“Savage” Racism: Where Borderlands 2: Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt Goes Horribly Wrong

“Savage” Racism: Where Borderlands 2: Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt Goes Horribly Wrong

The following essay contains spoilers for Borderlands 2 and its expansions.

Here’s a thought exercise for you: if humanity successfully achieves the technological advancements necessary to travel to and inhabit other planets, will we find life on any of them? If we do, will that life be intelligent, able of communication with us? And regardless of the answer to that question, would we go ahead and enact the same acts of colonial oppression that have defined exploration of our own planet, all the while implementing the same destructive institutions of racism, classism, and hatred that feed into real-world political disarray?

Alternatively, a more optimistic Option B: would such achievements be characteristic only of an advanced society, the kind where egalitarianism thrives and we live peacefully with our fellow humans in a world of puppies, rainbows, and Starship Troopers-style communal showers?

Hint: it’s probably not Option B.



The Borderlands series first emerged in 2009, a top-tier title from the otherwise mid-tier Gearbox Software. A slick fusion of first-person shooter and Diablo-esque role-playing game, the game was marked by its emphasis on co-op gameplay and its striking cell-shaded art style.[1] For these reasons, the series has become a tremendous success and one of the most iconic shooters in the modern video game canon. It’s a success that is largely deserved[2]: the world of Borderlands is a vividly realized portrait of an outer space madhouse. Its primary setting, the faraway planet of Pandora, is Mad Max through the lens of absurdist humor, populated by a frenetic cast of zany sociopaths from numerous walks of life. Borderlands 2, by far the most successful game in the series to date, is particularly standout. Its environments are sharp, colorful, and varied, from arctic tundras to volcanic outposts, and its script is punctuated by morbid wit, notably in the form of its antagonist, the megalomaniac Donald Trump/Patrick Bateman hybrid[3] Handsome Jack.

Beyond its sprawling main campaign, Borderlands 2 is host to some of the most creative and diverse expansions put forth in a video game. Want to take a break from the core story to go on a swashbuckling pirate adventure? Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate’s Booty has you covered. A Valentine’s Day themed expansion based on Romeo and Juliet? Load up Mad Moxxi and the Wedding Day Massacre. Feeling like a stroll through a meta fantasy world where the protagonists take a break to play a tabletop role-playing game? There’s the hilarious and surprisingly touching Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dungeon Keep. Through a commitment to the explosive variety and lunacy of these expansions, Gearbox manages to make a hundred-plus hour game feel constantly new and engaging.

And then there’s Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt.

Continue reading ““Savage” Racism: Where Borderlands 2: Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt Goes Horribly Wrong”


Controller Trouble: Player Agency and Depictions of Gender in Catherine

Controller Trouble: Player Agency and Depictions of Gender in Catherine

The following essay contains spoilers for Catherine.

New advances in technology have led to a rapid advancement of the capabilities of video game consoles, and with it, an eruption of potential for narrative possibilities within interactive media. The heightened graphical strength of modern video game consoles coupled with the comparable advances in audio recording, such as the possibility for fully voiced narratives allows for the visual storytelling capabilities of current interactive media to theoretically be on par with non-interactive animation from the likes of Pixar and Studio Ghibli. Consequently, the scope of narrative within video games has expanded beyond merely rescuing the princess in Super Mario Bros. or shooting countless waves of demons in Doom. Modern video games tackle a wide variety of hot-button issues, ranging from mental illness to the moral quandaries surrounding the use of military aggression. Perhaps one of the most controversial topics to be tackled by interactive media is the representation of women and non-hegemonic identities. The history of the video game industry is sadly laden with examples of truly problematic representations of women, the poster child being the much-maligned handling of violence against women by the Grand Theft Auto series. In such games, women are not so much characters as they are interactive objects, used for scoring in-game bonuses or as a juvenile method of delivering eye candy. In this way, they have more in common with in-game cars and guns than with the male player character.

