Borderlands Part 5: Breaking Tone

By Shamus
on Aug 10, 2017
Filed under:
Borderlands

People call Borderlands “action comedy”, but that applies more to the second two games. I honestly find it really hard to nail down the tone of the first one. The trailers sold us action comedy, but when you played the thing it was sometimes dark and grim. In a few spots it was genuinely funny. For parts of the game it was mildly amusing by way of being over-the-top ridiculous. Most of the time it left you alone to blast dudes in the face for hours at a time without delivering any dialog, and the only thing supporting the supposed humorous tone was the cartoonish art style.

The second game has a modest contingent of critics that don’t find the game funny at all, and even describe the game’s humor as childish and lame. I’ll take a look at the humor (or lack thereof) a bit later in this series.

A Quest of Sidequests

I`m Zed. I`m gonna ask you to kill three different bandit kings before I`ll give you permission to go to the next town.

I`m Zed. I`m gonna ask you to kill three different bandit kings before I`ll give you permission to go to the next town.

Borderlands doesn’t really have a story. It has a bunch of disconnected sidequests that are chained together and linked to plot-driven doors to force you to do the quests.

You arrive in the town of Fyrestone, which only seems to have a single inhabitantDoes T.K. Baha count? He actually lives outside of Fyrestone. And hang on, why DOES this blind one-legged man live all alone outside of the town walls?. Dr. Zed greets you and immediately sends you out to fight skags and bandits. You repair some machines, wipe out a local bandit leader, clean out a giant warehouse filled with psychos, then clean out a mining camp full of psychos. You fight a couple more bandit bosses. All of this takes several hours.

Part of the reason it takes so long is that the main quests alone don’t give you enough XP. If you ignore the sidequests, then sooner or later you’re going to be fighting guys that have two or three levels on you. Due to the way the game scales damage based on levels, this can make even trash mobs feel like dangerous bullet sponges. In practical terms, it’s much easier to simply do a couple of sidequests every so often in order to to keep up with your adversaries.

Which means that you’re often very far removed from working on your goal. You’re fighting through a cave so you’ll have enough XP to attack the warehouse to get the key to open the door to reach the fortress so you can fight a boss for an item that will cause an NPC to open a door to the next area. It’s the problem of nested sidequests I talked about during the Mass Effect series. You rarely feel like you’re working on pursuing your real goals.

The first few hours of the game go something like this: There’s a plot door as soon as you start the gameIt opens once you’ve listened to three minutes of tutorials.. Then you fight down a linear path until you get to another plot door to enter FyrestoneClaptrap opens this door for you once you loot a chest for him. This is actually the “open a chest” tutorial.. Then there’s a plot door to get out of town to where the monsters areClaptrap opens this once you’ve done the tutorial for accepting quests and picking up stuff.. Then another door to reach the next area where the first boss livesThis “door” is actually a wall of rubble that you need to blow up. The game makes you buy grenades to open the way, but then when you get there it’s already been wired with explosives and you don’t actually use the grenades. This was just a tutorial on how to buy grenades.. The next “door” is actually a ditch that you can only get over in a vehicle, so you have to do some quests to get a working car. After that is the biggest plot door in the region. This one:

Angel calls me up to tell me the boss I`m going to fight is really tough. She`s full of helpful tips like that.

Angel calls me up to tell me the boss I`m going to fight is really tough. She`s full of helpful tips like that.

You wouldn’t believe how many people you have to kill to get the key to open this stupid gate so you can murder all the people on the other side of it, so you can open a door to the next region where there will be more dudes to murder in order to open more doors with more dudes behinds them.

You’re supposedly here looking for a hidden vault. Your character is even called a “Vault Hunter”. But nothing you do advances this goal. You have no destination. No information. For the first half of the game, nobody you work for offers any hints about the vault. They just ask you to kill random jerks and you do it because your choice is to do those quests or stop playing the game. In a few cases they at least set up a basic cause-and-effect of, “If you kill this guy I’ll open the door for you.” but in many cases (such as with Zed) you’re obliged to just do whatever people ask you to do and hope one of these jobs opens a door.

You get to the end of the mining camp and kill Sledge. It turns out Sledge has a piece of the vault key. When you get back from killing Sledge, Dr. Zed agrees to open up the door that will allow you to drive to the next region of the world. This is awkward because you still don’t have a destination. It’s not like anyone has told you “Seek the vault in Bone Canyon, out beyond the Bandit Hills, right beside Lake Shoot You In The Face.” Nobody has said, “Go east.” Nobody has even given you a lead. After hours of fighting, your entire reward is permission to go to a new area, and you’ve never been given any in-game reason to believe this will advance your stated goal. This reward is only a reward for out-of-character reasons: We’ll finally have some fresh scenery and new monsters to fight.

To be fair, Angel is sort of used to justify this. She says cryptic stuff like, “Sledge has something we need.” She doesn’t say what he has or why we need it, but if we accept the premise that our character trusts the mystery computer lady beaming a grainy video feed directly into their brain, then I guess we sort of have a fig leaf justification for doing these quests. The problem is that the writer made her “mysterious” by way of robbing you of all motivation and volition.

Instead of story, these stylized intros are doing all the heavy lifting for giving the game a sense of style. They do a much better job than Angel at making things feel cool and important.

