Borderlands Part 22: Stay Awhile and Listen

By Shamus
on Dec 28, 2017
Filed under:
Borderlands

I’m not going to try to review the Pre-Sequel quest-by-quest. We’re doing a quick (by the standards of this site) overview of the plot. We’re not so much concerned with the “save the moon plot”, and instead I’m just examining the moments in the game dealing with Jack’s fall to the dark side.

Anthony Burch has writing credit on this game, which is odd because very little of the game feels like his work. For example…

Why is Everyone So Nice?

`ere to `elp, if the price is roight!

`ere to `elp, if the price is roight!

The character Pickle feels like an attempt to reverse-engineer the appeal of Tiny Tina. You’ve got a child character with an “adorable” design, but they’re also corrupted in some way. Tina is a demolitionist, and Pickle is a thief. But Tina subverts the “mischievous child” trope by having her “adorable mischief” be murderous destruction. Pickle doesn’t subvert anything. His Oliver Twist accent is trying pretty hard to be cute and there’s nothing really dark or subversive about his design or character. There’s nothing edgy or strange about this kid. He feels like a character that wandered in from a Disney cartoon.

Part of the texture of Borderlands 2 is that everyone – good guys and bad guys alike – is a little crazy. Moxxi, Scooter, Marcus, Hammerlock, and Zed are all a little nuts and have occasional moments of surprise sadism in their character. For contrast, here in the Pre-Sequel we end up with a few characters who are just regular nice people. Pickle is kind and sane. Gladstone – who we meet later in the story – is nice and friendly with no creepy quirks or sadistic hobbies. Felicity is an AI that’s been held prisoner by a gang of nutters and forced to be their “girlfriend”, and yet she’s friendly, clear-headed, and not at all insane.

Speaking of Felicity being an AI…

Earlier in this series I said:

[Head writer Anthony] Burch likes to do this thing where he’ll go for a really obvious joke or twist, and then telegraph that he knows that you know where the joke is going. It becomes this sort of meta-joke about expectations. He did this in the situation with the totally un-suspicious power core when Angel betrayed everyone in Borderlands 2. He did it in the sidequest No Hard Feelings. He did it again with Pyro Pete in Torgue’s Campaign of Carnage. He built an entire character around this gag with Captain Scarlett in the Pirate DLC. Likewise, Crawmerax has a section where you have to track down a bunch of assassins, only to discover they’re already dead. After the first couple it stops expecting you to be surprised and instead begins poking fun at how everyone knows where this joke is going.

In contrast, this game sets up this situation where you’re looking for a “military-grade AI”. You meet Felicity over the radio, and even though her radio portrait shows her as human, it’s obvious early on that she’s the AI you’re looking for. But instead of telegraphing this and using the available tropes for humor, the game plays it straight and acts like you’re really supposed to be surprised. Pickle is the first to figure it out, and even then it’s only after the truth is too obvious to ignore. And then Felicity congratulates Pickle for being so clever, which means the writer is sort of patting themselves on the back for pulling off this twist, whether it surprised you or not.

To compare authorial voices:

Borderlands 2: “Yeah, you’re a smart player and I know I can’t fool you. Still, these situations are kinda funny when you think about them, right?”

Borderlands Pre-Sequel: “Gotcha! Good twist, right?”

It’s not wrong. It’s not like this is some terrible crime against writing or anything. It’s just that you can really see the difference in writing style here, and that difference is once of the reasons Pre-Sequel doesn’t feel as vibrant or as funny as its predecessor.

Gladstone

Here we are listening to Jack and Gladstone meet and introduce themselves.

Here we are listening to Jack and Gladstone meet and introduce themselves.

Jack sends the player to an old factory so they can figure out how to build a robot army. As we explore the facility (which is overrun with bandits and space-bugs) we just happen to meet Gladstone, a Hyperion engineer who just happens to be working on a constructor robot that can build a robot army, which just so happens to need a military grade AI, which we just so happen to have picked up during the previous mission.

In most stories, a chain of implausible contrivances like this is a non-no. But in a story like this one it just means we get a chance to tell some jokes via lampshading. Which makes it all the more baffling that the writer doesn’t do this. When we meet Gladstone we get three minutes of Half-Life 2 style cutscene where we are free to move around, but we can’t move on until the adults in the room are done talking. It’s the perfect time for jokes, and there aren’t any.

The jokes don’t have to be brilliant or anything, they just need to smooth over the contrivances.

“What are the odds that we’d just happen to meet someone building a robot army out here?”

“Are you kidding? I’m a Hyperion Engineer. We all build robot armies. Last year at the Hyperion Mercenary Day party the engineers got drunk and we wound up with five robot armies. We had to evacuate the station until they’d killed each other off.”

Or perhaps:

Gladstone: YOU have a military-grade AI?

Jack: What, you don’t? What kind of engineer are you?

