Of Assholes and Antiheroes: Morality in ‘Borderlands 2’

Lots of games feature antiheroes in the lead role: God of War, Max Payne, Hitman, any game that regularly gives you a “bad” moral choice. It’s an easy justification for why the supposed good guy goes around killing countless other people. He’s not a heroic hero, he’s an antihero, thus it’s okay for him to kill people. But there are times when it goes too far, when the antihero becomes just an asshole.

Suffering is key to developing an effective antihero [Lord Byron would certainly agree –ed.]. We have to see them suffer before we can get on board with whatever else they do. The more tortured they were in the past and the more tortured they are in the present, the “better” an antihero they become. Max Payne, star of his self-titled trilogy, is an example of how this is done right in video games. The third game brings a radical change in setting to the series, moving from the snowy streets of New York to the favelas of Brazil. Max is now a bodyguard instead of a cop, but even given all these changes, we know that he’s still suffering because his bad memories have been guiding the life choices that brought him to this point. He’s trying to escape his depression, but he can’t. He is clearly still suffering and through this suffering we come to sympathize with him even as he goes shooting his way through a favela, office, or stadium in a foreign environment.

A less effective effort is exemplified by Kratos from the God of War trilogy. The first game establishes an appropriately tortured past for this antihero. After all, he killed his own wife and son while in a rage induced by Ares. He seeks revenge on Ares, and we’re with him all the way. But he gets his revenge by the end of the first game. He kills Ares and becomes the new God of War. The second game then opens with Kratos destroying the cities that used to worship Ares. He ignores repeated warnings from the other gods, and he’s soon thrown off his throne by Zeus. He then spends the next two games destroying everyone on Mt. Olympus. In this latter case, the extent of his vengeance doesn’t fit the crime. In fact, there was no crime committed against Kratos, just punishment. As a result, his violent rampage doesn’t feel justified; he ceases to be an antihero and just becomes as asshole, a person doing harm for no good reason.

Assholes vs. Antiheroes

Which brings us to Borderlands 2, a game that pits antiheroes against assholes. The motivations, justifications, and actions of these characters are so similar that the game (intentionally or not) forces us to reflect on the makeup of an antihero.

You play as one of five Vault Hunters, people who have come to the backwater planet of Pandora in search of treasure. Of these five possible characters, most of them have absurd or ignoble reasons for being here: Axton and Zero are warriors looking for a bigger challenge, Salvador is driven by curiosity more than anything else, and the teenage Gaige is on the run from the law after accidentally killing a classmate with her automated anti-bullying robot. Only Maya has a good, logical reason for visiting Pandora. The planet supposedly holds secrets about her past as a Siren. These characters are neither saints nor sinners, and unlike Kratos or Max, none of them are out for revenge. Initially.

It’s important that the characters start here, somewhere between a traditional Campbellian heroic type but nowhere near the status of a villain just yet. The game establishes a rather normal baseline for these people, whose flaws are more quirks than anything else.

In the opening cut scene, you learn that the vault is not actually filled with treasure but with a weapon, and the leader of a gun manufacturer, Handsome Jack, is racing against you to find the vault. Handsome Jack sends robots to kill you, the train you are on derails, and you wake up in some isolated arctic landscape.

This initial betrayal sets you up as a classic antihero out for revenge, even if you’re not much of an antihero at the moment. The Vault Hunters’ lack of suffering should make their subsequent quest for revenge seem extreme, but the timing of the betrayal solves that problem: We, the player, see and experience this assassination attempt. It happens after we hit “New Game,” after we choose what character to play, after we choose to invest ourselves in this world. Even though the assassination attempt happens in a cut scene, the timing makes it feel like it is happening to us. While this act of violence isn’t anywhere near as bad as the death of a loved one, the shift in focus from character to player makes it more personal for the person who will doing the shooting. Handsome Jack tried to kill me. I hate him now, and I’m clearly the hero of this story since I have been wrongfully attacked, and he’s clearly the villain who tried to kill me without cause.

This line in the sand is further cemented when you learn of Jack’s ultimate plan. He wants to use the power of the vault to kill all the bandits and outlaws on the planet, which pretty much means everyone. You team up with more Vault Hunters to fight against Jack, and suddenly you are now a freedom fighter. Your desire for vengeance lines up nicely with the people’s desire for freedom. You are so clearly the good guy.

This all occurs within the first few hours of the game, and this setup gives us the moral high ground against Jack. The game settles us in the traditional plotline that might provide the right context for the development of an antihero but gives us such cartoonish protagonists to experience this plotline through that they’re instantly likable. We’re on their side immediately, and this ensures (or helps) that we stay on their side even as the various side quests chip away at our moral high ground. This soon becomes a trend in Borderlands 2; all the main story beats build you up as a hero, but the side quests drag your supposedly moral character through the mud and turn you into a darker antihero.

The moral conflict here stems from the story of the sidequests as much as it does from the general gameplay. You must start a civil war between two gangs by blowing up a race track, burning people alive in their homes as they sleep, and starting a shootout at a funeral. And of course there are the countless other bandits that you kill along the way.

