Borderlands – Narrative Analysis

Borderlands’ narrative shows a complete dearth of ambition, stalling throughout, greater and deeper player engagement rarely achieved – the narrative exists as a mere framework for the gameplay, which is prioritized to the last. Opening the narrative is a brief, highly stylized cutscene, introducing the game’s trademark cel-shaded aesthetic, which imparts commanding uniqueness. This cutscene also introduces the primary motivation which drives the game – investigate and open the mythical Vault, untold riches and fame contained therein. Bolstering the strengths of this cutscene are endearing voice acting, principally on the part of Marcus Kincaid, who serves as narrator here; quirky in his delivery – and occasionally crass and blunt – he is highly likable, showing also his characteristic greed, his insatiable desire for more and more wealth. But not being amidst the ranks of the fabled Vault Hunters, his chances of achieving unparalleled wealth are mostly lacking. His presence, too, injects a fair bit of humor into the narrative, a humorous, light-hearted tone also characterizing the world-building and primary characters. Mordecai, one of the playable Vault Hunters, is likened to some exotic wrestler, while the hulking Brick is affectionately described as being a literal maneater, being a mere brute, unthinking. Lilith the siren is praised for her singular beauty, while Roland is depicted as being an everyman sorts, powerful but non-descript. An additional principal character is here introduced – the enigmatic Angel, a spectral figure who exists to assist these playable characters, though her appearances – her dialogue – are fairly infrequent. Delicate in feature and delivery, she is similarly likable.

The cast of characters fast swells in size, with the introduction of a physician, Dr. Zed, who is liberated from his oppressions with the seizing of Fyrestone, a local village in the arid deserts of Pandora, the game world; perpetually harassed by bandits, inherent satisfaction arises when considering this liberation – a man’s life has been saved. Beyond Zed, another, highly quirky character is introduced – T.K. Baha, senile and delusional in his old age, a senility which makes him likable. In a manner, Borderlands’ narrative is very character driven; here are some successes, each of the Vault Hunters memorable in their own way, despite the fact that they are completely unvoiced outside of combat. The narrative is then broken with, as various side objectives are tackled, granting great skill improvements, though destroying player agency, a problem the game suffers all throughout; this narrative stalling, though, this displacement by gameplay, only makes richer the narratively consequential objectives – vacillation between the mundane and the engaging is present, as secondary and primary objective are tackled in turn. This secondary content is often narratively abysmal, offering no real intrigue, disrupting the pacing without furthering world-building. The scarcity of voice acting again arises as problem – many of these missions are conveyed in mere text. While never personally a problem, an inclusion of further voice-acting would elevate both the narrative and the gameplay.

Save for Angel’s periodic presence, there exists zero narrative intrusion, the narrative receding into the background; countless hours without exposition of any import are a regularity. In a somewhat positive manner, this lack of intrusiveness – this absence of narrative – contributes to a greater sense of immersion, even as immersiveness is simultaneously destroyed by relatively poor writing; the game’s humor, while occasionally effective, often seems forced, and, consequently, ineffective. This absence of narrative engagement directly links to a pervasive sense of mindlessness: travel around the map, engage in perpetual combat, accept and complete quests, watch (very rarely) a cutscene or two – that is Borderlands. In efforts to inject some life and focus, multiple antagonists are introduced as the narrative proceeds onwards, though majorly these antagonists are almost laughable, rather than menacing or intimidating, often owing to their quirky designs, the highly stylized cutscenes which accompany their introduction. As illustration, there is an early boss – Nine-Toes. His title card conveys a rather juvenile joke, effective for some, cringe-worthy in others, as the statement is made, “he also has three testicles.” It is all rather bizarre, though, almost impossibly inklings of amusement do persist. While efforts are made to give these enemies distinct identities, ultimately they begin to run together, excessively numerous as they are. No one, singular antagonist is introduced, though a military faction is repeatedly combatted, led by a pale woman of immense power, Commandant Steele. But the absence of any central, compelling, consistently menacing antagonist results in a certain directionlessness. Still, the bosses, no matter their characterization (or lack thereof) are fun to fight and best, catharsis accompanying victory, illustrating the strengths of gunplay and gameplay, while illuminating narrative failures.  

Given the narrative failings, the game must be carried by satisfying gameplay; if those systems were lacking in depth and complexity, the end result would be total disaster. Here, the systems are not merely competent, but inspired and enjoyable, hours flashing by in an instant, given this engrossing quality. In some instances, gameplay and narrative are wedded, principally when regarding environmental storytelling; exploration is a key pillar of gameplay, and stumbling upon some structure or new enemy type furthers also world-building, raises manifold questions. What is the nature of this opposition? From whence came the bug-like spiderants, the massive, feral skags, or the avian rakk? Why are these creatures hostile? An even larger question is raised – what is the nature of Pandora? For good or ill, no real lasting answers are ever provided – here is vagueness, the lore rather underdeveloped,. Tragically, this underdevelopment, this vagueness does not seem to be a deliberate decision, but instead stems from considerable laziness. A compelling world has been crafted, though its potentials are rarely seized upon. Enemies exist to be shot at, not mused over, while the arid, sunbaked deserts are mere environments to be driven through.

The few answers and developments which do arise stem from a certain type of side content – the acquisition of audio diaries, which constitute a fair portion of optional content. The most memorable – and narratively consequential – audio diaries were recorded by an eccentric scientist, Patricia Tannis, who engages in this frequent recording to maintain her flagging sanity, being oppressed by Pandora; her relative isolation, the lack of potential intellectual stimulation, fast sets her on the road towards madness; she needs these recordings, needs the comfort they provide. Being elevated above the common Pandora rabble, she is endearing, compelling character. The humor of writing here is mostly successful, a radical departure from much of the preceding and succeeding narrative, though she exists as somewhat of a caricature, her personality being highly exaggerated, fitting in with the trope of the tortured, quirky scientist. Still, she greatly helps carry the narrative, right alongside the wealth of other compelling side characters. As final note on her diaries, these audio logs never disrupt the gameplay – the player can continue to shoot, drive, or explore while they play in the background, this fact illustrating the unintrusive nature of the narrative; static cutscenes are mostly spurned.    

