Fans of any media franchise are known for nothing if not being meticulous in recording information of the media they love, and fans of Borderlands are no different. While the series is understandably divisive for its gameplay mechanics and style of humor, dismissing it out of hand would be a mistake. Plenty of thought and research goes into dialogue that most players won't necessarily even notice.
Zer0, the faceless assassin who entered the series in the second game, is no different. Speaking nearly entirely in haiku, only showing “faces” that are (probably) not his own in alternate skins, and known for his strange sense of humor, I relate a lot to the character and his obsession with art and facades.
He’s relatable for a reason: virtually every human on the planet has at one point or another been captivated with some form of media. Through art, we lose ourselves in worlds which aren’t ours but are believable enough to feel real when we need them to. When we’re at the darkest places our minds can go, friends, family, and the arts are there to save us. It doesn’t matter what form that art takes, only that it exists, and we see aspects of ourselves and others in it. Art sets us free.
Zer0, evidently, feels the same way. While some of his dialogue is unique, much of it is a direct quotation, allusion, or paraphrase. Each quotes is pulled from rich, diverse sources, spanning different countries and different centuries. They exist as a menagerie of different media, different opinions, the same way every person is more than the sum of their parts.
Let’s go with five this time around. Five of the most interesting quotes or references by Zer0 in Borderlands 2, and their origins, in no particular order.
1. "Leaves falling from trees / Snow drifting onto the ground / Life leaving your corpse."
While I am unclear on if this is a direct quotation or paraphrase as such, this haiku follows a long-honored tradition among writers of directly applying the seasons as a metaphor for age and decay. Although I’d have been more interested were the poem somehow based on more unique weather patterns than that, such as those of Pandora’s biomes themselves. Don’t ask me how that would fit into a haiku, however, because on that front I got nothing.
2. "Critical killing / Is an art unto itself / And I am Rembrandt."
Zer0 clearly thinks highly of his specialized skills, but more interesting is that he would be aware of a 17th century dutchman and his artwork, considering how little is known of Zer0 himself. Whoever or whatever Zer0 is, he's done his homework. Rembrandt's most famous paintings that I could easily research show a predilection for history, religion, and mythology that would no doubt be impressive to one such as Zer0 who tries to be equally broad in his interests. I can also see the appeal of mythological and historical reference regarding Zer0 as a character, given he clearly views himself as a protagonist in some grand story. I do not wish to guess that story's perceived genre, however. Perhaps only Zer0 knows...
3. "I am everywhere / And yet, I am nowhere, too / I am infinite."
This isn't a direct quote so much as a description that could be attributed to various real-world and fictonal religions that are structured around the concept of enlightenment. These mental/rhetorical devices are known as koans.
Zer0 effectively used one here to claim that despite his frequent misdeeds by nonfiction standards, he is something of a devout monk, either pursuing enlightenment or rationalizing his actions as enlightened despite how much blood is on their hands. Equal evidence for this interpretation of Zer0 can be found elsewhere, such as his reactions when faced with what he considers a worthy foe. Although dialogue randomization means sometimes the infamous assassin is more petulant than respectful, a number of his voiced lines are praising enemies who he considered honorable, or at least, difficult to face.
4. "Like the old story / Of he with the waxen wings / Except bloodier."
An allusion to one of my favorite mythological tales, that of Icarus and Daedalus. Wings of wax that melt in the sun when one flies too high, rendering one helpless and at the mercy of gravity (and, by implication, the divine). In the original telling this was likely a parable against disobedience to authority figures, but I like the story largely for its imagery more so than any intended aesop. This quote occurs in a DLC I have not played, so I cannot fully examine the context without doing more research I'd prefer not to (in case I ever return to Borderlands 2, at some point).
5. Last, but not least: "I'm back from the dead / To continue to raise hell / Get out of my way."
Many cultures have stories abound about those rare few tragic heroes and heroines who enter their regional entrance to the underworld, and attempt a return to to the living tell the tale. Orpheus and Eurydice from Greco-Roman mythology, Odysseus from the same, Izanagi and Izanami from Shinto mythology, to name a few. In Borderlands, the "Fight for your Life" mechanic forms a similar purpose, though with less travel to the afterlife. Maybe. Jury's still out on that one, I'd say...
Considering doing this for other characters, at some point, if I can find an easier way to sift through transcripts. We'll see.