Some thoughts around Borderlands 3

Borderlands 3: Has It Really Been Five Years? is here. And while I’ve not been waiting on tenterhooks I do like the shoot-n-loot series.

Or at least I did as soon as I worked out that playing it with friends is best: the first game, played solo, I found kinda boring. I ran the sequel with friends and instantly got why the concept works so well. Occasionally I had to ask said friends to shut up so I could listen to the dialogue, which was often funny (I can’t say whether it was actually well-written, because of the structure of a Borderlands game and missing three quarters of said structure due to chatting with friends, but it was often funny). I even played half of the Pre-Sequel, which I liked, but I ended up playing a bunch of it solo again and… surprise, still kinda boring. All told, I’ve both enjoyed these games and disliked them. I suppose this makes me an ambivalent fan.

Now it really has been more than five years since Pre-Sequel. Series enthusiasts have only had a series of episodic adventure games from the disgraced and deceased Telltale Games to tide them over. So after all this time, what has Borderlands 3 brought to the table?

Murder. Huge, disgusting, violent excess. And loot. Of course.

Borderlands developer Gearbox Software have some history. They were founded all the way back in 1999, and the titles they’ve put out since can look like a who’s-who of first person shooter franchises. Their first few releases were mostly well-received expansion packs to Valve’s mega-hit Half-Life. They worked on ports of the very first Halo and, uh, James Bond Nightfire. Their first original IP was the Brothers in Arms series, of which the first instalment, Road to Hill 30, was one of those well-regarded games many friends insisted I play but I never quite got around to.

Then, in 2009, came Borderlands. It promised infinite guns, larger than life characters and colourful gunplay in a post-apocalyptic landscape, for up to four friends online. It proved popular, selling over two million copies by the end of the year, and earned top scores across the majority of the gaming press.

Gearbox’s specialisation in the first-person shooter genre shouldn’t come as a great surprise to anyone passingly familiar with its most well-known figure: co-founder, President and CEO Randy Pitchford. Along with the other four founders Pitchford had worked at 3D Realms, a developer with a lengthy history. They are best known under the name Apogee for ASCII adventure title Kingdom of Kroz, and the MS-DOS platformer Crystal Caves.

Okay, okay, 3D Realms are of course best known for the only FPS games of the nineties that rivalled what iD Software accomplished with Doom: most notably Duke Nukem 3D but also the similarly crass and over the top Shadow Warrior.

All told, this is some serious pedigree. Gearbox, and Pitchford as its prominent leader, have decades of experience building FPS games.

It may have been some surprise when the shine came off Gearbox with the release of Aliens: Colonial Marines. Developed in a relationship with publisher Sega, who held the videogames rights to the Aliens franchise, it was another eagerly anticipated FPS. And on arrival it was a trainwreck. Accusations as to why this was the case abound. And this was the first time I became aware that people hated Randy Pitchford.

I was surprised to discover that some of the most noticeable changes in Borderlands 3 are quality-of-life improvements. Even the small stuff feels important. For example, automatic collection of ammo and cash no longer requires a button-hold. In the previous games I grew to hate the necessity of holding down a button to collect ammo from chests, something I did hundreds and hundreds of times in previous games. Now I just hoover it all up after popping a chest. Shloop! With one stroke, a major source of friction is removed.

I’m also pleased with how the game’s structure has changed in comparison to its predecessors. Past Borderlands games were mostly set on a single planet – series mainstay Pandora – and featured long, sprawling, interconnected levels, mostly composed of long canyons or ridges and joined to two or three other areas at far-flung points. Vehicles were essential to actually traverse these spaces efficiently, particularly when you’d out-levelled the creatures in an area so far that the shoot-n-loot experience began to feel rote. And what I found in practice was that I began to depend exclusively on the game’s quick-travel stations.

A regularly commented upon side-effect of using quick travel is that it undermines any sense of geography or place in a videogame world. This is far worse in games offering almost total freedom in its use – Borderlands at least restricts travel to between pre-defined points – but it certainly had the effect of destroying any sense of its levels as contiguous. I couldn’t tell you how a single area in the first three Borderlands games connects together. Even in those individual sprawling levels, if I wasn’t following an objective marker I often got lost, and constantly had to check my map.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter much. It’s not important to the core experience of Borderlands, after all. But what I really like in Borderlands 3 is how much more condensed its areas are. So far I’ve visited four planets, and each has featured three or four areas that connect at one or two points. The structure for the game’s main and secondary quests has seen me loop around and retread this ground just enough times that I know the environment well.

Learning the environment is fun in a shooter game that encourages players to remain mobile and fluid. So now I know that, for example, Lectra City on the Atlas homeworld has a lot of rooftops that are fun to fight across, and that area connects to the centre of Meridian in an area where there are usually several tough enemies to fight if I want to do that, and from there I can easily grab a vehicle and traverse the streets to a variety of other areas, and move through to the outskirts of Merdian area via several different paths, one of which takes me past a friendly base where I sell loot and restock.

