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"Girlfriend Mode": A Discussion of the Design and the Intent

A couple of months back, the furore du jour was over comments made by John Hemingway, the lead designer of Borderlands 2, whilst describing the "Best Friends Forever" skill tree of the Mechromancer to eurogamer.net. In the interest of objectivity, I'll repeat the central comment of Hemingway's here verbatim:

"The design team was looking at the concept art and thought, you know what, this is actually the cutest character we've ever had. I want to make, for the lack of a better term, the girlfriend skill tree. This is, I love Borderlands and I want to share it with someone, but they suck at first-person shooters. Can we make a skill tree that actually allows them to understand the game and to play the game? That's what our attempt with the Best Friends Forever skill tree is."

The skill tree in question, in all its controversial and antagonistic glory.

What a delight this must have been for the specialist game press in general, with what was once a Eurogamer exclusive easily feeding a day's worth of opinion articles and instantly igniting cataclysmic comment section wars between those who would call themselves feminists and those who would label them feminazis.


Whilst there's almost a superfluity of implicit sexism in Hemingway's statement, particularly in the assumption that women are automatically drawn towards the "cutest" option available, I believe there are actually two problems with what Hemingway is saying. There's the surface problem; that a fairly prominent figure in an up-and-coming development studio is treating more than half the world's population with outright, if perhaps subconscious, condescension. But there's another problem here, and it's that a fairly prominent figure in an up-and-coming development studio apparently doesn't understand how to design your game to be accessible to new players.

I feel obligated here to state that, in general, I believe that the design of Borderlands 2 was excellent, especially the design of the skill trees. In fact, I find the design of the Best Friends Forever quite pleasing, in an aesthetic sense. Primarily focused on giving the player more capacity to take damage, you essentially subcontract your DPS out to Deathtrap. It's a well-rounded, easily comprehensible tree, and yet skills like "Sharing is Caring", which gives your robotic minion Deathtrap a copy of your shield, pushes you towards a simplified form of the experimentation that other skill trees will really make you work to optimize. My following points will not be to argue that the Best Friends Forever skill tree is a poor design, but rather that it will not be the warm introduction to hardcore gaming that Hemingway advertised it as being.

First off, I'll make the most obvious point about any skill tree designed to make Borderlands 2 more accessible: you can't put points into skills until level 6. Assuming that this person "suck[s] at first-person shooters", but is being introduced to Borderlands 2 by someone at least fluent in how the game works, that would probably take roughly an hour, give or take 10 or 20 minutes. This might not seem like much time, but for a player who "can't aim", that's an hour where they are doing literally nothing but being led through a colourful funhouse ride that, by the way, is also trying to kill them.

Assuming that this person was asked by their partner to play Borderlands 2 and told by said partner that there was a mode to make the game easier for them, they would probably be feeling a lot of things at this point. Irritation. Annoyance. Utter confusion. Anger. Exhaustion.

And possibly a desire to never again play a game more complicated than Farmville.

How I wish you could grow satisfying experience plants.

There are 4 levels in Borderlands 2 where you can do nothing but shoot and move, and if the archetypical "girlfriend mode" girlfriend can't shoot, then during that period, they are effectively playing the AI in an escort mission. That's not a particularly happy, healthy or ideal relationship dynamic.

Secondly, very few Borderlands 2 skill trees really get off the ground until level 16 or so, when either the first one-point wonder binds everything together or the number of skill points reaches critical mass. Even if you're assuming Close Enough, which is the widely advertised skill that means missed bullets occasionally bounce into enemies, you still need to get to level 10 for half of your missed bullets to bounce. That's maybe 3 or 4 hours of play, which, for most people, would probably be an entire evening of play at least. If you can get someone to slog through this for you, then you have the most devoted and/or understanding partner in the world, so good job, I guess.

Except not, because you're subjugating their feelings to your own fantasies and desires BUT I'M GETTING AHEAD OF MYSELF

Finally, and I'll make this a more general point about crafting a more accessible experience for new players, rather than one focused on the whole "girlfriend mode" thing, the psychology of the Best Friends Forever is entirely wrong. The BFF tree, if viewed through the lens of being a tool to assist and introduce new players, is a decidedly archaic design. It is designed as a hardcore gamer would design a character for a player they believe to be unskilled, designed to mitigate their ability to fail rather than empowering them during their perhaps infrequent successes. It is designed, when viewed in this fashion, with a sort of veiled contempt, designed to make sure a player's decisions are less impactful, designed to make sure their failures can be arbitrarily mitigated, designed to make Deathtrap the real character rather than the human player in question.

This is an acute visual representation of what I'm talking about, with Deathtrap literally carrying Gaige. Clearly this is an intentional layer of meaning on Gearbox's part and not an entirely random coincidence.
To provide a counter-example, I offer Annie, a release character in League of Legends. League of Legends is, due to the fact that it clings to as many elements of its DotA heritage as it excises, a fairly unintuitive game. Behaviours many new players naturally feel drawn to, such as auto-attacking every minion [whereas the optimal move is generally to only hit minions when they are about to die] and pushing to the tower [which opens you up to ambushes] can often result in disaster. However, Annie works quite well as a skillgate character, designed to teach players certain fundamentals of the game.