In light of these troubling representations, certain video game developers have begun to experiment not only with expanding the role of female characters in interactive media, but with actively engaging the topic of gender differences and conflict. One of the most prolific titles to engage these themes is Japanese developer Atlus Games’ Catherine, a 2011 title for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3 consoles. Catherine, a self-labeled “romantic horror” title, is at its core a puzzle title that harkens back to arcade games of the 1980s. Wrapped around this gameplay, however, is the game’s main attraction and selling point: its narrative of infidelity and sexuality. In stark contrast to the brain-teasing segments of gameplay, Catherine’s narrative portion closely mimics the gameplay and layout of a dating simulator, a popular subgenre of Japanese adventure games that play like a “choose your own adventure” novel and ask the player to make decisions in order to pursue one or multiple women. The game uses the dating sim formula as a way to explore relations between the sexes (painted as largely binary and entirely heterosexual) and to balance the gender ratio of the game in a way that many traditional titles fail to do. Unfortunately, Catherine’s dating sim gameplay is also its undoing in terms of positive gender representation, for the nature of this gameplay forces its female characters into positions of objectification, where they are either trophies to be won by the player or simply unattainable and thus portrayed as undesirable.

Continue reading “Controller Trouble: Player Agency and Depictions of Gender in Catherine”

Knee Deep in the Dull: Building a Better Action Game

Knee Deep in the Dull: Building a Better Action Game

The year is 2058. Planet Earth has been rendered almost completely uninhabitable by a devastating nuclear war. The few who survive are anything but lucky, forced to take refuge in deep underground bomb shelters. As our protagonist, a man of grizzly proportions despite rampant malnutrition, ventures out from his bunker to save his captured wife, child, and/or MacGuffin, he will brave unspeakable horrors across a scarcely populated wasteland…

Which, despite its inhospitable nature, just so happens to be populated with more angry armed militiamen than the average rural Oregon town.

You wake up in an abandoned mental asylum, with no memory of how you got there. The smell of death lingers all around you. Your sanity threatens to flee at any moment, as your mind struggles to comprehend the terrors that lie around the next corner. Amidst the confusion and panic, a cryptic slogan gives you guidance: “Through the darkness lies salvation.” You push forward through the claustrophobic crypt…

And discover that you’re sharing the asylum with enough crazed inmates to exceed the population of Parma, Idaho – that’d be 1,983 inmates, in case you’re interested.

An esteemed treasure hunter has discovered the find of a lifetime: a buried relic stowed away in the harshest region of the Antarctic pole. Few have ever dared set foot there, and even fewer survive the desolate cold. More a scholar than a fighter, our intrepid protagonist nonetheless readies her warmest clothes and sets off to find the treasure that will cement her legacy…

Oh, and two hundred of the meanest dudes on the planet beat her to it. Better get to shooting them all.


Die Hard

When compiling a list of the greatest action films of all time, one film in particular has a way of finding a spot firmly near the top: Die Hard, the hugely influential and spectacularly entertaining skyscraper heist thriller.[1] Bolstered by the superb pairing of Bruce Willis and the late Alan Rickman as the cowboy hero John McClane and German terrorist Hans Gruber, Die Hard succeeds through its intimate blending of space and narrative to create a high stakes game of cat-and-mouse. It’s McClane against Gruber and eleven of his most fearsome men, with the action confined entirely to a single building. The increasingly bruised and bloodied McClane must rely on his wits to pick off Gruber’s men, each deadlier and more imposing than the last, one by one before finally making his way to the big, bad, questionably accented man himself for one final, epic showdown.

It is, in essence, the perfect scenario for an action video game.

And yet, action games rarely adopt such a taught and thrilling structure. Instead, they are far more likely to follow the formula laid out by shooters such as id Software’s Doom, a game whose thirty-second first level features more antagonists than Die Hard has in the entirety of its two hours.[2] By and large, action games are all about quantity, whether it takes the form of Pandoran psychos in Borderlands or cyber-enhanced Nazi soldiers in Wolfenstein: The New Order. Even the kid friendly Super Mario Bros. has the player sending enough Goombas to an early grave that the Mushroom Kingdom undertaker’s grandchildren will never have to work a day in their lives.

Continue reading “Knee Deep in the Dull: Building a Better Action Game”

Ten Games to Look Forward to in 2016

As is the case with theatrical film releases, the month of January has typically been something of a dumping ground for video games, and while recent releases like Amplitude, The Witness, and That Dragon, Cancer are working to challenge that notion, February is still generally when the gaming industry starts to trot out its heavier hitters. With that in mind, here are ten games due for release in 2016 that look to be among the year’s most exciting and innovative titles:

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