Not to sound like a strawman sexist version of a girl gamer, but I don’t really GET shooters.
I’ve watched my friends play your Halos, your Call of Duty’s (Calls of Duty?), your PUBG’s, your CS:GO’s, your Barbie Pet Rescue’s — all those classic gun games.
And don’t get me wrong, I certainly do GET them from a multiplayer perspective — killing your friends and loved ones is cathartic fun for the whole family, and sometimes stealing their star in Mario Party just isn’t visceral enough. But even then, it just seemed…boring. I mean look at this shit.
Anyone else just feel their eyes yawn? No? Just me? I’ll see myself to a doctor, then.
In the meantime, the only two games that come close to looking engaging are Halo and that new-ish Doom.
But even then, they couldn’t pull me in. See, I’m one of those pretentious fucks who likes some story and character in their vidya game, and while these two games aren’t completely void of that, it sort of misses the mark for me. They’re all about saving the world from Generic Bad Guy #458 for The Greater Good. Hard to connect with that, personally.
So that was it, I thought. Shooters are Not For Me. Maybe I sucked at Goldeneye as a kid not because my brother had gotten dozens of hours of practice at his friend’s house before we ever got our own console, but because I just didn’t get them and never would. I’ll be over here with my puzzles and storylines while everyone else gets to have fun killing things.
But then. Oh, dear reader, but then.
Then one man came mouth-guitar-soloing into my life, and I was never the same.
I basically bought Borderlands 2 because I saw a great video about it, and it mentioned the fact that one of the player characters, Maya, was confirmed to be asexual by the game’s main writer, Anthony Burch. As I mentioned, I didn’t think shooters were for me, but I was able to get it for dirt cheap in a sale, and thought it was at least worth a go.
Fast forward to less than a year later, and I’ve now logged more than 100 hours in Borderlands 2, am feverishly working through the Pre-Sequel, and am planning on playing through the first game so I have a well-rounded picture before finally diving into Tales from the Borderlands. One of my friends got me a Borderlands mug for Christmas, I’m part of our friend group’s All-Mechromancer run of the game, and am even working through B2 with my sister, who has the same shooter aversion but is also loving it.
Which begs the question: how did this happen, and can I blame it on Claptrap?
To figure that out, let’s look at how Borderlands differs from the shooters I’ve already mentioned.
Dat Art Style Tho
I’m starting with this because I don’t really have a lot to say about it. It’s just gorgeous, man.
And those aren’t trailer shots either — those are all in-game. The wild colors keeps things interesting and fun, while the comic-book style linework gives it a bit of an edge. This art style compliments and reflects the gameplay and writing style, making everything cohesive.
Now, as I mentioned, a few shooters have started moving away from the brown-and-dark-green-only palette. But even still, Halo and Doom still look like Call of Duty In Space, despite being very different games. Borderlands stood out immediately to me thanks to its art style. It looked so wildly different from anything else, and I’d hated everything else, so maybe this would be different. Boom, sale. Take notes, AAA.
Speaking of the writing style, though…well, take a look at that last picture for a hint.
Just Here For A Laff
While shooters aren’t really known for their writing, it’s not like they’re awful as a rule. Especially lately, they get the job done, guiding you from shootout to shootout and giving you some kind of arc along the way, even if it’s shallow.
The story of Borderlands itself isn’t much different. Defeat the bad guy, save the world, and get the treasure by shooting all of the things. Pretty standard.
But it feels really fun and new and interesting, and that’s all thanks to the character writing.
Character-wise, Borderlands has some of the best characters in any game, period. Pro tip: you know you’ve got good characters when someone can make a story-driven adventure game out of them that is just as enjoyable as the main series.
The characters are not only fun and interesting, but also diverse. And I don’t just mean in terms of race, gender, sexuality, etc., although, yeah. The first character you meet in Borderlands 2 (no, Claptrap doesn’t count) is a gay black British dude with prosthetic limbs, for God’s sake.
You want bi characters?
A lesbian couple?
A dash of asexual?
And that’s not all! Looking for more female body diversity?
People of color who aren’t relegated to one type of role?
The closest we’ll ever get to a character looking directly into the camera and saying “women’s rights”?
However, they’re also diverse in terms of personality. For example, on the surface, Roland and Sir Hammerlock serve similar roles. They both are often the straight man to the wackier shenanigans of the other characters, and are some of the characters with the most true moral compass. However, Roland is a soldier, while Sir Hammerlock is more of a biologist. Roland sticks to the rules, but Hammerlock is willing to bend them if it means getting information on a new species. Roland’s funny moments stem from his social awkwardness and deadpan delivery, while Hammerlock’s stem from his chipper keep-calm-and-carry-on tone even when the player is getting eaten by killer Dune worms.
The point is, none of the characters you actually interact with are tokens. The diverse cast means that everyone gets to stand on their own as a character, instead of being “the black guy” or “the girl” or “the gay one”.
