Borderlands 2, torture, and the end of death

Rock, Paper Shotgun’s Jim Rossignol is right when he calls Borderlands 2 a “minor masterpiece.” The game accomplishes nearly everything it sets out to do, and as a result we are left with one great character in Handsome Jack* and the endlessly rewarding world of Pandora. But while Borderlands 2 could serve as a master class on active mechanics and level design, Gearbox prove unable to use their excellent world building capabilities to create a lengthy narrative that plays to the game’s strengths. The sequel is still all about the loot, but the perceivable shift towards traditional storytelling indicates an attempt to create stakes and engender anticipation beyond the next chest.

That was their first mistake.

In a piece that’s as much an apology as it as a review, Yannick LeJacq finds that Borderlands 2 lovingly treats its predecessors and in-game subjects with irony. LeJacq points out that the campy tenor of the game’s textual humor extends to its mechanics as well, turning the “manshooter” into a parody of itself as numbers fly and characters swoon. Although this type of disassociation serves Borderlands 2 well when applied to the familiar tropes of the genre, it comes undone when faced with what are supposed to be emotionally charged moments in the game’s narrative. As can be expected, these moments most often occur alongside the possibility of death.

A victim of classical verbal irony, death in Borderlands means something else entirely. For the world of Pandora, death is practically currency; for the player, death can be feedback, a mission goal, a punchline, and so forth. This is unsurprising given the tone set by the series, one in which even the enemies are allowed to respawn ad infinitum. But in Borderlands 2, Gearbox adds another meaning to death, one that is incongruous with its alternative purposes: death finally receives the power of ultimate negation.

When placed into context, this latter use of death is cheapened by its humorous counterparts. The inadvertent act of oversignification becomes clear in the game’s most uninspired moments, particularly the deaths of major characters–worse than the superficial plotholes they create, their murders lose nearly all of their expressive power due to the scale of death experienced constantly by the player. When Handsome Jack puts a bullet into Roland’s chest, we wonder more about the whereabouts of his shield and the nearest New-U station** than the impact his death will have on the story.

What’s even more interesting is that Gearbox seems aware of their own fluid definition of death, and throughout the game there is evidence of attempts to enhance the sense of jeopardy through other means. None is so blatant–or unsettling–than the game’s obsession with torture. From the beginning of the game, enemies use torture as a stand-in for death: many a boss insinuates that the player’s death will be quick and painless, while prolonged torture is the true punishment for failure. Of course, such threats fall flat when staged against the empowered player. When seen to fruition against NPCs, however, Gearbox’s message becomes confused altogether.

Out of the entire cast of Borderlands 2, the female characters come to know torture the closest. Tannis’ accounts of her time with Jack are meant to place her idiosyncrasies in a comical light, but they highlight the emerging darkness of the latter’s often jovial character. Lilith and, for different reasons, Angel, undergo horrific experiences so that Jack can charge the vault key. In the most surprising quest in the game, players aid a thirteen year old girl in enacting painful and humiliating revenge against the bandit that indirectly killed her parents. Death might be the end result, but it’s the emphasis on torture that provides a harrowing background for the denizens of Pandora. While Handsome Jack spews lines about torturing the entire population of Sanctuary, it’s the irony-free, heavily detailed cases listed above that turn isolated incidents into an insistent undertone. A certain player might respond to these motivations more than they would the aforementioned deaths; to others, they are similarly fruitless but more disquieting in their latent stage.

The failed attempt shows how little Borderlands 2 needs the emotional involvement or motive provided in other games by death. Rather than adding to the stakes, players are unsure of the intended relationship between the game’s allegedly ironic tone and its emphasis on torture. Nowhere is this more clear than in Borderland 2‘s most heavy handed scene, in which we are once again reminded that the villain’s motives are of much more importance than the player’s. After killing Roland and kidnapping Lilith, Handsome Jack says that he’s going to show us “just how much you have to lose.” Gearbox, and the industry at large, is still trying to figure that out.

*Two if Gearbox hadn’t completely forgotten about Tiny Tina.
**Apparently this was explained away with a few expository statements. I believe the point stands.

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One Response to Borderlands 2, torture, and the end of death

  1. Nathan says:

    I am very much enjoying the game, I find it a nice polishing of the MMO-lite gameplay of the first title. However I find these choices in storytelling to depict torture, as a point of humour especially, to be somewhat disturbing. Of all the topics for comedy they could have chosen, Gearbox went with that one so often? Have we as a society become so desensitised to the subject that we now find the torment of the disarmed and detained as amusing?

    While this may indeed be their narrative approach in describing a harsh and brutal future reality, I generally get the sense that they were only writing what popped in to their minds. This, given that the game was made for the purpose of providing light entertainment.

    It is unfortunate that there is no way for the player to ‘refuse’ to perform an action on moral grounds, not even at the cost of being able to receive any further rewards or quests from that NPC. You can’t abandon quests, nor can you choose between different objectives. I still have the fire pistol from the early quest given by Marcus, where he asks you to test various weapon types on a captured ‘bad-guy’.

    They say “art imitates life” and I do consider this game an artwork; it’s a little troubling that this is what it reflects.

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