Quantcast

Editorials

Why Borderlands is Good for Games

on

So here’s something that I’ve been mulling over ever since Borderlands: the Pre-Sequel and Tales from the Borderlands. The Borderlands series is good for the games industry as a whole, not only just in showing what a good game can be like, but in showing what a socially responsible game can be.

So why is Borderlands good for games? Well, primarily because the franchise isn’t weak anywhere.

Any individual game you look at is fantastic on its own, but I don’t want this article to just focus on one game, or one part of a game. Instead, I want to focus on the games and franchise in a holistic sense. I could very well talk about just how good the mechanics are, but games aren’t just mechanics: they’re story, artwork, marketing, sound effects, and music. Failing horribly on any one of these could be bad, but instead I feel the Borderlands franchise excelled at all of them. So let’s take a look at why Borderlands nails it.

Mechanics

Mechanics are the most basic part of any game. The player is either engaged from the start or they immediately pop out the game and ask for a refund. When it comes to mechanics, Borderlands absolutely nails the basics of the genre. Running, jumping, item interaction, reloading, they all feel perfect and your character does exactly what you expect them to. Even more, Gearbox shows how to give mechanics depth without them getting in the way.

What’s nice about Borderlands is its split screen element. Many games don’t have it these days, but the joy of playing local co-op on Borderlands with a partner shows why this feature is still something we need in gaming today. Even better, you can play local co-op and internet co-op at the same time, making sure couchmates can still play with their friends elsewhere.

Story

Actually, screw that. Let’s break this down into writing and plot.

Writing

It’s impossible to deny how hilarious the writing for the franchise is. The creative minds behind “Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’?“delivered a package that’s clever, entertaining, and isn’t overburdened with the gravitas of other games like Destiny, Mass Effect, or Elder Scrolls. There’s definitely a meta awareness going on, as if all the characters have an inkling that this is all a game, but they’re still being bros and playing along. That sort of meta-awareness gets even more convoluted with Tiny Tina’s Bunkers and Badasses DLC, which will either be unbearable for you or make your sides split. I fell into the later category.

borderlands bisexual

Fun fact: the playable character Axton is confirmed bisexual.

Another reason Borderlands’ writing is amazing is the very understated lack of social inequality. If you look closely, there are men and women fighting side by side as equals, minorities and majorities working together. Differences don’t matter because everyone is different in this place. You even hear and see fleeting evidence of same sex couples or bisexual characters, and it’s not a big deal. It’s progressive and understated, as if this is just how the world should be. Equal, because that’s just how it is. Other games have put these elements into their stories, but none have folded it in as seamlessly as Borderlands has.

Plot

While not immediately apparent, there’s definitely a reason your character is on Pandora (or on the Helios space station, or on the moon of Elpis), and as you complete the missions, there are reasons why you are continuing on to the next part of the quest… and why only your band of vault hunters can get this done.

The wild west theme of “everything’s properly fucked and you need to fix it” is used to its best ability. It takes a lot from ‘Firefly’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, in that no one gives a shit about rules, everyone is self-serving, and there is no true ‘good guy’, just less shitty guys. Playing the lesser evil among greater evils is fresh for me. Too many game characters are Mary Janes or Captain Americas without a speck of wrongdoing to smudge their character.

On the other hand, the main characters of Borderlands are caked with a unique moral ambiguity, and still they are the only people who can save the day. It’s novel and interesting, and none of it is over-explained. The plot takes full advantage of the fact that people are strange, selfish, and hard to predict when left to their own devices. There doesn’t always have to be a reason why things have gone one way or another if the situation’s minor. It is what it is – weird, and in need of solving.

Artwork

borderlands ice

Unique, bright, and engaging: three words I’d use to describe the art in Borderlands

The use of CEL-shading sets the Borderlands franchise far apart from its contemporaries. Most games are striving to push the limits of fidelity and are shoving themselves deep into that uncanny valley. While incredible fidelity and realism might be breathtaking and inspiring, I actually enjoy the fact that Borderlands has focused more on caricatures and ‘unrealism’, or surrealism, I suppose. They’ve properly embraced the truth that having the “most graphics” isn’t what sells games, but instead having a defined, unique aesthetic is what counts. That is absolutely something more developers need to understand.

Everything happening in the game is bizarre, otherworldly, and should be approached with jaded amusement. You can’t take a look at a badass skag with electricity shooting out of it’s mouth while playing and not marvel at how alien it is while gleefully shooting that motherfucker right in the goddamn face. There’s no room for reflection and philosophical consideration. 99% of what’s in the games is trying to kill you, and that last 1% is either Moxxi or has been inside Moxxi in some form or another. Having every single element of the game looking like a painting or a cartoon cements this unreal aesthetic, and is, in its own way, a commentary on the writing style of the game and how we should approach the franchise.

Marketing


There’s a reason I’m listening to the Borderlands 2 Doomsday Trailer on repeat as I write this. The music is great, the graphic overlay is quick, funny, and eyecatching, and the juxtaposition of dubstep and Lilith expounding grave caution with that amazing quarter shot of gorgeous red hair and glowing amber eye hits all the right notes for me and wastes no time with anything else. What other trailers would I watch on repeat? Not even the sound effects added in are bothering me – they actually blend in with the dynamics of the music exceptionally well.