Gladstone: I was gonna get around to it eventually, I swear! I’ve just been busy fighting scavs and all!

Here we are listening to Felicity and Gladstone meet and introduce themselves.

Here we are listening to Felicity and Gladstone meet and introduce themselves.

Or whatever. Have Jack take credit for securing Felicity. Have him yank Gladstone’s chain by pretending he doesn’t think Gladstone is good enough for the team, causing Gladstone to desperately and hilariously over-promise on his creation. If you’re really sold on convincing the audience that Jack is supposed to be an engineer, then maybe use this scene to sell it. Gladstone could try to dazzle Jack with technobabble and Jack could throw it back in his face with an even more ridiculous and jargon-filled question. There’s so much you can do with a scene like this to energize our characters, tell some jokes, and do some worldbuilding. Instead it’s just three minutes of exposition.

Three minutes isn’t egregious, but it could be a lot shorter. The game does the awkward thing where Gladstone meets the player, then Gladstone meets Jack, then Gladstone meets Felicity, then Jack and Felicity talk to each other. You could shave some time off this scene by leaving Felicity out. Later Gladstone calls and says, “I’ve been talking to this AI you nicked. She’s bang-on. A real ace!” This means Gladstone and Felicity can meet and exchange exposition without us needing to listen to information we already know. It would also collapse this triangular conversation into a two-person exchange, which can shorten things even more.

At any rate, the plan is to use Felicity’s robo-smarts to drive Gladstone’s armyIt doesn’t turn out to be an army per se. The constructor just makes a few robots at a time. But whatever. of killer robots. This is the origin story for both the constructors and the loader robots the player fights in Borderlands 2.

Felicity

Unlike in Borderlands 2, this game presents a twist you can see coming a mile away, and yet it seems to expect you to be surprised when it happens. I imagine most people will realize "The Skipper" is an AI longer before the big reveal.

Unlike in Borderlands 2, this game presents a twist you can see coming a mile away, and yet it seems to expect you to be surprised when it happens. I imagine most people will realize "The Skipper" is an AI longer before the big reveal.

I really like the idea behind this plot. It’s exciting and interesting, and “building a robot army” is a pretty cool concept for a questline. It shows Jack being a proactive and forward-thinking leader, and it even shows his skill at getting people to fall in line behind him. (And again, underscores how much of his personality fits the “manager” archetype and how poorly it fits “engineer” stereotypes. He does no engineering in this story, and leaves all of the technical stuff to underlings. He never shows any curiosity or knowledge regarding what they might be doing on a technical level. He can’t even remember Gladstone’s skill set. He just calls him “tech guy”.)

Felicity is enthused with her new job at first, but she recoils once she gets a sense of what she’s going to have to do. She hates the idea of inhabiting an ambulatory robot. She’s disgusted with the idea of killing humans in direct combatA military AI that hates killing so much she’s willing to try to kill her owners to avoid doing it? Yeah, that sounds about right for the Borderlands universe.. She literally begs the team to copy her and put the copy into the robot, rather than dooming her only existence to piloting a stompy murder-bot. Jack seriously considers it. But then he refuses when he learns that it’s going to take two days to make the copy. The moon will be destroyed by then.

If this is supposed to be part of his fall to evil then this is a pretty weaksauce transformation. Felicity is a sympathetic character and it’s shitty what happens to her, but there’s really not much of a choice here. Granting her wish would doom everyone to death, including her.

If we’re trying to show this as Jack falling to the dark side, then what we’d really want is a setup where Jack has two clear options in front of him:

1) Jack can defeat the bad guys through some other means and still save the moon, but receive no glory for himself.
2) Jack can refuse Felicity’s wish, save the moon, become a celebrated hero, and gain power within Hyperion.

Then when he does #2, it feels like he chose to do something wrong instead of being forced to do something unpleasant. It would feel like he was being tempted by something. You could do a Macbeth kinda thing where he thinks he just needs to perpetrate one crime to meet his goals, but the costs keep mounting and requiring more bloodshed and rationalizing. Later he could justify it by claiming he had “no choice” and he really just wanted to save Pandora, thus showing his capacity for self-delusion that was such a defining trait of the character in Borderlands 2.

OBVIOUSLY you need to fight her. Once you disable her, she gets mind-wiped and becomes the constructor bot we know from Borderlands 2.

OBVIOUSLY you need to fight her. Once you disable her, she gets mind-wiped and becomes the constructor bot we know from Borderlands 2.

Sure, forcing one personOr ridiculously anthropomorphized AI, which we’ll just accept as a person for the purposes of this discussion. to sacrifice their life against their will for the common good isn’t a “good guy” move. But by the standards of Pandora it’s basically jaywalking. We’re supposed to be witnessing the birth of a supervillain, not a cartoon character being subjected to the trolley problem.

