(Please Note! This article contains SPOILERS for the endings of both Borderlands 2 and Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep! Don’t say I didn’t warn you!)
Recently, I made my way through Gearbox’s latest Borderlands 2 DLC, Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon’s Keep. I did this despite long ago putting the game on the proverbial shelf of my Steam account, based mostly on the overwhelming positive reactions that it has received by everyone all over the Internet. They praised its inventive references to Dungeons and Dragons, its wealth of new enemies to fight, and its character moments. After playing it, I can only agree with one of these sentiments. The normal assortment of skags and bandits have been replaced by skeletons, zombies, spiders and mages, basically the bare minimum if you’re going to base a game on table top tropes. There were no Beholders or Bugbears to be found on the main quest line, and the whole thing felt like a generic fantasy setting with dice thrown everywhere. It makes me wonder how much actual D&D the Gearbox crew has played.
However, this is not a review of the DLC. Instead, I’m more interested in that third praise, the one about character moments. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t like Tiny Tina. Her combination of slang and dementia coming from the mouth of a child reads to me as desperate in a game that already reached into the meme well a bit too often. However, I don’t have to like her appreciate what she is. She’s an example of cruelty of the world of Pandora. Her parents were killed by bandits which drove her insane, forcing her to live alongside inanimate dolls and learn to use explosives and weaponry to survive. Of course, this is Borderlands we’re talking about, so for the most part the player isn’t supposed to think too hard about this. Almost every character in the series is a mass murderer or mentally unstable and probably both, and this is played for laughs more often than not.
There are a few serious moments spread out throughout the second game, much more so than the first game, which was more or less a treasure hunt filled with fleshed out shopkeepers. The deaths of both Bloodwing and Roland, ostensibly characters from the first game despite them being a weapon and a player character respectively, are treated with more weight than anything else, including the finale of the game, and this feeling continues into the DLC. The entire story is a compressed retelling of the story beats from the main game, and once we get to Roland’s death we cut to Tiny Tina in a void under a spotlight, feeling overwhelmed by feelings of loss after so much denial. Then, after a final battle, we cut to a Halo 3-like ending where every character from the entire game has gathered in front of an impossibly tall memorial for both Roland and Bloodwing, Tina climbing to the top of the statue to embrace it.
Now, as someone who has played through both games, I found the moment was touching. However, if you think about it for any length of time, none of it fits into the world of Pandora at all. The concept of memorials has no place in a world where raiders compose almost the entire population, unless you want to come back in a week and see a headless version of your friend covered in graffiti and urine. More importantly, humanizing Tiny Tina is counterintuitive to the rest of the game, where everything is a joke to the level of parody. They had it right for most of the story, having Tina deny that Roland was dead in much the same way she treats her parent’s deaths in the campaign. This should have continued throughout the entire DLC, because having her break down in tears and suddenly understand death should drive her to suicide considering her penchant for explosions. Obviously, these aren’t the types of questions we should be considering in the story of a blockbuster first person shooter.
Let’s go back to the end of the DLC. Since this is Borderlands, it doesn’t actually end with a tearful goodbye to old friends, it actually ends with Claptrap making a joke and the rest of the cast groaning loudly in his direction. But wait a minute, we just took a character that had previously taken murder as a joke and humanized her, why are we expected to suddenly laugh again at the misfortune of Claptrap? If we are suddenly considering emotion important in Borderlands, then Claptrap is the most tragic figure in the entire saga. His species was destroyed in the previous game, he initially lived in an abandoned shack in the middle of a wintery expanse and then once he moves to Sanctuary he is forced to live in what looks like a garbage dump. There is a mission where the player goes to Claptrap’s otherwise unattended birthday party, and the entire point of it is to laugh at his misfortune. In the context where I’m supposed to care about these characters, that is unbelievably depressing.
So I’m not exactly sure what Gearbox is going for here. You can’t spend two entire games banking off of ridiculousness only to suddenly expect players to empathize with one specific character as if they were watching Mad Men. And I’m not saying you can’t have character moments. Saints Row is a prime example of a game with the same carefree insanity infused into its story. However, when Johnny Gat dies in The Third, the game doesn’t linger on the character’s sorrows, it shows them seeking revenge by killing dozens of people. And then Johnny Gat comes back as a clone, much like T.K. Baha came back as a zombie in DLC for the original Borderlands. You care that a character has died, but you know how little death truly matters in that universe, and it becomes a driving moment in the story rather than a contemplative moment that is out of place in a world where corpses litter the streets.
This new wrinkle, above her YouTuber origins, above her dated lingo, above her cutesy baby talk, is the final ruinous straw for the character of Tiny Tina in my mind. If she is going to be the arbiter of emotion seeping into Borderlands in future installments, then I can’t see myself continuing on with the franchise. There are plenty of great games that are designed for people who want to FEEL. Stuff like Papers Please, Limbo, Braid, Gone Home, their numbers keep increasing every week. Borderlands is supposed to be all about the “gazillions” of guns, an FPS for the Diablo crowd. It doesn’t need to be bogged down by moral storytelling as told by the makers of Duke Nukem Forever.