It’s also nice just to get a change of scenery. I’ve seen a lot of Pandora before, and it’s cool to see new places. Meet interesting new people, and shoot them. You know?

The hatred of gamers can be as turbulent and passionate as it is funny and hopelessly misguided. It’s at its funniest when the hypocrisy just hangs right on out, as with the Modern Warfare 2 boycott Steam group who, on the day of release, were almost all visibly playing the game they’d sworn to boycott.

Sometimes these hatreds can also be dark, disturbing and violent. I’m not here to write about GamerGate, or the routinely bigoted and childish id of far too much “gamer culture”, but I will acknowledge the existence of both. Because often the targets of the seething rage of gamers is bewilderingly obtuse in its focus.

Some people truly hated Gearbox and apparently Randy Pitchford in particular for the Aliens: Colonial Marines farrago. They also hated them for the turgid and unnecessary Duke Nukem Forever, a game delayed and restarted so many times it had become a running joke. Upon release it wasn’t a joke any more. It wasn’t just another bad videogame in a world replete with bad videogames. It was a new reason to hate.

The focus of these strange, destructive passions can be so vexing partly because of why these vessels into which to pour hatred are chosen. Because a videogame was bad? Because a product no one is obliged to engage with was not what it might have been imagined to be? The childish entitlement of such worldviews feels almost alien to me.

There are other questions into which rage or frustration at the state of the games industry might be poured. How about the working practices at many development studios? How about the direct connections between major developers or publishers and the US military or arms manufacturers? How about the fundamental nature of the commercial relationships between corporate entities which actually drive the decisions that so infuriate and distress self-identified gamers? Might one challenge the contradictions inherent in major publisher-funded games that take years to develop being knife-edge dependent on a corporation’s need to deliver stable quarterly returns to shareholders? How entire studios can vanish into the void because, elsewhere in a multinational portfolio, something underperformed against predictions?

And, specifically pertinent to Gearbox Software: how about the only recently resolved drama of the lawsuits in which Randy Pitchford, and unavoidably, by extension, the company he heads were embroiled?

Late last year, Gearbox’s General Counsel of almost a decade departed the company, subject to a lawsuit concerning financial mismanagement and alleged fraud. A few months after that, said General Counsel issued a countersuit, alleging among other charges that Pitchford took a “secret” $12 million dollar bonus and in 2014 was found to have child pornography on a USB drive.

Said lawsuits were resolved at the beginning of the month, with the out of court settlement meaning the realities behind these accusations will never be made public. Already they have certainly helped to establish a sordid reputation around Pitchford and the leadership of Gearbox Software. It didn’t help that Pitchford went on a podcast to explain the 2014 incident, which in his representation was more innocent than “child pornography” might suggest but absolutely still sleazy. A different kind of sleaze to enormous executive bonuses, of course. But in the comments on these stories you will often still find people talking about Aliens: Colonial Marines, or some other past Gearbox project.

The core of the Borderlands experience is still here, and delivered upon. Combat is as fast-paced as it ever was, with the larger environments just barely broken up into node-like areas where clusters of enemies will spawn. These combat nodes are full of props and scenery that can provide cover or explosive assistance respectively, with the latter typically tying into a familiar elemental damage system that’s as comfortable as an old sweater.

It’s honestly hard to say whether combat feels or plays much differently without going back to those earlier games. Everything seems to move at a much brisker pace, and play out in generally tighter areas with less traversal of empty space, than what I remember of the Pre-Sequel, which I most recently played. But that was set on a moon with no atmosphere, and clustered its outdoor combat arenas around spaced-out oxygen shields which inherently produced more of a scrum. I guess it’s hard to say, and in any case feel is deeply subjective. But it does feel like Borderlands 3 has taken steps to cut out some bullshit and friction and bring more of the core loop to the moment-to-moment experience of the game. It’s not like a Borderlands game gives you much to reflect on in the dead time between areas, right?

Well. Perhaps it does, in a metatextual way. But let’s stick with the game for the moment.

My chosen character class, the Gunner, fights in constant movement. The perks I’ve filled out on her skill tree reward flinging large numbers of bullets towards enemies, setting them ablaze with incendiary damage. This means I spend a lot of time with SMGs or hair-trigger pistols or “assault rifles” which spin up to a blistering pace of fire, switching between these different types of weapon to produce varied engagements that, at their most challenging, demand everything I have.

