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Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Pandora

Gearbox's Borderlands was (and still is) something of a sleeper hit, having survived the Modern Warfare 2 effect fairly unscathed, and is beloved by gamers on both console and PC. Rave reviews and speculation as to future content make it seem like everything's going right for Gearbox, but dig a little deeper, and one may wonder if this is the case.

The game may present itself as an interesting, futuristic, and fairly well-thought-out hybrid of role-playing and first-person shooting, but this is just a facade for the hidden truth: Borderlands is a metaphor for the horrors of heroin abuse, and may or may not be a recounting of the crippling addiction faced by one (or more) of its dev team.

There may be some spoilage contained in the following material, but if you haven't played Borderlands already, you may have problems that surpass anything drugs could do to you.

The first actual person you meet with any friendly intent, upon leaving Marcus' bus, is a certain Doctor Zed. Cast away from the practice for his admittedly questionable methods, Zed has taken it upon himself to treat those not hostile to him, and is all for helping you out once you fix his door.

It just so happens that "zed" is what the letter "z" is referred to by in some English-speaking countries, and "z" is sometimes street language for a single ounce of heroin. A coincidence, perhaps even a stretch? Perhaps. Consider this, however: once you've initially befriended him, Zed makes it a point to suggest you begin shooting skags.

Scag, it turns out, is one of many nicknames for heroin, and swapping in the letter "k" doesn't exactly make a world of difference. Your new "friend" has suggested you take up shooting heroin. And so you do, as many of the early missions require you to, and it's a decent way to get a foothold on the world of Pandora before you begin tackling bigger and meaner things.

As the game progresses, however, you never really stop shooting skags. They're everywhere, and to keep up with your improved shooting abilities, they come in bigger and bigger doses, as it were. And it's not just about heroin, either. Almost as prolific as the skags early on are rakk, which are again one letter off from a drug nickname; "rack," in this case, is another word for cocaine. The rakk seem mostly supplementary, though, until you reach the later areas of the game.

Far enough in, even skag are beginning to become scarce, but they're replaced with spiderants, which are, on the whole, bigger and meaner. The most common also tend to be colored in various shades of blue, which is funny, considering that "blue spider" is yet another term referring to heroin.

About the time that you graduate from skag to blue spider, however, you also begin having run-ins with the Crimson Lance. A group of mercenaries, their tactics, skills, and even their action abilities (in some cases) reflect your own skillset and techniques to a much greater degree than the wild, brutal methods of the bandits roaming the planet. One could consider the name "crimson lance" a reference to a used heroin needle, with a thin coat of blood as it's extracted from the arm after it's served its purpose. So begins the struggle with the reality of this sordid addiction, wherein one begins fighting the very thing that's sustained them to this point, in a way.

Things begin to get worse and worse as the player gets closer to the mythical Vault (which would be a great place to keep a "stash," ifyouknowwhatI'msayin'), until eventually, one is forced to decend deeper and deeper, facing things that any rational mind, and even some of the other characters in game, would have trouble considering remotely real. The madness mounts and mounts, until finally, the player reaches rock bottom, and has to confront The Destroyer.

A hideous, enormous monster, the Destroyer comes forth once the player reaches the aforementioned stash, and a grab is made for it, revealing this representation of the true ugliness behind the quest for a bigger score. This beast can be beaten, however. With a combination of taking one's time, staying calm, hiding behind a big rock and having a sweet incendiary sniper rifle, freedom from addiction can be found. Sure, the great "treasures" of the vault end up lost, but you still end up as the richest junkie still alive.

Then, courtesy of the game's multiple playthrough feature, you can relapse not once, but two more times, each time featuring more and bigger skags, rakk, spiderants, and everything else, along with improved items to find to make shooting them all quicker and more effective.

Even finishing the third playthrough is no end to the nightmare. Despite having reached the end of your relapses, the game's first downloadable content invites you to explore Doctor Ned's (not Zed's) Zombie Island. "Zombie," in certain circles, is a synonym for PCP, a dissociative drug popular mostly in the 70s and 80s. And there's a whole island of it!

Zombie Island is chock full of crazy things, the sort of crazy things you might see while on PCP, and pretty much every crazy thing you encounter needs to be killed. "Smoked," while not so much in use today, is another word for "killed," and it just so turns out that the most popular way to partake of PCP is to smoke it, usually after spraying it on some sort of leaf. The island that became Zombie Island used to be home to quite the lumber industry, which would imply a great many trees, host to all the leaves you could want. Seems a bit too coincidental, doesn't it?

Thusly do you get to romp through another battle with drug abuse, this time set in the wonderful world of synthetic hallucinogens. In a similar vein to your heroin adventures, Zombie Island ends in a showdown with your demons, or in this case demon, personified by Ned himself once he's turned into some hyper-form of the zombies he himself plagued the island with in the first place. Upon defeating him, down in a cavernous hellscape not unlike something out of a nightmarish bad trip, you're free to return to the world of the living.

