Dec 05 2012

Ain’t No Place For a Hero: Thoughts On “Of Assholes and Antiheroes: Morality in Borderlands 2”

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It’s hardly a secret that in real life I’m a big woobie neutral good Boy Scout kind of guy. Sometimes, tho, it can be refreshing to put that aside and be a wiseass, letting out my internal Bugs Bunny (who spends most of his time being thwarted) in an environment without consequences.

Borderlands 2 is all about that; it’s one of the reasons I’ve been enjoying it. Even within the context of Borderlands, anybody you shoot, melt, or slice in half can just be revived at the nearest “New U” station– presumably getting blown to bits still stings, but mainly it’s just annoying and eats up money.

It’s a weird psychological line to walk; I don’t generally like “dark comedy” and roll my eyes at things like Pulp Fiction, but I thought the quest to shoot “Face McShooty” in the face was hilarious and always chuckle when my siren character shouts “That was awesome!” after one-shotting a foe. What’s the difference? I’m not sure.

I did find an interesting discussion of the issue however, called “Of Assholes and Antiheroes: Morality in Borderlands 2. From the article:

It’s important to note that this is not an instance of ludic dissonance, when the gameplay and the story contradict each other. Instead, you’re participating in two parallel stories: the story of you against Jack and the story of you against the planet of Pandora. In one story, I’m clearly the good guy, but in the other story, it’s not so clear. Killing the other bandits can’t be justified the same way that killing Jack is justified since the bandits never tried to kill you (and in fact, whenever they do shoot at you, it’s because you’re in their territory). We have no personal motivation for these fights, so instead the game gives us external motivation. We’re told that the two gangs are vicious and cruel—they are gangs after all. This is the justification for most of what we do: The bandits are bandits, that semantic “fact” alone makes it okay to kill them.

This is the exact same reasoning that Handsome Jack uses to justify killing everyone on Pandora. From an objective point of view, there’s no difference between us. Despite all of our talk of saving the world, we slaughter our bandit enemies without a second thought. Despite Jack’s dream of a crime-free Pandora, he’s really just slaughtering his enemies without a second thought as well.

What’s interesting about Jack is that he represents the traditional gamer morality turned back on us. The only reason that he is the bad guy in this scenario is because he is not a playable character. If the plot of Borderlands 2 stayed the same, and we simply took control of Jack instead of the Vault Hunters, we would see him as an antihero, not a villain. We wouldn’t question his horrible actions, just as we don’t question the actions of the Vault Hunters. Both parties are antiheroes in their own story, both parties are wronged by each other, and the ultimate justification of everything that they do is that “the other guy deserved it.” But to be perfectly honest, I don’t hold this against Maya, my character. Yet I hate Jack so much. Why?

Because Jack is a jerk.

This train of thought doesn’t come out of nowhere: in the game, Jack is constantly having a sort of meta-discussion with your character about this very topic. He repeatedly refers to himself as “the hero of the story” and your character as “the bad guy,” and gets very upset about the fact that you’re not falling into line with this. Even in his very final speech in the game, he’s ranting about the fact that the player character isn’t following the expected “bad guy” behavior of getting killed at the end.

Furthermore, a lot of the random NPC dialog explicitly calls you out for what you’re doing on any given mission, from the Hyperion combat engineers who say “Dammit! I was almost done with my shift, you bastard!” as they die, to the A.I. gun you pick up halfway through the game that shrieks “THEY PROBABLY HAD A FAMILY!” when you shoot it at someone (or “Now you’re just wasting ammo!” when you reload). The writers very clearly want these issues to be on your mind as you play.

To what purpose? That’s a harder thing to pin down; it’s not like the game takes a real stance on the issue. Like everything else on Pandora, the exploration of themes seems to be done with a kind of sophomoric smirk. It may very well be that the writers don’t really have a stance on the issue, they’re just messin’ with you. But at the same time, just the fact that the issue is there for analysis and discussion, adds a kind of depth that makes Borderlands 2 much more enjoyable than just another round of watching this set of pixels blow up that set of pixels.

-The Gneech

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