This series has always offered a range of different character classes to choose from, but they’ve not been presented with as much panache as in this outing. The Gunner’s special ability deploys a mechsuit which I’ve kitted out with a minigun and flamethrower, exaggerating the strengths of my character build. I simply cannot resist a mech. At the time of character creation I was similarly tempted by Fl4k, a robot “beastmaster” who can summon aggressive critters; somewhat similar to Pre-Sequel’s Wilhelm, these summons nonetheless promised a different playstyle. Even the least appealing classes attracted me: Zane with his ability to clone himself, and Amara with some familiar Siren abilities that at least look cooler this time around.

And, of course, the guns. There are so, so many guns.

I’ve already encountered a whole bunch of characteristics in my randomly-rolled guns that I don’t remember from any previous Borderlands game. I’ve found guns that fire tracking darts, after which bullets home in on that target, much like the smart pistol in Titanfall. The throw-away-to-reload guns are back, of course, but now some of them turn into mobile turrets that will chase and attack enemies until the full clip is exhausted. I love this. Then there guns with underslung tasers that fire electrifying darts and zap everything in the vicinity – great for choke points. There are guns with infinite clips that don’t need reloading, but can overheat and need squirting with a water pistol to cool them down.

These cartoon guns have never felt so much fun.

It is not only the oft ill-conceived opprobrium of parts of their fanbase or internecine, intramural lawsuits which have dogged Gearbox in recent years.

In mid-2019 David Eddings, a former Vice President at Gearbox, levelled several accusations at his former employers. Eddings had also worked as a voice actor on the series, playing the role of the iconic and extremely grating Claptrap robots. The accusations are preceded by an explanation for why he is not reprising his former role in Borderlands 3. Previously he was not paid for the role; this time he requested paying to perform it, and “all of a sudden they couldn’t afford me”.

What worsened matters, at least in the public eye, was how Pitchford chose to handle this. He engaged on twitter, stated the former senior employee was “bitter and disgruntled” about his termination, and claimed Eddings was offered good rates for the role. Eddings responded by accusing Pitchford of assaulting him in a hotel lobby at an industry event several years earlier.

As in the lawsuits, these are disputes that to a substantial degree are bound up in money, and about which a regular observer can never expect to know the truth of any claims. And yet they contribute to a pattern that indelibly leaves the casual observer with an impression, with a sense that something is not right. If this is what we see when things boil over, and remains lurking, predatory, beneath the surface?

Another voice actor on the Borderlands series is Chris Hardwick, who did return for the third installment. In June 2016 Hardwick was accused of sexual and emotional abuse by a former girlfriend during the #MeToo allegations. He was suspended by his employers, American cable channel AMC, but restored after an internal review. This decision was controversial, resulting in a number of female staffers and a co-executive producer resigning in protest.

If #MeToo taught us anything, it is how abuse pervades so many institutions, and is executed by so many men. That eruption of allegations, it must be remembered, remains only the tip of the iceberg. It is an indicator of deep and recurrent patterns of abuse and cultures of toxicity.

I’m enjoying playing Borderlands 3. It is a good game, iterating and improving on what came before, and delivering what it offers with confidence and style. It is the product of an entire team of game developers, of many different disciplines. So many people contributed their experience, skill and passion to create something fun. I know what it is like to work inside such a culture. It is engaging, and energising, and endlessly inspiring.

So what is my point here? That I should not be enjoying playing Borderlands 3? Because the executive culture and business practices of the organisation which produced it shows signs of toxicity, of abuse? Because its CEO, frankly, looks and sounds like an ass both in public persona and how he handles business?

That cannot be right. It does not stand on either an intellectual or an emotional level. But there is a relationship between this source of pleasure and this source of consternation. We saw the tip of an iceberg threatening Gearbox as a working culture; perhaps that iceberg itself is a sign of something still more massive, lurking largely unquestioned within the body of presuppositions that underpins so much of the writing, analysis and reaction within this multibillion dollar industry designed to entertain us for profit.

Is this a circle demanding to be squared? Is Pitchford’s behaviour really any different to that of ten thousand other well-remunerated executives doing exactly what is expected of them: maximising returns, minimising costs, consciously or unconsciously fighting a class position? And have we not already established that it is as childish a position to reject entirely the products of dysfunctional capitalist institutions as it is to reflexively defend them against all critiques that originate outside capital?

This isn’t a question of whether or not to buy this game, or whether or not to support the developers or the project with your wallet. Such individual consumer “boycotts” are meaningless on the mass level, irrespective of how much personal meaning the decisions made might hold. But nor is this a call for action: none of the ugliness around Gearbox which has slithered into view, and invited this essay, clearly demands an effort toward mass organisation.

The point, if you concur that there is one, is that in this business that makes our entertainment there are questions to be asked, and truths to pursue, and changes to be prepared to fight for, even if there is no clarity to the path or destination in sight.

This is what I think about when I play Borderlands 3.

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