Borderlands Is the Best Metaphor for Game Crunch

Self-critical of its genre. Well ahead of its time.

There have been a few attempts in the past to recreate past experiences of interactive glory and repurpose them for the modern age. Whether it was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the first two BioShock games, the Ezio trilogy for 8th generation consoles, Assassin’s Creed III, Halo: the Master Chief Collection (soon to be released on PC), The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Naughty Dog’s output on 7th gen, the full suite of storytelling-focused Quantic Dream games to have been released on PlayStation 4, soon to come exclusively on the Epic Games Store for PC, and many more. They’ve not always been the most successful, and were often subsequently seen by gamers as a last-ditch effort to capitalize on nostalgia rather than a legitimate attempt at retrofitting an outdated style of play into modernity. What often plagues those remasters however, is that the original games lose a lot of the flair in the transition — this was best exemplified in the Halo: MCC, where in an effort to make the games more visually and sonically appealing, wounded up compromising a lot of the artistic decisions made at the mercy of technical constraints at the time. The artistic drive behind them ends up taking a backseat to the promise of a refreshed experience, and it is not always to everyone’s liking.

Gearbox recently announced their long-awaited sequel to universally beloved Borderlands 2 after seven years of wait. This also came with the assurance that anyone who owned the existing catalogue of Borderlands games would get a free graphical upgrade, and also, a remaster of the very first entry in the series for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. If the game was already in your Steam library — regardless of whether you owned the Game-of-the-Year edition prior — you will get the remaster at no extra change, and you’ll be able to import your character, and get your achievements back (though the caveat is that gaining achievements has been made easier, so some will not reproduce since they’ve been deleted, but you’ll instantly rack up half-a-dozen in a mere hour’s play). This has made the decision for me to dive back into the first Borderlands far easier, and where I did end up fighting it to work before, now it works like a total breeze.

When I initially downloaded the game, I immediately noticed that it has become 8GB larger in size. Since there’s no mention of motion capture work being redone, the only logical explanation would be a considerable increase in texture size — and indeed it was the case. Everything looks far shaper now, and while I didn’t find the game particularly offensive on the eye, it was noticeably jarring for me the first time around since I played the games in reverse-chronological order of release. Getting back down from the Pre-Sequel saw me missing quite a bit of Pandora’s moon Elpis’ low-gravity, very vicious style of play, but Borderlands 2 more than made up for it with its variety of locations and its amazing character work; building on the solid foundation Borderlands the first has set up for it. I did play a dozen hours of the first Borderlands before this remaster came out, but when I found myself fighting the game’s clunky controls and pace-breaking lack of a mini-map, I was only met with the choice to remove it and settle for my preference of its subsequent entries instead.

Borderlands GOTY however, is much more than a remaster. It’s a look at a foundational game design philosophy that’s come to birth so much of what is taken for granted in today’s gaming space. This vice that ex-Kotaku writer Kirk Hamilton described as “the itch to fill up bars” wasn’t born out of thin air — it was first popularized by Borderlands’ excellent class system, and the inventive ways in which it varied loot despite the very limited toolset developers had been working with at the time. We can see that system manifest in the way the game has been structured, and how it encourages individuality in style and approach.

I don’t like mechanical analysis of video games. I think it’s boring, and it does a major disservice to the great narrative underlying work that goes behind them. But in Borderlands, the mechanical melds with the story in ways I did not expect to promptly notice as I did, especially seeing as how the series has often been characterized as nothing more than a pellet-spread face-blasting blood-orgy fiesta.

The conceit to utilizing firearms as a tool to traverse the wretched planes of Borderlands is important. Hyperion is portrayed to having harvested Pandora for all its worth, and that left them with a hierarchical structure where those most better-off live in a distant space station, completely isolated from the common troubles of the very planet they were responsible for destroying. What fueled the early excavations of spoils retrieval early on was the misguided quest for technological improvement based on the false promise that whatever is uncovered behind the walls of a very well-guarded alien artefact, would hold the keys to great power, and would in turn help Hyperion assert dominance over its immediate planetary surroundings. But where Borderlands twists that, is in putting the only sentient and lucid interactable characters front and center of the conflict. It’s not a shared interstellar responsibility amongst many species — humans remain the only ones responsible. In a sense, they’re the ones who started it, and they’re the ones to still desperately seek its end.

