Sunday, February 22, 2015

Borderlands: Ending as Metanarrative

Never underestimate how attached players can become to their characters in a role playing game. It can not only take hundreds of hours to customize a character by gaining experience and choosing skills, but through all those hours players are experiencing the game’s universe through that character. RPGs are not about running-and-gunning or accumulating points through quick rounds of game play; they require a commitment that most other games do not, and because the player collaborates with the designer in creating the gameplay experience — every playthrough is unique — they rely heavily on narrative coherence and a believable story world. 

One of those RPGs, the Borderlands franchise, consists of two darkly comic open world games.* The setting is Pandora, a mineral-rich planet that is being exploited by greedy corporations with the help of alien technology found in The Vault. Our heroes are trying to find the Vault to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. More here, in the kind of obsessive detail that demonstrates the mindset of the typical RPG player.

In the original Borderlands, players can choose among four playables: Roland the Soldier, Lilith the Siren, Brick the Berserker, and Mordecai the Hunter (and his bird-of-prey sidekick Bloodwing). Each of these Vault Hunters has a particular playing style which is highly customizable by players as they work through the quests required to complete the game.

In Borderlands 2, the four playable characters become characters in the story, while the player has four new characters to build from scratch. The Vault Hunters from BL1 all reappear in BL2 as part of the quest to defeat the evil billionaire Handsome Jack. In a piece of throwaway dialogue near the beginning of BL2, Jack explains that he’s so rich he has a diamond pony — a living diamond pony — but in his need to drag down anything good and beautiful names it Butt Stallion. 

This is the world of BL2. It’s violent, dark, and hilarious, and even the good guys aren’t all that good, but they’re not as evil as the bad guys.

But the story is not all giggles and guns. The game’s designers are well aware of the high level of commitment that happens in RPGs. Players *are* their characters while in the Borderlands universe, and BL2’s narrative has some surprises:

Bloodwing — Mordecai’s bird-of-prey companion — is killed by Jack at the end of a rescue attempt by a Vault Hunter. Bloodwing had been the subject of animal experimentation by Jack, and was transformed into a mindless killer rather than a faithful friend. Jack’s pattern is to commandeer others for his own purposes — a perversion of the RPG ethos in which players *inhabit* their characters rather than control them. Players experience the world as someone else — they don’t simply make them do things.

Even more shockingly, good-guy Roland — the character most players will have inhabited in BL1 — is shot and killed by Jack without any kind of warning to the player. Pandora grieves along with the players who will have been Roland in the earlier game, and who have seen Roland’s steadfast selflessness in BL2.

All of this background is necessary to understand the surprisingly emotional ending of the game. To wrap up the Borderlands series, the developers created Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, a piece of downloadable content. Though more DLC was released later, Dragon Keep was intended as a farewell to the Borderlands universe.

In doing so, the developers created a metanarrative that is packed with intertextuality. It would be impossible in this short space to provide a thorough discussion of the ways Dragon Keep recapitulates and transforms so much of the Borderlands universe. However, a quick overview can begin to reveal its outline.

Before viewing the opening cutscene, a few points:

1. Marcus — the narrator here, a crooked arms dealer in the game — begins the framing at the start of the cutscene, with the iconic “Once upon a time.” We are reminded that we are watching a story, one in which the vault hunters — like the player — are playing a game. 

The DLC is a series of nested fictions: a character (Marcus) is telling a story about other characters (the Vault Hunters) playing a tabletop RPG, whose figures are the playables from Borderlands 2. Those playables — and the player — are creating another story as they work through the game’s quests, which in turn spins off more stories about the characters they encounter.

2. The gamemaster is Tiny Tina, an annoying 13-year-old demolitions expert with a very dark backstory — she was orphaned when her parents were killed through medical experimentation by Jack’s company. The Vault Hunters are her surrogate family, and all are mourning the loss of Roland.

3. The use of a tabletop game as a framing device is an homage to the mothership of RPG games, Dungeons and Dragons, here transformed into Bunkers & Badasses.

The opening cutscene:




Throughout gameplay, the player is reminded through voice-overs that this is a story being constructed on the fly by those who are playing Bunkers & Badasses. Tiny Tina guides the narrative, while others sometimes question her choices but still go along with — or gently correct — those decisions. Dragon Keep is Tina’s narrative, set in a land of fantasy, of castles and knights, orcs and dragons, wizards and sorcerers — a world where “the light has gone out” because the queen has been kidnapped and imprisoned. 

Tina’s insistence that Roland is only late for the game is echoed when he first appears in her narrative as a Knight of the Queen, helping to take down fire-breathing dragons. He exists throughout much of her story and helps the player’s character through out several missions. His speech patterns are hers, though with his voice, adding another permutation to the idea of role-playing.

She constructs a vision of Roland — both in her narrative and in her real life — for reasons that will not become clear until the final scenes when Sorcerer Jack appears for the climactic battle:





Tina’s story is the one that makes sense for her — the one in which Roland defeats Jack, in which the Queen is released to bring light back to the world, the one in which good triumphs over evil and Roland and Bloodwing live. It is the story that allows her to come to terms in her own time with the traumatic losses she and the other Vault Hunters have suffered. For Tina, the narrative is true in a way that reality cannot be. 

At the beginning of Dragon Keep the player slowly enters the multiple levels of the nested fictions, but at the end is suddenly confronted with a dramatic authorial intrusion just as Tina is confronted by the reality of Roland’s death. The narrative veils begin to fall away; we see her story as a construction that is true not only to the characters, but to her needs. The story of Dragon Keep is about telling stories, about our need to make sense of a world that often seems beyond understanding. In telling a story that ends with returning the light to the world, Tina regains a sense of hope and is able to say goodbye in her own way to Roland. 

With this the player is brought back out through the multiple levels of fiction, ending with the narrative frame created by Marcus at the beginning of Dragon Keep.

This metanarrative constantly reminds the reader that it *is* a story, that the fantasy reconstructs Roland's life in the face of a reality that is both tragic and traumatic. Players and characters together are collaborating in creating fictions -- stories that make sense -- in a world that often doesn't.

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*I’m ignoring the sub-par Pre-Sequel that was released as a full game in October 2014 — almost a year and a half after Dragon Keep — but was originally created as DLC. The events of the game take place between Borderlands and Borderlands 2, but it lacks the narrative depth, cohesiveness, and length of the first two games. For a number of reasons, many Borderlands players felt a sense of betrayal with this iteration. I am among them; thus, I am pretending it doesn’t exist. This does no violence to what I’ve posted here.

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