We could shrug all of these complaints off if this chapter made for a great series of jokes, but the whole thing is actually kind of depressing.

Also, the entire point of this questline was to build a “robot army”. Now at the end it turns out that we’re actually just building one constructor bot. Okay. That’s fine. But then this bot is never deployed. So not only is the quest depressing, but it’s also a big waste of time with no payoff. The only reason to have this sequence is to show how it contributes to Jack’s fall, and it doesn’t accomplish that.

Footnotes:

[1] It doesn’t turn out to be an army per se. The constructor just makes a few robots at a time. But whatever.

[2] A military AI that hates killing so much she’s willing to try to kill her owners to avoid doing it? Yeah, that sounds about right for the Borderlands universe.

[3] Or ridiculously anthropomorphized AI, which we’ll just accept as a person for the purposes of this discussion.


Comments (19)

From the Archives:

  1. Matt van Riel says:

    Borderlands Pre-Sequel: “Gotcha! Good twist, right?”

    Emil Pagliarulo sends his regards.

  2. Fizban says:

    I guess you could say I’m just less observant than a lot of people, ’cause there’s lots of twists others say they saw coming a while away, but I’m usually not sure about or don’t notice until “appropriately” right before the reveal. If it’s not something I’ve seen a million of (anime), then I’m just riding along and rarely call it far it advance.

    But then he refuses when he learns that it’s going to take two days to make the copy. The moon will be destroyed by then.

    Similarly, I didn’t think it was all that definitive that the moon would be doomed if you waited. The boss card says it, and by the end of the game it’s apparently only been like a day, but I generally assume in any game with sidequests that multiple days are passing as I faff about. So the idea that we couldn’t possibly wait a couple days and instead must brutally destroy a person worked pretty well for making me dislike Jack -and more importantly, set the tone for how aggressively he’ll crush someone if he thinks they’re in the way.

    Much, much, much much worse, is the fact that no one even suggested the possibility of a freaking compromize! Gee, you’re on a time crunch but the person doesn’t want to do it? Convince them to take the hit for a day, promise you’ll pull her out and make a copy after the moon is saved.

    And then, if you really want to make jack a nasty piece of work, you have him betray that trust and mind-wipe her for convenience. You could even do it in story with a bit of rework- extend the timeline a bit, make a point of how Constructor Felicity is churning out robots and has drastically slowed their ability to fire the doom laser, and those robots can operate without her while you do the copy. Then Jack says no and brutally wipes her instead.

    That’s even worse than the paper thin justification he uses for fairly painlessly removing Gladstone. It just doesn’t result in a boss fight in the constructor facility, for a self-contained arc you can partition your people on and then just kinda drop afterwards in the plot.

    • Fizban says:

      And if pre-sequel is trying to be more dramatic with it’s lack of lampshading (which I think it probably is), then sacrificing the telegraphed zany robot fight expectation for the end of the robot facility in order to replace it with even more dramatic (and more telegraphed) robot fight later after the bad guy shows their true colors, would be better.

    • Galad says:

      It’s not just you, man, I also never saw any of those twists coming, like Angel betraying you, but then I never really cared about them. The game makes it easy not to care for its story, which probably sounds awful, but eh, the gameplay’s solid. I did care during Tiny Tina’s DLC though, even if the gameplay was eeh, less solid by the time I was doing it – on the second difficulty, where some of the final enemies were real bullet sponges.

      Also, I can NOT read “Stay a while and listen” and not remember the Deckard Cain voice clip, and it’s been a good 10 years since I’ve last played Diablo 2..

  3. This was a fantastic read, thank you! I’m working on the story for my own RPG, and this is nice to chew on.

    You did a really good job at holding a mirror up to this, I’m excited to read some of your other stuff.

  4. Ravens Cry says:

    So, basically the Pre-Sequel is the Canada of Borderlands. Everyone is just too damn nice!

    • Ciennas says:

      Why do you think they choose to live on the moon? There’s a whole gravity keeping the truly crazy out, and on Pandora.

      Ooh, that would have been a fun theme- That PANDORA itself is an insane madhouse, and that the rest of the universe is generally calmer.

      (With the exception of Vault planets, of course.)

      The intro shows the Pandora psychos trying to hitch a ride into SPACE with no protection whatsoever- Elpis might have been planted by Hyperion or Atlas or whoever to serve as a buffer zone against all the madness that lives there.

  5. Binary Toast says:

    So, I’ve been holding onto a couple things for a few days, waiting for the next Borderlands update to come. As I commented a couple weeks ago, reading this series finally nudged me over the line to buy Pre-Sequel, and I decided to replay BL2 a bit while waiting for the download, get in the mood. This has driven home to me, just the sheer disparity between the Jack as first introduced, and Jack as depicted in Pre-Sequel.

