5 Ways 'Borderlands 2' Is a Remorseless Addiction Machine
We all know gaming is addictive: It seems like there's a death toll of about six Koreans for every new RTS released to remind us of the fact. And this very site has previously discussed how game designers can actively tailor gameplay to exploit your sad, addictive personality. But those seem like exceptions, not rules. For the most part, when we refer to a game's "addictiveness," we mean it as a positive thing. We're implying that the game is fun or rewarding, or that we can't stop playing it because we don't want to, and the only people who suffer for it are lonely girlfriends and the goons we mow down (their fault, though; shouldn't have gotten into goonery in the first place if they couldn't take the heat). Somewhere in the middle of these two definitions, building a slipshod base in the badlands between soulless exploitation and amusing addiction, there lies Borderlands 2.
Down the OCD Rabbit Hole
There's a variety of ways a game can capitalize on the gamer's otherwise dormant obsessive-compulsive disorder: The attache case in Resident Evil 4 that forces you to stop mid zombie rampage to calculate the optimal ratio of grenade launchers to marijuana plants; the Western RPG that gives you a house to meticulously decorate between dragon battles; the Japanese RPG that gives you a tree of crystals to arrange between large-breasted cosmo-schoolgirl battles.
I first realized how dangerous this practice was while playing a game called Suikoden II -- it was a fairly obscure JRPG in the late '90s whose main draw was the whopping 108 different characters to collect, level, build up and equip. That aspect alone is already dangerously close to triggering a bloody organization frenzy down in the nerd pool, but the second game also gave you a whole damn castle to customize, evaluate, audit and meticulously categorize.
"You're killing me! I'm 19! I have things to do! Weed to smoke! Girls to not talk to!"
To this day, I could not tell you a thing about the story or gameplay, but I bet I could still navigate those equipment menus in my sleep. The realization that I was no longer actually having fun in my off-time came after I loaded up the game, spent two hours swapping the best equipment between characters and then shut down the PlayStation to head into class. Only hours later did I realize that I had spent my entire morning actively not playing a video game, opting instead to do some interior decorating and light accounting. And all this as I sat in my own filthy, neglected room, idly wondering what happened to that sandwich I lost in the closet last week.
Borderlands 2 is a similar machine: The second installment has not only drastically upped the already staggering amount of items to equip, compare, store and shuffle, but given you several new ways to do it. There are banks, storage vaults, character swap caches and dozens of constantly updating vending machines, in addition to the ceaseless stream of items popping from the exploding torsos of literally every living thing you see. Because the loot is random, quality varies wildly, and every other find might necessitate a complete inventory and reevaluation of the items you already have. That is not a light affair. Those JRPGs, famous for their fanatic micromanagement, mostly have items with one or two variables: A piece of armor might have a defense rating and an elemental property, for example. Or a sword might have attack damage and a varying amount of octo-spirits it could hold in its soul-ocean (which is actually expandable if you can conquer the externalization of your main character's lust, which has manifested itself as a giant robot penguin with tits and a switchblade who only emerges if you win a set number of cockfights).
Borderlands 2 has a half-dozen stats for every single one of their millions of items. You'll spend most of your given game time carefully running the numbers on the fire-rate-to-damage ratio of seven different submachine guns, only to finally exit the menu and be immediately shot in the face by Skin-Tube, the Duke of Rape, whom you have long since forgotten you were fighting.
The Loot Machine
There's a strange kind of sub-genre of video game that is entirely based on loot -- the digital "prizes" you get from quests and fallen enemies. The appeal of these games usually isn't in the story or the characters, but in the amount of new weapons, armor, shields, magical artifacts or silly hats that spray out of an enemy's skull cavity when you bash it in. They're like giant bloody pinata simulators, hurling wave after wave of screaming sentient candy containers after you until your character drowns, choking and wailing in the veritable sea of booty. These games aren't exploiting some new mechanic -- to some extent, this has been around since the inception of gaming. But they're really coming into their own now. In the last several months, we've had Torchlight II, Diablo III and Borderlands 2 all release -- every one of which is a top-shelf game that is almost exclusively loot-based.