Instead of story, these stylized intros are doing all the heavy lifting for giving the game a sense of style. They do a much better job than Angel at making things feel cool and important.

This makes for a very shapeless and unsatisfying tale. This is a story about a journey, and a journey needs a destination. I don’t care if you’re Frodo walking to Mt. Doom or a couple of stoners on a road trip to Los Angeles with dreams to meet the aging 80s heavy metal star they idolize. If it’s a story about a trip, then the audience needs to have a sense of where we’re going.

Alternatively: If it’s a story about finding a mystery item (like Indiana Jones looking for the Ark) then we need to be gathering clues (like Indie chasing down the headpiece that reveals the ark’s location) so that we have some sense of progression. Either way, basic story structure requires that our heroes take actions that advance their goals.

This is true of Diablo II. In that game, the cutscenes tell the tale of Marius and his doomed voyage to the East. You’re chasing the Lone Wanderer and following in his wake. Without those cutscenes, this would just be a story where you went from place to place until you randomly bumped into the antagonist at the end. The story is what makes this feel like a voyage with a purpose in mind.

The way Borderlands is structured, we don’t really get a feeling of progression. We don’t think, “Man, we’ve almost reached the Mountains of Mystery. They were so far in the distance and now we’re right on the doorstep.” We just go from one region to the next without ever getting any indication that we’re moving towards our goal. All of the places have similar visuals and climate, so we don’t even get the sense that we’ve traveled very far.

People will defend the game by saying that they never cared about the story. That’s fair enough and it’s certainly understandable, but given the obvious Diablo roots I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hope the game could achieve some kind of basic sense of progression towards a goal. You can argue you didn’t care that you were lacking in-world justifications for doing the quests, but the point I’m making here is that games are generally better if we can get some kind of narrative momentum going. I mean, if the story isn’t going to do its job – if it’s not providing us with motivation or even humor – then why have it? We might as well revert to the barbarism of 1993’s Doom where you abandon all pretense of story and simply wander around looking for keycards to open doors.

The sad thing about Borderlands 1 is that in terms of production costs, the developers paid for a story. There are characters with character models and voiced dialog and scripted dialog triggers and quests with quest markers and more dialog triggers. You could use these tools to build a story with stakes, tension, humor, mystery, and resolution. But instead we end up with something functionally equivalent to a DOOM keycard – you’re forced to fight your way through guys in order to reach a goal that’s not personally important to you or your character, in order to open up the next area.

It’s a safe guess that this is the result of the last-minute re-write of the game. Borderlands 1 gets away with this because we didn’t have any particular expectations for story. It’s hard to miss something that was never there in the first place. After all, what do we care if the developers waste their money writing and recording pointless dialog? But it would be a disaster if Gearbox tried to drop back to this sort of thing in Borderlands 3 now that we have two entries with a more traditional story structure. They didn’t start with a focus on story, but once the later entries invested in story it became part of the identity of the series.

Patricia Tannis

Tannis is one of the key characters in the story, and yet she doesn`t get a slick intro like Zed. Instead she`s in this dark room with flat lighting and nothing in the way of distinct scenery.

Tannis is one of the key characters in the story, and yet she doesn`t get a slick intro like Zed. Instead she`s in this dark room with flat lighting and nothing in the way of distinct scenery.

Tannis is the closest thing we have to a working character in Borderlands. Her backstory is multi-purpose:

  1. It lets us see the savage dangers of Pandora through the eyes of a civilian.
  2. It explains how those dangers drove her “crazy”.
  3. It tells the story of how the Dahl Corporation ended their mining operation and left all of their enslaved prison miners behind, which explains why the world is wall-to-wall with psycho killers and bandits.
  4. It fills in some exposition on The Vault, the key, and how all of that stuff works.

It’s not great and most of it is accomplished through simple audiologs, but they get the job done. Her “Crazy” personality is a good hookEven if the execution doesn’t really work. for a character and she even gets the occasional funny line, but I can’t help but think that her backstory must be a leftover from the grimmer, grittier phase of development. There’s a lot of misery and not a lot of jokes, and her PTSD style delivery strays from the more madcap tone that other parts of the game seems to be aiming for.

Another curious detail about the game is that some of the major quest givers aren’t voiced. Shep Sanders and Lucky both have backstories that are hinted at but not told. They’re part of the main questline, and yet their dialog is delivered entirely through text. Their character models are generic NPCs, and not unique models like Dr. Zed, Scooter, Tannis, and Marcus.

Tonal Shift

Like Tannis, this guy feels more like scenery than a character. He`s a generic NPC model standing in the dark, in flat lighting, in a nondescript shack. He isn`t really animated and his pose has him facing away from the player.

Like Tannis, this guy feels more like scenery than a character. He`s a generic NPC model standing in the dark, in flat lighting, in a nondescript shack. He isn`t really animated and his pose has him facing away from the player.

When Zed sends you to meet Shep he says, “You’ll find a kid named Shep. Sledge skinned his whole family and built a tent out of ’em. Tough luck.” That’s pretty gruesome. But it’s also kind of absurdist. When paired with Zed’s understated description of the events, it kind of takes the edge off of it. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say it was funny, but I think it fits with the Borderlands tone much better than if Zed just told you in hushed tones that Sledge executed Shep’s parents and siblings while Shep watched.