    It’s the Helena Pierce audio logs that really come to mind when I’m thinking about this. I admit, I’m still working through the campaign, but I just have a hard time believing that the Jack we’ve been interacting with is the same character.

    Seriously, those audio logs are your first real introduction to Jack. He’s laughing about someone’s head exploding, and telling Wilhelm to “kill these savages”. If I were the writer I’d consider twist ending here, where at the end of Pre-Sequel, Jack gets backstabbed and replaced by his own body-double. This would require some build up, the addition of a non-playable body-double character, who was obviously more ruthless (and perhaps less stable) than Jack, but it would explain the disparity: They literally were seperate people, intentionally made identical.

    I’m enjoying the gameplay, but right now I can’t help but consider Jack’s Pre-Sequel personality non-canon. And I say that after the scene of him blowing people out an airlock.

    On a more positive note, I had a vastly different first impression of Deadlift than Shamus. I agree that the arena was poorly built, but as to the boss himself… Well, I’m playing Nisha for my first playthrough, because aimbot dual pistols sounded entertaining, and one of the weapons given to you for having BL1/2 saves is this nice Hyperion shotgun. Which I still had, by the time I reached that fight.

    So yeah, my encounter with Deadlift got cut real short, when he landed next to me. Just popped aimbot, pressed my shotgun to the side of his head, and applied buckshot until the problem went away. Second playthrough will probably be harder. :P

  6. Aevylmar says:

    “Also, the entire point of this questline was to build a “robot army”. Now at the end it turns out that we’re actually just building one constructor bot. Okay. That’s fine. But then this bot is never deployed. So not only is the quest depressing, but it’s also a big waste of time with no payoff. The only reason to have this sequence is to show how it contributes to Jack’s fall, and it doesn’t accomplish that.”

    Actually, while the constructor-bot is never deployed in combat, you see it making robots on-screen after you defeat it, and throughout the next large area, combat robots spawn to help you fight your enemies. So there is, in fact, a payoff.

    • Binary Toast says:

      Except… not.

      I’m literally playing through that section of the game right now, the next big area is the Hyperion Hub of Heroism, and while Lost Legion are literally popping out of every freaking nook and cranny, I’ve yet to see a single Loader.

      Now if you mean the next big setpiece/boss fight, perhaps, I just haven’t gotten there yet. But for invading Helios with a robot army, I’m kinda seeing a marked lack of a robot army right now.

      • Francis-Olivier says:

        You’re right. They only start appearing in the final area of Helios and in the area before RK-5 (oh you’re in for a treat!) and spoilers but they are a unbelievable disapointment. You only see 4 or 5 of them throught the game. I guess the rest of them are supposed to be fighting off screen but the game never mention that so I can only assume.

  7. Ciennas says:

    You know, maybe this would be a better twist if it was revealed that Jack, with Angel, deliberately set up the whole conflict.

    If Jack deliberately allowed the Lost Legion onto the Helios base and pretended his way through the whole thing until about the end. Maybe on a second playthrough have the player find new audiologs that show what Jack had been up to on the Helios Station that would highlight that his intro was…… mostly an act (Maybe he hadn’t meant to get punched in the face.)

    With Angel’s nebulously defined powers, he could subvert enormous odds to his own benefit. Which he does.

    In fact, playthrough two would be an excellent time to rub in how played our heroes were, especially Athena, the only one of this set of Vault Hunters who seems to care about law and order and justice to any extent.

  8. Sicod says:

    It is very simple. Nice people make you evil.

  9. Hector says:

    Hey Shamus – just judging by the comments, this hasn’t been the most popular series. But I want you to know I find it absolutely fascinating, especially when you got to the Pre-Sequel. I didn’t play it, and probably won’t just due to the obnoxious DLC policy they followed.* But I’m still interested in the twists they put on it in TPS.

    *(I’m tired of having to buy DLC just to play the “real” game, and they’re horrible about slicing off parts of the game as extras.)

    • djw says:

      I think there were more comments for the earlier parts of the series. My guess is that fewer people played the pre-sequel than played Borderlands 2. Well, I am extrapolating from one data point (me) which is dangerous, but I bet its not far off.

      Based on Shamus description so far (which I have read, even though this is my only pre-sequel comment) I made the right decision to skip it.

      • Ciennad says:

        I think the comment drop off is primarily due to the two major multinational holidays we just had.

        I’m sure it’ll pick back up in a bit, barring shenanigans.

    • Francis-Olivier says:

      I’m not sure what you’re talking about as far as dlcs for this game are concerned. I’m pretty sure if you buy Pre-sequel without any dlc you get the whole main experience. All the dlcs are is two character packs, two arena quest and a smaller expansion pack.

      And personally the reason why I haven’t commented more here is not because I have nothing to say but because putting my thoughts into words is something I usually don’t like to do and I find neither this analysis or this game makes it easy to do.

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