Image of Marley courtesy of the Borderlands Wikia.
I don’t think that killing a skag was supposed to be emotional. Yet here I was sniffling and crying about a dead digital hellbeast in the darkness of my living room.
I haven’t played Borderlands in a couple of weeks and I’ve been picking at it slowly because I was stuck on one bounty board quest – The Legend of Moe and Marley. The dilemma I was having is that these two incredibly hardy skags were stuck at the ass-end of Arid Hills. I’d try my hardest to clear through all the mobs on the way but by the time I faced these beasts, I’d be low on ammo. I’m not a good FPS player in the slightest so dying to one or both of them and having to buy more ammo and slowly re-clear was frustrating. Through sheer determination I managed to take Moe down, but getting Marley had turned into an exercise in futility and I gave up on it for a while.
It wasn’t until 5 AM this morning that I loaded up Borderlands and gave it another go. After some stunning defeats because I had managed to pull both of them at the same time, I got into the rhythm and figured out how to cope with that particular scenario. Falling back on my intense World of Warcraft training, I remembered that I could kite both dogs, slowly picking their health off, especially because Marley was prone to standing and turretting electric bolts versus getting into melee range. Eventually I had pulled Marley and Moe all the way back to a bandit camp, and finally polished Moe off, and set to working on Marley. The camp had started to respawn in that time, including two snipers on an overhead bridge and suddenly I noticed that Marley had begun to spin around and occasionally attack the other mobs, who were doing their damndest to also pick off her health. Despite seeing this interaction between the skag and bandit AI before, it didn’t occur to me that this would happen if it was a mob I was also fighting at the same time. Pretty soon it was a huge shootout, with me crouched behind a fence to avoid Marley’s bolts and also bandits.
As her health slowly went down, something came over me. I noticed that it was 4 bandits on the ground, 2 snipers and myself, all shooting at one skag. It felt a little bit unfair, especially since most of the time Marley would spin around to try and attack the two snipers that were well out of reach. The idea of two dudes with guns shooting down at an animal that couldn’t reach them was cruel. When the skag finally keeled over and spit out the expected money and loot, I felt incredibly upset. Sure, it was an intended function of the AI but my own accidental blundering made the realization a little more poignant. I had essentially lead something that just was going about its business into a camp full of people with guns, only to turn what was merely a frustrating quest objective into a bloodbath. And for what? So some douchebag could mount her head on his wall?
I don’t know if this precisely what Borderlands was supposed to evoke. It is fairly apparent that our characters, as close as you might get to them, are assholes.
Still, I couldn’t help feeling terrible, all over a scabby alien dog.
When I went to look up the quest on the Wikia for this blog post, I couldn’t help but feel worse since that’s one of the strategies suggested on the webpage to take both skags down, given their relative difficulty. All’s fair in love and bounties, according to the game. It is a strange change from MMORPGs, where abusing terrain,mob AI or pathing is usually forbidden. Both of these points reflected my embarrassing lack of understanding, especially now. My initial belief that this was a broken act of game AI gave way to the thought that perhaps it was I who had broken out of what the game required of me.
Shoot-and-loot games, which Borderlands is easily the most narrative of the genre, require a distillation of roles in order to make them work correctly. There’s whomever or whatever is in the sights and who is pulling the trigger (you). Most of the visual elements stress this – your appearance is novel and fleeting, whether it is a pair of disembodied hands or just the form of your gun. Enemies are constantly coming for you, outlined in red. This crystallization has some really problematic forms when it boils down $enemy to characteristics like “brown people.” It’s crucial that FPS games have this format; the ability to mimic real behaviors such as identifying targets in a fraction of a second and to unemotionally make a judgement just as fast to take them down is what drives the genre. For all of Borderlands goofy trappings, it still has this at the core.
Marley should have been merely another box to tick off, another challenge to overcome in order to progress my character and gain skills to go farther in the game. Despite Borderlands’ best efforts to pass me through this in a perfunctory, expected way, I still entered into it with my unbearable reflex to assign emotions and value to the inanimate. What I had even believed as a chance occurrence of AI interaction may have been intended as a potential solution to the problem. This was overwhelming because I felt utterly alone in my hysterics in that moment.
Despite my embarrassment with having feelings, I feel that my discomfort with some moments in any game, especially games like Borderlands is worthwhile. Being taken out of the core loop of any game is usually considered a negative. Being empathetic for a fraction of a second, even towards a simple boss mob, is not a failure state in the slightest. If the last few months have taught me anything, it is a requirement.