Op-Ed – Fixing Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

Sometimes those of you who peruse this site may find it easy to forget that I’m actually quite the gamer.

No no, it’s true. I’ve got a game list longer than my arm (and most other arms for that matter) and a backlog that would give an accountant fits. I like video games. Multiple genres, multiple titles, multiple systems. Right now? I’m playing through The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and loving every minute (yes, it is every bit as fantastic a reinvention of an open-world game as the reviews claim).

Anyhow, being a gamer, I’ve got some favorite series I adore. And one of these is the titular Borderlands series.

Borderlands is an interesting one. Think Mad Max meets Diablo, in an FPS, in a distant Sci-Fi setting, and now throw in a bunch of kooky, dark humor, and you’ve kind of got the gist of it. Borderlands takes place on an abandoned mining world where (initially at least, since there are now four games in the series) crazed bandits (the descendants of prison convicts who were turned loose when a mining operation up and left) roam the desert landscape alongside monstrous alien life forms, as “Vault Hunters” battle both to try and track down a legendary alien cache of tech rumored to be somewhere.

It gets complicated fast, surprisingly. And there’s more to it, but that’s the gist of it. Anyway, the result is a fun universe I happen to enjoy with a lot of kooky humor, memorable characters … and plenty of shooting.

Anyway, what’s that got to do with today’s post? Well … today I want to talk about Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. Yes, you read that right. That kooky humor extends to the titles as well.

In any case, I want to talk about TPS—specifically one of the things it got tragically wrong, and how it could have been fixed.

Hey hey, don’t click away yet. This thing that I want to talk about? It’s a writing problem. After all, this is a writing site. That’s most often what I talk about here. So this is writing related. I’m going to discuss what went wrong … and how the developers of TPS could have avoided it.

But first, a little background, so that those of you who have the game have some of the context. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel was the third game in the series, but, as the title suggests, took place in-between the first and second games. Which is always a risk. Anytime you do something like this, you chance the danger of trying to work your new narrative around something that you’ve previously established. Unfortunately, TPS took this approach head-on and … well, it didn’t work very well.

So, let’s talk about TPS‘s biggest narrative problem: Handsome Jack.

For those unfamiliar with the Borderlands series, Handsome Jack was introduced as the primary villain/antagonist in the second game … and immediately became one of the standout elements of the series. As funny as he was sociopathic, Handsome Jack was an incredibly well-written villain who had you laughing one second, then questioning why you’d just laughed at what he’d said, because he was a horrible, horrible human being with a completely callous disregard for human life—which of course, includes the player’s. As with many things, Jack was the result of a lot of good elements coming together perfectly—a talented VA with a good sense of timing, a good writer, etc—but overall Jack’s constant toying with the player and the world of Pandora made the second game’s story.

Let’s be honest, I could go on about this for a while. Jack’s character is written perfectly. He’s a deranged sociopath hiding behind a smiling mask (hence the “handsome” part of his name), and as the game winds on the writing does a wonderful job conveying his shift from an amused psychopath who’s toying with you, to one who’s starting to get tired of your antics, to one who’s no longer playing, and then one who’s having a total psychotic break near the end of the game as he just can’t stop you. The acting, the writing, the backstory you find in various audio-logs … Jack is nuts. Worse, he’s convinced he’s not, that he’s the guy the world needs, and that he’s the hero of the story.

Seriously, Jack’s character is compelling, charismatic, crazy, and the absolute highlight of the series.

So, what does that have to do with TPS and how it went wrong? Well … they made the story about Jack, about his rise to power between the first and second titles (get it, the Pre-sequel?). And … they dropped the ball. Hard. Ever so hard.

How? Well, here’s the biggest issue with the writing: They tried to make Jack a sympathetic, tragic character.

It just doesn’t work.

First of all, it doesn’t at all fit in with the character established in the actual sequel (the prior game). In that, we’d learned that Jack was insane for a long time, but he was the insane type who hid behind first a sniveling, office drone slave attitude, and then a kind smile as he choked the life out of you. This is a man who locked his daughter up as a science experiment when she was a little girl so that he could control her powers (She was a Siren, which we won’t get into here, just roll with it).

TPS ignores all that. Instead, it tries to make the game a tragedy, tries to retcon Jack into a character who’s trying to do the right thing, and then gradually goes down the dark side, enjoying the killing and all that, until he’s the villain everyone feared at the start of 2.

But that brings in problems. After all, everyone who had played knew that the warning signs with Jack were there right from the start—long before he arrived on the game’s scene, in fact. Like the daughter thing. The backstory given there painted (quite excellently) Jack as a man with his psychopathy hidden very thinly beneath the surface.

TPS, meanwhile, tries to paint Jack as a sympathetic, sane character … But at the same time, directly acknowledges the characters from 2 seeing Jack’s hidden psychopathy. The psychopathy part of the story is busily trying to pretend it doesn’t exist, and the rest of the story is written as if it doesn’t exist.