My guess is that the original designs and backstories of Shep and Lucky were just too dark and gritty to work. Maybe these guys had grim stories like Tannis that killed the mood. Unlike Tannis, these guys weren’t integral to the plot and so it was safe to reduce them to silent quest dispensers. I admit this is all speculation on my part, but it does help explain why these named quest-givers feel so incomplete.

Assuming I’m right and these guys were much more fleshed-out characters before the 11th hour style overhaul, then reducing them to voiceless quest dispensers was probably for the best. While it’s disappointing to spend so much time with these placeholder characters, this is far better than the awful, cringe-inducing tonal whiplash of Dead Island. Given the choice between “silent NPC” and “trainwreck”, I’ll take silent every time.

Tonal Confusion

This is a skag. The two sides of its head split apart to reveal this toothy sideways mouth.

This is a skag. The two sides of its head split apart to reveal this toothy sideways mouth.

In one part of the game you’ve got a series of audiologs from Patricia Tannis that chronicle her adventures on Pandora. She began as part of a research team in search of information about the vault. The group was picked off one at a time by various local dangers until Tannis was the only survivor.

Her story is not an outrageous misadventure full of jokes, but instead a fairly grounded series of ugly misfortune. At one point she was pinned under the corpse of one of her colleagues as they were devoured by skags. At another point a colleague was mortally wounded and begged her for a mercy kill, which Tannis was reluctant to do because it would leave her all alone. She tells these stories in a detached and almost clinical monotone. No jokes. No big emotions. Just a deliberate recounting of events for the audience.

For contrast, there’s another mission where a guy in the town of New Haven asks you to look in all the dumpsters around town to find all the porno magazines his wife threw away. At the end of the job it jokes that the money he pays you is a “little damp”. It’s an absurd job for someone to post to a bounty board, an absurd problem to have in a space-age futureDoes Pandora not have internet porn?, and an absurd task for a vault hunter to undertake. I don’t know if I’d call it funny in the sense of making me laugh, but it clearly has humorous intentions.

Here Scooter (top-right) is over-sharing with regards to his mother and our next quest giver.

Here Scooter (top-right) is over-sharing with regards to his mother and our next quest giver.

When Scooter the local mechanic sends you to fix the Catch-A-Ride systemThe gizmo that spawns cars. he says that the system is, “more busted than my momma’s girl parts.” I get that Scooter has this crazy rural vibe and the joke isn’t really about what happened to his mom, but that he’s such a crass moron that he’d talk about his own mother in such insensitive terms, but still. Ew.

Later on in the story Scooter sends you to meet a guy named Lucky. Along the way, he reveals that Lucky is responsible for the whole “busted girl parts” thing that happened to his mother. To me this made it sound we were being prepared for an upcoming fight. I thought the game was setting up the next villain, and I’d have to fight Lucky when I got to him. But then I found him and he was a generic no-voice NPC model. It was very strange. The topic never comes up again.

(But it does get mentioned in Borderlands 2. If you do the Clan Warfare questline, you’ll discover the Zafords had a son Lucky, who Scooter buried alive in a shallow grave. I don’t know what Lucky did to Scooter’s mom, but apparently Scooter made good on his promise to pay him back for it. This also means that if you’re going to imagine a voice for Lucky while you’re reading his quest text in Borderlands 1, then you should make sure he has a really strong Irish accent because that’s how the Zafords sound in Borderlands 2.)

Moxxi didn`t actually get a splash intro in the main story of Borderlands 1, so here`s her intro from the Pre-Sequel.

Moxxi didn`t actually get a splash intro in the main story of Borderlands 1, so here`s her intro from the Pre-Sequel.

This gets even stranger when fan-service and cosplay icon Moxxi enters the story in DLC. She runs a fighting arena where she screams flirtatious things and innuendo while you murder psychos. Then it’s revealed that Moxxi is somehow Scooter’s mother, despite the fact that she looks to be the same age, if not younger. Also they have completely different accentsThe Pre-Sequel patches over this by showing that Moxxi is deliberately covering up her native redneck accent.. Worse, this reveal seems to have been done for no reason. The two don’t have any amusing family banter and in fact they don’t really interact very much in the rest of the series. It’s just a jarring reveal for no payoff.

What this means is that Scooter is a comedy character, and Moxxi is a comedy character, but their relationship has this bizarre non-comedy backstory about busted girl parts and some hick named Lucky being buried alive.

We can’t tell exactly what happened to the story and characters in this game, but the abrupt shift in tone late in development evidently made for some really strange seams between the various parts. Tannis is basically grimdark, a few of the sidequests are absurd and comedic, and this stuff with “Scooter’s mom” is strange and tonally disjointed.

It feels like there are more than two different versions of Borderlands 1 in this particular stew, and whenever I go through one of these tonal slam-cuts it makes me curious about all the different iterations of this game that wound up on the cutting room floor.

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Footnotes:

[1] Does T.K. Baha count? He actually lives outside of Fyrestone. And hang on, why DOES this blind one-legged man live all alone outside of the town walls?

[2] It opens once you’ve listened to three minutes of tutorials.

[3] Claptrap opens this door for you once you loot a chest for him. This is actually the “open a chest” tutorial.

