By Oldirtybearon 20 Comments
I am a narrative-driven gamer. What I mean by that is I am in the game first and foremost for the narrative experience. The world, the characters that inhabit it, and the story that those two things weave together are often more important to me than the actual gameplay. It sounds odd, but it's just how I happen to enjoy the games I play.
It should count as no surprise then that Borderlands - the sleeper hit of 2009 from Gearbox Software - ranks highly amongst my favourite games this generation.
For the uninitiated, Borderlands is a fantastic game full of personality and wit, and the sort of awe inspiring nerd-dom that'd make even a Trekkie blush. It is, to not put too fine a point on it, a geeked out adventure across a backwater shit-hole of a planet.
With an introduction like that, it is safe to assume that I loved the game. And I did. I still do, in fact. Having recently downloaded and played "Claptrap's New Robot Revolution" to completion, this game is still amazing, witty, and full of fun, satisfying Roleplaying Shooter goodness.
There is a problem, however.
From the beginning, when Gearbox first announced the classes and characters you would play as and meet in Borderlands, I was drawn to one specific character in particular. While Brick, Lilith, and Mordecai had their own personalities and quirks, I couldn't help but be drawn to the Soldier character, Roland.
So why is it then, that I see a problem? Well, the problem stems from the fact that Roland the Soldier's aesthetic design says one thing, and his personality contradicts it entirely.
From the scraps of information on the four characters in Borderlands, what can be discerned about Roland is that he was a mercenary soldier who worked for the Crimson Lance. On a wanted poster in "Secret Armoury of General Knoxx", he is cited as wanted for murdering a superior officer and desertion. From there the imagination can run wild on the possibilities.
Considering the kind of PMC that Crimson Lance is, it is not outrageous to presume that Roland was not an evil bastard on or off the battlefield. The little backstory we have on him seems to suggest that he was at odds with the officer in question, and in a heated battle killed him. From there, he was forced to flee not only the Crimson Lance, but presumably anywhere they (and Atlas) had a strong foothold in the galaxy. That would bring him to Pandora.
Now, unless Gearbox decides to come out and say I'm full of crap and my imaginary backstory for Roland is stupid, I'm going to assume that this is correct, and that my initial impression of Roland the Soldier was not far from the characterisation depicted in his design.
So then, what is the problem?
The problem is his personality. The tone of his dialogue, what he says, it all seems wrong. Shouting things like "Critical beyotch!" in a joyous coo, to me, contradicts the serious, rough around the edges demeanour his design illustrates. Furthermore, it also seems to dig up something I see as a niggling problem within the Games Industry.
Roland is black. He is a black man. His visual design indicates that he is also a hardened veteran of the Crimson Lance. Why is it then, that he is portrayed in dialogue as a ghetto child using long out of date (within the fiction's universe) slang and a playful, murderous streak to him? There's a disconnect there that I don't quite understand, and it will make this next section pretty uncomfortable to type.
I am not going to come out and say Gearbox Software's depiction of Roland the soldier is racist. It's not. What it is, however, is a stereotype. It's a stereotype of a black man with a gun shouting slang and acting like a fool. This wouldn't be so bad if his design harkened to that kind of personality, but it doesn't. There is nothing in Roland's design that even hints to this kind of nature.
So the question is, in my mind, why? Why is his dialogue so stereotypical of a black man in videogames? Why is it that Roland's design says "hardened soldier" and yet his personality screams "WHAT IT DO DAWG?" I'd like to think that this was a miscalculation on Gearbox's part, but the truth, I feel, is a lot more disheartening.
I think, at the truth of this matter, is that Borderlands was made by a bunch of mid-30's white guys. That in and of itself is not a bad thing. Not at all. What is bad, however, is that this group of people took their only minority character within the game and turned him into a stereotype. What does that say about Gearbox, let alone Borderlands? The only black character in the game talks like he's a thug from Compton. Again, this kind of characterisation wouldn't be terrible if Roland's entire design wasn't a complete contradiction to his personality.
And that, I feel, is at the heart of my problem with Borderlands. As a game it is a lot of fun, and its narrative (what little of it there is) is a entertaining romp that is also very intriguing to think about. Taken from a design perspective, however, Roland the Soldier's characterisation is a glaring issue in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable title.
It's also an issue within the Games Industry at large.
It would seem to me, having played close to 250 titles this console generation, that most video game writers do not know how to write minority characters. The very few exceptions stem from Rockstar Games and their portrayal of minorities in the GTA games (and now Red Dead Redemption). While there are stereotypes and caricatures in those titles, there are also serious characters as well. So why is it, then, that so many video game writers have a hard time writing minority characters? Why is it that video game writers have to turn every minority character in their game into a caricature, if they are to be given a personality at all? It doesn't make sense to me, and as a would-be writer myself, I find the lack of character in these caricatures sad and disheartening.
So I suppose I leave it to you, the Reader. Do you agree with my analysis of Roland, or not? Do you think there is a problem with video game writers and minority characters? If yes, if no, leave a comment below, and tell me what you think of this whole ordeal.