Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Borderlands and Using Styles Properly

In a recent venture to increase our LAN multiplayer collection, my brother and I picked up the 2009 Action FPS-RPG Borderlands. I finally got around to playing it, and I just couldn't help myself from making a post on it.
Note: For some reason, I had trouble making screencaps for the game work, so this post is relatively image light. Consider yourself forewarned...

     So after playing this game for several hours, I have to say that I am not very impressed with it. The easiest way for me to explain why will be to just go through the gaming experience itself.

     After spending a few hours downloading the game (it's like 7GB) off Impulse and getting past the DRM (grrr), I fired it up and started a single player game. I was greeted by the intro movie, which starts with some guy talking about treasure, the planet Borderlands takes place on (called Pandora), something called "The Vault," alien technology, and "Vault Hunters," people who are trying to find the vault. Then we see a little intro movie, which I'll go ahead and show you here. This is important, so pay attention. I'm gonna come back to this in a bit.

     So then I chose my character (Lilith) and was immediately assaulted by a hallucination of an angel face, who tells me what I should be doing. I wander out and some robot gives me an in game Heads Up Display (HUD), which is constituted of crosshairs, health bars, and that stuff. You know the drill. But it was pretty cool, because I had it because of an in game event. People don't actually see crosshairs normally, so it's like, "Okay, it makes sense that I would see that." Cool then. it was just a nice little touch to get me immersed. Next the annoying robot leads me to some post, where I'm told that if I die, my DNA gets used to make an instant clone of me and my equipment at whichever last post I went to before I died. Hey, another cool little immersion feature, so it doesn't get broken when I die-wait. Every time I die, I come back as a clone of myself with all the same abilities and weapons and stuff? Okay...

     See, I think it's cool that the game was trying to immerse me. It was doing everything it could so far to make me feel like my character. But this particular immersion factor does something that conflicts with the rest of the game. I'll get to that in a minute too, though. Going on, I wandered around a little, then was thrown into the first fight. My computer was lagging a little bit which made things a little difficult, but all around it was fine. I took out my enemies in short order, and went on. I followed the robot through the next sections, sifting through trash piles and opening boxes for money and ammo and getting a hang of the controls. I picked up a few more weapons, fought some more enemies, and got my first quest, which was basically "talk to this guy." As I get near, I hear his voice coming in through my nifty communicator, open the door, and I get greeted with another freeze frame introduction shot showing him in a pose and that his name is "Zed."

     And it was at that moment that I was struck with a terribly shocking and somewhat disappointing realization; the game I had been playing for the last 20 or so minutes was not, in fact, Borderlands. Instead, I had been playing the 2010 game Red Steel 2. The gameplay is almost exactly the same between them. You fight spawning enemies in droves, go towards the next objective point, smash things for money and ammo, and meet people who have the same kinds of introductions.

Payne (Red Steel 2)
     Now, I actually really like Red Steel 2. So why, then, did I say disappointing? Because Red Steel 2 has ninjas and swords. Borderlands does not have ninjas and swords. And the inclusion of ninjas and swords always makes things better, while their occlusion is always a little disappointing. I'm kidding of course (though ninjas are awesome). The real issue is style.


     See, style is a very important part of all media forms, and games are no exception. Let's take a look at style in Borderlands, starting with the setting. Borderlands is set on the planet Pandora, which is basically a desert planet. Dirt, sand, and rocks make up most of the maps, and the whole place is infested with raiders and bandits. The reason you are there is to find The Vault, a rumored left over from an alien race that previously inhabited Pandora. The Vault is rumored to house massive amounts of alien technology, essentially being a giant treasure chest. This where we can immediately see the similarities to other games. Your goal in the game is to find "The Vault." Does that perhaps remind you of any other games with prominent locations called "The Vault?" *cough*Fallout*cough* Furthermore, rocky, arid, largely uninhabited wastelands make up most of the maps, giving the feel of being in an abandoned, or at least largely uncivilized, wasteland. *cough*JustLikeInFallout*cough* There are even unexplained crazy people and raiders hanging out waiting to kill you. *cough*YouGetTheIdea*cough* On the other hand, the run down futuristic villages/town areas with western elements are a heck of a lot like those in Red Steel 2. So are the character introductions (as shown above), the type of game it is (running around, taking down enemies, and collecting money), and the overall approach to the story (here's the main quest which furthers the plot, here are some side ones that don't). The game is very much based around collecting loot and fighting enemies that respawn after a while. The story advances in a linear fashion, and does so almost entirely by going somewhere, killing someone/getting an item, and returning to a "you've finished this quest" screen. I'm not saying that Borderlands copied or took these elements from other games (be very hard to, considering Red Steel 2 came out after it). I'm merely mentioning them because they are great examples of what Borderlands tries to be, stylistically.

