Characters with Guns with Character

About 12 hours into Borderlands 2, in a pile of skag feces that was no different from any of the other hundred piles of skag feces I’ve rummaged through, I found it: my perfect assault rifle. Looking at it on the ground, reading the stats popping up on my screen, I didn’t yet know it was exactly the rifle I’d been looking for. Really, I didn’t know there was a single type of machine gun I wanted. It was only a green piece of loot – special, but not that special – and while all the stats (damage, reload speed, accuracy, fire rate, etc.) were marginally better than my previous machine gun, that still didn’t mean it would be better. But when I picked it up and fired a few potshots at a nearby wall, I knew I had found exactly the gun I had been after all this time. This was the gun that would make my character.

———

I recently interviewed Dan Hays, the producer on Ubisoft’s upcoming Far Cry 3. The game puts a large focus on the playable character, one Jason Brody, which is a strange move for a first-person shooter that refuses to ever leave the first-person perspective. I was curious to know how Ubisoft could make the player care for a character they never see. As part of a much longer answer (which you’ll need to buy a copy of an upcoming issue of Hyper magazine to read), Hays said something that stood out to me:

“[In first-person shooters] the player is the gun is the character.”

In first-person shooters, all we really know about our character is the gun he is holding. Sometimes, we might see him in cutscenes or special, third-person sequences (like in Halo); sometimes we might hear his voice (like in Far Cry 3). But often we know nothing of the character beyond a name and what he’s holding in his hands. As such, the gun we find ourselves holding in a first-person shooter is a unique chance for the game to tell us something about that character. The gun is the character, and the player is the gun.

The Modern Warfare games use this to great effect throughout their single-player campaigns. As each game throws the player’s perspective to a different character on a different continent almost every other mission, it’s important that the player knows who he is. Or, at the very least, what broad archetype of a character he fits into. Sure, every mission has the player doing the exact same thing mechanically, but the context of who the player is enacting can greatly shift the tonal nuances of each scene.

As the Modern Warfares don’t use third-person cutscenes and don’t have playable characters speak while the player inhabits them, all the player has to go on to understand his character is the weapon in his hands. The U.S. and U.K. characters are typically equipped with some kind of super-accurate assault rifle, complete with laser sights and grenade launchers. It paints them as efficient, with a zero tolerance for nonsense.

In Modern Warfare 3, however, we spend much of our time with a Russian newcomer. Yuri is a washed-up old veteran hungry for revenge against antagonist Makarov. When we first control him, he raises his weapon and it’s a clunky old AK-47. It still has a scope, but it’s almost useless as the gun bucks all over the place with each shot. This first time I control him, I have to shoot from a second-floor balcony at targets jumping out of helicopters in the distance. It is practically impossible to hit any of them until they make it the ground and get a lot closer. The unwieldy weapons, so different from the tight assault rifles of the U.S. and U.K. operatives, paint Yuri right from the start as something of a (excuse the pun) loose cannon – not quite controllable, not quite known, not quite trustworthy.

Then there’s the heavy machine gun given to the player at the start of Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” level, tempting you to spray bullets indiscriminately. I doubt it is a coincidence that the very last mission of Modern Warfare 3 equips Price with a nearly identical weapon. It works as a deliberate nod: “This is revenge for that crime and everything that came after it.” But at the same time, it also works as a re-enactment, where Price’s own deluded thirst for revenge has reduced him to the same kind of character who walked slowly through a Russian airport, spraying civilians with bullets.

In none of these scenarios are we prevented from dropping the character-defining default weapons the game gives us for any other gun, but they still serve as an introduction to a character we know in no other way. A framing: “This is the kind of person you are: the kind of person that would use this weapon.”

———

Borderlands 2 and its predecessor, each with their infinite number of randomly generated firearms, do something very similar but also very different. I don’t learn more about my character from the weapons he uses. Instead, I create my own personalized character simply by choosing what kind of weapons I want him to use. More so, these weapons are going to be the weapons that I want to use (within a game, at least). The character is the gun is me.

The primary pleasure I get out of Borderlands 2 is the pleasure of shooting a gun. Who I am shooting the gun at and why I am shooting them hardly matter. It is all simply an excuse to feel how a particular gun behaves differently from every other gun. I care so little for my actual character in Borderlands 2 that I almost feel less like I am playing a first-person shooter and more like I am playing a third-person platformer where my character literally is a gun.

