Bor­der­lands 3, the lat­est game in the 10-year-old series, is a bit of a time cap­sule. The orig­i­nal Bor­der­lands was released in 2009 dur­ing a gold­en age of nar­ra­tive-heavy first-per­son shoot­ers. Its biggest sell­ing points includ­ed a four-play­er coop­er­a­tive design, a ludi­crous num­ber of pro­ce­du­ral­ly gen­er­at­ed guns, and a dark but deeply sil­ly sense of humor. And devel­op­er Gear­box has main­tained that style and tone for years, hold­ing out against the rise of nev­er-end­ing mas­sive­ly mul­ti­play­er shoot­ers like Des­tiny and Fort­nite.

Bor­der­lands 3 will be released next month, and based on my recent pre­view of the game, it offers more and weird­er options than its pre­de­ces­sors. The series’s orig­i­nal, fair­ly basic video game arche­types have evolved into elab­o­rate class­es, like the robot­ic “Beast­mas­ter” FL4K who can sum­mon ani­mal com­pan­ions but also turn invis­i­ble and charm ene­mies. The game offers a bil­lion gun vari­a­tions com­pared to Bor­der­lands’ mere 17.75 mil­lion, and they fea­ture exot­ic new capa­bil­i­ties like sec­ondary fire modes and weaponized ham­burg­ers. Despite all this, the two hours I’ve played of Bor­der­lands 3 felt com­fort­ably famil­iar — from the fre­net­ic gun­play to the self-aware jokes.

There’s one big change in Bor­der­lands 3, though: the world has been invad­ed by mur­der stream­ers.

the most icon­ic vil­lain in ‘Bor­der­lands’ is sup­pos­ed­ly gone for good

Bor­der­lands is set in a fic­ti­tious galaxy that’s run by ruth­less cor­po­ra­tions and filled with peo­ple and ani­mals who will almost invari­ably attack you on sight. The last major install­ment, 2012’s Bor­der­lands 2, pit­ted play­ers against a slimy exec­u­tive known as Hand­some Jack. But our cul­tur­al ref­er­ence points have shift­ed since then, and the uni­verse has shift­ed to match them. Now, the vil­lains are essen­tial­ly a pair of evil Twitch stream­ers. This seems exact­ly as ridicu­lous as it sounds. But since Bor­der­lands has always been ridicu­lous, it also sounds kind of per­fect.

“In 2012, the idea of what we have as a mod­ern stream­er or YouTube star, it was still kind of nascent, and it didn’t have the pow­er that it has today,” says Sam Win­kler, the co-lead writer of Bor­der­lands 3. “There’s still this fix­a­tion with the mono­lith­ic cor­po­rate head that you just want to have insult you for 30 hours until you shoot him in the face.”

In 2019, there’s a new­found anx­i­ety about the influ­ence of social media, and Bor­der­lands 3’s vil­lains, known as the Calyp­so Twins, are the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of those fears. They oper­ate the hyper-vio­lent real-life equiv­a­lent of a pop­u­lar stream­ing chan­nel on the prison plan­et of Pan­do­ra, and they’ve amassed a cult of ban­dits known as the Chil­dren of the Vault, which aims to chal­lenge the cor­po­ra­tions. They also want to be “the most pop­u­lar mur­der stream­ers in the galaxy” — which, co-lead writer Dan­ny Hogan con­firms, means that mur­der stream­ing is, in fact, a full-fledged indus­try.

“If you’re bad and you have that lev­el of influ­ence — what could you do with it?”

“I think what was so curi­ous to us was just this gen­er­al idea that the pow­er bal­ance has shift­ed in media in such an inter­est­ing way, and that some­one can so quick­ly rise to a lev­el of influ­ence that they might not know what to do with,” says Hogan. Bor­der­lands 2 end­ed with cor­po­ra­tions pulling back from Pan­do­ra, appar­ent­ly leav­ing a pow­er vac­u­um that was filled by enter­tain­ers. “If you take that one step fur­ther into a world like Bor­der­lands, you go, well, if you’re bad and you have that lev­el of influ­ence — what could you do with it?”

Dystopias where real ultra-vio­lence becomes enter­tain­ment (or as Hogan puts it, “good con­tent”) have been around far longer than Twitch and YouTube, and so has the trope of celebri­ty cult lead­ers. But Hogan and Win­kler also talk about specif­i­cal­ly mod­ern dynam­ics — like the paraso­cial rela­tion­ships that fans build with their favorite stream­ers, the ten­sion between stream­ers and old media gate­keep­ers, and the ampli­fy­ing pow­er of social media.

“We didn’t want to par­o­dy or car­i­ca­ture any spe­cif­ic stream­ers or YouTu­bers,” says Win­kler. “But any one of these peo­ple with 10, 20 mil­lion fol­low­ers — if they woke up one day in a bad mood and said, ‘That guy should die,’ 99.99 per­cent of those fol­low­ers are going to be like, ‘Whoa, kind of an over­state­ment, guy!’ And some of them are going to show up at that person’s house. And that’s pow­er­ful and that’s dan­ger­ous in the real world, let alone when your entire audi­ence is just bil­lions of psy­chopaths.”

Win­kler is describ­ing the anato­my of a real-life harass­ment cam­paign — a very real dan­ger for many stream­ers and oth­er inter­net users. Sites like YouTube have been blamed for push­ing lone­ly, dis­af­fect­ed view­ers toward extrem­ist ide­ol­o­gy. Bor­der­lands 3 seems to explore this dynam­ic in its typ­i­cal­ly over-the-top fash­ion. Hogan describes the twins’ mes­sage as “everyone’s been telling you that you’re ter­ri­ble, but I love you, and I think you have val­ue — and I’m going to help you become a cool­er, bet­ter, more mur­der­ous ver­sion of your­self.”

The writ­ers say they weren’t think­ing about online rad­i­cal­iza­tion, though, and they don’t talk about the game in rela­tion to real harass­ment or threats of vio­lence. They describe it as a gen­er­al explo­ration of how inter­net fame can go wrong. Bor­der­lands 3 is explic­it­ly a game for stream­ers. (Even if its pub­lish­ers burned some good­will by intim­i­dat­ing one of them with pri­vate inves­ti­ga­tors.) The game includes a Twitch exten­sion that lets view­ers engage with play­ers, and its writ­ers think the Bor­der­lands style of humor trans­lates well to video. So par­o­dy­ing stream­ing cul­ture seems like an obvi­ous exten­sion of that prin­ci­ple, regard­less of any big­ger cul­tur­al dynam­ics.

But the sto­ry­line still seems inter­est­ing because it reflects new and dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal fears, even if it’s indi­rect or unin­ten­tion­al — the way Bor­der­lands games have riffed for years on the worst ele­ments of cap­i­tal­ism with a cyn­i­cal, detached, and some­what absur­dist tone. Bor­der­lands 3, accord­ing to its writ­ers, is canon­i­cal­ly about how pop­ulist dem­a­gogues exploit social media, resent­ment, and fan­dom to fill the cul­tur­al gaps left by pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tions. Also, there’s a gun that shoots ham­burg­ers.

Bor­der­lands 3 will be released on Sep­tem­ber 13th for Win­dows, Xbox One, and PlaySta­tion 4.

2K Games

Source link