      These things would be all fine and well, if the styles of the two other games worked together. But the problem with Borderlands shows itself through the issues with the intro and the immersion aspects I mentioned earlier. Let's take a look at that intro video again. Not shown in the video is the previous part in which the bus driver narrates the background and says that the story is about "Vault hunters, and me." (This is the part where the Vault is mentioned, by the way.) So let's look at how the characters are introduced. First, we see the narrator's face before we see any of the character players'. Next, each of the characters does the same thing for their introduction. They do some kind of "cool" thing for a few seconds, than get their name plastered on the screen, then we move on. What does this all add up to? A blurring together of the characters. Yes, they're unique. You won't confuse one of them with the other. But that's only relative uniqueness. None of them are really memorable. Heck, the game itself assigns tropes to the characters. If you were to watch this video, then a week later you probably wouldn't even remember what they all did, let alone their names. Perhaps better than "a blurring together of the characters" is "a lack of emphasis on the characters." We can see right from the get go that they aren't really important as individual characters because the first face we see is that of the fat man storyteller (I believe his name is Marcus). They exist to fulfill roles (both the tropes mentioned and in the game itself), not be "real" characters.

     Now again, this would all be fine, except for the other style the game tries to exude. To simplify things, I'll say that Borderlands has a hybrid style of two others: the Fallout style, and the Red Steel 2 style. To further simplify, let me make those even more general and say the Roleplay style, and the Action style. So far with everything we've seen (and the gameplay itself), Borderlands has been consistent with the Action style. This style is all about, well, the action. Let me use Red Steel 2 to explain, because it's very similar in style, but is much more successful. The character you play as in Red Steel 2 is described in the manual as "the bad ass that exists within all of us." That's what the character is, what the game designers wanted him to be; a bad ass. He's so freaking cool. He's got a cowboy hat like a cowboy, but a cool trench coat which has a collar that covers his face like a ninja mask, and he uses swords, and guns, and cool ninja moves, and he's awesome at fighting, and he barely talks at all because he doesn't need to, and he doesn't have a name and that's really cool, and, and...You get the idea.

Pretty dang awesome.
     He's the kind of action protagonist we as players and human beings want to emulate. We want to be him or at least be like him, because, well, he's a cool, awesome, bad ass. The gameplay in Red Steel 2 flawlessly works off this idea. The player is put in control of this utterly awesome cool guy. The great, tight controls let the player have precision control over all his actions. This is what's really important with this kind of game. You, the player, have total control over him, and because of this he basically becomes your in-game proxy. You have such an immersive level of control over things that it feels like it's you who's taking out the dozens of bad guys, and he's just your extension. You get to become this totally awesome bad ass cowboy ninja, and that feels great. Heck, just wandering around the town breaking boxes for money makes you feel like you're being cool and awesome when you play the game.

     On the other side of things we have the Roleplay style. This is one of those weird "opposite but sort of the same" kinds of things. Where the goal Action style games like Red Steel 2 (and Borderlands) is to put you in control of a cool character you want to emulate, the goal of RPG style games like Fallout is to give you an awesome character that you create and become immersed in, as if he/she were really you. They sound very similar, but there's a distinct difference. Action games take someone or something that is already a bad ass, and let you as the player emulate them. RPGs let you create yourself (or the character that you choose to make), and then you make them (and by extension yourself) cool. The end result, being an awesome person in a game, is largely the same. But the journey makes all the difference. You get much more personally invested in the character you create. See, when you're playing as the Ninja in Red Steel 2, it's you doing all the awesome stuff, and it's also you doing all the fighting. But when you die in a fight, it's the Ninja dying. Yes, he died because you weren't a good enough fighter (or whatever reason), but it still feels like it's him dying and not you. In Fallout, though, you have a much greater connection with your character. When you die, it's like it's you dying. Your in-game self just died. The big picture difference between the two is that the character in the Roleplay style is so much more important to you as a gamer. You care more, and that level of interaction is what makes video games such a unique art form. (And please keep in mind that we're comparing styles, not genres or games.) But how does all this involve Borderlands?