Every single gun has so much character. On the surface, there are only five different types of weapons in Borderlands 2 (pistol, submachine gun, assault rifle, shotgun and heavy), but within each of these categories there are countless variations that never make themselves known on a screen of stats but rather only in their firing. An assault rifle, for instance, can be anything from a belt-fed heavy machine gun to a single-shot, long-range rifle, to a multi-bullet-devouring grenade launcher.

It is not enough to just compare the stats of two different assault rifles. Each will look and feel drastically different. A gun with far worse stats might have a better scope, or maybe the bullets will travel quicker. Maybe it will simply be a lot nicer to stare at on your television screen for the next two hours until you find an even better one. Maybe it will sound better.

———

Allow me to tell you about the perfect assault rifle I found in that pile of skag feces. It has a long, narrow barrel and a relatively slender body – not a chunky, boxy thing like my previous belt-fed gun. It fires automatically, but slowly, with a steady drumbeat of a firing rate. Whereas other machine guns just spray bullets everywhere, this gun feels restrained and paced, each half-second shot another precision bolt. It has no scope, just an old-fashioned iron sight down the bare top of the gun. It feels just right for mid-range combat, the perfect mix of restrained accuracy and stopping power. It is exactly what I wanted. It resonates a quiet confidence – exactly how I want my character to be.

Each time I choose a different weapon for my character’s arsenal, I am changing who my character is. I am changing how he will engage with his world and how I will engage with it through him. The character is the gun, and through its countless variation of weapons, Borderlands 2 inadvertently offers one of the most robust and persistent character customization systems I’ve ever engaged with.

Subscribe to Unwinnable Weekly
Categories:
Brendan Keogh, Commentary, Gaming
Unwinnable On The Web:
  • wogzi

    This sort of reads like a celebration of consumerism. "This gun is going to make me (my player avatar/my gun) perfect" comes off like "this watch is going to tell everyone who I am" or "this car will make me happier" or "this is the shirt I have to buy to become attractive."

    Patricia Hernandez's piece on BitCreature brings up a good point about the culture of Borderlands 2: "If loot was fulfilling, then we wouldn’t constantly need to chase more and more, would we?" The supposed ludic quality of guns in Borderlands 2 is the rat race. Except with Borderlands 2, they've acknowledged it and made it ridiculous. This game is for the white collar worker burdened with the cognitive dissonance of working for the (now legally recognized) man despite knowing better. As Babbitt's electric alarm clock is going off, he's reminded that it's feeding time again (plus or minus a few loopholes and/or chest-high walls).

    I mean, what else is there to say about this game? That the best we have to hope for in games here in the 21st century is a ludically sound but ironic nod at how empty the American Dream is? Where's the game that confronts this problem earnestly? KOTOR II almost did that. The experience you gained for killing was just feeding the psychic wound in the Force consequent of your mass killings. Kreia reprimanded you at every turn, asking you how many more had to die before you were satisfied. They almost made a point with it but one rushed Christmas release later all Kreia had to say was "well, whatever." The spit on the grave was when they sent you hurtling out into space after Revan and allowed that horrible watered-down retcon that was The Old Republic happen.

    What underlines a lot of the NGJ Borderlands game reviews seems to be 'how it's fun' not 'why'. Sure, it's better than advertisement disguised as a measure of value but these reviews are still afraid of emerging from the personal level of criticism to addressing larger issues.

    • http://twitter.com/BRKeogh @BRKeogh

      Thanks for the comment, Wogzi.

      First of all, this piece is not meant as a review but, indeed, an exploration of why I find Borderlands 2 pleasurable.

      I really dug Patricia's piece, and I find it really interesting that we were both writing articles that were, in part, odes to one of our many, many guns.

      I think the issue with just labelling Borderlands as empty consumerism is that it misses the pleasure of process. Many people seem to want to dismiss the game outright for its consistent and persistent drip-feeding of loot and skills and XP and what have you. Sure, it's a treadmill. But I am not entirely convinced that that in itself is necessarily a bad thing.

      I think Borderlands is pleasurable not for the result but for the process. Every single gun I pick up is exciting because of how it is different from every other gun I've used, and it is no less exciting for the fact it will soon be surpassed by yet another gun.

      Certainly, the parallels between Borderlands's systems and consumerism are fascinating, but I don't think the fact they have parallels makes Borderlands an inherently empty experience. On the contrary, I think those parallels are probably exactly why it feels so good.

      • wogzi

        No, thank you for the response! It's always nice to hear back. I really liked Patricia's piece too, especially since she explicitly acknowledges the treadmill. What's weird to me is that she seemed positive about it.