Clearly they got someone very skilled to marry everything together in this game, and it shows on their other marketing campaigns as well. This, of course, ties back into the topics mentioned earlier. The marketing beautifully illustrates the unique aesthetic and treats everything on a holistic theme. We can look at the trailers and know exactly what we’re going to get in the game and why it’s unique. On the other hand, look at trailers for Every Military Shooter 2015 (not a real game) and you don’t come away thinking about how unique the game is in any sense.

Sound Effects

This isn’t typically a factor most would notice, but if the sound effects suck, then the game just doesn’t feel right. Again, everything is integrated and making sure the sound effects blend in correctly and sensibly keeps us from being pulled out of the game.

Let’s take the intro to Borderlands 2. After Markus (from Markus Munitions) provides a bit of ink-on-vellum backstory to bring everyone up to speed, you cut to a view of a billboard in this sandy, desert-and-mesa wasteland. The bass and wail of a wind storm is the first thing you hear, then the gurgle and lethargic movements of a skag (probably the same poor bastard that got smashed by Marcus’s bus in Borderlands 1) comes in to join the sound pallet. The Foley guys they got did a great job, as the skag’s foot steps sound just right. Then the car filled with bandits flies by, knocking down this poor bastard skag, and a chain is clung off the back after you hear the car moving off your left.

From then on it’s a gloriously violent slow motion display of bandits (and psycho midgets) being flung around in their cars by a futuristic train as our heroes are betrayed and attacked by the Hyperion loaders sent to escort them to Pandora. It’s easy to lose track of all the sounds because you’re so sucked into the moment. The impact of the sign (noting that this is a Gearbox software game) into the bandit’s torso is weighty and sadistically satisfying (let’s call a spade a spade), and just like in the trailer, the music overlay that kicks up is married into the sound effects perfectly. The music is almost a sound effect itself.

Music

Honestly, the NPCs make this game so damn good!

Honestly, the NPCs make this game so damn good!

Which brings us here. The intro songs for Borderlands (‘Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked’ by Cage the Elephant) and Borderlands 2 (‘Short Change Hero’ by The Heavy) set the tone and can be listened to over and over. Why is that important? If you get sick of a song after the second listen, will you really want to replay the game? And if you do like the intro music, hearing snippets of it in trailers and ads is only going to make you jones for it and run home to play the game. Classical conditioning works, folks. Even if you might not want to necessarily run home and play Borderlands, hearing either of those songs will make you feel good and put you into the same mindset and mood that the games have themselves – somewhat funkily bitter, jaded, and loaded with a stubborn joie de vivre.

Summary

Where game franchises may often fall short in the eyes of the general public is that the product sold is seen as being very narrow in scope. Let’s take titles that anyone wandering through Walmart or Target might see and remember. Call of Duty is immensely successful, but it’s an FPS that’s all about machismo, war, and gravitas. Destiny is the spiritual successor to Halo, and has very little coherent story in-game to give you much of a reason why anything is the way it is. It’s still fun to play, but the multiplayer can wear out quickly.

Please don’t misunderstand me – these games are all fun. They are a credit to the gaming industry and they sell like hotcakes. But do they really move the industry forward, or are they repackaging products that have come out before without offering anything terribly new? How much does clever writing, music, art, or engaging plot truly matter as a combination to these sorts of games? In comparison to Borderlands, I’d say that Mass Effect runs a close second in terms of cinematic production value. It plays like a movie, though with more gravitas than Borderlands has, of course. Both Mass Effect and Borderlands suffered from a devastatingly underwhelming ending, but at least Borderlands owned up to it, and sought to improve their error and actually make it part of the bigger story in later releases. To my knowledge, the Mass Effect crew just called us all a bunch of whiny jerks. That just might be my bitterness coloring the memory, of course (Mass Effect, you were the chosen one! Thank all that is good that Dragon Age: Inquisition was so solid).

So why is Borderlands good for games? Well, primarily because the franchise isn’t weak anywhere. You can come at its production from any direction – art, sound, story, coding – and you have to give it the credit it deserves. It’s a solid game backed by a team that is confident and knows exactly what the purpose of their game is. It’s not been put on this earth to expand a player’s understanding of the universe or the situations of mankind – it’s to shoot shit and cause mayhem in amusing ways. That’s it, and they nail it. They’ve brought a well-rounded product to the table and people like it, and then they made DLCs and sequels and presequels that people have liked too. It moves the industry forward because it can’t be dismissed as weak in any regard, and that is what gaming needs now: for games to be afforded the same consideration as an entertainment artform that movies and novels receive, there have to be more games which offer no quarter for being dismissed. Is that fair? No. But that’s the bar, and at least one franchise has met it. In short: Borderlands is good for games.

Let’s try for more.

About Sarah Brunson

has always liked science fiction and fantasy. Dune, Lord of the Rings, the Last Unicorn, Jhereg, Grimspace, 2001, you name it, she was probably devouring it if she could find it. Two liberal arts degrees later, one wedding, going into business for herself as a freelance editor, then signing on as a contractor to do some medical editing, she's at a place where I'd like to publish some fiction for herself.

Recommended for you