     You see, in addition to its action foundation, Borderlands also includes Roleplay elements. Things like the robot giving you the HUD and telling you about the in-game logic of the respawn are designed to make you feel like your character. The same is true with the other RPG elements present. Borderlands tries to have both styles together, and therein lies the biggest problem with the style of the game. The Action style and the Roleplay style, as I've explained them, are incompatible. Think about it. How can you want to emulate a bad ass when you still have to go on a journey to create them? Merging the two is not impossible, but the result will very rarely be as elegant as one of them on their own. When these two styles are put together, they start clashing with each other, and usually the result is that neither are as good as they could have been.

The two styles are rarely happy together.
     What does Borderlands do wrong with the Action style? Well, a couple things. See, the characters blurring together and not really being memorable is a detriment to the RPG elements. Your character is instantly made less important because there are three others who are extremely similar. But this is also a problem for the Action style. See, "coolness" is a fairly relative concept. If everybody were like James Bond, James Bond wouldn't be all that cool anymore. The same applies here. Right in the beginning, you're shown that there are three other characters of equal standing, no matter which one you pick. This instantly lowers the importance of your own character. Sure, you never see the others throughout the game (unless you're playing multiplayer), but the mere fact that they were there in the beginning and that they were shown as being equal to you means that your character is not a unique cool character. And for a style that revolves around making you feel like you're playing as a total bad ass, having that character be less unique just makes them less cool. The other problem this poses is that it makes the characters less memorable. Sure, the Ninja in Red Steel 2 may not be the most memorable character of all time, but he's a ninja cowboy who uses swords and revolvers. And he's the only character in that game who reaches the level of awesome coolness that he does. There's no one else to be as cool as him. The result of all this is that he's pretty darn memorable. I mean, he's not a particularly deep or complex character, but you'll probably remember him for being the most awesome thing ever (in that game). What if there were four of him, though? See, if each one was a unique character, then it'd actually be pretty easy to remember them (take the Ninja Turtles, for instance). But Action games aren't really about making memorable characters, remember. They're about being cool characters. So the chances of there being four unique characters with distinct personalities that you are able (and want) to emulate and are also memorable and distinguishable are quite slim. This is apparent in Borderlands. There are more characters, which makes them less memorable, which makes them less awesome, which is a problem for the style it's going for.

Gah! Too many!
      As I said earlier, the Roleplay style also suffers from some of the introduction elements. See, the HUD thing was pretty genius. It helps establish the setting as a futuristic one (which had already been implied, but had not yet been shown), and explains why you can see the health bar and your crosshairs. But the "New-You" station, as it's called, is a pretty serious trip up. (The New-You is the thing that makes a clone of you when you die.) For the Action style, it's unnecessary. When you die, you die, and then you respawn. See, bad asses just aren't really cool anymore if they can be killed by some nameless punks. So when you lose a life in an Action game, it's sort of like a universe reset. You're going back to a time before you died, and by doing so, your character's bad assery remains intact. If you just come back as a clone, however, you think, "Oh, so I can die in the game setting. That's...lame." And furthermore, it just serves to make your character even less unique and memorable. You can get an exact clone made of yourself. This instantly makes you much less unique, and therefore less good all around. But it's still not a major problem for the Action style. For the Roleplay style, on the other hand, it's practically fatal. Remember, this style is all about making an awesome character. It should mean something to you when your character does something cool, but especially when your character gets closer to death. Your character is more like you in an RPG than in any other kind of game. So this is the closest you can get to a personal death in a video game. When you take damage in Borderlands, though, it hardly means anything. You just regenerate your shields and eventually your health, and if you die, then you just get a clone made of yourself for nothing more than a small monetary fee. What's the point of making an awesome character, if it means nothing when they die? That's not awesome anymore. Your character just becomes some sort of eternal existence, and creating them loses all of its luster and no longer has the ability to get you as personally invested.

      So just from that intro element, the Roleplay style in Borderlands has already become irreparably fractured. But there's a much bigger problem for the style; it's not supported by the gameplay. I keep on talking about the things that are wrong with the Action style, but they have more to do with the characters than with the game itself. This is because the game is centered around the Action style. That's the kind of game it is. You run around, shoot enemies, get money, do people's random crap for them go on important quests, and just be an all around awesome cool guy (or in the case of Lilith, girl). It is an Action game, and that style is supported by the gameplay (though not so much by the characters). The Roleplay style, however, is not supported. Your ability to create your own character, your own in game self, is sadly limited by the game itself. The only real "RPG" elements in the gameplay are weapon proficiencies, which are gained by using that type of weapon, and skill upgrades, which slightly influence either your character's stats or their action skill. THIS DOES NOT COUNT AS ROLEPLAYING. These are indeed choices you can make concerning your character, but they don't really add any creation aspects or immersion elements. Level up enough, and you'll eventually get every skill significantly increased. The game does not make this particularly difficult for you. In fact, with all the backtracking you'll be doing for quests (and the respawning enemies that will continually harass you), getting lots of experience is nigh guaranteed. Okay sure, you may not get every skill maxed out on your first playthrough, but you can probably get a point or two in each area with no trouble. My point is that these kinds of choices aren't really important. The only real decision you have to make is what order to increase them in.