        I don't think it's too hard to read Borderlands 2 as a simulation of 'keeping up with the Joneses.' It's like kind of like leveling up your DnD character, getting the best armor in a scenario, and stacking up on your magic skills. The fun doesn't come from your finished character, it comes from the work you've put in. It's analogous to buying aftermarket parts for your Corvette and squeezing out every last bit of horsepower. It's not because your Vette makes them Wet as they say, but it's more that you just like working on your car because it makes sense to you. As you say, there's pleasure in the process. It's the ethos of the hard working citizen, where only the young and the foolish don't realize that the finished product is really just symbolic.

        There's nothing overtly wrong with enjoying hard work. It's worthwhile to explore how 2K Games took that process and streamlined it for their game. My quibble lies less with the mechanics of how it's fun and more in why. The idea that hard work is pleasurable is a given but why is it so? Why is this the primary mechanic in so many of the games that we play? MMORPGs are the epitome of grind and yet there's a growing body of criticism that suggests that it's become a tired cliche, that every MMORPG subsequent to WoW won't do as well unless it brings with it a dramatic shift in gameplay.

        The reason I went on that tangent about consumerism is because my understanding is that this ethos is a specifically Westernized motif. It's why I brought up Babbitt. He is a man who must work, even though he knows it's unfulfilling. But Sinclair Lewis wrote the book as a satire and every subject of satire must necessarily be blinded to his or her own pathetic nature or else the illusion breaks. So Babbitt's pathetic quality is that he's so impossibly anchored to process, to the treadmill, that he can't be anything but a creature of it, no matter how unhappy that makes him. He's blind to the fact that the reason he's unhappy isn't because of anything external. He doesn't realize that it's his nature to be addicted to process.

        If Borderlands 2 is a satire of manshooters, and the whole criticism of modern games is that it's a repetitive, then it's ineffective because it ignores the reason why. It's not that CoD's guns are unbalanced or that Diablo III's leveling trees hinder gameplay, it's that they're all just opaquely streamlined versions of Dungeons and Dragons with infinitely faster dice rolls. That Borderlands has a better rulebook doesn't make it any less of the same, tired mechanic. That their jokes are funny and they point out some cliches shouldn't put it on a pedestal. Duke Nukem was satirizing manshooters a long time ago and to have finally just returned to that point, a decade later, without anything really new to say is unfulfilling.

        We have to fall back on the 'is it fun or not' style of reviewing to justify the gameplay and that's something I'm not willing to do.

  • http://www.gearboxsoftware.com Matthew Armstrong

    "inadvertently"

    Not Inadvertently.

    • http://twitter.com/j_swinbanks James S

      Not sure why people don't like this comment… Matthew merely implies that Gearbox knew what they were doing when they made their creative choices regarding the weapons system in Borderlands and Borderlands 2.

  • Sapheriel

    Just a minor detail, but given the topic of the post, I think it's important to note: Borderlands has 6 weapon types. You forgot the sniper rifle (a character defining weapon type if there ever was one). Also, it's rocket launcher, not heavy.

    • http://twitter.com/undefined @undefined

      Wow. How did I miss sniper rifles? Thanks for pointing that out.

  • BlueNight

    This reminds me of how I used to spend my time in Morrowind. I wanted that awesome chitin armor and a cool saber, but my character was good at clubbing and using an axe. I learned to love that axe…

  • B1A4

    Nice Article.

    I am just playing through Stalker (Clear Sky, I've finished SoC) with a weapon mod (so guns are more deadly) and it really is kind of love letter to guns. It's a quest for holy grail, an ideal weapon. A silent full-auto russian carabine in my case :)

    Not sure if you've played it, but it is in the very soul of this article.

  • stevensukkau

    YES.
    I really resonated with this. This idea of character and emotional investment in a weapon is something I have been wrestling with for a long time, so thank you Brendan for putting it into words so perfectly. And this is where ludonarrativewahtever comes into play, the story strains to grab your attention with stiff-lifeless characters, and fails. Scooter is not very "real" to the player. He is a funny voice, but I would barely recognize his face. In comparison, I could describe in detail how my ornate rare-drop pistol sparkles when the light catches it. Or the satisfying feeling I get when I reload and snap the chamber back into place. Why can we recreate the look and feel of a six shooter but people remain lifeless husks, jittering hideously through the environment?
    As well, I think others have spoken about it, but guns are also the primary tool through which we experience and interact with the world. It becomes the main language we use to voice our will onto the game. Another game I felt nailed this was BLACK. I think they're marketing slogan was literally "Guns are the Stars". Which I think really puts a finger on the heartbeat of the FPS genre. To ignore this design philosophy can only hurt your game. To embrace it is to capitalize on the strength of the medium.