I’ve mentioned in my quick write-up on Shadow of War, that developers are starting to become much more cognizant of violence’s legacy in the gaming medium, and they’re continuously implementing more elements of that immaterial conflict within the body of the text. While many gamers remain woefully oblivious to subtext and paratext when analyzing the propos of their beloved products of entertainment, the gaming press overall has seen a trend on the upswing where games are not only examined from the perspective of individual satisfaction, but also cultural impact and influence. Borderlands remains as much a product of our current culture, as it is an inflection on its lack of rumination over the harmful legacy of glossing over gratuitous violence in video games.

Borderlands however, especially the first one, earns its badge of self-awareness more than any other game in the genre. The — literally — deserted locales brimming with beasts walking, crawling and flying, tells the story of a planet once prosperous. You even learn of the very first instance a researcher by the name of Patricia Tannis, has set foot on the planet and was quickly becoming consumed by its cycle of violence. The lust for growth beyond consequence has set the entire planet on a downward spiral to societal self-implosion, and where few glimmers of hope remain afoot in the few towns you’re able to visit throughout play, most of it remains populated by unending hordes of psychotic bandits whose only currency of exchange has become firearms, explosions, and ammo magazines. They barely have enough food to eat, and the desolated state of their homes has become pretext for them pursuing madness beyond repair.

It’s weird that I feel most sorry for these bandits. Hyperion and Dahl robbed them of the chance at a better life, and all I keep doing throughout the game is busting their brains out of their skulls just as I pass through to collect some McGuffin or a quest item I have to then fetch back for some money. This is one of those games where I really started to question the nobility of what I’m doing on a very deep level — is me shooting tons of bad guys with complete disregard for their livelihoods any different from them coming at me when I’m infringing upon their territory? Desperate times make for some drastically desperate measures, and when I’m dropped off a bus to embark on a journey of most epic proportions, I’m not only shedding every last bit of humanity I may have had, but I’m also feeding into the cycle of violence perpetuated by Pandora’s vilest creatures. And that, has a tendency of surfacing a very familiar shiver up my spine when I’m reminded what this most closely resembles.

Gaming industry insider and serial auteur of damning exposés on Kotaku, Jason Schreier, recently uncovered two major stories of crunch. The first one was ricocheting Rockstar’s insidious comments on Vulture that writers were working hundred-hour weeks, further playing into an endemic symptom prevalent in the industry whereby crunch is considered hard work; the second one most recently was about the troubled development of Anthem under the heavy weight of misery to predominate BioWare’s work environment. This just puts into question so much of what was thought to be conventional wisdom, and if Jason’s insider information is to be believed, so many developers have come forward to basically say their own studio does very much ascribe to a pattern of indecisiveness and late-production crunch that has become untenable for both the workforce, and the industry as a whole.

See how barren and muted everything in Borderlands is? That’s how I imagine the gaming industry five years from now if no major reforms are under serious consideration. If top-end management at Hyperion kept throwing their militaristic and capital force behind a project of growth that put Pandora at peril, it is not completely out of the question to see the gaming industry completely leveled by burnout if these issues aren’t remedied as quickly as possible.

Playing video games as of recent has become an exercise of moral alertness. I’m much more careful to throw my endorsement behind a game if I know it was made under horrid conditions, or was otherwise architected to scam vulnerable players out of their money. It’s this Twilight Zone of a predicament where everything you grip a controller to play, has at least a tangible amount of say on the very conditions to have permitted its existence.

