Roland decides that the best thing to do is steal the vault key from Handsome Jack. This means “hijacking” a train by blowing up the tracks and then stealing the vault key.
Along the way we meet Mordecai. Like our meeting with Lilith, the game goes out of its way to make his appearance a sort of awkward surprise reveal.
After that we meet Tiny Tina. Let’s talk about her…
If I’d been in charge of Borderlands 2 and Anthony Burch had come to me with the idea of making one of the main characters a 13 year old girl, I would have told him he was crazy. “There is way too much murder and torture in this universe, and we’re trying to play it for laughs. We can’t put a child in there!”
But Tina works. In fact, she nails the madcap tone the game is going for much better than any of the returning characters. She’s a demolitionist, and having this kid plot large-scale destruction while also engaging in frivolous little-kid chatter is kind of dark but also really amusing.
But her sidequest is where things get really dark. She throws a “tea party” for Flesh-Stick, a local psycho who killed her family. You have to capture Flesh-Stick and he ends up strapped to a chair where she can blast him with electricity. At the party she has tea and crumpets with her stuffed animals while also shocking Flesh-Stick. She basically tortures the guy to death while the player fends off the waves of psychos coming to rescue him. It’s completely screwed up and it even made me a little uncomfortable, but I really like that the game has an identity now. You can compare this to the “busted girl parts” of Borderlands 1. You might like this part, you might not, but at least we can tell where the humor is coming from and what the story is trying to say.
What a Twist!
It turns out that the vault key isn’t on the train as reportedWhich, yeah. Why would Jack have put his vault key on a train? He’s busy charging it and there’s no reason to move it around. Mordecai’s intel sucks.. Instead it’s a surprise boss fight. When it’s over, you pick up this “strange” power coreRemember that Sanctuary has this shield to protect it from orbital bombardment, and the shield is sustained by a power core. The player got one earlier in the game, and it’s starting to burn out..
What happens next is probably the most thoroughly telegraphed and obvious twist since the last time Lucy pulled the football away from Charlie Brown. Angel urges you to take the power core. Roland makes a point of remarking on how unusual the power core looksThis is evidently one of the points in the game where he can look out through your eyes.. Handsome Jack calls up and mockingly congratulates you. He thinks it’s all a joke and isn’t frustrated that you blew up his train and killed his right-hand goon. He even remarks on the power core, and then warns you that things are about to go badly for you. Back at Sanctuary, the guy in charge of the shield generator even comments that he’s “never seen one like that before”. He says he doesn’t like using tech from Hyperion (the bad guys!) but they really need a fresh battery for their magic shield. The player has to know at this point that they’re not going to plug this thing in and have everything work out fine. They have to know things will go sideways as soon as they plug in this power core. You can see this twist coming a mile off.
Paradoxically, I think over-telegraphing a twist like this makes it a lot easier to swallow. One of my pet peeves is when the game designer hits me with a bullshit twist that wasn’t set up at all. My other pet peeve is when I can see a trap coming but I’m obliged to fall for it, and then the game designer jumps out and yells “gotcha!” at the player. This over-telegraphed twist avoids both of these pitfalls.
In most games I’d prefer a twist to be properly telegraphed, but catch me off-guard anyway. That happened to me in Jade Empire and I loved it. But those kinds of twists are monumentally hard to pull off. A lot of people saw the Jade Empire twist coming right from the start because they had better genre awareness. You can’t fool all of the people all of time. Heck, it’s really hard to just fool half of them. Some people are bound to see it coming, and for them the twist will fall flat. And in the world of internet spoilers, if you only fool half of them then the first few will spoil it for the rest and you won’t fool anyone.
So why does this over-telegraphed twist work?
Borderlands is nominally a comedy game. This kind of over-telegraphed trap wouldn’t work if Sanctuary was filled with sympathetic civilians and we felt like we were about to put them in real danger. The player would stop short of plugging in the new power core thinking, “This seems like a bad idea. I don’t want to do this. Why do I have to do this?”
This doesn’t result in a brutal loss. Sure, Sanctuary is in peril, but we don’t actually lose any of our friends in this scene. In fact, the payoff is a spectacular scene where Scooter finally gets the city flying and Lilith teleports it to safety. It’s an exciting moment, not a gut-punch. If this action got (say) Moxxi killed, then I think her end would leave a bad taste in the player’s mouth. We do endure some bad losses later on, but those setbacks aren’t the result of this “trap”.
