, learning new skills, and growing in both skill and reputation. Narratively, this makes sense. The closer you get to the Vault, the stronger the enemies you encounter, and the higher the stakes become as you near the endgame. The plot is fueled by the play mechanics: shooting this thing causes this other bad thing to happen, which is now the main bad thing you must fight to save the world. You're not just watching plot unfold, you're enacting it.
The game's loot system has a similar effect: players need guns, money, and equipment, and the more loot they scavenge, the better they progress through the game. Borderlands is essentially the story of a treasure hunt, and you're the one collecting treasure. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (TPS) introduces the Grinder, a machine that lets players put in three weapons of the same rarity level in order to randomly create a new weapon of a higher rarity level. All those weaker weapons that players find through random loot drops come to mean something — you can create something really cool. It expands the game's universe so beautifully: find the weapon you need to be the strongest and to therefore survive, or if you can't do that, create a stronger weapon out of the weaker guns. It's crafting, as is common in many RPGs and FPSs, but by blending it into the game's randomized system, it breeds more exploration and looting, which furthers the main plot of a bloody, murderous treasure hunt.
These mechanics also reinforce the main theme of the game and the myths that made Pandora what it is: nobody is born special. But anybody can become special.
Beyond plot, video games have also proven their capacity to create fully realized worlds where vignettes flesh out the universe in subtle and meaningful ways: outside of the main narrative, you can lose countless hours exploring side missions. For example, in Borderlands 1, there is the side mission "Wanted: Fresh Fish": there are fish in the sludge on Pandora, but they're rare and not easy to get. Subtle and deceptively simple, this side mission shades in so much detail about life on Pandora: it is hard, food is rare, environments are poisoned by sludge, and sometimes the best way to catch a fish is to bomb the water they live in. "Wanted: Fresh Fish" tells us what we need to know of the land: "fresh" is a joke because Pandora has little fresh food, but people still need to find sustenance on this planet.
By their very natures, games — especially in open world games like the Mass Effect series or those that prioritize storytelling like Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011) and Borderlands — provide a unique storytelling opportunity to create vignettes that flesh out the world and the main plot without being intrusive. A writer or narrative designer might not be able to maintain narrative tension in a game the same way a film or novel does, but that doesn't mean the storytelling feats of video games are any less worthy or compelling.
In Mass Effect 3 (2012), while on the Citadel — the main intergalactic hub in the game's universe — you can overhear conversations. Sometimes these conversations lead to quests, but other times they are simply there for environmental storytelling (the act of creating an immersive narrative experience through the settings and locations player characters find themselves in). Mass Effect 3 takes place during a war, when humans and aliens are faced with seemingly inevitable destruction by an ancient alien race that periodically wipes out all other races. On the Citadel, a player can choose to listen in as a woman, affected by memory loss, repeatedly approaches a young receptionist to inquire after her missing son. The receptionist, though exhausted by this sad conversation, always entertains the woman's pleas, always engages her. Not only do we see the way civilians react to the war, and the loss everyone feels, this interaction also shows the empathy people have for each other in such times. The receptionist gives the older woman hope and shows her kindness.
It's a conversation found only by the player exploring their surroundings (an agency readers and movie-goers do not have), and it subtly extends the story, as "Wanted: Fresh Fish" does. In Mass Effect 3, this overheard dialogue shows the player how devastated humanity is by the war without telling us "Humanity is devastated." It's heartbreaking, it's beautiful — an incredible example of the depth of the story in the game. And it's left entirely up to the player to discover. To a certain extent, video games offer players stories at their own pace and tailored to their own desires. If a player just wants the main story, they can choose to stick to that plotline. But if a player wants more, there is usually more to discover. It's a kind of reactive storytelling open to a variety of audiences.
In his book Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, Jesper Juul describes fictional worlds as being incomplete and writes, "In most cases, the incompleteness of a fictional world leaves the user with a number of choices in the imagining of the world." While incompleteness is not unique to video games, it makes video game worlds like Pandora in Borderlands so wonderful to occupy. You can explore, but there will also be bits left up to our imagination in fill in. (What does that "fresh" fish taste like? Probably electrified sludge, but it's up to the player to imagine.)
Juul elaborates, "Marie-Laure Ryan [a prominent literary scholar and critic] has proposed the principle of minimal departure, which states that when a piece of information about the fictional world is not specified, we fill in the blanks using our understanding of the actual world." The beauty, allure, and mystery of Pandora and Elpis (Pandora's moon, the icy main setting for The Pre-Sequel) is compounded by the perfect balance of information and design (these worlds are Earthlike, but are inhabited by uncanny monsters not found on Earth), which leaves room for a player to fill in the blanks. And everyone's Pandora is likely a little bit different, depending on what information they've gleaned and how they've filled in missing bits with their imagination.
Rather than create codices on all the species, technology, and planets in the universe in the way that the Mass Effect series does, Borderlands is content to let you, the player, explore the world, creating your own individualized encyclopedia from the main plot, side stories, overheard bits of conversations, half-remembered snippets from a history textbook, and your imagination. The only way to understand the fictional world of Borderlands is to live in it, to talk to the characters, and immerse yourself in the fiction. This level of interactivity doesn't limit the story being told. Rather, it opens it up, inviting the players to discover its pieces and stitch them together to craft a more fleshed out and meaningful story.