If Borderlands was the precursor to the looter shooter genre, does that make it a culprit in eventually giving birth to some of the most troubled products of entertainment in current times? In some ways, no, but in others, I’m more inclined to agree, at least on principle.

Borderlands did come out at an age where the military shooter was out in full swing and would usurp space from any other competitor to even attempt to section off a piece of it. Battlefield was one of the very few to have survived, and even then, it’s barely managing now that battle royale is the new thing, but where Battlefield often failed, is in critically examining the jingoistic platitudes that dictate whoever side the player is on, isn’t necessarily the “good side”, or even the morally questionable side — it’s villains all the way around. Borderlands however doesn’t coat its narrative with even the thinnest layer of hope — the planet was already ravaged by extensive resource extraction, and the only ones left battling for the remains are using tools of destruction forged out of the very materials to have laid waste on their habitat.

The game pits you from start to finish with the ethical conundrum of pursuing a vault of extraordinary spoils. How does that even differ from what Handsome Jack has already been doing? The game doesn’t bother to answer that question since — honestly — it had been made abundantly clear that you’re not a good guy at all — you’re just a “guy”. Someone on a mad pursuit for a treasure chest they don’t know the contents of, nor the cost they’re willing to pay to retrieve it. There is some flat character dressing and a semi-coherent overarching narrative to tie everything all neatly together, but let’s face it — it remains naught but a pretext to shove bullets down foes’ foul front holes. That’s perhaps what the allure for looter shooters should’ve been — a thorough examination of what a bottomless well of looted goodies comes at the expense of. Both in emotional and physical labor by developers, and the characters to inhabit the very universes we enjoy exploring. Somewhere along the way, that got lost, and all the deep sociological stances Borderlands had originally made, were massively subsided in looter shooters to come after.

Destiny — which was back then heavily compared to Borderlands before it was itself a main comparison point for Anthem — has become less about facing the moral quandary of an endless quest towards creating more things to then only destroy, and is now fully centered on the far simpler to attain fun proposition of amassing rare loot and selfishly indulging itself to expand the lore beyond what is of narrative servitude. It sorely lacks that self-awareness about the permeation of capitalism’s ills in every single aspect of our lives.

Sure, there may have been a few hints at socioeconomic commentary here and there, but Destiny especially as a model for looter shooters, has always revelled in glossing that over for a more heightened sense of story. One that is ultimately devoid of meaning and significance. That’s not to say Borderlands is any more meaningful, but it at least aspires to be critical of its upbringing and the narrow space of competition it entered as the prototype for the modern gaming community was starting to get formed. It came in an era where analysis was less contextualized in the pains that game developers have to constantly go through to make good on their promises. But it’s one that still manages to keep that propos intact without infringing on the experience of playing what is fundamentally an artefact of the previous decade, but still every bit as relevant as the last string of self-critical games to have entered the market since.

It would be disingenuous for me to say I haven’t enjoyed Borderlands based on its most basic merits — a shooter where you kill a bunch of guys, and as you kill more of them, you get even better loot. Most elementally, it rewards murder in cold blood. But what I appreciate about Borderlands, is that even in its moments of over-the-top ridiculousness, it remains almost retroactively aware of the impact it had on the games next to come. In the same way a 90s Hip-Hop album can be appreciated for its time-specific social commentary on the realities of poor black neighborhoods, Borderlands is as equally introspective of the very things to have permitted its existence. If it’s not a product of certain ethical integrity, it at least encourages its consumers to ponder the circumstances under which it has been made.

In the quest to carve a share of an ever-growing pie of financial spoils, game developers often lose their way and end up grieving themselves and audiences alike. Randy Pitchford, Gearbox’s CEO, doesn’t have the cleanest of records as far as professional integrity is concerned, but to my very limited knowledge, he hasn’t treated his employees like absolute garbage. That alone, allows the capitalism-conscious part of my brain to turn off while I lose adrift to the rhythm of a song, an anthem, sung by the groans of dying thugs, and the departure of firepower out of bullet chambers abundant.