Yet it still doesn't stop there. The second DLC pack, Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot, features a titular emcee who runs several arenas, all of which host game-show-esque combat exercises that offer the promise of prestige and fabulous prizes. Seems like all fun and games, but that hasn't been the case so far, so why should it be now?

This time, the drug reference comes in the form of Moxxi herself. Her Bustiness is homonymous to "moxy," which is the nickname of 5-MeO-MiPT, a fairly recent to the market psychedelic. At its minimum dosage, moxy reportedly leads to euphoric and more tactile experiences, which may imply the sort of fun one might like to have with someone such as Moxxi herself.

Higher doses, on the other hand, tend more toward the psychedelic, which by definition involves altered perception of reality. Given some of the variables that get introduced should you last long enough in any of the given arenas, I wouldn't be surprised if such in-game paradigm shifts were representations of altered realities that Gearbox thought they could sneak into the game.

Just as insidious is the fact that the Underdome practically requires you to bring friends with you, in parallel to the frequent use of peer pressure to bring new users into the fold, and the desire for a group to identify with also being a typical gateway.

But what, it must be asked, is the message behind all of this? Is Gearbox attempting to hook a generation of gamers on life-ruining narcotics? Is the goal simply to tell the tragic story of the average junkie? Are they giving current users a subtle light at the end of the tunnel, telling them via metaphor that their struggles are winnable, and they should listen to any guardian angels trying to help them on their way?

Who knows? Perhaps the forthcoming Secret Armory Of General Knoxx will shed some light on this dilemma, or merely continue corrupting our nation's youth. All I can do is expose what's really going on with Borderlands, and remind you all what the arcades taught my generation:

At least now I have some idea as to why I'm so happy to keep going back and dumping hours of my life into the game.
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About nekobunone of us since 5:17 PM on 06.29.2007

Hi, I'm Chris, though I've been going by nekobun and variants thereof for so long, I kind of answer to both anymore.

While I've kind of got my own thing going in the realm of indie coverage, at least in the form of playing through (and streaming) (and writing about) the huge backlog I'm developing of games gleaned from various indie bundles, I try to keep my more mainstream, game-related features here, as well as opinion pieces on the industry at large, out of mad love for the 'toid. When I'm not rambling here or trying to be clever in comments threads, you can catch me rambling on Facebook and my Twitter, and trying to be clever in the Dtoid.tv chat.

Now Playing:
360: Halo 4
PC: F.E.A.R.
SNES: Secret Of Mana

I suck at games: PEW PEW LASERS
Improving game communities: Collective consciousness
Nothing is sacred: These walls have torn my world apart
The wrong thing: Only cream and bastards catch them all.
Love/Hate: I love to hate -you-
Love/Hate: B(u)y the book
The Future: Is still what it used to be
My Expertise: Playing the race kart
Something about sex: Sex sells, but who's buying?
E3 Approaches: It's oh so quiet
Freedom: Together, we'll break the chains of HUDs
East vs West: We've got the empire
Handhelds: Graduating as 2000's Catchemaledictorian
Relaxation: Cheesy double Chief burrito
Online Passes: A spoonful of sugar
Peripherals: Many tentacles pimpin' on the keys
This is what MAGfest is all about
Beginnings: Put it on the pizza
Disappointment: Bad(vent) timing

Recap Topsauce:
It's Thinking: Could you quit playing with that radio, love?
Do the wrong thing: And do it right, for once.
Afraid to shoot strangers.
Not if you were the last junkie on Pandora
Is Jim Sterling servicing the video games industry?
Something About Sex: Unsafe at any speed.
Doing DLC right
Congress passes sweeping Elfcare reform bill
Bottom five healthcare systems in videogames.
Pushing my love over the quarter line.
When my life would depend on an eight point none.
Remember the heroes.
Every Journey begins with a single step.
It's all over now, bomber blue.
Being Social: We'll always have Rainbow Road
Labor Day: Of course you realize, this means wark.
Please, aim it higher.
There Would've Been Brawl: Show me 'round your eggplantcage.
Integration: A place for everything
Zelda Week: I guess this is growing up.
MAGfest: the (don't be an) idiot's guide
Promotions: The bees are alright
Now is the winter of on-disc content
This was supposed to be a dozen items about nekobun.
Without Slenderness, there's something missing.
Cheap tricks (and treats) don't come cheaper than free.
The legacy of the (unlikely) wizard.
Cheap Tricks II: Sugar rush boogaloo
Thank you, for bringing me here, for showing me Home.
Burnt flowers fallen: the tragic bitchotry of Lilly Caul
Red and blue, resolving into purple.
Xbox LIVE:nekobun
PSN ID:strictmachine
Steam ID:nekobun
Mii code:2610 8366 7890 1412


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