Making History of Myths
Reading reviews of Borderlands 1 on the website Common Sense Media, written by parents whose children are either interested in buying the game or are currently playing it, yielded an interesting perspective on the game. One parent warns that it includes "incest and liquor-induced cannibalism," which is not wrong, not even in the slightest. Another review boiled Borderlands 1 down to being about "people who try to find gold and technology." The four-sentence review doesn't say much else about the game, and I love that rather than remarking upon the crass humor, sexual innuendos, violence, cannibalism, and all the other very clear aspects that make it a very mature (immature?) game, this parent deftly identified the whole crux of Borderlands. Its surface is crude and vulgar, but underneath that offensive and outrageous exterior lies a simple treasure hunt.
The key to any good treasure hunt is not just the promise of loot, but a rich and believable legend, dating back to before living memory. Its own history. Of course, history is not born fully constructed and ready to be read, but instead is created from both archival materials and the stories we tell. History is a story, a legend bolstered by records. The academic scholar Linda Hutcheon famously coined the theoretical term "historiographic metafiction" to refer to postmodern stories that weave intertextuality, history, and metafiction together to reveal the ways in which history is constructed. Hutcheon writes, "Historiographic metafiction ... represents a challenging of the (related) conventional forms of fiction and history through its acknowledgment of their inescapable textuality." Both fiction and history are texts, constructed through similar acts of storytelling built upon recorded data. In Borderlands, we see the Vault Hunters embark on a treasure hunt, weaving a new story while at the same time creating history: their actions are both history and a story, and the game itself becomes a living emblem of this dynamic. But the true catalysts for everything that occurs on Pandora and in Borderlands 1 are Marcus and Tannis.
From its very beginning, Borderlands 1 establishes the importance of Marcus's storytelling: "So you want to hear a story, eh? One about treasure hunters? Ha ha, have I got a story for you!" He both invites and challenges the player, as he takes obvious pleasure in being the storyteller. Marcus recounts the history of Pandora and its mythology. As he details the legacy of the Vault on Pandora, he introduces us to the playable characters in their typical gaming role: Roland is the soldier who can deal damage per second (but he is also the healer of the group, a break from typical characterization in games); Mordecai, as the sniper and long-range character; Lilith, as the siren and magic user. Then Marcus shifts away from the framework and introduces Brick as "himself," which tells us that Brick is a tank character designed to eat up and deal a lot of damage. But by saying "himself," Borderlands is hinting that it won't just follow in the well-trod footsteps of other games. It's pointing at these footsteps. And stomping on them, or veering off trail. Marcus winks knowingly at the player; he embellishes, alters, derides, and snarks as he takes his own route through the story as only a bus-driving business man can.
As storyteller, Marcus's importance is paramount: without him, the story of the Vault and the Vault Hunters would never get told. And if it doesn't get told, it can't inspire. Pandora exists as it does because of its mythology inspiring others to become Vault Hunters or megalomaniacs in search of ultimate power. Without the legend of the Vault, there would be no Atlas, no Dahl, no bandits and mercenaries — no civilization on Pandora.
Mythology in Borderlands is not a throwaway element. It is the very backbone of the entire game, the entire world, and all the characters. There is nothing in Borderlands that is not, in some way, influenced by the power of mythology. "My father would always go on about the Vault, even with his dying breath," Marcus says. The legend of the Vault tantalized everyone with the promise of something more, something that would drive people to inhabit a dangerous, desolate wasteland. Legends and myths aren't just idle stories. They inspire actions. They inspire identities. As Marcus says, "So you can understand why some little kiddos who hear the stories grow up to become Vault Hunters."
But there would be no story for Marcus to tell without records of the Vault left behind by Tannis. In both Borderlands 1 and Borderlands 2, Tannis's ECHO recordings (voice recordings left behind by previous inhabitants or other people in the world) feature prominently as a way of disseminating critical information to the player. As the main researcher and archaeologist investigating the Vault, Tannis is a wealth of information and the primary source of everything officially recorded about the Vault.
Tannis's investigations — the scientific fact that backs up and informs the current mythology of Pandora — are directly mired in legend, though. In her second ECHO recording that you find in Borderlands 1, Tannis explains, "When I attach scientific inquiry to something like the Vault, I am greeted with silly nursery rhymes and slack-jawed soliloquy about a man who knew a man who knew a man." Tannis researches by sifting through the legends that have been passed down orally, which exist only in shared stories. In many ways, Borderlands prioritizes oral history as both a means of entertainment and cultural record, because scientific methods become compromised by the myths and legends that inform everything.
Excerpted from "Ain't No Place for a Hero"
Copyright © 2017 Kaitlin Tremblay.
Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: No Rest for the Wicked, 1,
The Lay of the Land, 9,
Making History of Myths, 17,
"I Fart Rainbows": The Humor, 25,
"A Day without Slaughter Is like a Day without Sunshine": Megacorporations and Violence, 34,
"Something Something Hero Stuff": Killing Your Heroes, 44,
Fictional Worlds, Real People, 59,
Sirens: "Fear Me, Bitches", 75,
Like Mother, Like Daughter: Moxxi and Ellie, 83,
"Called Me Mad, They Did": Madness, Survival, and Psychos, 91,
Forgiveness, Death, and Mourning, 99,
"My Siren's Name's Brick and She Is the Prettiest": Toxic Masculinity, 105,
Conclusion: Come at Me, Bro, 115,