Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Borderlands The Pre-Sequel as Australian industry elegy

We played Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (essentially, Borderlands 2.5) on co-op mode, and yep it's a Borderlands game.

You run around and shoot monsters, they sometimes drop procedurally generated guns, and you sell most of those trash guns to get useless money, and you gradually get slightly better guns with slightly different effects. It works OK, but it still hasn't aged very well. The Borderlands series' long-time reliance on many small modifiers and +1.2% bonuses feels even more desperate in 2019, especially when we live in a golden age of indie deckbuilder games where the numbers actually matter.

Pre-Sequel (2014) is strongest when you fight giant space monsters on a low gravity moon with a fun floaty jetpack mechanic that pretty clearly cribs from Destiny 1 (2014). It's the same problem facing the upcoming Borderlands 3 too: Destiny and Warframe already dominate the whole sci-fi co-op RPG shooter niche, and those games already transcend what the Borderlands formula can do. But now I imagine Gearbox is probably afraid of changing the formula much, especially after high profile failures like Colonial Marines and Battleborn.

As with many other games, that fear and conservatism likely stems from the fandom demanding more of the same. The patented Borderlands tone feels so incredibly anxious and afraid of its fans, and nearly every scrap of narrative design is wound so tightly around flagging for their tastes. When I listen to this game, I immediately get the sense that "this is not for me" as I'm bombarded with incoherent fan service, awkward sarcasm, a fuckboy edge-lord tone that grates much more in 2019, and random flat characters whose entire personalities are contained within their introductory freeze frame. It's Duke Nukem's step-son, with all the insecurity it implies.

But hey you can't blame the developers on this, they were just doing what they were supposed to do. Pre-Sequel was the last game to come out of 2K Australia and thus the last of the AAA Australian games industry as a whole. Or maybe it just represents the end of a long history of neglect and sabotage by 2K corporate in California, depending on who you ask.

Yet unlike their troubled indentured servitude on an XCOM-themed shooter and the BioShock games, sometimes it feels like 2K Australia got a little creative control on this project. Their articulation of Australian culture ends up being much more interesting than the gunplay. This is a game with a mission that's literally themed around Waltzing Matilda, with quest dialogue / lyrics delivered in a thick Australian accent reminiscing about billabongs. In this light, the game feels like a last sad hurrah for the Australian AAA game industry, of which many devs are still surviving but remain understandably bitter about being abandoned by both their parent company and their government.

Pre-Sequel is about an Australian moon littered with the ruins of an abandoned industry. An evil vain greedy facetious Californian dudebro fuckboy MTV VJ helms a distant corporation that mismanages and misunderstands them, nearly obliterating the ragtag community of creative Space Aussies just trying to get by. Even after you defeat the final boss, no one really gets what they want, and you're still stranded in this dying place.

If it sounds familiar, it's because we already knew how it ends.

(see also: Massive Chalice as pre-apocalyptic existential game industry dread)