SPOILERS (For Borderlands 2 and Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep — Buy it if you enjoy Borderlands)
I am a bit of a fan of the Borderlands series from Gearbox software. I suspect to many who haven’t played it, the game would seem very odd. Here is an example of the latest DLC** (kinda NSFW). It is the only first person shooter that really appeals to me, with strong RPG*elements and a seemingly relaxed attitude towards everything but fun. I played the first installment religiously, especially during a grey period in my life when I was working a terrible job and wasn’t sure that I had it in me to finish my first novel. I enjoy the wacky signature characters, cartoonish approach to violence, and some of the behind the scenes cleverness of the writers. It is a great way to unwind and relax, just mindless fun for the most part.
That said, Borderlands 2 does have a surprising amount of deep commentary about heroism, reputation, and a sacrifice under the surface.
I enjoy the Borderlands 2 enough to buy the DLC. While I find the quality to be well above par in a world where many game companies overcharge for their offerings, I don’t expect much other than a few hours of fresh play. I get more than my money’s worth for the most part and a small sense of satisfaction at earning completion and enjoying the jokes. When I heard that the fourth (and final?) DLC: Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep was something of a tribute to tabletop RPGs I was more intrigued than usual. You could say I was all in, especially since I’m waiting for the edits on my second book to come back and have a little R&R time :D. For those who don’t know I am big fan of tabletop, with my first book being partly based off an old RPG design. So I grabbed the DLC, expecting the usual fun, witty, crazy fragfest with some D&D jokes and pop culture references thrown in. I got all of that, as well as some deep commentary on how games/fantasy can help us cope with sorrow and loss.
The basic idea behind the DLC is that Tiny Tina, one of the Borderlands signature characters, wants to run (Gamemaster) a game of Bunkers and Badasses (D&D reference, screens and all). It is a game withing the game (playing an RPG within Borderlands), with the other signature characters providing commentary while you play through. At first it simply adds a nice narrative and a great reason to throw some fantasy elements into the Borderlands universe. Rampaging Orcs, skeletons with glowing eyes, annoying tinkerbells, dragons, and strange quests complete with a satisfying number of references to RPG and fantasy classics.
The game within a game is mostly an excuse for all kinds of additional fun. The Borderlands cast of signature characters is colorful in the extreme, and really one of the best parts about the whole series. The game within a game allows for a running commentary between many of these characters, which keeps the action and the story flowing. At first the commentary is strictly comedic, although it is interesting that Gearbox does use the game to point out some of the dos and don’ts of running a tabletop game with your friends starting with a hilarious discussion of how you shouldn’t kill all the player characters with a super-boss in the first encounter. Really fun stuff.
However, the writers decided to dig a little deeper on this one. I’m not exactly sure why, but I am intrigued. In the Borderlands 2 universe, Roland, a heroic character who rescued young Tiny Tina and befriended her has recently been killed. Tina seems to have trouble coping with this, and the Borderlands characters aren’t quite equipped to help her confront that. Throughout the game Tina actively wonders where Roland is, why he hasn’t shown up for the game yet. The other players keep trying to hint or gently remind her that Roland died in the fight against Handsome Jack and won’t be coming to the game. So Tina takes control of Roland’s “character” effectively putting him in her Bunker’s and Badasses game, to the growing dismay of the other characters on the Borderlands layer of the game (game within a game is almost inception-like). This provides a staggering level of dramatic tension as Tina keeps involving Roland and dodging acknowledging his death. It is interesting that Roland is portrayed as a paladin here and his idle conversation options are set to “I’ll always be here for you.” and “I like it here.” He is the reassuring face of the game, hope, and the ideal guardian for the preservation of innocence. I came to the realization that Tiny Tina’s Bunkers and Badasses game was actually her retelling some of the main game’s story (a subtext of the game with a game :P). Eventually Tina does actually confront Roland’s death, and does so in a way that makes a fascinating comment on games and fantasy in general, and is surprisingly sweet and soulful. I actually just finished playing it an hour ago and still feel a little shaken.
Ultimately, while remaining a blast to play, Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon’s Keep delves deep. The game within a game concept is used to present and discuss some of the value propositions of gaming, beyond simple fun. Escapism is the first, as games can often offer a refuge when real life gets nasty. While we often look down our noses at the very idea of escapism in the modern day, thinking of it as avoiding problems that should be tackled head-on, it is worth noting that not everyone can tackle their problems head on. The pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps attitude doesn’t always cut it after a grey day at work, let alone for people who have continuous problems that are difficult to confront like illness or isolation. Besides escapism can add to the fun, it’s not always about running away. The second point is about how game can offer a safe space for us to confront difficult ideas. This point is deeper, and perhaps more important. Games are fiction, but the ideas they contain are often real, if we confront a difficult idea, like the death of a loved one, within the game we can often gain insight or express feelings we would not otherwise feel comfortable expressing. It gives us another tool to wrap our heads around life’s more difficult concepts.
Innocence, fantasy, sorrow, loss, and heroism. I’m sure some players won’t really care, but the DLC offers the usual slice of fun and humour on top of the lesson/meditation/discussion. I know I was touched. When I was younger my tabletop gaming group lost two of our friends Peter, and Andrew in separate tragic events. Both were young men full of promise, who’d shared countless hours fighting dragons, hiding in prismatic spheres, and haggling over gem prices. In some ways I can still sense their influences on my works today. I have to thank a funny little DLC for reminding me of that, unexpectedly and brilliantly. There is a lot of commentary about the role that games plat in our lives buried in that statement. Natural 20 boys and girls… I raise my glass to you.
*RPG = Role-Playing Game. Things like Dungeons and Dragons (Tabletop), Mass Effect (Computer), or Mind’s Eye Theatre (Live Action). They are share the idea of taking on the role of a character and guiding your own adventure.
**DLC = Downloadable Contents, little add-ons for your game.
Additional Reading: A nice post on the same subject from Mad Art Lab