It's almost the same concept as a casino, but if the roulette wheel could also harness the addictive power of murder. Like if the balls in your local pachinko parlor screamed obscenities and exploded in a shower of skull fragments whenever they hit the bottom of the machine -- then you'd have a pretty good analogue version of Borderlands 2.
Bam! You just got an extra pachinko! (I don't know how pachinko works.)
If the appeal of the digital loot-casino is in the prizes, Borderlands 2 is the floor manager sending a steady stream of free drinks and flirtatious waitresses to your table. The game hurls an objectively insane amount of crap at you: They bragged of "87 bazillion guns," and they're not really kidding. Guns pop out of goddamn everything: enemies, friends, cars, toilets -- powerful new god-items explode out of the faces of lizard-dogs and giant flies so frequently that the reward center of your brain simply runs out of dopamine and just starts firing whatever chemicals are left into your brain. Some guns will make you inexplicably sad: "This one is objectively better, but I really liked my last one. I can't stand to see it go ..." While some guns will just piss you off: "I spent all my money buying the best gun in the game five minutes ago, and now I find something better in a frozen pile of alien ape-shit?"
"Surely this is a metaphor for something, but I'm way too angry to figure out what."
The risk/reward ratio is so skewed that simply existing will net you awesome new loot. My character's current primary weapon came from a bandit that walked up to me while I was standing at a vending machine comparison-shopping new grenades. He took a swing at me, hit my acid shield and disintegrated into an assault rifle. I then unpaused the game, collected the reward I had earned for pausing it, and repaused the game to continue browsing other rewards.
The Hidden Prizes
Nothing holds more enigmatic appeal to humanity than the promise of a mystery prize. It's like a glitch in the species: Give us any container that may or may not contain something valuable, and we'll sell everything we own for a chance to open it, even though deep down, we know it's almost certainly just a washer/dryer set. In video games, this practice can again be tracked back to old school RPGs: How many times have you followed a corridor to its end just to confirm that it's the right path, at which point you turned back and headed directly away from the right choice, just in case there was a chest or something at the end of one of the wrong ones? Even if there is a chest, there's still the chance that it's nothing -- just another elixir we will never use (in case we really need it later). It's stupid, but there it is: Even if we know it's probably nothing, gamers are still willing to slog through hours of random, repetitive battles just for the sheer potentiality of a chest.
And then there's Borderlands 2, whose extremely large game maps consist of roughly 92 percent chests. Everything is a container -- lockers, boxes, cases, the trunks of cars, piles of literal crap -- everything.
Seriously, though, most of it is in, on or otherwise inundated with poop. The game does not put on airs.
The only reason you head out on most missions in the first place is for the promise of items, which the game shows you right below the story text. That's your incentive for being out there in the badlands: The whole map is just a giant chest that you have to run across to open, and littered all around it are smaller chests that explode in showers of even tinier chests, all of which you open only to receive bullets for a gun you don't have. But it doesn't matter, because every once in a while, that random washing machine will contain a rare weapon, or a piece of Eridium (by far the game's most valuable and rare currency, almost exclusively found in bullshit penny-ante containers). And so you will open every single one. The promise of what might be and the risk of missing it are two of the most compelling motivations for humanity, and Borderlands 2 spends every single second beating you in the face with both of them. The game makes you run so many gauntlets of worthless promises that I half suspect it's all just some pretentious art student's cutting metaphor for the broken American political system.
"And like, the toilet is voter apathy, man. We are all guns in the toilet."
It's not like Borderlands 2 doesn't know what it's doing: Occasionally you'll walk into a room and there will be 10 chests, all lined up next to each other. Why do that? Why not just put more items in the one chest, like every single other game in history? Because Borderlands 2 knows: It knows that most of the satisfaction is in the actual opening of the chest. Opening a chest is waiting for the call after a killer job interview; it's the last box on a scratch-off lottery ticket with two matches; it's that moment right after you ask out a pretty girl, but before she starts hollering for the police. Chest-opening is a zero-day exploit in human psychology, and Borderlands 2 is like a gleeful hacker, running rampant with the problem just to prove to you that it's there.