Reflecting the game’s character driven nature, further characters are introduced as the narrative progresses onward, many of them compelling, if exaggerated as with Tannis. Scooter is introduced fairly early on, and his figure is characterized completely by juvenility and crassness, apparently of an ignorant sort, at least when regarding the externals; considerable wisdom rests just beneath, certainly, as he is creator and operator of the Catch-a-Ride system, permitting rapid traversal by vehicle though Pandora’s sprawling wastelands – fair depth is attached to his character, showing contrasting ignorance and intelligence. As figure, he is characterized by pervasive obnoxiousness, reflecting the game’s bluntness of humor, a joke resting always on his lips, and he straddles the line of irritating and fascinating, though ultimately clinging to the latter.  He shows a certain optimism, an optimism which is seemingly incompatible with the hostile nature of Pandora, reflecting a certain obliviousness. Some such optimism is justified – Scooter lives in the tranquil town of New Haven, a compelling place, a sanctuary, peopled with a fair number of inhabitants, even as almost none of them – save for the primary characters located therein – have anything narratively consequential to offer. Still, in this location environmental storytelling again reemerges, this settlement comparatively bustling when considering the frequently barren wastelands of Pandora, peopled largely by bandits and the more exotic creatures. The strongest citizen and leader of the settlement is the disfigured Helena Pierce, fairly likable even as relatively little character development transpires. Marcus of the opening also dwells therein, still acting upon his commanding greed. The most exaggerated character exists in Crazy Earl, dwelling in a derelict scrap-yard in total isolation, abounding in forced humor. Collectively, these varied characters are compelling, sustaining the narrative, essential when given the lack of personality and depth the playable Vault Hunters display.   

The game’s conclusion is quite remarkable, paradoxically satisfying and unsatisfying. The ultimate objective has been achieved – the Vault is accessed, its protector slain, permitting looting, an acquiring of the apparent treasures located therein. In somewhat of a failing, the precise, fabled nature of the reward is rather exaggerated, only a few scant chests dispersed about the environment, marking a sort of anti-climax, which is furthered still when considering the abruptness of the conclusion. A bit more exposition, a bit more voiced dialogue here would only enhance narrative strengths, though it is not to be; the developers showed a greater fascination with the battle itself than anything which might follow it. In a major failing, the renown so difficultly won is never reflected in the world proper. Returning triumphant to New Haven, having bested the Vault and Commandant Steele of the Atlas Corporation, having slaughtered countless bandits and the alien Guardians on the trek to the Vault – these achievements should alter and affect Pandora’s citizens in some profound manner. But it is never so, no tangible reactions to the feats arising; the projection of the world as being breathing, living, fast shows itself as illusory. Pandora is a mere husk, even though peopled by an infinite supply of opposition, a finite if large amount of allies. The game’s focus is made evident, as the player is nudged to replay the title, starting the narrative with all statistics and weapons carried over. In doing this, the importance of the narrative is only downplayed, as no new developments likely arise – the few instances of narrative resonance and impactfulness present when initially playing the campaign evaporate on a second playthrough; the gameplay here may be elevated, but the experience overall would be of a more hollow, directionless sort.

As an experience, Borderlands both suffers and benefits from its total absence of narrative, of narrative ambition; player engagement and emotional resonance may be lacking, but the lack of narrative intrusion bolsters immersion, directly enhancing gameplay strengths. No poignant statements are advanced, but the end result is a game which is extremely enjoyable to play, the gameplay perpetually engrossing. For many players, enjoyability comes first, certainly – games should be played for entertainment, for escapism. Personally, some cinematic component is necessary – the narrative must be engaging in some capacity to court and maintain player interest, especially if the game is of a sprawling length, or is very ambitious in scope, featuring elaborate, diverse mechanics; if the cinematic is neglected or rejected, inevitably boredom and tedium will settle in – actions must feel as though they matter, as though they alter the world, the characters which people that world. But Borderlands is static, lifeless, the scant exposition which is present being delivered lazily. Still, with the universally excellent progression systems, the constant swelling of strength, the constant acquisition of more and more skills, from a gameplay perspective a literal odyssey is undertaken, though odyssey is a word with perhaps too loaded of a meaning, pointing to praise of which Borderlands is not totally deserving. True, in the narrative some character interactions are compelling, with the sweet Angel acting as ally, the comical Scooter occasionally uttering effective jokes. The diversity of these characters also directly equates to a diversity of voices and perspectives, many injecting humor and life into the narrative, creating decided uniqueness. Tannis and her audio logs particularly stand out, marking some of the game’s greatest writing, developing the world, raising many questions. But these characters and spirited world-building cannot salvage a narrative which is largely uninspired, a narrative which fails to achieve urgency, struggling with notions of player agency, as the abundance of secondary content further detracts from whatever narrative strengths are present in the title. In recent memory, cinematic, narratively engaging titles have become the norm, especially with the rise in popularity of indie titles. Borderlands marks a break from those games, being a relic from a different time. This destruction and discarding of narrative imparts considerable uniqueness, as the gameplay is prioritized always, a rather divisive admission – some will embrace this gameplay-centric approach, others will be repulsed by it, desirous of further narrative heft. I exist somewhere in the middle, appreciating the game for what it is, though still possessing frustration for what it is not.      

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