“Nobody is a villain in their own story. We’re all the heroes of our own stories.”
– George R. R. Martin
While playing the latest episode of Telltale Games “Tales from the Borderlands” I got to thinking about the stories we tell about ourselves and to ourselves.
Let’s look at what we actually do in games. We get to step into the shoes of the “hero” and the most, if not all, of the narrative is told from the main character’s point of view.
If you listen to how people speak during Let’s Play’s on YouTube you’ll notice that they usually begin by saying things like: “Oh, she beat the crap out of that guy!”
Then they gradually start identifying with the character and say something like: “Oh, damnit… I lost this round. I’ve got to block more!” and so on.
It’s easier when we’re in first person view but happens even in 2D platformers. This is a natural process and we all do it.
We want to be the hero.
This is where things get muddled. We’ve gotten so good at storytelling that we yearn for the anti-heroes and relatable villains. We want that grey mush because life is rarely as black and white as we used to think.
There’ll probably be a counter movement when we feel things are getting too complex. We also want simplicity. That’s why our series need a reboot every now and again.
That’s what I feel “Borderlands” is going through right now. They’re weaving a complex thread of stories and fleshing out the characters and the world they inhabit. And I for one think it’s awesome!
I’m going to throw some characters your way and in case you haven’t played the games or don’t follow, relax. You can probably find some other game, movie or series to associate to that uses the same principles.
In the original Borderlands we get introduced to four “Vault Hunters” (think tomb raiders).
You either choose to play as:
1. Roland, soldier.
2. Lilith, siren/magic being.
3. Mordecai. hunter.
4. Brick, giant mass of muscles.
You go on an epic quest to construct a MacGuffin to open the vault on a hellhole of a planet called “Pandora”. Can’t picture it? Imagine Mad Max in gone intergalactic. Plus, you get to enjoy the company of Claptrap. If you could make up the most annoying and dysfunctional companion, this would be it.
You kill a bunch of baddies and ultimately succeed.
In “Borderlands 2” the characters you played as in the first installment return. They’re basically your taskmasters. The only interesting hero in this part is an assassin called “Zer0”.
By the way? Supercoolest character.
The other characters play their part but I feel don’t really make much of a difference to the story. Later on a DLC containing a psycho called “Krieg” gave an interesting spin to it all but he hasn’t returned. Yet.
Here we’re introduced to a character I feel deserves the distinction of being the best video game villain ever: Handsome Jack.
The writing is amazing, they made him into such a lovable asshole it brings tears to my eyes.
He apparently suffers from borderline personality disorder. Borderline, Borderlands? Really? Yeah.
He actually sees himself as the hero. He thinks he’s saving Pandora. You, however, are of another opinion. Jack kills Roland, I mean, would a good guy do that?
So, you kill the mofo.
Next up is “The Pre-Sequel”. Here we get to experience the story from Athena’s point of view. She was a character from BL1 who helped our heroes get more guns. Also, we get a deeper understanding of why Jack believes himself to be a hero.
Oh, and it’s not just Jack calling himself a hero. Athena, who will eventually distance herself from him, says so. Even after the fact!
TPS is where they really develop the story of Handsome Jack in an amazing way. While in BL2 you get hints at why he acts as he does, here we’re shown precisely why.
He actually saves millions of lives. In the process of doing that he’s ultimately betrayed by almost everybody he chooses to trust. Roland, Lilith and his ex-girlfriend Moxxi even go as far as trying to kill him. So, there’s that.
This gives us an understanding of why he summons the creature at the end of BL2. While he saved millions of lives he wants to rid Pandora of all the dangerous monsters and bandits who are only spreading chaos.
He wants to wipe the slate clean. He wants to bring order and peace. Maybe that way he can redeem himself & his actions and finally become the hero he set out to be.
Also, in the TPS there’s a scene where Lilith punches a relic into Jack’s face. When she does this Jack apparently gets to see the future. He actually knows what will happen. He knows that he’ll die.
And still. Still he pursues his goal to bring order to Pandora.
Now we arrive at “Tales from the Borderlands”. Our two unlikely protagonists Fiona & Rhys are on Pandora in order to seek their fortunes. Handsome Jack? Oh, yeah. He’s back. This time his personality and memories have been implanted into Rhys’s brain.
You can read a summary of episode two here.
Spoilers, we meet again.
Brick and Mordecai are now working for “Vallory”, the game’s villain. This is where I finally drew the line.
There’s been a lot of grey up until this point but I got the real feeling that everybody’s just looking out for number one.
It doesn’t matter who you’re playing as. That quote from “Batman” really hit home here.
“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Look at what’s become of every single character so far.
Lilith & Roland wanted to kill Jack.
Jack killed Roland.
Lilith interrogates Athena in front of a firing squad and blames her for Jack’s actions. Despite her own role in his insanity! She finally orders the squad to shoot Athena but luckily it’s interrupted by an alien.
Athena in turn has a relationship with Janey Springs who doesn’t know that Athena continues her pursuits as a Vault Hunter. Bad Athena, bad!
What we’re seeing here is a reckless pursuit of glory and greed. Everyone rationalizes their actions and believes their motives to be pure. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, right?
“History is written by the victors.”
– Winston Churchill
Now we’re faced with the question: “Who’s the real hero?”
Are we just imagining ourselves to be the hero in every game? In our lives? What if the “good” I think I’m doing is actually feeding the very thing I’m working against? Should I be working against it or should I be working for the alternative? Where is the line between the two?
“Of two evils we must always choose the least.”
– Thomas à Kempis
If we look at the titles of the first two episodes of “Tales from the Borderlands” we get a clue as to what’s going on beneath the puns.
“Zer0 Sum” – The concept of the whole thing being a zero sum game. For one person to win someone else has to lose. We only use people to get ourselves up the ladder. Once they’re of no use to us we drop them.
Sure, we keep the people in our immediate tribe close but we’re suspicious of everyone else. The “I got mine” mentality rules.
“Atlas Mugged” – A reference to Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”. Rand described her philosophy of “objectivism” like this:
“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
– Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Well, shit. Could it be any clearer?
Look at Pandora, it’s been overrun by bandits and monsters. That’s a huge problem. Or is it? Maybe we’re the problem? So far our attempts to fix it have failed. Should we even be interfering or leave the warring factions to it?
There was a great article written about “Game of Thrones” on Medium.com which talks about the same kind of principles.
I’m not going to get political here but those who want to apply the thoughts on the current state of our world are free to do so.
That’s actually the point of this whole thing.
“Dude, they’re just video games. Chillax.”
Well, by playing these games I had the chance to explore thoughts, feelings and actions I might’ve not been able to do in the real world.
Look, I don’t care if the things we’ve talked about here are what the creators meant or not. And for me it doesn’t really matter.
What matters is that they’ve given us the opportunity to tell our story in the way we choose to tell it.
This is just the story I wanted to tell myself and others. What you’ll experience and take away from it is entirely up to you.
What I’m saying is that these aren’t just games. They allow us to ask bigger questions.. The stories we tell through them are reflection of ourselves and who we want to be.
So, I’d like to give a big-ass “Thank you!” to everyone involved in the creation of these games for giving us hours of enjoyment and contemplation.
But above all else for letting us tell our stories.