Monday, January 2, 2012

Borderlands — Loot me plenty!

(NOTE: I started writing this post a few weeks ago and never quite finished. I was going to segue into a larger discussion about the way 3D game worlds identify the interactive elements of the environment. Then I decided against that and sort of left this post hanging to write about KOTOR. Anyway, I went back and tried to wrap this piece up and ... well, here it is.)

I've been playing a bit of split-screen Borderlands on the Xbox 360 with my wife for the past few days (make that a few weeks ago), mostly going through the first two downloadable content (DLC) add ons. We each went solo through the main game back in early 2010, although a few times I went in cooperatively with some friends over Xbox LIVE. I liked it then, and I'm still intrigued by it now—even if I'm getting anxious to move on to new horizons altogether.

The thing that really clicks with me is the game's setting—a pastiche of post-apocalyptic art direction and pop culture sensibilities but without the apocalypse. The story actually takes place in the future on a distant planet called Pandora, which some time not long ago was colonized, raped for precious minerals and then abandoned by one of several reigning mega industrial-military corporations. As to be expected, the corporations essentially treated the planet like a giant toilet, leaving behind several civilization's worth of scrap metal and derelict cities, as well as heaps of discarded high-tech firearms and, worst of all, a free-to-roam-and-pillage population of imported convict laborers now left to their own recognizance.

The player enters this fictional setting basically as a treasure hunter, stepping off a bus into a barren landscape and a run-down town without any real resources to speak of. It reminds me a little bit of Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear (one of the greatest films of all time), in that the players similarly find themselves trapped in a bleak purgatory just as soon as they have arrived. (I admit, this particular comparison may be a bit of a stretch. I might, however, come back to this film in the future as an exhibit for talking about the use of tension in storytelling.)

The art direction is very Mad Max (specifically, the latter two films with the bigger budgets). It's also highly stylized with bright cel-shaded graphics. By "bright" I don't necessarily mean colorful, because the landscape itself is pretty much all manner of scorched-earth browns, oranges, some reds and grays. The sky, however, is a magnificent clear baby blue, which is what really gives everything else its added character. It's that rich, bright blue that lightens not only the scenery but the mood of the entire playing experience and compliments the over-the-top violent humor within the game.

Borderlands is partly famous just for the story of how developer Gearbox Software actually went through and completely changed the game's visual style about three-fourths of the way through the development cycle, up to which point the game had been built with more of an aim toward photo-realism. The decision to scrap that previous work was so drastic and caused the art director so much personal stress that she quit the team and changed careers entirely. And yet I think most would agree it was the right decision.

The game, of course, does have its detractors, some of whom deride the game for being just plain boring. It's a position I think I can understand, because the game starts off pretty slowly and even deeper into the game the overall simplicity of the experience doesn't really change. I remember almost giving up on it myself. What propelled me to continue, however, was the visual world of Pandora itself. I guess I just find the chaotic, ramshackle architecture of Pandora more interesting than other people.

The game became more enjoyable when new and larger environments became available to explore. I've listened to the opinion of several people who talk about how the game should be played cooperatively with three other friends. That can make for a good time, for sure, but doing so is like playing the game on steroids. There's a quality to the experience that's otherwise lost, the slow and rewarding discovery of stepping into a new environment for the first time. Borderlands actually earned a spot on ign's recently-blogged-about 100 Greatest Video Game Moments, I think for a similar reason.

At several points in the game the player has to venture through various bandit encampments, usually to go assassinate some quirky bandit leader. These various fortresses, like RPG dungeons, become more elaborate as the game progresses. Charging through with friends is one way to tackle these scenarios, but going solo can be fantastic. I, for one, like to stop and listen to the desperado music. I chose to play through the game as a hunter, which makes my character proficient with sniper rifles. As I progress through the environment and waves of bandits come out charging from their confines, I like to play it cool and pick as many off from a distance as possible. Then, when the action dies down, I heed the words of Christopher Walken as Bruce Dickinson: I "explore the space." One thing Gearbox got right with Borderlands was giving the player incentive to explore. It's pretty simple. They just made the game a loot-fest.

It's interesting to look back and see how the early first-person shooters dealt with environmental interaction. In games like Doom the player would go around looking for doors, switches, keys and supplies. The supplies—meaning ammo, guns and health packs—were sprites and later three-dimensional icons scattered in particular locations throughout the levels and stages. The player character just had to walk over them to pick them up. Then some games like Duke Nukem 3D came along and started to emphasize different kinds of interactivity. Pressing a button in front of a toilet made it flush. Sink faucets spewed tap water. And pixelated strippers stripped ... sort of.

I think people eventually started to get tired of these things. Some games started changing the formula more drastically. Halo made the player hold no more than two guns at a time and its sequel did away with health packs altogether.

In general, I think first-person shooters abandoned the notion of exploration in favor of more straight-forward—think one giant corridor after another—level design. Games became more about the challenge of getting from one checkpoint to the next and overcoming specific placement of enemies or enemy spawn points in each section of the level. Don't get me wrong, for the most part I think these changes made shooters better games. Did anyone back in the 1990s ever actually finish Wolfenstein 3D or Doom 2 or even Duke Nukem 3D? Without cheat codes? Not me. After a while, looking for door keys got pretty tiresome (those games also used to give me motion sickness).

With Borderlands the loot gathering acts as a reward for exploration. And the loot isn't difficult to find. There are cash boxes, lockers, toilets, dung piles, mailboxes, trash bins and other "containers" scattered about every nook of the map that yield random contents of cash, ammo and weapons. Each one of these containers is in some way color coded green for easy recognition. It's a similar green to the little light that shines from the caps lock button on an Apple key board.

While it may not be the perfect solution, I think it gets closer to answering the question of what to do with some of these incredible open game worlds that are interesting to look at but serve little other purpose. Collecting a few virtual bucks here and there can go a long way. At the same time, the idea of loot as "reward" for the player enters the dangerous territory of the literal "Skinner Box" that I talked about in my first blog post. Push a lever. Get a candy. Push lever again. Get another candy. So who knows?

The above pictures were borrowed from and

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