[4] Claptrap opens this once you’ve done the tutorial for accepting quests and picking up stuff.

[5] This “door” is actually a wall of rubble that you need to blow up. The game makes you buy grenades to open the way, but then when you get there it’s already been wired with explosives and you don’t actually use the grenades. This was just a tutorial on how to buy grenades.

[6] Even if the execution doesn’t really work.

[7] Does Pandora not have internet porn?

[8] The gizmo that spawns cars.

[9] The Pre-Sequel patches over this by showing that Moxxi is deliberately covering up her native redneck accent.


20208Feeling chatty? There are 48 comments.

From the Archives:

  1. Inwoods says:

    Good read!

    “In a few spots it was a genuinely funny.”

    Either lose the “a” or end it in game.

    Also “the grimmer, gritter phase of development.”

    gritter.

    #corrections.

  2. Daimbert says:

    In talking about games in other posts, I borrowed your line from the Silent Hill: Homecoming posts that a game needs to provide the player a reason to play the game and go to all of the areas. As you pointed out there, it’s consistent for TRAVIS to want to go to those places, but why should the player? And there are a number of ways to convince the player to do those things, too:

    1) They want to get a new high score. This is probably one of the earliest and simplest motivations.

    2) They want to beat the game by getting to the end of the gameplay.

    3) They want to keep experiencing the gameplay, and going to those places is the only way to do that. (This is pretty much what Borderlands has been doing).

    4) They want to follow the story and see how it turns out.

    5) They are attached to their character and want to produce a good ending for them.

    6) They are attached to the world and want to produce a good ending for the world.

    You can arguably mix and match these in games, but the last three are ones that are going to have more emotional resonance with a player. So, yes, having a story can make games better by providing the player with more reasons to play the game than simply liking the gameplay, and also can provide a reason for them to push through gameplay elements that they don’t like. You don’t need it, but if you’re going to put one in you really want to leverage its benefits for that. If players end up ignoring it to focus on gameplay, it’s not really adding much and, if the cutscenes are long, it’s detrimental because it gets in the way of players doing the things they are ACTUALLY playing the game for.

    • GloatingSwine says:

      Diablo style games are among the type which are not strongly driven by the story. Stories might drive people through the game once, but that’s not the engagement this type of game is aiming to deliver.

      They’re trying to deliver on the core loop of incremental upgrade, you don’t go through the door because you want to get to some predefined story goal, you go there because the guns on the other side might be a little bit better than the guns you have now.

      Even when you beat the last boss the first thing you do is see what loot it dropped. (Though that was one of the real missteps of Blands 1, bosses dropped crap loot). People didn’t keep playing Diablo 2 for a decade because of that compelling journey through the world, they played it because the next Baal run might give them that sweet drop they wanted.

      Likewise most of the quests in Blands weren’t about pursuing a goal, they were a way to get one of those sweet red chests with the good guns in.

      Increasing the directed nature of the story in Blands 2 made the story regularly get in the way of the core loop. (Also the rate of incremental gun improvement was too low).

      • Syal says:

        And then there’s guys like me who played through Diablo 2 until the story ended, then made a new character and restarted, and who stopped playing Borderlands 1 after killing Sledge because the plot gave no incentive to continue.

      • Scampi says:

        They’re trying to deliver on the core loop of incremental upgrade, you don’t go through the door because you want to get to some predefined story goal, you go there because the guns on the other side might be a little bit better than the guns you have now.

        Even when you beat the last boss the first thing you do is see what loot it dropped. (Though that was one of the real missteps of Blands 1, bosses dropped crap loot). People didn’t keep playing Diablo 2 for a decade because of that compelling journey through the world, they played it because the next Baal run might give them that sweet drop they wanted.

        Actually, the loop of incremental upgrade never did that much for me in isolation. I enjoyed Diablo mostly for knowing there had been some serious effort spent into creating atmosphere, making every character feel special, creating some story and selling it to me.
        I also massively enjoyed the cutscenes in Diablo II, though I only viewed them when I felt like it and I definitely criticize its spiritual successors for their absence as well as a lack of variation of environment. When Diablo II switched acts, it introduced a new area that had a different look and different opponents, creating a unique experience and feel for the area. Titan Quest followed this tradition in a skilled way, though not as good as D II, and it’s the reason I still enjoy it, while I feel absolutely nothing while playing Grim Dawn: Grim Dawn feels just hollow and soulless, while Titan Quest had an identity I could really enjoy.
        This included the items it offered, and I believe I could only connect to them in a way because the world’s internal mythology was presented in a compelling fashion and the items were believably connected to it. Not every item is directly connected to a world’s myth, but being able to identify specific (‘unique’) items massively influences my ability to enjoy the process of hunting for them. In the case of Diablo II, these are exemplified by items such as Tyrael’s sword Azurewrath, the Harlequin’s Crest [“I remember that item from the last game!”], as well as some unique items and sets connected to memorable characters [merchants and quest givers the player will most likely encounter as well as enemies] encountered in the world or to items of real legend, such as the Nagelring, a name originating from germanic legend [though the name actually refers to a sword] or the blade of Ali Baba [from the oriental tale], or the Tarnhelm [also from the Nibelungen] while other items are easily identified by their attributes [the Giant (high STR-requirement), Pompeii’s Wrath (casts “volcano”), Face of Horror (causes enemies to flee)] and thereby gain some identity; Titan Quest manages connections by similar means, referring to greek and oriental myth instead.
        It’s not necessarily the cycle of upgrading my character that catches me: it’s the cycle of finding items that appear to have an identity within the world, and without getting me interested in the game world first so I will care about its inhabitants and their history, this process is doomed to fail.
        While much of the setting may lose some of its meaning in future playthroughs, it still contributes to my feeling of excitement (finally, I’ve reached a new area that looks different and I get to fight different enemies), while a world that relies completely on presenting me with new and not all that shiny items in ever uninspiring areas without identity will lose my interest quickly.
        A game’s plot causes which kinds of areas you traverse, areas necessitate (hopefully) a different fauna to fight, different myths to explore and thereby different items to find, thereby getting me invested in the gameworld and creating joy when finding some new item that I can connect to some kind of myth, whether real world or in-universe myth.
        Maybe my interest in the world is more of the archeological kind? Dunno.