It’s done through characters. The game designer seems to be saying, “Yep. You see this coming. But Roland and the others don’t.” The thrust here is that Jack fooled Roland and this advanced their character arcs. The writer is sort of acknowledging that they haven’t fooled you (the player) and they’re not trying to. When you see it coming you can understand you’re feeling what you’re supposed to be feeling, and the writer hasn’t messed up.
You don’t have any story agency. Normally this is a bad thing in an RPG, but actual “roleplaying” was never part of the Borderlands mission statement. In your typical RPG it would be really bad if everyone else makes the decisions and the player’s only contribution is violence, but that’s exactly what we want in a game about using machine guns that shoot fire to kill cannibal midgets. I don’t think this series would benefit from plot-points where I have to decide if I want to cure the Genophage or not. Since Roland and his team are the ones making story decisions and we’re just a floating gun, it feels less like “falling” for a twist and more like witnessing one.
Angel is no Angel
This is also the payoff for Angel. It turns out she’s been working for Jack all along. Once you plug in the Totally Unsuspicious Power Core looted from your enemy with his blessing, she gains access to Sanctuary’s systems and brings down the shields. It’s obvious she’s not happy with Jack’s request. So after doing a face » heel turn, she immediately begins working on her heel » face turn.
I suppose this is good. Despite giving her a lot of dialog, the Borderlands 1 writer never really did much with her. She was a mystery I didn’t really care about because she never said anything interesting. But since she was present in Borderlands from the opening scene to the closing credits, she was also a foundational part of the game. She’s as core to the game as Claptrap, so you couldn’t just write her out of the story without comment. It would be like leaving the G-Man out of Half Life 3. You can’t just casually drop stuff like that.
She spends the next chapter proving her sincerity and explaining what you actually need to do to beat Jack. (Which makes you wonder why she waited until after Jack sprang his trap to betray him, but whatever. We’ll learn later that these two have a very complicated relationship.) It turns out she has the vault key, and the player needs to reach her to stop Jack. All of this is a build-up to the eventual confrontation between Jack, Angel, Roland, and the Player.
We’re going to skip a lot of the story here. Without getting into details, the game sends you to meet a guy called “The Slab King”. This turns out to be Brick, another Borderlands 1 alumni who has been renamed solely for the purpose of creating a surprise reveal. Although since this the the third time the writer has tried this, I doubt there’s much surprise left.
What is surprising is the section where Jack captures Bloodwing, Mordecai’s bird. Since the returning heroes are basically inert by writer fiat, Mordecai sends you into the Hyperion complex where Bloodwing is being held. When you get to the end you have to fight an enraged Bloodwing. Mordecai tries to save her with non-lethal means, but Jack ends up blowing her head off anyway. (Remotely. Jack hasn’t revealed himself in person yet.)
In this series I’ve talked about “comedy” and “dark comedy”, but obviously comedy isn’t modal. It’s like coffee. You can have it pitch-black and bitter, or milky-white and sweet, or anything in between. Borderlands 2 has been gradually darkening its particular blend as the story goes on. It started off somewhere on the milky end where adventures like Guardians of the Galaxy live, but once Bloodwing dies you can start to taste a little bit of the bitter. Jack gets less funny as he loses his cool. Jack has been casually mentioning the murders and tortures he’s perpetrated, and that makes his “Childish Troll” schtick a lot less amusing. Then we get to Opportunity, the shining city of totalitarian laws, over-the-top Jack propaganda, and killer robots. Now he’s feeling less like an internet troll and more like Space Hitler. There are still some jokesI love the one where he pays you eridium to kill yourself. Hilarious. but now that we’re entering the final stretch the writer is making sure we’re motivated to kill the guy.
This is a pretty good trick. If he was fun and harmless (to the player and their allies) the whole way through then we might not really want to kill him at the end. It’s like Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movie. Sure, he’s an evil jerk. But the audience isn’t really hoping for him to die, because he’s so much fun to watch. On the other hand if Borderlands 2 had started off with Handsome Hitler, then we would have missed out on a lot of jokes and we might have gotten impatient with the various digressions in the plot. This shift in the third act lets us have our jokes but still enjoy blowing away the bad guy at the end.
 Which, yeah. Why would Jack have put his vault key on a train? He’s busy charging it and there’s no reason to move it around. Mordecai’s intel sucks.
 Remember that Sanctuary has this shield to protect it from orbital bombardment, and the shield is sustained by a power core. The player got one earlier in the game, and it’s starting to burn out.
 This is evidently one of the points in the game where he can look out through your eyes.
 I love the one where he pays you eridium to kill yourself. Hilarious.
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