The result is a disjointed mess of a character that is at odds with itself. On the one hand, we have the helpful, slightly noble, somewhat shy Jack who’s “trying to do the right thing” but gradually liking the violence the game presents … while on the other hand, we have these sudden, about face moments where the character turns into the Jack the players knew from 2 … Sometimes in the same scene.

 

And it just doesn’t work. Instead it creates this rapid-fire boomerang that feels like a split-personality disorder, with the character behaving wildly inconsistently with themselves. One minute, the character is a tragic figure who’s reluctant to kill, the next minute they’re swearing vengeance on everyone they’d abruptly decided to kill. It didn’t make sense at all with what had come previously in the series, where we know he was a nut from the very beginning (or at least starting with the death of his wife). It just didn’t work, and it’s one of the reasons that the story for TPS never quite gels properly, since it revolves around Handsome Jack’s character.

So then … how could they have fixed it? What would make this story work, both within the confines of the prior titles, and the world they wanted to establish?

First, they should have ditched the whole tragedy angle. Jack’s downfall came long before even the first Borderlands started, not between the first and the second. Trying to retcon that so that the player would feel tied to Jack’s story in TPS didn’t fit. No, what they should have done was embraced who the character already was.

Rather than starting TPS out with a semi-nice but in-over-his-head Jack who begs for the player’s help, TPS should have started out with the confident Jack we all knew and loved from 2, keeping that part of his character intact. Make him confident, make him charming, and most important of all, hide all his darkness behind his smile.

That whole hidden evil nature of Jack was part of what made him work so great in Borderlands 2. I mean, listen to this audio log (if you dare, it’s a little grim). He’s almost charming, but a little off … and completely heartless. He laughs, gets you laughing with him … and then shoots you with nary a hint of remorse.

TPS dumped that, and it shouldn’t have. It shouldn’t have tried to make Jack a sort of “tragic” hero. Instead, Jack should have been played straight from the very beginning: Charming, funny, just a little odd, but hey, he’s not asking you (the player) to do anything that crazy.

Yet.

See, the tragic story should not have been Jack’s. The real tragedy should have been the player’s. TPS really actually had the chance for a Bioshock-esque moment of clarity where, after following Jack’s orders for a good portion of the game, the player character realizes that this man is a complete sociopath, what am I doing?

And honestly, this simple switch would have fixed many of TPS‘s problems. Letting Jack be his sociopathic, charming self would have changed the whole tone of the game. Rather than the unsure, semi-competent character who keeps acting somewhat guilty and apologetic for what they’re doing—a tone that completely clashes with the past versions of Jack from earlier in his life established in 2—a better choice by far for the story would have been this friendly, charming character with just a little hint that something is off … a something that grows more and more as the story progresses.

This would have taken out the mood whiplash later, when one character betrays Jack, accusing them of things they were definitely guilty of in the past according to 2, but that don’t mesh at all with the character presented in TPS. In the base story, this scene is an instance of Jack suddenly, randomly becoming that character from 2 and before, then switching back to the unconfident character from TPS. By revising the story to let Jack always be the character he always was, this scene and others like it would have made much more sense, and Jack’s subsequent reaction much more natural.

Natural. That’s sort of the key word I’m going for here. By forcing Jack into a role he never fit, that of the tragic hero, the narrative of TPS felt broken and unnatural. Motivations didn’t line up. Character actions felt jarring. It didn’t work. But the developers somehow got so devoted to this idea of telling a story of Jack as a tragic hero that they apparently never stopped to ask themselves whether or not that was the right step to take, at least until it was really too late.

Obviously, all is said and done, now. The story is over. TPS left an off-putting taste in many players mouths, but Tales from the Borderlands picked it back up with it’s fantastic (and played straight) depiction of Jack, putting the series back on course. But as a writing blog, what’s there to be gained from looking at this?

Well, think of it as a cautionary tale about trying to force a character into a story role they don’t fit. TPS‘s big mistake was trying to make Jack a sympathetic, tragic character. He’s not. He never was, or at least if he was at some point, it was long before the setting TPS was set in. The developers of TPS committed themselves to telling a story, were determined to tell that story, and then went for it … but it didn’t work, and never would have.

Sometimes, when we write, we want to tell a story, but our characters have other ideas. Let them. Don’t try to force you characters into a story that doesn’t suit them. Something has to break, and it’ll either be the character, the story, or both. TPS is a case were both came apart, character and story suffering for it.

We can’t fix TPS, as fun as it was to consider how one could. But you can fix your own stories. Let the characters be who they are. Don’t force it. Let them act as they will.

Your story will be all the better for it.

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2 thoughts on “Op-Ed – Fixing Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

  1. What about the fact that TPS was told from the perspective of Athena? Her view of Jack is different than that of everyone else. She missed the fact that Jack is deranged while they were saving the world. It was only after the world had been saved that she started to notice. And from her point of view, he was driven insane instead of always being that way.

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    • I feel like that was more of a last-ditch attempt to try and explain away what was going on. Especially since the player is living it while Athena is just giving backstory in her retelling. If the two (the retelling and the player experience) didn’t match up, I’d throw more credence behind that theory, but as is, it still doesn’t match the abrupt tone problems of the story.

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