        • galacticplumber says:

          You need to play dark souls. It’s hard as balls, but has fully everything you’ve just mentioned in SPADES. Literally every item IS connected to world lore in some way where even the most generic seeming weapons will likely give you ideas about who use them and how they fight. This also extends to spells, locations, and if you’re willing read between the lines most enemies.

  3. TheAngryMongoose says:

    With the above paragraphs this probably doesn’t reflect well on me, but I remember thinking the Tannis audiologs were the funniest part of the game. They were Grimdark, but in such an absurdly extreme way I thought that was just the comedic style the game was going for. If they did have to paint over some gritty writing at the 11th hour, I feel they salvaged this pretty well.

    I had a similar reaction to you for Lucky though. When Scooter introduced him I was pretty shocked by what I thought was a tone change, and was even more shocked when it turned out to be some random, rather than a boss or otherwise a dude we’re sent to kill. I also didn’t really ‘get’ Moxxi being Scooter’s mum, to the point my mind rejected it and I forgot until the second game came out.

    Are you going to be covering the DLC missions for Borderlands 1? They would be the earliest attempts at putting together Borderlands content in the proper style from the ground up.

    • Geebs says:

      If it helps, you’re not alone. I thought Tannis’ logs were ghoulishly funny – especially because she seems basically plausible in person, and it’s only in the logs that you realise that she’s a couple of bones short of a Skag pile.

      • Sleeping Dragon says:

        I’d say that the first series of Tannis’ logs becomes sort of humorous in retrospect as her later recordings and interactions (and quest descriptions*) flesh out the character in that direction, I think after the first log quest they could have easily led them towards a more serious tone.

        *Noticed that many of the game’s jokes are in the non-voiced quest descriptions? That’s probably due to the late changes to the game.

    • Fade2Gray says:

      No matter how many times I’m reminded that Moxxi is Scooter’s mom, my brain immediately dumps that information out of an airlock as soon as possible.

      What!? Moxxi is Scooter’s mom!? That’s just… I don’t know how to process this…

      *commence mind bleaching*

      Next game/playthrough: What!? Moxxi is Scooter’s mom!? That’s just… I don’t know how to process this…

      • Radiosity says:

        In a world where the New-U system exists, it’s not a stretch to imagine those with money being able to extend their lives and make themselves look younger or similar, it never really struck me as particularly weird that she was Scooter’s mum precisely for that reason, and it’s clear she’s had uh, high-level dalliances (Handsome Jack for one)? So money likely wouldn’t be an issue for her.

  4. Shoeboxjeddy says:

    It seems clear to me that Gearbox doesn’t really consider Borderlands 1 an important game at this point. When they up-ported 2 and Pre-Sequel, they didn’t even include it in the package because they thought it would reflect poorly on the series if they did.

  5. Nessus says:

    I really liked the Tannis stuff in BL1, and thought it was probably the most interesting bit of storytelling in game precisely because of the internal contrast.

    I liked the bittersweet tragedy in how you could actually see her personality shifting as you went through the audio logs, becoming less narcissistic and more sympathetic (before she went insane). These horrifying experiences were actually making her a better person… at the cost of utterly traumatizing her beyond repair.

    I liked how the backstory created a strong tension between wanting to laugh at her goofy crazy behavior, yet not wanting to laugh because of the awareness of where that behavior came from.

    To me that was fascinating and a really cool bit of emotional complexity in a game that was otherwise dramatically and comedically kinda flat. I sorta feel like Shamus is missing out by maybe looking at it through a filter of wanting (needing?) these things to be in neat either/or categories, like a kid who can’t stand to have the peas on his plate touching the potatoes.

    I was really disappointing when Borderlands 2 retconned her , making her both more antisocial again (while still crazy), and trying to claim she was autistic. The latter was especially bad, since she doesn’t act autistic and didn’t in the audiologs in BL1 before she was crazy. The games are full of humor that’s deliberately tasteless in a fun light-hearted way, but that felt tasteless on a meta level that suggested awkward things about the writers themselves.

  6. Sydney says:

    We might as well revert to the barbarism of 1993’s Doom where you abandon all pretense of story and simply wander around looking for keycards to open doors.

