Released only a few weeks ago,
Gearbox Software’s new title Borderlands has
already become a smash hit amongst popular video game circles. With a highly
stylized, cell-shaded art style, exaggerated voice acting and a preposterous
plot, Borderlands is a game which doesn’t go to any great lengths to take
itself seriously. Rather, it focuses on
its gameplay elements and the somewhat-casual overall experience.
Borderlands is a typical product of Fron’s ‘hegemony of play’ containing classic elements of both the first-person shooter and the dungeon crawler. The game epitomizes a very male, very typical take on the modern video game with killing, plundering, and conquering being core themes throughout the narrative. The advertisement for the game consisted mostly of touting the number of guns and the female characters' figures. There is a clear lean towards the traditional video game audience in nearly all of Borderland's features. Neither is it the cultural innovator as portrayed by the works in Utopian Entrepreneur. In some sense, the beauty in Borderlands comes from its naivety. It is mindless in all the ways which modern video games tend to be mindless. Although, it does seek to confirm Laurel's concerns on the nature of the industry at large and the genre of media it has taken to. The real enjoyment from Borderlands (like so many other video games) comes from the space in which it is set.
From bleak deserts to alien ruins in the remote mountains, Borderlands takes the user through a variety of spaces. The primary theme to these spaces is the conventional post-apocalyptic wasteland (albeit no apocalyptic event is alluded to throughout the course of the game). As with Jenkins’ ‘evocative spaces’, the user is left to fill in most of the gaps about this setting using the genre that has been laid down by so many other stories (Fallout, Mad Max, etc). Complementing this space is a number of conventions of this genre: bandits in the wasteland, gun-toting renegades, make-shift towns in the desert, and so on. The spaces in Borderlands are somewhat prototypical male spaces, with enemies to killed, treasures to be found, or objectives to be completed. The more nuanced, feminine aspects to the space lie in its vastness. Towns, for example, have large, concealed spaces to explore and inhabit. Or in other instances, missions ask the player to scour a particular outpost or cave in order to find some particular items, the result of which is an intimate familiarity of a small space in the game world. I felt these tasks in particular resonated with Fullerton’s writings on ‘secret spaces’; although they fell within the linear progression of gameplay and the storyline, they provided a respite from the monotony of killing and conquering that takes place throughout the rest of the game. After spending nearly an hour on one such task, I felt more familiar with one particular outpost in the middle of the deserts than I did with the central town in the game.
Cultures play a role in the space in Borderlands as well. The main segregation found in the game lies between the civilized survivors and the degenerate bandits who inhabit the wastelands. This dichotomy plays into the spaces each group inhabits: survivor towns are somewhat organized with larger buildings and somewhat intelligent layouts. The bandit towns on the other hand are disheveled and bleak. While perhaps not a critical, game-altering factor, these differences tend to help when the desolate, barren art aesthetic is carried between both places.
Beyond the spaces in Borderlands, the representations and game mechanics of gender is more profound than what appears at the surface. The first obvious of such representations is that all of the bad guys (with one very important exception) are male. This is perhaps an effort to conform to the aforementioned conventions of the post-apocalypse world. The male villains in Borderlands are all degenerate, often insane figures. The single female villain (and the primary antagonist) is actually a military commander and employee of the most esteemed weapons manufacturer. In fact, women portray very empowering positions throughout Borderlands. The leader of the largest civilized haven in the game is female as well as the leading archaeologist (and primary quest giver) in the main storyline.
One such notable woman and one of the playable characters is Lilith. At one point human, Lilith has since become a supernatural being capable of extraordinary powers. As such, her gameplay mechanics revolve around these exotic abilities. Rather than killing enemies as is the forte of her male counterparts, Lilith’s combat is more nuanced, focusing on dazing or stunning opponents. Although this may be an example of Simone de Beauvoir’s woman as “other” inhabiting a “masculine universe”, I felt her divergent play style was enough to note the gender difference.
Overall, Borderlands is a pretty typical title in this day and age. It is not particularly known for any radical or creative design, but rather its’ aesthetics. These aesthetics, however, have nuanced representations of gender and space that I feel set it apart from the archetypal shooters that accompany it in the popular game market.
Fron, J., Fullerton, T., Morie, J. & Pearce, C. (2007). The Hegemony of Play. In Situated Play: Proceedings of Digital Games Research Association 2007 Conference. Tokyo, Japan. 1-10.
Fullerton, T., Morie, J. & Pearce, C. (2007). A Game Of Ones Own: Towards a New Gendered Poetics of Game Space. In Proceedings, Digital Arts & Culture 2007, Perth, Australia. 1-11.
Jenkins, H. (2004). Game design as narrative architecture. The Game Design Reader, 670-686.
Laurel, B. (2001). Utopian Entrepreneur. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.