It’s important to note that this is not an instance of ludic dissonance, when the gameplay and the story contradict each other. Instead, you’re participating in two parallel stories: the story of you against Jack and the story of you against the planet of Pandora. In one story, I’m clearly the good guy, but in the other story, it’s not so clear. Killing the other bandits can’t be justified the same way that killing Jack is justified since the bandits never tried to kill you (and in fact, whenever they do shoot at you, it’s because you’re in their territory). We have no personal motivation for these fights, so instead the game gives us external motivation. We’re told that the two gangs are vicious and cruel — they are gangs after all. This is the justification for most of what we do: The bandits are bandits, that semantic “fact” alone makes it okay to kill them.

This is the exact same reasoning that Handsome Jack uses to justify killing everyone on Pandora. From an objective point of view, there’s no difference between us. Despite all of our talk of saving the world, we slaughter our bandit enemies without a second thought. Despite Jack’s dream of a crime-free Pandora, he’s really just slaughtering his enemies without a second thought as well.

What’s interesting about Jack is that he represents the traditional gamer morality turned back on us. The only reason that he is the bad guy in this scenario is because he is not a playable character. If the plot of Borderlands 2 stayed the same, and we simply took control of Jack instead of the Vault Hunters, we would see him as an antihero, not a villain. We wouldn’t question his horrible actions, just as we don’t question the actions of the Vault Hunters. Both parties are antiheroes in their own story, both parties are wronged by each other, and the ultimate justification of everything that they do is that “the other guy deserved it.” But to be perfectly honest, I don’t hold this against Maya, my character. Yet I hate Jack so much. Why?

Because Jack is a jerk. His personality is grating. Everything about him is irritating: the way he laughs, his tone of voice, the cadence of his voice — like an exuberant version of Bill Lumbergh from Office Space, a passive-aggressive mocking tone, fueled by arrogance. Jack sounds like an asshole, whereas the voices of the Vault Hunters are always charming in their viciousness. This is where their quirks becomes integral to the game’s moral sensibilities. Their quirk makes them likable. Jack is not quirky, so no matter how similar his actions may be to ours, we’re never on his side. He’s a clear asshole, not an antihero.

The distinction then between antihero and asshole has nothing to do with action, but personality. It doesn’t matter what the hero does, but how he responds to it. Max Payne kills lots of people, but he also tries to do the right thing. Usually this just makes things worse, but it shows that his heart is in the right place. Therefore we root for him even though we’d hate to hang out with him in real life. Kratos on the other hand, never shows remorse or mercy and often kills his enemies in a brutal fashion that’s more about causing pain than causing death. Kratos doesn’t kill. He tortures. He’s an asshole.

A Bandit (Boderlands 2 2K Games, 2012)

Your Heroes Are Dead

It’s no coincidence that the two noblest characters on Pandora are both killed off. Roland and Angel serve as agents to get the plot moving and provide some information on about the game’s back story, but their real role is to pump up our moral superiority when it is most needed.

Of the four Vault Hunters that return in Borderlands 2, Roland is the only one that isn’t obviously flawed. Lilith and Brick are both leaders of their own bandit clans, and Mordecai is a loner and a drunkard. Roland, by comparison, is a goody-two-shoes archetype, a generic, clichéd hero. He saved a bunch of people when Jack first started attacking Pandora, he leads the freedom fighters against Jack, and he makes the plans and gives rousing speeches, He’s a leader, a traditional Good Guy.

Angel is the “voice in your ear” that provides you with objectives. Her arc in Borderlands 2 is full of twists and turns. First she’s on your side, then Jack’s side, then your side again. She ultimately sacrifices herself to help stop Jack, an extreme action that firmly puts her on our side, and a selfless action that firmly establishes her as a traditional hero. And as if her actions weren’t obvious enough, Angel’s last words to Jack are “Asshole.”

The deaths of Roland and Angel mark a turning point in the game. By this point, Jack and ourselves have been looking uncomfortably similar considering all the bandits that we have all killed. There’s not much of a difference between us, aside from the fact that Jack’s more annoying to listen to. The story realizes this and kills Roland and Angel in order to reestablish our moral high ground. These two genuinely good characters must be killed and their deaths must be traced back to Jack because that makes Jack a worse person than us. We all kill bandits because no one cares about bandits, but Jack kills heroes.

Borderlands 2 is all about antiheroes and assholes. There’s no place for a good person in this story. In retrospect, the entire game is just a series of escalating attacks between the Vault Hunters and Handsome Jack. The cyclical nature of this is very apparent after a certain mission in which you kill Jack’s daughter and he vows revenge, threatening to kill us and everyone that we care for. After Roland dies, a fellow Vault Hunter vows revenge, threatening to kill Jack and everyone that he cares for.

Borderlands 2 isn’t meant to be examination of the antihero archetype, but in pitting antiheroes against assholes, it becomes a meditation on moral motivations and justifications than the typical tale of good vs. evil might. The plot has to establish us as immoral enough to crash a funeral with a rocket launcher but moral enough to cheer at the death of the villain. By straddling that line, Borderlands 2 arrives at some conclusions about how we perceive heroes: personality matters just as much as actions; and if you can’t make the good guys look good, we’ll still root for them if the bad guys look bad.

If the game had gone on longer, we’d eventually slaughter so many other bandits that we’d forget about the deaths of Roland and Angel. The Vault Hunters would again seem morally equal to Jack and another reset would be required. Unfortunately, there wouldn’t be any good characters left on Pandora for Jack to kill. So it’s smart that the game ends when it does — before our antiheroes officially become assholes.