Borderlands: On Madness and Stories

After writing that thing last week about Flotsam, and how it takes some inspiration from Borderlands, I had to go back and reinstall Borderlands and start playing it again. I feel like I haven’t played many shooters in a while – I guess Control and Ghost Recon back in April / May, but – yeah, we’re in August now, that’s three months.

Early on, you can collect a series of audio logs from Patricia Tanner, the resident scientist turned lunatic. These logs record her slow descent into madness, the way that Pandora tears down her psyche and her rational facade. As her teammates are killed by bandits or wild animals, she becomes inured to loss and violence, and her reactions shift from horror to detachment. When one of her surviving colleagues finally dies, Tanner is happy, because now she can take his nice chair. While this madness is very clearly brought on by the trauma of her experiences, it’s not necessarily portrayed as a terrible thing. This madness is not insanity per se – it’s not anti-sanity. It’s depicted almost as an appropriate response to the world. It’s a protective cocooning of the mind, a retreat into hallucination and fictional accounts of what’s happening as a way to cope and process.

And again, this all sounds very serious and heavy, but the game treats mental health in a breezy, largely unruffled manner. In some instances, it arguably becomes too breezy, and even demonizes mental health issues. One class of enemy is the ‘Psycho’, and the game has absolutely no sympathy for them. They’re unhinged, they shout out crazy things (“Strip the flesh! Salt the wound!”), and you’re just meant to shoot them. In this aspect, the game definitely uses pejorative stereotypes about people with mental health issues – depicting them as dangerous, unreasonable, subhuman, and needing to be put down. It pimps out people with mental health issues as weird and wacky, and – even the term ‘psycho’ is in the territory of slur.

We could go on in this vein with criticisms of Borderlands – but I think for our purposes, it’s useful just to recognise the game’s breezy attitude towards mental health. Everyone’s crazy, says Borderlands. Some people are good crazy, some people are bad crazy, but everyone’s crazy. The disaster state is so widespread that the default assumption is that everyone is traumatised, that everyone is damaged in some way or another. It’s simply not noteworthy – it’s an assumed fact of life. The worldview of Borderlands is this: the world is cruel and amoral, horrible things happen all the time, there’s no way of stopping it and nowhere that’s safe. You will be brutalized. The game explicitly draws a line between that brutalization and the behaviour of corporations – you learn that the bandits populating Pandora are convicts, brought in by corporations as unpaid labour and abandoned on the planet for economic reasons. The Borderlands games center corporate greed as the driving factor in the near-universal brutalization of human life. And given all of that – given the scope of the suffering and pain, the genuine horrors experienced as routine – it’s really just surprising that Borderlands is so much fun.

This is really where the link to Flotsam comes back in – as I said last week, both of these games display this incredible comfort with states of apocalypse or catastrophe. Borderlands is a rowdy romp through a Mad Max-inspired wasteland, and Flotsam is a game where you float languidly across the surface of a world devastated by climate change. Both games feel oddly at ease with disaster – which makes you wonder whether they’re taking it seriously. Do they actually appreciate the immensity of what they’re talking about? Or are they being a little glib, maybe a little exploitative, reducing disaster to an aesthetic?

Without offering any sort of definitive comment one way or the other, it’s maybe instructive to look at how the game treats references. Borderlands is a very reference-heavy game. As I mentioned, Mad Max is a key source of inspiration – and so of course you fight a character called Mad Mel, after Mel Gibson, who played Max in the original films, in a quest titled ‘Road Warriors’, which is the name of the second film. There are the obvious rebrandings of familiar pop culture references – Godzilla becomes Skagzilla, Mothra becomes Mothrakk, the Zombie Island of Dr Ned expansion has Tankensteins – and there are the various references to different works of fiction. There’s a character called Chuck Durden who runs a fight club – he’s obviously a mash-up of Chuck Palahniuk and his character Tyler Durden in Fight Club – there’s a Jaynistown, run by Jaynis Kobb (riffing on Jayne Cobb and Jaynestown in Firefly), a Bruce McClane – and this is all still within the first title. All of these references or Easter eggs point back to the heart of Borderlands – which, amidst everything, is a game about being a scavenger. It’s a game about picking through the rubbish heap of reality, and occasionally finding something worthwhile. That’s a core part of the gunplay in Borderlands, which makes it compelling to play, but it’s also a thematic idea, something expressed through the structure of the world. You grind your way through the game, and suddenly stumble across something familiar. It’s been bent out of shape, contorted around the wrappings of this fictional world, but there’s a moment of recognition, of kinship.

And – I mean, let’s not overstate the case, but it’s at least interesting that this game about madness and disaster is also really hooked on pop culture. There are maybe some interesting resonances here. What’s the role of pop culture in the face of disaster and trauma? Is it just a glib way to avoid reality, or is it something else? Is it a way of cocooning the mind, of telling and retelling stories in different ways and across different contexts as a type of rehearsal, as a way of maintaining a constant thread through uncertain times? I don’t want to void the role of 2009’s dumb edgy boy-humour in producing Borderlands, or to make out that it’s some insightful masterwork on the human condition – but at the same time, I don’t think we benefit from ignoring the way these things are juxtaposed against each other. In a game full of pain and trauma, full of madness, where you scavenge your way through like some rootless drifter, pop culture references are presented as pearls, as gleaming little moments amongst the muck. That feels like an attempt at saying something.

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