Ah, but it's not enough to have just one character running this gauntlet of soul-crushing addiction, compulsively organizing and hoarding items that he couldn't possibly use until his gritty resolve is completely lost in a delirious haze of multicolored arrows. There are four different characters in Borderlands 2, and each one has a litany of specialties they can choose from. Which is great: That adds some variety and replay value to an otherwise straightforward shooter. But in the first game, those characters were exclusive: If you found a gun for a sniper, but you were currently playing as a mountain of fists that exclusively punched giant robots into inexplicably bloody piles of meat, too bad. You just sold it and moved on. Now there are no longer weapon proficiencies -- everybody can use everything -- and you can swap items between characters, besides. That sounds like a much-needed feature at first glance, until you realize that every item now means something. Even if that item is irrelevant to the game you're playing now, it could be vital to the other game you're playing, or the game you might potentially start up next.
Do you see what just happened? Now you're hoarding on behalf of a theoretical person, and preparing for all of their potential (but still totally nonexistent) needs.
"For he is my progeny, my legacy, my heir; I shall name him ButtLord."
When I first saw the storage vault that allows you to swap items between characters -- even though you need to play for hours just to get to it, and I had just barely completed the quest that opens it up -- my immediate thought was "Oh shit! I have to start another character and level him up so I can trade items from this one to the new one."
Why? Why, you stupid, stupid brain?! They don't exist yet! You cannot predict the potential needs of imaginary people! But it's sitting there right now, at this very moment, mocking me: A locker full of weapons for a sniper that hasn't even been born yet. I'm saving for the college fund of a child that I do not have, that the wife and I might not even want, and who may decide he doesn't even want to be a sniper like his daddy says, but would rather hit people with swords or teleport or just fucking sing jaunty show tunes in a local dinner theater troupe.
Hey, it's a big world; anything can happen. Don't you judge my boy.
The Complete Acknowledgment of Guilt
So clearly: Borderlands 2 is the end result of a long history of psychological exploitation in the media. It is all the worst elements of addiction and consumerism, twisted and presented as harmless entertainment. It is an unrelenting knife twisting in the wound of our own vices.
And you know what? It's totally fucking fantastic.
Not in spite of these things, but because of them. Borderlands 2 never tries to hide all of the clever and manipulative ways it screws with your brain. In fact, I'd argue that it's the entire point of the game: Literally every other piece of dialogue is snarkily acknowledging these tricks. In the Borderlands universe, when you die, you respawn at a save point that charges you a small fee for bringing you back from death. Every single time it happens, the fictional company in charge of the resurrection machine plays a little message thanking you for dying, and politely encouraging you to run off and make the same mistake again, or to seek vengeance on the party that just killed you. That company, by the way, is also one of the major weapons manufacturers. In one of the better snippets of writing, a calm, feminine voice gently suggests that, if you're going to seek vengeance anyway, why not buy one of their guns to do it?
I should thank you to keep your filthy social commentary out of my violence simulators, madam.
Each of the vending machines plays a set of prerecorded loops that acknowledge the fact that they're making money off of your foolish repetition -- whether that's the gun seller jovially admitting that "most of our merchandise is scavenged from the bodies of dead vault hunters" (you're a vault hunter) or the medicine machine asking you to "think of the next time you're bleeding out" -- the idea that you're a stupid and predictable thing being manipulated by your absolute basest instincts is everywhere. It's hurled at you from the billboards and the radios, in the quest dialogue and even in the descriptions of the weapons themselves. Borderlands 2 isn't a shooting game; it's a vicious parody of gaming in general. It's a direct and blunt mockery of every flaw inherent in our chosen hobby. It is literally a gripping collection of addictions and vices, each of which spits right in your face and dares you to quit dosing up, because it knows you won't.
And it is just so much goddamn fun, you guys.
Look, it's really important that you think about your entertainment, and what it's trying to do or say -- especially if you're prone to manipulation by said media. There might be some very bad people doing some very bad things with your vices. But shit, it doesn't mean those vices are any less fun.
Most alcoholics started drinking because, at the start, it was a fucking party.
Buy Robert's stunning, transcendental, orgasmic science fiction novel, Rx: A Tale of Electronegativity, right here. Or buy Robert's other (pretty OK) book, Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead. Follow him on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook.
For more from Brockway, check out When Video Games Get Stuck in Your Head and In Defense of Video Games as Art.