    Yes, this. This is precisely what I want in a Diablo clone. Literally don’t hire writers, and only have your voice actors make effort sounds (“Hi-yah!!”). Just spawn me in the starting zone, give me an arrow to serve as a quest marker, and move it once I get there. Put all the money you saved into polish, playtesting, and QA. In other words, treat the story like you’re making Chime but make the mechanics an RPG instead of a puzzle.

    This might be where you fundamentally disagree with the “story doesn’t matter” crowd: You still notice that there’s a story. But if the audience doesn’t experience the story at all, then that money was wasted; the gameplay could have been further improved and it wasn’t, and that’s a shame.

    When I played Diablo 3, I instantly clicked through every story sequence I could and read my Kindle during the parts I couldn’t skip. I muted the dialogue and turned off the subtitles. So all that money? If it was spent instead on five more square meters of gameplay, I would have benefited more from it.

    When I played XCOM 2, I installed a mod that completely removed all cutscenes and I changed the soldiers’ speech language to German. I didn’t want to experience a story; I was just there for the board game. And I wish that instead of writing, animating, and voicing a story, they’d added even one more weapon mod. I would have gotten more from that.

    That’s what we mean by “the story doesn’t matter”: It gives, and can ever give, a benefit of precisely zero. So for us, investing in it is a waste no matter what.

    • Sydney says:

      For context, I’m not saying you’re wrong. I know there’s no debating taste.

      All I’m saying is I think you aren’t reading “the story doesn’t matter” literally enough. When I say it, I mean the story could be a mind-expanding work of inspired genius or it could be my own mother screaming “FUCK YOU SYDNEY” over and over, and I wouldn’t even notice either way. I would mute it, skip it, or mod it out, before even clicking New Game.

      That’s what I mean when I say “the story doesn’t matter”.

      So my thesis is, if a developer is marketing a game to the “story doesn’t matter” contingent, they’d be better served by actually min-maxing for that and cutting the story outright. Ctrl+A, Backspace, Ctrl+S.

      And yes, I loved Destiny‘s campaign.

      • Sydney says:

        I guess what I want is the video game version of River Tam Beats Up Everyone.

        • MelTorefas says:

          Yes, someone make this game. Preferably with coop. *Please*. I would also accept an MMO version (or ideally, both).

          The main thing that turns me off playing MMOs anymore is having to deal with increasingly linear ‘story focused’ experiences, to the degree that the story quests become *mandatory* for progression (lookin’ at you, WoW and FFXIV). I really want someone to make a more modern version of EverQuest with less soul-crushing grind but an equal focus on a huge world where you just run around killing things for loot.

          In other words, games keep giving me theme parks, but all I actually want is a playground.

          There are games where I enjoy the story, but they’re rare, and even in those games I wish they had a ‘no story’ mode for replaying them. (Which is the great thing about Diablo III’s ‘adventure mode’; it’s the game, sans story.)

    • Kizer says:

      Just curious, what did you think of Torchlight? Granted, it has a story, but it’s even less front-and-center than Diablo 2, and it has that huge side dungeon where you can skip the story and just grind for better loot.

      Granted, the options for character crafting are a bit limited. I hear that got improved in Torchlight 2.

      • Sydney says:

        I never played Torchlight. I skipped it when it came out based on my assumption that ambitious projects from new studios will be short, buggy, and shallow. I don’t have as much time as I’d like for games, so I kind of have to stick with trusted names. (Not that that works anymore either…)

        By the time word of mouth got around that it was solid, enjoyable, and almost devoid of story, I’d moved on to something else.

        Now that I’m thinking about it again, I really should go back. But War of the Chosen…aie.

        Someday =P

        • Philadelphus says:

          Torchlight is a good game (though not particularly long for a single playthrough), but you might as well just get Torchlight II, as it improved on quite a lot of facets of the original (it’s a lot longer for a single playthrough, for one).

        • Michael says:

          Grim Dawn and Titan Quest are pretty easy recommendations on the Diabloesque front. I mean, there’s some story, but as I recall, it can all be clicked through.

    • Echo Tango says:

      I also would have liked less money spent on XCOM 2’s story (also XCOM 1). The new games are actually better than the old ones in some ways, like simplifying the action points and (some of the) other boring parts of combat. However, their stories were terrible, and the game presents the story content to you in a way that implies the devs thought it was solid gold. I mean, there’s even talking NPCs and cutscenes while you try to navigate the main menu of the game (i.e. your home base). Also, enemies that spawn into the game (“pods”) world instead of being simulated properly should be hurled out of a cannon into the sun. :)

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        like simplifying the action points

        I vehemently disagree with that.It couldve been done much better if they kept the action points,but combined them with their better interface.

        • Droid says:

          “[new XCOMs have a] better interface”

          That’s not to say their interface isn’t TERRIBAD, but since I have no way of comparing it to the old games, I will admit it is theoretically possible to engineer a worse interface.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            Im not saying its the best,or that it cant be improved,but its simple,fast,and easy to grasp.That makes it a good ui.

            The original was extremely hard to grasp,unless you read all of the manual,and once you mastered all the functions of it,it was still slow and easy to mess up.Still,the original was a better game.Also,it had practically zero story.

