If Writing Makes Borderlands 2 Bad, That’s … Pretty Good
(This is another edition of /RANT, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
Some Borderlands 2 reviews have been coming out of outlets not exactly known for their gaming coverage. The Wall Street Journal amused and perplexed gamers with an embarrassing write-up of Borderlands 2, criticizing it for looking too much like a cartoon and not enough like an anime, lacking “scads” of downloadable content on the day of launch, and not having a good single-player campaign like Medal of Honor. Meanwhile, Forbes followed up with an article from writer David Thier, calling the game a “stylish, addictive, annoying mess.” Like the Wall Street Journal article, Forbes’ review was trounced by users and accused of all manner of ignorance — however, I find Thier’s reaction to the game quite fascinating, and an indication of a very positive step forward in videogames.
“It starts off with a credit sequence so tight, well-produced, and spellbinding that I found myself lulled into a sense of false security,” writes the reviewer. “It didn’t last long. After a few successful chuckles from a little robot, the jokes just started to grind. And grind. Some guy was talking about a horse covered in diamonds called ‘Butt Stallion.’ Midgets were everywhere. When they weren’t around, people were talking about them. There was a hick mechanic who talked in countrified metaphor and female characters who were comically unimpressed with male character’s posturing. ‘Psychos’ were reciting Hamlet and some guy in a writer’s room was feeling like now, everyone would know he’s read Hamlet. I must have read the word ‘badass’ 1,000 times.”
According to Thier, the writing was such an abrasive element of the experience that it colored everything, leading to an overwhelmingly negative assessment in spite of the fact that he found it a largely well-made game. The “feedback loop” of player rewards was praised, as were the “engaging” roleplaying elements that managed to keep him engrossed in spite of repetition, “But the humor is harder to swallow. It lurks around every corner, hurling sarcasm in your face. It feels forced, and it feels desperate.”
The comments were angry at Thier’s assessment, asking why he let the game’s humor condemn the entire game. The sentiment seemed to be that, because this was a videogame, and succeeded in so many other areas as a videogame, the review should have been more forgiving, focusing on the positive aspects as opposed to the one single negative.
“I get it, you don’t like the humor,” complained one reader. “There is so much else in this game it is frustrating to the same point made over and over about the one flaw you can’t seem to stand. Get over it. The second, third, and fourth words you used the most were jokes, writing, and funny. I thought we were talking about a game here not a comedian.”
A meritorious counterpoint, I am sure many of you will agree. However, depending on which way you look at it, and depending on how important you think certain things are in an interactive experience, it could be an attitude that’s harmful to the evolution of this medium we love so much. Let’s find out why!
First of all, let me say that I respectfully disagree with the Forbes assessment. I found the game very funny and felt the humor only enhanced the atmosphere of the game. Handsome Jack was a fantastic antagonist, and Claptrap was turned from an annoying mascot into genuinely endearing comic relief. Of course, I say this as a guy who has counted lead writer Anthony Burch as a colleague and maybe-kind-of-a-friend for many years, so I fully admit I may have a little bias there. Nonetheless, this game makes me laugh, and I welcome any attempt to put genuine comedy into games, rather than the faux “wackiness” that usually counts for humor in this industry.
However, I need to say that I loved the Forbes review in spite of my disagreement. I loved it because it said so much about the importance of narrative in a videogame that, even though Borderlands 2 ticked so many boxes in the “good game” checklist, the reviewer still found its writing so overwhelmingly distasteful that it colored his overall experience. For this review, it wasn’t enough that Borderlands 2 met all the minimum requirements for praise as a videogame. The game aimed for something even more, raising the stakes in terms of writing, and its failure in the eyes of Thier was cause for a scathing assessment. When you want your videogame taken seriously not just as a toy or simulation, but an actual artistic statement, as something intended to make us laugh or cry, perhaps it’s not enough to just be “good as a game.” For a game of this nature, one that raises its narrative standards, I feel it’s only respectful that we, in turn, raise our critical standards in the same way.
As the angry commenter said, Borderlands 2 is a videogame, not a comedian, but from the get-go, it’s framed as a comedic game. It’s not just a first-person-shooter with RPG elements — it also deserves to be labeled with a more traditional narrative genre alongside the established videogame one. It’s a comedy as well as an FPS/RPG, in the same way that Metal Gear Solid is a spy thriller as much as a stealth game, or BioShock is an analysis of political and social extremism. In that respect, I think it’s perfectly valid to judge Borderlands 2 as a comedy, as a piece of entertainment that aims to amuse its audience through jokes and laugh-inducing concepts. That we can do that with videogames now is something to be celebrated, not despised.
Furthermore, I have nothing but respect for Gearbox Software, placing such importance on writing that it was willing to risk a reaction like Thier’s. Gearbox thrust its humor so far into the forefront that it does run the risk of turning off those people who don’t get it. The subjectivity of humor is something we can all appreciate, and it’s one of the most dangerous things to play with. A bombed joke is more brutal than a bombed drama scene. We can at least laugh at bad dramas. We’ve got nothing when a gag flubs. It took some stones for Gearbox to make such a high profile game and frame its entire narrative structure around the minefield that is comedy. To me, the Forbes review says less about Gearbox’s failure as a studio, and more about its success — it succeeded in producing writing so compelling that it made a reviewer dislike the game. That’s much more impressive to me than a shooter that cravenly scales back any ambition in its plot, for fear of dividing the audience or crossing some line of taste.
“When the humor is thrown in your face more than once a second, it becomes a pretty big part of the game experience,” said Thier, justifying his review to the very angry commenter that told him not to judge it as a comedy.
Thier was right to say that, and Gearbox was commendable in running that kind of risk. To me, if the writing in Borderlands 2 made it bad in the eyes of some gamers, that’s pretty good overall. I love this idea that we can talk in-depth about a game’s story, about the quality of its writing. I adore what that might mean for future games — especially those coming from Gearbox, which quite frankly has one of the best pensmith teams around in Anthony Burch and Mikey Neumann. I hope this emphasis on writing, this risk of turning reviewers away on the grounds of personal taste as opposed to cold, metallic, objective quality, continues. It’s good. Trust me.
Seriously. Borderlands 2 being bad for a Forbes reviewer is great for videogames.