It’s not just good for representation in general, either. When more kinds of people are visible, more kinds of people can visualize themselves in the world. Anyone who’s not white might not feel welcome in a game where the only brown people are the ones you shoot at, and women might not feel comfortable playing a game where they only exist as a hologram. Borderlands doesn’t represent everyone, by any means, but it opens the door much wider than most. On Pandora (or Elpis), the only qualification for entry is whether or not you’re a badass.
Speaking of badass, that’s a rank in this game. Minibosses are referred to as Badasses. Which brings us to…
Change Your Tone
If Nintendo has proven one thing, it is this: cool comes and goes, but fun is forever, especially where video games are concerned.
Call of Duty, while no longer as culturally relevant as it used to be, still has a degree of cred. Saying you play Call of Duty is more respectable in bro-gaming circles than saying you recently replayed Nancy Drew: Ghost of Thornton Hall, for instance.
And Call of Duty is still very concerned with being Cool ™. From upping the graphics to celebrity cameos to moar guns, they’re always trying their best to appeal to what The Kids want these days. But what’s cool one minute, might be very, very uncool the next.
They’ve solved this problem by making their games something you can get through in a year, then quickly dispose for the next release. It works profit-wise, so there’s no need to expand the audience. But it also is what has led to its cultural irrelevance outside of its sales and occasional unfortunate connections with child sex offenders.
Meanwhile, people still play Super Mario 64. People still play Wind Waker. Splatoon was a major hit with all ages. Players are devouring and critics are raving about Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild.
Why? Because they’re all just FUN. They don’t try to be anything but what they are, and just focus on making what they are enjoyable to experience. Splatoon’s bright, vibrant colors make shooting the walls oh-so-satisfying. Breath of the Wild’s wide-open concept gives the player a real sense of embarking on their own adventure. And because it looks so fun, it draws in players who would normally never consider playing an MMO or an open-world game. They don’t pretend they’re bigger or cooler than they are, which makes them all the bigger and cooler.
Which brings us to Borderlands.
Lots of shooters make it very clear that you’re either the good guy and all this killing is totally necessary and noble we promise, or you’re Evil McEvilFace and you’re here to do Evil things because you’re Evil and Good Is Dumb. Borderlands just shrugs, but not in a “question your morals” way like in Hotline: Miami or Spec Ops: The Line (lotta colons, I just realized — maybe the two dots represent the duality of man?). No no — Borderlands does not care. It looks you in the eye and says, “Look, we both know why you’re here. You want to shoot stuff, laugh when people die in funny ways, and basically have no regard for human or animal life while you’re shooting your cool gun or riding your cool vehicle. As long as it looks AWESOME, do whatever.”
In these games, you sometimes kill someone because they have a different opinion from another character. You sometimes kill animals so you can put their brains in a rocket and see what happens. You can kill a happy couple for literally no other reason than to complete a quest.
All of this happens in other games, of course. But usually, it’s either not addressed at all, or it’s addressed in a heavy, existential, ‘what does this say about you, the player?’ kind of way.
Borderlands manages to toe the line between acknowledging that what you’re doing is kinda fucked up and not guilting you too much about it. Mostly, it does this through humor.
Boy howdy, does this game have a sense of humor.
And these are just some one-liners I can think of. From deadpan reactions to gleeful disregard for human life, from grossout humor to good old-fashioned puns, this game’s got it all. This goes back to the fun thing I mentioned — if you’re laughing, you’re having more fun — but it also makes sure you never take the game too seriously. And don’t get it twisted — there are canonically messed up things that happen, and moments where you feel like you’re carrying out righteous vengeance or truly righting a wrong. But that’s not the overwhelming tone of the game. It’s mostly light, carefree, and reckless, which makes the moments where shit gets real all the realer.
Not going into detail, obviously, but a major character dies brutally and For Real in Borderlands 2. Not only is it handled respectfully and realistically in that game, with different characters grieving in their own way, but is also heavily addressed and even the main focus of some of the DLC story campaigns and the Pre-Sequel. Compare to Call of Duty, which, uh…
Borderlands never takes itself seriously. Characters will outright address how ridiculous some of the missions are, or how morally dubious their actions are, or how messed up the previously mentioned “kill two happy robots because quest” thing is.
It’s a fun change of pace for those who are familiar with the genre, but it also provides some context and familiarity to those who aren’t. Someone whose first instinct isn’t to kill on sight is reassured that it shouldn’t be your first instinct, which makes it all the more fun to do it anyway.
Overall, the clever, fun writing welcomes new players and invites them into this insane, dangerous, fun world, even if the genre didn’t interest them before.
There are so many other things the series does well to appeal to new or different players — I didn’t even mention that there are no lengthy “how to shoot” tutorials or explanations of the different kinds of guns, allowing the player to enjoy the discovery of it and figure out what playstyle works for them. But generally, appealing to a broad audience doesn’t have to mean watering or dumbing down what’s already there. It just means opening the door a little wider. Unique art styles, diverse characters, and careful writing are all great ways to get your game noticed by people who normally wouldn’t give your genre a second glance.
And it never hurts to, as the great Cosmo Brown once said, make ’em laugh.