The fact that she's a little girl does somewhat mitigate my empowerment point.

The major element here is Annie's skill Disintegrate. This allows her to deal a substantial amount of magic damage, and is on a fairly short cooldown of around 4 seconds. However, if you kill an enemy minion or champion with Incinerate, you are refunded its mana cost. Thus, Incinerate pushes you to use itself regularly, but only every 4 seconds, and only when you are assured that casting the spell will grant you a minion kill. As such, it naturally works to guide the player away from both pushing excessively and from autoattacking minions, providing a regular execute move that replaces excessive autoattacking.

A subsidiary element is her passive, Pyromania. When you cast a spell, you receive a Pyromania charge, and at 5 charges, your next spell will stun all enemies it hits. This provides a tangible reason for players to actively monitor their spell usage, and to plan ahead, which is perhaps the most important general strategy in League of Legends. By pushing the new player to consider whether they should actively try and charge up Pyromania for a future engagement, Riot's design of this champion provides an incentive for consistent thought and consideration of future elements of the game.

Finally, Annie is what is known as a burst mage: that is, her function is to unload her arsenal of spells on a target as quickly as possible to deal them massive damage. This very visceral and easily comprehensible playstyle is both attractive and within the capabilities of the new League of Legends player. Though I rarely see Annie any more in the games I watch my friends play, her design was an admirable effort by Riot to make their game more accessible to newer players in a way that actually made the new player feel good.

Annie also has a pet whose threatening physicality acts to create a neat visual juxtaposition and is a fairly young woman with a quirky outfit. She's very different to Gaige.

Gearbox seems to have completely ignored that. One of the reasons I believe that the "girlfriend mode" was, in fact, common internal rhetoric rather than the idiosyncratic phrasing of a single individual is that the skill tree itself has been designed and in fact packaged in a fashion that proclaims very loudly that its exclusive function is to be a tool for experienced players to introduce non-gaming friends to the game. There are many ways Gearbox could have done what Riot did, either by promoting good play or by maximising the successes of the new player. They could have created a skill that increased the size of the projectiles that Gaige fires, thus making it easier for her to hit her targets. They could have created a skill that increases damage with every shot you miss, thus offering some compensation for the missed DPS of a newer, less technically skilled player.

Prepare yourselves for a highly legitimate theory, dear reader.

Instead they created and actively promoted a skill with a name as outrageously condescending as "Close Enough", that removes the human player from the game and instead uses a random number generator to artificially grant them occasional success.

It is my belief that the Best Friends Forever skill tree was designed from the very beginning to be packaged and sold as "girlfriend mode". For why would Gearbox, if they truly wished to create a skill tree designed to introduce all new players to a game, exclusively sell this skill tree as part of a character that must either be actively purchased or was received as a reward for a preorder? Neither of those are likely behaviours for a player who can't even aim in an FPS game, one of the most intuitive, visceral and popular genres on the market. Why is so much real estate on the skill tree devoted to minimizing the player's capacity to die? Why does the skill tree have the sneaky allusion to the controversy that I have no doubt played a substantial role in the decision of a fair proportion of gamers to purchase Borderlands 2, in the form of a skill entitled "The Better Half"?

Roughly as subtle.

The gaming community has an unfortunate obsession with others sharing their obsession with their hobby, which leads to the sort of aggressive and insecure proselytizing that inevitably begins any time a mainstream outlet criticises us. It has led to the fetishization of "girl gamers", which is where "girlfriend mode" comes in.

Hemingway's language speaks of a Frankenstein's monster of the archetypical girl next door and the gamer. A woman, concerned primarily with what is "cute", is led by her male partner into the world of Borderlands and general hardcore gaming, and has it easily explained to her. It speaks to the desire of male gamers to have a girlfriend that plays games, a desire that goes beyond merely desiring a partner who shares one's interests and into the bizarrely sexual. And if one cannot organically find such a person, well then, why not make one?

It saddens me to think that a group of people so superficially modern would subscribe to an ideology that could barely have been considered contemporary in the 1950s. But I certainly believe that segments of the gaming community has a twofold problem with women, aiming to convert them to sex objects and then relentlessly attacking those who criticize them for it, and I have little difficulty in believing that companies might market elements of their game to more subdued and subtle forms of that prejudice.

If you have and care about a partner, you shouldn't be determined to convert them to your way of life. It's the same sort of psychological thuggery that many of us experienced as children, and that ultimately made many of us want partners that share to the last detail our interests. By all means look for a female gamer as a partner, but don't attempt to make someone else into one. It's uncivilized to attempt to craft another human being according to your own whims and desires.

This particular blog rather galloped away from me, I'm afraid. I initially planned to merely discuss what I believed to be the inherent contradictions in design philosophy and execution and instead grew to exposit what I believe to be the fundamental reasons behind why the design was arrived at in the first place. I certainly feel obligated to partake in what will, in all likelihood, be a very robust discussion in the comments. I do, however, wish to pre-emptively state that I don't believe John Hemingway or Gearbox Software to be actively misogynist. I believe the language and intent contains elements of misogyny, but they are of a particularly subdued and insidious permutation. They may well be entirely subconscious, and affect the behaviour of the individuals in question very little. I certainly hope that they do.
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About Calibanone of us since 12:14 AM on 03.26.2012