            • Droid says:

              It’s also buggy (buttons disappearing randomly), transitions are slow (hologlobe, building menu in the second game) and withholds important information that it could give you, since mods can add the functionality without problems (is the objective visible from this point, would I be flanking this guy if I went over here, am I SEEING this guy from over there in case of the first game, …). Also, the fact that it yanks camera control away from you every time really anything at all happens, and that it absolutely will not let you queue harmless actions like evacs (again mods had to solve that).

      • Droid says:

        From what I could gather from both my own experience and that of a few XCOM EU/EW/2 Let’s Plays I watched, at least those Let’s Players and me (for a whopping sample size of 4) took the story seriously the first time through the games. I think it would have been a considerably worse game for both me and them without the story part, even though it wasn’t that great and even though the “meaty” part of the game was clearly the tactical gameplay.

      • Syal says:

        their stories were terrible

        I found Enemy Unknown’s story charming, but a lot of that was because it was basically a cutscene-heavy fanfic version of the storyline from the original X-Com.

    • CoyoteSans says:

      I can certainly say that any game made like this would be an instant “never buy” for me. Let me explain with an example: A Link to the Past. LTTP is consider one of, if not the, best Zelda game in the series, with excellent dungeon design, decent SNES graphics, now iconic music, and just “feel good” gameplay. And I can’t stand it.

      The reason is the story is simply too barebones. The characters are literally just glorified exposition/quest dispensers, and none of them feel real enough to me to care about saving. It’s supposedly a story about a sealed up evil monstrosity leaking out into a Magic Medieval European fantasy world and dragging its citizens into a nightmarish dark realm where they get twisted beyond recognition if they don’t just die outright. But, I feel none of that. All I get from the characters is “Get Three Plot Coupons. Get One Plot Coupon. Beat Boss. Get 7 Plot Coupons. Beat Boss.” I simply can’t bring myself to see any of them as actual people, and so I don’t care about them, and thus I can’t bring myself to care to finish the game. Good as the gameplay may be, I don’t find it compelling enough to ever finish the game for, no matter how many times I try to play it.

      And that’s why I love the later games in Zelda. Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask are my absolute favorites. They have strong characterization, and that makes the world in them feel alive and thus invested in as the game goes on. Even the weaker titles, like Twilight Princess or Skyward Sword are more fun for me to play than LTTP. Heck, I played the 3DS Zelda, a literal sequel and style-alike of LTTP, and finished and loved it. Good gameplay, yes, but it also had actual characters, with motivations and flaws and human-like dialogue that drove a story that kept me interested to the end.

      So, if you ask me, my problem with LTTP is the story was too thin, the characters too shallow to care about. You would probably say that LTTP’s problem is it had a story and characters at all. I have to say, I would have no interest in your dream version of that game.

  7. Adrian Burt says:

    All these posts are doing is further convincing me that Borderlands is a train-wreck of a game thrown together at the last minuet from a development team that had no idea what they were doing.

    • Hector says:

      Far from a trainwreck. I don’t know if you played it or not, but it was actually very good. It was extremely uneven, but successfully mixed first-person action with Diablo style looting and skill trees, which could not have been an easy feat to pull off. Shamus was very clearly annoyed by its (numerous) shortcomings. But it’s important to remember that the game was popular enough to spawn two sequels and enough expansion content to choke an elephant. I personally enjoyed it, even though the sequel is far superior. But that’s sort of a “Yeah, so?” fact for me: often, the first time something gets done, it isn’t really that good compared to later efforts.

      Gearbox was trying something very different from, and much bigger than, their previous projects, with a very different tone. The game is trying to run on Black Comedy, which is not an easy balance to master, in an entirely new genre. I’m pretty sure this was the first Hero Shooter game, although nobody quite realized it at the time. It may lean on the Diablo 2 side of things heavily, but the basic concept is pretty well embedded in Borderlands.

      These days, I’m sure exactly what Gearbox is thinking. I think they have, to borrow Yahtzee’s phrase, a crippling fear of money and success. In recent years they’ve released DUke Nukem, Aliens: Colonial Marines, and Battleborn. I’m not saying I want them to release Borderlands until they drive it into the ground, but it’s they’re not managing their talent very well.

    • Josh says:

      It only seems that way because Shamus is focusing on the story. It’s a fairly lousy story. But the game is a shooter, and the story is only window dressing for all the guns, enemies, and xp points. You can tell that the developers ended up prioritizing their efforts with shooter first, story second, and then… maybe some exploration activities.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        No,its not only that.In previous post he has mentioned a plethora of gameplay problems as well.

        • Hector says:

          I agree there were gameplay problems, but I do think it’s noteworthy that these were recognized and thoroughly patched. Again, nobody had ever quite done something like this before. While many the bugs were indeed pretty sloppy, on the whole the game played very well once you got into the rhythm of play.

          That said, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone start with the original now. While the dlc was a huge bump, the sequels really took the formula and polished it into a far better state. But that is very frequently the way games are made: People see the potential in a good idea, but usually the “first” is far and away from “the best”.

    • Gethsemani says:

      Borderlands is analogous to Assassin’s Creed in many ways. Both were games that were pretty successful and showed heaps of potential, despite being rather bare bones and with some severe shortcomings. Where AC had its’ repetitive mission structure and tedious combat mechanics, Borderlands has its’ tonal whiplash and poor story. But both games also had that something special that meant their sequels were runaway successes, to the extent that the first game should be seen as more of a proof of concept then an actual great game.

