If you haven’t played Borderlands 2 I highly recommend it. It’s exactly the opposite of what you might expect from a first-person shooter. It’s funny, colorful, satirical, self-aware and cooperative. The gameplay is varied enough to stay interesting and it is brilliantly voiced. It is, in my mind, one of the best games out there, doubly so if you like to play with your friends. It is however, imperfect. There is not particularly subtle racism and sexism. The “white male” as default is endemic. The only characters or enemies that aren’t are very much token minorities.
The previous expansion pack, Sir Hammerlocks Big Game Hunt, brought this into stark relief. What I believe was an honest attempt at satire came of as uncomfortably racist. The concept seemed to be to go on a parody of a nineteenth century British hunting safari. However, what actually came across was that for the first time the enemies were black and were being called “savages”. They wore “tribal” masks and face paint and worshiped a white technocrat as a god. The writers fell into the trap of satire of being indistinguishable from the thing being lambasted.
I was disappointed in Gearbox because they had been so much better than that. However, the latest expansion pack knocked it out of the park. Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep surprised the hell out of me and I can’t recommend it enough. Spoilers follow the banner.
To set the scene: the primary story-line has ended. The villain is dead. Our heroes sit down for a game of Bunkers and Badasses, a Dungeons & Dragons parody. The entire expansion happens in the fantasy world imagined and narrated by the dungeon master, Tiny Tina, a thirteen year old pyromaniac with more than a few screws loose.
Any fan of D&D will appreciate the treatment of the genre. It is full of the tropes of gaming, from critical failures on simple tasks to retcons. They explore how different play styles come up against each other hilariously and disastrously. They even make you roll for treasure, having d20s on the lids of chests that you roll to determine the quality of the contents.
That, though, is not what impressed me. The thing that surprised and delighted me was their treatment of issues in geek culture, the realities of adulthood, and tragedy.
One of the earliest quests dealt with the “fake geek girl” phenomenon. Not only did they address it, but they did it with wit and a twist. The “fake geek” was a musclebound jock being grilled on his knowledge of nerdy arcanum by a beautiful bad-ass. Her cruel refusal to let the musclehead join in is predicated on him being just the sort of person that persecuted her in her youth. He couldn’t possibly be a real geek, could he? The moral? Anyone can be a geek, and anyone can be the persecuted outcast. All done with a lovely dose of humor.
With my history on the subject. I can’t avoid mentioning the brilliant sidequest to get a female NPC some armor. The first armor found is heavily inspired by the slave-leia outfit. She complains about the absurdity of trying to wear that as armor and presses the player to look for something better. In the end you have the choice of which armor to deliver, but regardless of that choice, the message was sent. (As required of me, I need to point out that the “good” armor still leaves her entire chest exposed.)
What really impressed me about this expansion, though, was the overarching theme. One of the main characters of the game is killed in the course of the primary story-line. Tina includes him in the fantasy world and speaks of him as if he’s still alive. Through the game we see the different characters coping poorly with the loss of their friend, brother in arms, lover, and hero, respectively. I was thoroughly impressed with how well they conveyed the discomfort, denial, anger and sadness that comes with tragedy through this whimsical and often absurd game. I was not expecting to be moved and this adventure managed to tug at my cold, cynical heartstrings.
Also there are crumpets.
Crumpets are crunk!