“See, humor is based on subverting expectations.” – Claptrap
Ain’t that the truth.
When Claptrap, the quasi-trusty robot sidekick in Borderlands 2, explains humor, it at least shows that the folks over at Gearbox understand what comedy it is. Unfortunately, it’s knowledge that seems to go to waste. Borderlands 2 is a fine piece of game, but it fails to deliver consistent laughs like its predecessor. Of course, games being unfunny isn’t exactly news, but what makes the Borderlands 2 situation a bit more lamentable are two simple facts: first, that the original Borderlands was funny and second, that Borderlands’ humor actually came at the expense of its successor’s.
The original Borderlands came out of nowhere, but it almost arrived without its trademark charm, flavor, and art. Originally designed as a gritty shooter in a realistically-rendered hellscape, it was re-imagined once developer Gearbox got a looks at Bethesda’s Fallout 3, a gritty shooter in a realistically-rendered hellscape. The new art style took a zany cel-shaded approach and everything else followed suit. In many ways, the entire game was a walking “subverted expectation.” It was completely redone in the time it takes most other developers to figure out what they want for lunch. It was an improbable game whose very path to existence dodged expectations left and right, and this comedy of errors spirit found its way into the game’s characters and dialogue to great effect.
In many ways, heading back to Pandora for the sequel was the first mistake. A main story about hunting down a vault (again) was the second. The problem is that we’d already seen how crazy the Pandora vault-hunting scene could be in the original Borderlands. The entire game immersed us in sheer nuttiness, and it worked because it was all a bit ridiculous and self-aware without being too pushy about it. Now in Borderlands 2, we’re doing it all again, and the things that could be played for humor the first time around are now mundane. In many ways, Gearbox overdid it in Borderlands – they played the “crazy shit” card a whole bunch, which made for easy and effective laughs in Borderlands but then left them nowhere to go with the sequel. They were Alexander, left to weep because there were no more comedy lands to conquer. They had opened Pandora’s box and were left trying to cram everything back into it so they could open it again for the sequel. They were a third metaphor.
I think the comedy woes of Borderlands 2 could have been avoided if Gearbox had simply focused a bit more on its characters. The rich and villainous Handsome Jack worked for me as a character because he was equal parts crazy and reasonable. Tiny Tina, on the other hand, felt like a grab bag of oddness, (much like Tannis) which meant there was nothing she could do to really surprise me. It’s hard to subvert expectations when a character forces you to simply throw all of them out the window within minutes of meeting them. Being nutty isn’t funny in and of itself – it’s funny when it butts up against something a bit more reserved. But against the backdrop of Pandora, zaniness is the norm, and even the other characters seem to simply say “oh, that character’s a bit of a psycho” without batting an eye with such regularity that it loses all meaning.
But perhaps the evidence that Gearbox doesn’t really know how to use these characters effectively is evident with their treatment of Handsome Jack. He’s the only character who (eventually) displays some actual humanity, but as soon as he becomes even slightly relatable, the game goes out of his way to say, “oh by the way, this guy is an asshole and you shouldn’t feel bad about wanting to kill him.” Comedy needs a straight man, and they’re in short supply on Pandora – when one wanders onto the scene, you need to embrace them, not run them off with pitchforks.
I’d like to think that Borderlands 2 is playing the humor long game, a 25-hour wink-nudge that tips its hand when Claptrap explains humor, a commentary on the need for a delicate balance between building your audience’s expectations and shattering them. It would be preferable to the truth, which is that the game simply shoots itself in the comedy foot and runs around bleeding for its entire duration, hoping that the yelps of pain amidst a sea of similarly howling voices are good for a laugh. They are not.
(P.S. I originally posted this article on my site, www.theschemehatchery.com)