Not even close.
     Compare this system to the one in Deus Ex. In that game, you have a number of skill paths that you can upgrade with experience points. It's a pretty similar system to the one in Borderlands. There are two distinct differences, however. The first one is that your options are much more limited. You can't just pick skill upgrades in any order that you want to and still have things turn out well. Throughout the game, you'll maybe get around 10-15 skill upgrades, if that. That's out of about 33. But far more important than the quantity of the choices available is the importance of those choices. I'm not just talking about how much more each of those choices matters, because they're fewer and farther between and they have greater permanence and consequences. I'm talking about how these upgrades are important for you as the player. See, each upgrade in Deus Ex changes the way you play the game. Granted, some changes are more drastic than others, but each upgrade either increases the number of ways you can approach objectives, or limits them because you could have chosen a different, better upgrade for that situation. Each upgrade holds lots of importance and consequence for you as a player. Each time you make one, it changes your character a little bit and makes him more unique and memorable. It helps solidify not only what kind of a specialist he is and how he approaches things, but also what kind of a play style he brings out in you. Stealthy? Weapons specialist? Infiltrator? A little bit of everything? Those are all choices you can make, and each one is different from the other. This is the biggest problem with the skill upgrades in Borderlands. None of the upgrades you make are particularly important. None of them change the way you play or make your character unique. On a short side note, there's something I should mention. As far as the story in Deus Ex is concerned, there is only one character, JC Denton. For the game and the player, however, there are practically limitless possibilities. Deus Ex is a one of the rare examples of how to combine Roleplay and Action elements well. You're playing as a specific character who is arguably pretty awesome. But at the same time, you have control over how to make that character more awesome, how to make him unique, and most importantly how he does things. No matter which game path you take, JC is still pretty awesome, but the choices that you make define him as a character and a person. I just thought it would be prudent to show an example of properly blended styles.

      Going back to Borderlands, though, aside from these skill upgrades there are no real roleplaying elements. You can't choose who to kill (you can't even avoid most enemies), who to trust, where to go (well, actually you can, but without quests going there it would have no point), or how to approach different situations; the game does it for you. I'm sorry, but if the main quest has you going to collect booze for some crazy old guy who you could easily just shoot to fulfill your objectives, you have to go collect booze. The only personality your character has is made of what you saw in the intro, the brief phrases they say in combat, and a staggeringly “sheep-like” characteristic. You do what you're told, and that's it. You have no real control over what actions to take, and as a result you feel a disconnect from the game. This is a huge problem for RPGs. They're about getting you invested in your character, right? The opposite of this is feeling is being disconnected from your character. When you no longer care about them or they feel alien to you, what's the point?

     And finally, the straw that broke the Roleplay style's back is the way the game treats you. Remember that angel the player sees the hallucination of at the beginning that I told you about earlier? She keeps popping up from time to time. And by "time to time" I mean "every time something important happens" and by "popping up" I mean "telling you why the thing you are doing is important." Few things are more annoying than someone telling you "This person is extremely powerful, tougher than anyone else you've ever faced. You will be challenged; be careful." Thanks, game, but I know what a boss fight is. This kind of thing is bad for RPGs all around. Most human beings are pretty smart, just by the mere virtue of having a human brain. They (especially the ones over 17 - Borderlands is rated M) are usually able to understand things that are happening, and can figure simple things out without needing to be told. Let me make an analogy here. Suppose you were sent to go pick up some ice cream from a grocery store. Now, imagine that as soon as you enter the grocery store, a voice in your head starts talking to you and says, "Ice cream is frozen, so you should look in the frozen foods section." See, this is OBVIOUS. You know this, because you can make the connection between ICE cream and FROZEN food sections. This is like what Borderlands does. You're given a quest to go kill this big bad raider that everyone has been talking about with fear. It's pretty dang obvious that you're about to fight a tough boss. And then you get told the equivalent of, "You're about to fight a tough boss." This kind of thing is present throughout the entire rest of the game. Bottom line;  a roleplaying game (in other words, a game where I get involved through my proxy character) shouldn't treat the character in it like they're stupid. When my character is treated like they're stupid, then by extension so am I. And I don't like being looked down on or mocked by my games. All in all, making the characters generic and not unique, trivializing their deaths, not supporting any kind of real investment in them, giving th player minimal control over their actions, and implying that they – and by extension, the player – are not smart enough to know what is happening makes what was already a misguided inclusion of RPG element a poor failure. Stylistically, Borderlands does a number of things wrong with its Action, and totally neglects its roleplay, and the end result is game that fails to impress.


