Hey, I’m going to talk about Borderlands 2, and part of this discussion relies on mentioning the final boss. This game came out in 2012, and the ending is pretty predictable, but here’s your spoiler warning anyway.
Borderlands 2 is the most fun I’ve had with an RPG in a long time. I was convinced that RPGs spend too much time on fetch quests to be worth my time, but I found myself having fun even when I had to retrieve five generic items. It was surprising, really, to feel my reaction to this game, and I had to wonder why this one was so different. What about this game sets it apart from its competitors? This is what I settled on Borderlands 2 fuels its comedic core with an absurd, pervasive moral system that cannot be reconciled with anything in the real world. I can’t describe any other game I know in this way, so this highlights at least some of Borderlands uniqueness.
Everybody is a terrible person in the games world, and nobody seems like they want to change that. This really is a special element, since most games will set opponents on different moral grounds to justify their struggle. Good vs Evil is the easy dynamic, but Borderlands opts for Somewhat Evil vs Somewhat Evil. Hyperion and the Crimson Raiders are the two main factions on Pandora, and both of them are equally flawed. They want to achieve total control of Pandora and its citizens at any cost, and they kill whoever stands in the way of that goal. Mimicking the major factions, everyone else the player meets uses murder to achieve their goals. This is captured by Tiny Tina, a thirteen-year-old girl who is honestly more brutal than many other characters. This young girl should be the last person to murder for self-betterment, but her willingness symbolically signals that no one on Pandora will challenge this common practice. When everybody is somewhat evil, nobody feels all that corrupt, so the consistency eliminates any clear villain or hero from the narrative.
“Isn’t the player the hero in this game?” Frankly, the player in Borderlands is just as bad as everyone else. They’ll kill practicing doctors for a price, rob banks, and take down whole family clans. They unnecessarily kill a teenage girl when keeping her alive was definitely an option. In a blatant example, the player goes to Opportunity, a city in development, and kills engineers who say things like, “I didn’t sign up for this.” There are no real justifications for these actions, which means the player acts in solidarity with Pandora’s people. Anything that impedes progress, whether it poses a threat or not, is taken down. Through these quests, the game makes sure to put the player on the same moral level as everyone else.
Most of the quests in this game are either violent or help fuel violence, so the player rarely gets to escape Pandora’s lifestyle. It might seem excessive that so many people kill for their own benefit, but it alludes to the great vacuum of honor or morals on Pandora. People will occasionally throw out insults about a character’s actions, attempting to fuel shame or guilt, but it’s never effective. These insults attempt to contradict someone’s actions with their morals to create discord, but nobody seems phased by insults of this nature. This could only be the case for individuals who don’t have a moral code and thus cannot feel bad about their actions, suggesting that at least the major figures on Pandora don’t have any moral code to appeal to. The virtue of loyalty actually seems to show up in Pandora, but loyalty without other morals just encourages the behavior of victory at any cost.
With this understanding, it actually makes sense for everyone to value killing as a tool to success. Murder is incredibly effective at making sure your opponents cannot interfere with your plans, and the only drawback is a moral one. Without morality as we understand it in the real world, killing is the most effective tool for Pandora’s residents.
This isn’t to say that Borderlands is advocating for our world to follow this lifestyle. In fact, it pretty heavily denounces how these people live by making the Warrior the final boss of the main game. Throughout the entire story, the Warrior is described as an unkillable monster that can be controlled as a weapon under a certain circumstance. Everyone’s actions revolve around this creature because it seems like whoever controls the Warrior controls the world. At the end, the player is forced to kill the Warrior, and it actually works. Everyone’s actions suddenly become invalidated. Many important characters lay down their lives during the story to help their faction control the Warrior, the ultimate goal, but no one actually had to die. Everybody could have lived their lives until the Warrior awakened, and then the player could go in and kill it. Since everybody has the mentality of “kill to succeed,” all other strategies get smothered and avoidable deaths occur. There’s no way to argue that this is the ideal way to live, so the game toes a nice line of representing without advocating.
After all this is said, it should be clear how absurd life is on Pandora. This is the core that drives the absurdist humor in Borderlands. The people entirely believe that this is the best way to live, and the player knows that there’s no way this is the best option. Taking part in their lives becomes comical indulgence. Somebody is annoyed by her neighbors, so she wants you to start a clan war. It doesn’t occur to her that she could perhaps live somewhere else as opposed to an isolated piece of desert between two clans. Face McShooty wants to be shot in the face because killing the only problem-solving solution Pandora has. To him, this is a perfectly logical, normal solution to his problem. Everyone is so confident in their logic that it’s hard to indulge their normalcy without laughing. This system isn’t present in the real world, and I can’t think of another game with this moral system, so Borderlands provides a real novelty in terms of gameplay experience.
Briefly scraping the moral aspect of Borderlands highlights one strong game component that sets it apart from its peers, but there is so much more to this game than what I have highlighted. The creative energy poured into the voice acting, the world design, and the playable characters are intoxicating. The side quests often feel like they were given as much attention as the main story. Even the different fictional gun manufacturers have individuality in the way their loot is presented. Many elements work together to make the gameplay experience special, and I hope this title continues to have a respected legacy.