Borderlands 3: On Family

Borderlands 3 is a game that’s attracted a lot of controversy – for a bunch of different reasons. There was controversy when the CEO of Gearbox, the game’s developer, had a fight on Twitter with voice actors from the previous games. There was controversy over the game’s status as an exclusive to the Epic storefront. Epic paid a whopping $146 million to have Borderlands 3 as an exclusive on their platform for the first six months of its release. This move was widely seen as an unwelcome power grab by a new player in the PC gaming market – and it’s also the reason you don’t have any pictures today, Epic doesn’t have functionality for screenshots. There was also controversy over the continued creep of questionable DLC practices, with reams of additional content withheld in order to squeeze some more money out of you (there are currently two separate DLC Season Passes, together totalling $115, in addition to the $90 base game), and there was controversy over Ava, one of the game’s main characters – people thought she was annoying and terrible, an example of plain bad writing. It’s a game with a lot of discourse, right, heaps of opinions and arguments and disagreements. And we’re not going to unpick any of those per se. Instead, we’re going to talk about one specific subplot – the Troy and Tyreen tension.

As we discussed last week, the villains of Borderlands 3 are the Calypso twins, a couple of powerful Sirens leading a cult of personality. They’re meant to be a commentary on Twitch streamers – it’s a whole thing. The characterisation of the pair is that Tyreen is the streamer, the girl in front of the camera, and Troy is the media guy – he comes up with the strategy and runs the recording and editing and so on. Troy’s powers are also parasitic – he feeds off his sister’s abilities, rather than having any of his own. At the start of the game, then, there’s a clear power dynamic between the twins. Tyreen has the limelight, and Troy skulks along after her. However, throughout the course of the game, Troy comes into his own power, stealing it from another Siren. He starts contributing more directly to the fight against you, creating new enemies, and his ego gets bigger as well. He starts being more assuming, taking more authority, pushing his sister more to do what he wants. There’s a clear conflict being set up, right? Something’s clearly going to happen.

As the antagonists, Tyreen and Troy are the most obvious exploration of family in this game, but there are plenty of others as well. Montgomery Jakobs, owner of the Jakobs corporation, worries about what his father would think about how he’s running the company. The head of Maliwan, Katagawa Jr., murdered a dozen of his siblings to come to power. There are even a couple bosses who are brothers: Captain Traunt, who you fight fairly early in the game, just wants to impress his older brother; near the end of the game, the brother turns up and tries to get revenge for Traunt’s death. The Jakobs example probably has the most extended exploration of family – Monty is engaged to Sir Hammerlock, whose evil sister Aurelia tries to kill both of them so she can take control of the company herself. Both Troy and Tyreen comment on Aurelia’s ruthlessness, as if it’s the first time they’ve even considered trying to kill a sibling. Troy tells Aurelia at one point: “Gotta say, I’m surprised you’d pull one over on your brother. It seems kinda…” He pauses, and Aurelia offers: “Cold? Troy, dear. You’ll figure this out eventually – family is just another word for war. And the sister always wins.” Aurelia, of course, does not win – the player kills her, and Troy is left to consider what that might suggest about his own relationship with Tyreen.

The Calypso’s time with Aurelia is a clear milestone in their escalating tensions. It’s during this sequence that Troy unleashes his new powers, introducing the Anointed enemy type. This development puts him on a more equal footing with his sister, allowing him to contribute in a meaningful way to the fight against you. The sequence also boasts a mission where Tyreen and Troy are competing in a semi-serious ‘capture the flag’ game with their followers – you intervene and kill all the followers, causing conflict between the Calypsos by using their friendly competition to expose genuine underlying tensions. Most explicitly, at the height of the sequence, Troy briefly captures you and complains about his sister. “We haven’t really had a chance to get to know each other, huh. Ty’s been doing most of the talking. She does that, right? She’s the center of the galaxy, and the rest of us just sort of orbit around her. But things are changing.” Everything looks like it’s about to shift. A mere couple chapters later, the conflict reaches its height. Troy and Tyreen are about to achieve their evil goal. Troy needs to power up the moon – for plot reasons – and is directly draining his sister to do it. She’s screaming, she’s in pain – “Troy! It hurts!” – and Troy ignores her. He keeps pushing, keeps draining. “Our viewership’s through the roof,” he shouts. “Don’t you dare quit on me now.” This is for Troy the moment of choice, the moment of critical judgement. Is Aurelia right, or not? Is family war, or can it be a meaningful connection with important people? Does he push on and power up the moon, potentially killing his sister in the process, or does he abandon their plan in favour of protecting his family?

Anyway, then you kill Troy, so he never makes a decision. He powers up the moon just before he dies, because otherwise the plot can’t progress, and Tyreen turns out to be totally fine, because otherwise the plot can’t progress – so the emotional stakes of that decision were really entirely inconsequential – and then Tyreen doesn’t even particularly care that he’s dead. She immediately forgets any sense of betrayal or hurt at the hands of her parasite brother, and the story moves on, apparently unbothered by its hanging emotional question. If Borderlands 3 ends with something of an damp fart, it’s partly because of this thematic momentum jilted at the altar. When you meet Typhon DeLeon, the Calypso’s father, in the final sequence, he learns about his son’s death – learns that you killed him – and he really just shrugs it off. He knows his son was a baddie, so he’s not chuffed that he’s dead, but he can’t muster the energy to emote about it. There’s really quite literally one piece of dialogue, and then it’s never mentioned again. “I know what’s been going on out there. Troy and Tyreen, my kids – well, they became monsters. No other way to say it. And you’re a Vault Hunter. You kill monsters. Simple as that.” Simplicity is an apt term here – it’s the driving element in a story that at this point has given up on its thematic core. Remaining plot threads are wrapped up quickly and with a marked disinterest. It’s maybe fitting that you say all your farewells to the characters of Borderlands 3 not before the final fight against Tyreen, but before your battle with Troy – the high point of the family drama. Really, that’s the end of the game.

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