Going With The Flow

Going With The Flow
The Bolshevik in the Borderlands

Jonas Kyratzes | 29 Mar 2011 13:06
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Fanaticism is a dangerous thing. It limits our view of the world to what fits into its narrow parameters; it prevents us from learning from the past and keeps us from imagining the future. In art it leads to stagnation and repetition; in artists it leads to a lack of mastery of the form and an inability to realize the full potential of their vision. Fanaticism shackles the mind, and what do artists have if not their minds?

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Those of us who take games seriously have reason to be concerned. Even as the form itself keeps evolving and revealing more of its potential, self-destructive fanatical tendencies are also on the rise. More than just the rantings of the occasional message board troll, these tendencies and approaches exist in the minds of many gamers and game designers, and they have the potential to cause serious harm to an art form that is, after all, still in its earliest stages.

There is a certain mindset, for example, that sneers at a game like Borderlands. It's all gameplay, that mindset says, nothing more than hollow entertainment. Running around some desert planet shooting bandits and alien monsters cannot possibly be art. Where is the depth? Where is the meaning?

Well, the depth and the meaning are right there, if one chooses to look. The gameplay may indeed mainly consist of shooting bandits and monsters, and the missions mostly do consist of "go there, kill something, get something, come back" - but does that mean there is no narrative? The player characters may primarily be defined by their statistics and abilities - but does that mean there are no characters?

Borderlands is actually chock-full of story, which it chooses to tell via the tools of world-building, as opposed to cut scenes and dialog. Pandora is a planet whose history is dominated by corporations, a planet stripped of its resources and then left to rot. The unpleasant legacies of that history are everywhere: in giant trash heaps that dot the desert plains, in bandits who were prisoners forced to work on Pandora and then left behind, in half-abandoned settlements struggling to survive on this dry rock.

The more ancient history of the planet is all around you, too. Traces of a fallen, non-human civilization rise out of the sand; gigantic bones chillingly demonstrate that the ecosystem once supported considerably larger life forms; visual hints combine to show you that some of the areas you're exploring were once deep under water.

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