      Borderlands has aged terribly, but its’ sequels both have some pretty good stuff and haven’t aged nearly as bad.

  8. guy says:

    I always figured Scooter was just saying his mom slept with a lot of people rather than some grim and traumatic backstory. Hence Moxxi.

    • Fade2Gray says:

      Yeah. The first time I heard it I just assumed it had something to do with his mom having lots of kids or something. That would fit with his backwoods hick motif.

      And then there was Moxxi???

    • Primogenitor says:

      It seems like the sort of thing a crass twelve-year-old hick would say about his mothers new (in a long line) boyfriend, and miss-interpreting her noisy and enthusiastic sex life. Which fits with Moxxi too – whilst also implying Scooter is younger than he appears (aged more by being outside on Pandora working in rough conditions on all the vehicles) and Moxxi is older than she looks (and, like humanity on Pandora, working hard to recapture a lost time in the past when things were better). Even the name “Lucky” fits into the joke – just what is he Lucky for exactly? It’s not wealth or power or good looks…

  9. Dreadjaws says:

    “more busted than my momma’s girl parts.”

    You know, I always just figured that all that crap about Moxxi’s “girl parts” simply meant she was promiscuous and not some horrifying incident. And I think if Lucky were to have sex with her, that would make Scooter upset even if it was consensual, which it most likely was. The way I see it, Scooter had a “prude” image of his mother, so when he found out about Lucky he assumed he “took away her innocence” or something like that. I mean, he’s a redneck after all.

    About Moxxi’s looks for her age, I’m positive it’s established at some point in the second game that she’s had plastic surgery. I can’t remember if she says it herself or it’s someone else, though.

  10. Rick C says:

    Jay and Silent Bob were actually going to track down someone who felt ripped them off by using them as characters in a movie without compensating them.

  11. Does Pandora not have internet porn?

    It turns out the real treasure of the vault was the planetary Wi-Fi password.

  12. Josh says:

    Mike Neumann was the lead writer for Borderlands, so it was a letdown to hear that Gearbox was assigning him to write for the next installment (“Borderlands 3”). It’s pretty clear that the influence of Anthony and/or Ashly Burch was hugely positive for Borderlands 2. And now Mike has left for health reasons. Who knows what Gearbox will do? I get the feeling that the writing isn’t strongly valued there, and everyone (players included) just got lucky with BL2.

  13. poiumty says:

    The thing with Tannis is that she’s funny sometimes. In a “crazy hobo” sort of way. Her logs were before she completely lost it so she’s made out to be the straight man like most people are when they haven’t been on Pandora for too long. The implication is that Pandora will strip you of your sanity and turn you into a hillbillly redneck.

    I’m not sure the Doom keycards comparison was fair. Those things pissed people off because of all the scrounging through the level and the backtracking you had to do to get them. There was also no map so you had to pretty much memorize everything, and if you forgot where the door was, it was just that much more annoying. Borderlands isn’t annyoing with its doors. I never felt that I just had to go to the next level RIGHT NOW and this stupid door was in my way. Sidequests come with their own stories and humor, and the needing to level up provides further incentive to do them – or it’s more like knowing the mobs on the other side will be too high level disincentivizes you to seek rapid progress right away.

    Scooter being Moxxi’s son never made much sense to me either, but it’s known that Moxxi had a bunch of boyfriends before and maybe Lucky was sexually abusive or something so Scooter took it to himself to get revenge. Or he just walked in on them having sex and deemed that to be “ruining girl parts” in his childish naivete. Either works, really.

    Sure the story could’ve been told better, but story is just a pretext to get things going in these kinds of games. I wouldn’t like there to be even MORE exposition or dialogue in a game like this. When playing Borderlands you usually have better things to do than worry about familial relationships, the viability of living in the wasteland as a blind cripple or the ebb and flow of the series of events that constitute the main character’s motivation.

    • Polumty: While that’s all fair, the issue is of course that they put time into the story. I recognize that putting more time into a story to make it better can be good money after bad, but why not make sure that the story is at least barebones and consistent?

      8 and 16 bit era games did it, after all. Diablo did it: you could get all sorts of lore or skip through and there was some interesting, if relatively shallow, stuff. Whole franchises got built out of Zelda, Link and Metroid, and while obviously the heavy lifting was done later, the first games got a lot of mileage. Final Fantasy I may not have aged the best but it worked well enough. In the original Doom you had a sense of what was going on. Games like Terranigma could have beautiful stories that were still mostly action heavy.

      I’ve always been convinced that video games can tell a story about a world and a character through action, art, and theming. We got a lot of what was going on in Street Fighter or Castlevania from the manuals, magazines and a few bits of information. If Street Fighter were just geometric shapes of hitboxes and hurtboxes, it wouldn’t have felt as fun to most. Borderlands did feel inconsistent to me even on that level: the art direction didn’t match what they were obviously intending otherwise.

      I think that there’s a difference between a story that’s unintrusive and one that’s bad.

  14. Bryan Bridges says:

    Actually Shamus, in Borderlands 1 DLC, The Armory of General Knoxx, Scooter mentioned he killed Lucky. So it did come up again in the first game. Liking this analysis in general by the way.

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