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The writing in Borderlands has turned terrible

Borderlands

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel turned out to be a disappointment.

The game itself was entertaining enough, right up there with Borderlands 2 in most respects. The shooting was shooty, the skills were exciting, the loot was… well, the loot was less, but that’s a different topic. Most of the game was above average, all except for one thing: the writing.

I pay a lot of attention to writing in games, since that’s what I do for a living. I like to see what risks people take and how they overcome the inherent problems in storytelling via video game. It’s not an easy medium to write for. Most players just want you to shut up and let them shoot things.

The writing in the Borderlands series started strong but quickly set a course to inanity. I don’t think it’s going to turn back. The jokes have devolved into memes and cracks about boners, and the story is basically a connect the dots children’s tale where half of the dots are skipped over so the picture is a circle instead of the Eiffel Tower.

It’s easy to point a finger at the head writer of Borderlands 2 and the Pre-Sequel for the decline in quality. Really, the fault rests with whoever thought putting an internet celebrity in the head writer’s chair was a good idea. Writing a story isn’t just slamming words together, and making that story work with an interactive game is even more difficult. But, you know, as long as someone mentions boobs and pretends to have an emotional revelation, we’ll let it slide.

The Humor, it Hurts Us

One of Borderlands’ big draws was its sense of humor. There’s the skinny dude who says “Catch a ride!”, the doctor who’s basically a maniac with a hacksaw, the greedy weapons merchant with a cheerful monopoly on the trade. When you take characters like that and mix them in a world of thieves and thugs and treasure hunters, the juxtaposition alone will fuel some great comedy. It also makes building a plot easier, since characters are the pillars of any story.

When Borderlands 2 came along, I was immediately disappointed with the humor. Suddenly it’s all about butt stallions, meme references, and annoying little girls who think they’re gangsters (voiced by that head writer’s sister, coincidence coincidence). It wasn’t entirely garbage, but it was a clear step down from the original game. I cringed, shook my head, and soldiered on.

Claptrap

When Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel came out, I initially thought the writing was a notch or two better. The humor focused on cultural quirks, something that’s going to be relevant for as long as Australia exists. But then I played through the rest of the game and was saddened to see the mediocrity break through. The writing had actually gotten worse. The jokes might as well have been crowdsourced from YouTube comments. “Hey look! I typed the word butt!” Cue raging laughter.

There’s nothing wrong with blue comedy. It’s good for a giggle, as Hollywood well knows. But those kinds of jokes don’t have a shred of lasting power. You hear them once and you’re good for a lifetime. They work in movies because you only sit there for 90 minutes. But for a video game that’s nearly 40 hours long and is meant to be played through again and again, stuffing it full of cheap humor is a monumentally terrible idea. It’s like building a comedy routine around Bill Clinton cigar jokes. They’ll get some easy laughs for a year or two in the 90s, but then what?

Five years from now, who’s going to remember what a double rainbow is and why it was included in a Borderlands game? Butt stallion is grin-worthy on the first time around, but it isn’t even interesting on the second playthrough. It’s downright annoying on the third. These kinds of jokes are cheap and easy to write. Good for short internet comedy videos, but bad for games.

Not Even Half a Story

Telling a good story in a game is hard to do. That’s why you hire seasoned writers to do it! If you don’t, you end up with something that kind of looks like a narrative, but only when you’re staring right at the script. Games aren’t scripts, and they’re experienced in an entirely different way.

The story in the first Borderlands was a patchwork of missions and plot ideas. There wasn’t a strong central narrative, but the game didn’t need it. You knew you were there to open a vault. Bam, central mystery is established. Everything from character motivations to local events can be draped across that skeleton without disturbing it. No need to conjure up plot devices or invent conflicts just for the sake of the story. It’s all there, just let the players have at it.

Handsome Jack

Borderlands 2 tried to add a conventional narrative. It succeeded in part, but what it left behind wasn’t worth the tradeoff. New characters and old friends suddenly needed histories and motives that tied directly to the story. They were added and fleshed out, but only on the surface. Jack was evil because he was mean to us. Other events eventually played into that, but they didn’t dig any deeper into the character’s makeup. There was no foundation for any of the events to rest on. It’s like giving someone a bunch of logs, pointing to a picture of a cabin and telling them to build, even though they don’t know a hammer from a pipe wrench. The end result will probably look similar, but the first wind that comes along will knock the whole thing down.

The narrative in Borderlands 2 looked and seemed real, but only if you mostly ignore it while running to the next shooty area. Try to experience it or think about it and it falls flat.

The story in the Pre-Sequel is supposed to show how Handsome Jack turned from an ok guy to the evil sarcastic bastard we got to know in the second game. Throughout the story he keeps trying to do the right thing (or so he says) but nothing quite works out. That is supposed to make us feel for him, and it’s supposed to be the root of the emotions we should feel when he loses his cool and turns bad.

I never believed Jack was a good guy at any point in his life. We spent an entire game learning how evil he was. In order to step back and show his decline, you have to reset his personality establish him as a non-villain. The only attempt made at this during the Pre-Sequel are a few lines where Jack mentions wanting to do something good, but even those are ruined because he can’t stop being a sarcastic prick. Basically, the Pre-Sequel tells the story of why Jack wears that mask. You could condense that into a tweet and it would have had the same impact.

The result of this pancake-flat story arc is you really don’t give a damn what happens to anyone. Giant laser killing thousands of people? Whatever. Everybody just betrayed Jack? The voice actor is screaming, so I’m assuming he’s feeling emotions that are bad. I’ll go along with it. Where’s the next waypoint?

Marcus

Now What?

I know I’m in the minority when I say the story in Borderlands has gone downhill. Most people don’t scrutinize it that much, which is just fine. But when storytelling is so sloppy that it makes me not want to play a first person shooter, that’s bad. The solution would be to hire an actual writer in the lead role, but I’m sure that’s not going to happen. Fart jokes sell, and as long as there are skags to shoot, Borderlands will sell, too.

There’s a little glimmer of hope for the future of the writing in the series: Tales from the Borderlands. Telltale Games is set to release the adventure game in late 2014, and they’re using their own writing staff to do it. This could potentially raise the quality bar for the series up a few pegs, especially since the game is so reliant upon its text.

If it doesn’t, though, I worry it will cement the low-brow jokes and pothole narrative for the rest of Borderlands’ future. Early impressions say the game has “that same Borderlands humor”. Is it butt jokes or something clever and interesting? Guess we’ll find out.

BONUS!
I combed through Steam user reviews to see if I really was in the minority Half of the reviews that mentioned the writing had something negative to say. “Lackluster”, “below average”, “sub-par” and “muddled and idiotic” were all used, so it seems my opinion has at least a little bit of company. Also, someone referred to the declining quality as “The Curse of the Burch”. I’m going to use that now.