     However, please don't think that I'm saying Borderlands is a bad game, because it's not. It's a stylistically conflicted game, but it's not a bad one. In fact, every element in the game that causes a style conflict was almost definitely put in there deliberately. I would be extremely surprised if the game designers didn't know exactly what they were doing when they made this game. Why, then, did they make these conflict causing choices? Because they made the game more for fun than for anything else. Borderlands is not as it stands "10/10 material," but good lord is it fun. From a strict game rules kind of perspective, Borderlands is an excellent, excellent product. It's addicting, it's entertaining, and it's approachable. Let's start with the two elements I talked about earlier (RPGs and Action games) and how they work together on a mechanical level.

An anime example of complimenting each other in some areas, but not all.
     Now, I'm actually a pretty big fan of other gaming genres blended with RPG elements. Having more control over my character(s) always gives me a bigger sense of accomplishment when I do something, and it makes me feel like I was personally responsible as opposed to feeling like my character did it all. Done right, these elements blended together make for a much more fulfilling gaming experience. This is the case with Borderlands. See, the Action and Roleplay styles are, as I've defined them, both roleplaying styles. With Action, you essentially roleplay as a cool character, whereas with roleplay, you create one. (Remember, these are game styles, not game genres.) Attempting to put them both in the same game rarely works well. There are certain exceptions, like Deus Ex, but for the most part it just doesn't happen. What Borderlands got wrong was the style, not the substance. Having some sort of minimal control over your character in Borderlands does what RPG elements should do, though perhaps not as well as could be hoped for. Having even the little control over weapon and skill upgrade choices that the player does makes their accomplishments in the game all the more satisfying. While it still fails to get me invested in my character, it does manage to make the game a little more engaging and fun.

     What Borderlands really, really nails down is the action, however. No, it's not quite as satisfying or cool as it would be if they got the style right. But the mechanics are really well done. The game controls great, the action is fast paced and frenetic, and there aren't really any ways to work around the AI, even though it isn't particularly strong or dynamic. While it doesn't mean as much to you as a player, it's extremely entertaining, and that's what Borderlands is (or should be) going for. I personally look at video games as an art form, but Borderlands isn't art; it's entertainment. It's the kind of contrast between something like Citizen Kane and any number of Hollywood action movies. One is art, the other is entertainment. With that goal in mind, then, Borderlands is a very successful game. As I said, it's fun, it's addicting, and it works well. The fights are usually pretty exciting, and style problems aside you do still feel like moderately cool character mowing down the opposition.

Not uncool.
     The other things that caused style problems also contribute to the "fun" aspect of the game. The narrating angel? It's so you don't have to think. The respawn posts? For all it's style flaws, it is still an immersion element that explains things, and furthermore it just feels fast and quick so you can get right back into the action. The skill upgrades? They make it feel like your character is getting better, forcing you into a "just one more combat" kind of mentality. The multiple characters? They make co-op a snap while keeping every character relatively unique. The lack of certain characters being more important? Well, if I were playing this with my brother, I sure as heck wouldn't want him playing a character that felt more important than mine. See, all these choices were pretty deliberate (though they may not have been entirely conscious) and all had a purpose. They all point towards one result; a fun, shut-off-your-brain mindless, addicting video game.

     What's the problem, then? The problem is that Borderlands, for all the fun it provides, lacks something to make it special. It doesn't really have a soul, which is what a consistent, working style would provide. And a soulless game doesn't really have much of a point, does it?

P.S. Please keep in mind that I wasn't comparing games when I brought up Red Steel 2, Fallout, and Deus Ex. I was comparing game styles. Regardless of whether or not they are, I'm not saying that any of those games are better than Borderlands. I'm just showing some examples of games that embody their styles really well.

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