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Analysis: Borderlands & The Anatomy Of A Gun

In this Gamasutra analysis, writer Andrew Vanden Bossche takes a look at what Borderlands teaches players about guns, analyzing the color-coded design choice as well as the game's prevailing aesthetic.

Game Developer, Staff

November 24, 2009

7 Min Read

[In this Gamasutra analysis, writer Andrew Vanden Bossche takes a look at what Borderlands teaches players about guns, analyzing the color-coded design choice as well as the game's prevailing aesthetic.] Gearbox and 2K Games' Borderlands exudes style, character, and charm for a good half hour -- before dropping it. It’s regrettable, since the game has so much going for it in this department: colorful characters, a vibrant but derelict landscape, and an alien society of corporations and vagrants. Unfortunately, it’s the first of these that drops off most completely and without characters, the story is like a bus without a driver; it’s not going anywhere, no matter how pretty it is. While Borderlands' plot drop may be unfortunate, it can be ignored. As a game of cash and guns, the setting does everything it needs to teach players what kind of world they’ve been thrust into. The wild west aesthetic fits perfectly with the themes of big guns, piles of cash, and fast death. After all, the most important characters in Borderlands are the ones players can never look away from: the guns. Like in the Diablo clones that influenced it, the loot of Borderlands is the real star. What drives players beyond the last boss, beyond the end of the game, is the quest for the perfect loot. 'Perfect' is subjective, and finding the equipment that fits that personal definition is part of the reason why players enjoy this kind of game. Because Borderlands has a ridiculous amount of equipment, players need to be able to pick out what they want and what’s good at a glance. This is where the world design of Borderlands does its job in teaching the players what’s what. The color and flavor of the world gives players the tools to be able to immediately dissect the loot they find and use that information to decide whether to keep or toss it. The Name You Know Borderlands borrows liberally from the RPG that influenced it, even to the point of using almost the exact same color coding system in World of Warcraft. Accusing Borderlands of ripping it off, or other such nonsense, completely misses the point, which is for the color coding system is to be familiar. Colors are an arbitrary designation anyway, and as Steve Gibson, Gearbox VP of marketing said in an interview with Strategy Informer, “Why reinvent the colors when you’re just going to confuse people?” With guns brightly outlined in their rarity color, players know instantly if something special drops. Distinct colors are immediately recognizable, and since rarity is one of the most important single factors in determining a weapon’s worth, it makes sense that it should stand out more than any other. Check Me Out, I’m Dancin’! One of the more subtle ways in which Borderlands conveys gun info are the little robot icons that appear next to the weapons. The weapon’s title and appearance often gives an indication of what kind of gun it is, but the robot, drawn from a set of specific icons wielding the game’s various armaments and wearing a thematically appropriate hat, indicates the specific type. Once the player comes to recognize the drawings, it’s easy to immediately distinguish the general type of weapon it is. There are a few weaknesses to this approach, since the icons don’t articulate all of the weapon differences. For example, all handguns have the same icon, but there is a huge difference between revolvers and repeater pistols. It also may take a bit of time to recognize the symbolism implied in the various hats the robot wears, especially if you’re having trouble seeing what he’s holding. It is, however, a good way to pack more information into the relatively small box that contains gun data. What Would You Do for a Klondike AK-47? Borderlands' triumph of integrating game and world design is in the gun manufacturers. Each gun has a specific brand that specializes in different properties, like high damage, clip size and accuracy, or elemental properties. These manufacturers aren’t just terms that only exist to differentiate gun brands. They have a distinct existence in the game world marked by their presence in the landscape and objects all over the world. They even run some important services, like the plot device that brings players back to life. When first dropped into the world of Borderlands, there’s no clear indication of what these different brands mean. It’s up to the game to teach the player the difference, and Borderlands does it through advertising, as if the manufacturers were really trying their hardest to get the player to buy their products by differentiating themselves from the competition. Each of the manufacturers has a distinct design philosophy. Some are rarer and higher quality, while others are inexpensive. This is in addition to having qualities like accuracy, power, rate of fire, etc. These attributes aren’t limited to only the gun manufacturers that specialize in them, but they do let players know what they’re getting into with purchases and drops. What makes these design choices most interesting is that the game world teaches players to recognize these companies through advertising. Sizing Up the Competition Every time a player visits a weapon shop, the vending machine bombards them with an ad. “If it took more than one shot, you weren’t using a Jacobs,” quips an ad for the company specializing in high damage weapons. There are even posters strewn about the game world advertising the brands. In one for S&S Munitions, which specializes in clip size, the ad tells readers that reloading is something that smart people do after a battle. Not only is it a clever parody of real world advertising, it does exactly the same job, which is to raise awareness about the company and what they do. The gun brands carry a lot of personality. Real world advertising uses a lot of the same gimmicks, building up an identity that they want consumers to take on. Console War, What is it Good For? It’s this same approach to advertising that is in no small respect responsible for console wars that sweep across the internet. The reason why so many gamers see it in the terms of a war is partially because these companies encourage their owners to think of their purchases as part of their lifestyle and identity. We see this supported in the lazy journalism present in articles that use console choices as a personality test for dating advice. While this is silly, it’s still true that people often look on brands as an extension of their identity. While it’s by no means a valid way of determining personality traits, the brands players choose will say something about they value (in a gun). For a game that distinguishes itself from other FPS games through character customization and progression, that sort of personalization is really important. Finding the Gun That’s Right for You The neat thing about Borderlands is that it encourages players to search for a gun that perfectly matches what they want. Some games have upgrade systems, which accomplishes more or less the same thing. With random drops, the game becomes a quest to find the perfect one. This is not a better system. It is simply a question of what kind of game the player want to play. Part of what makes the random weapon system appealing is that it generates crazy weapons you might not have ever thought about. It encourages diversity in playstyle if a player finds a rare weapon with a lot of power in a style they wouldn’t normally use. Rather than get stuck in a niche, a player is encouraged to experience more content. Borderlands has its disappointments story-wise, but it succeeds in creating a world and style of gameplay that are not only in synch with each other, but even define and enhance each other. Whether or not one considers story to be irrelevant to games, it’s clear that their aesthetic plays a huge role in allowing players to understand enough of the game world to make the most of it. In a game where the whole point is to wield the best gun you can find, just having the gun look and feel cool is as important as its actual function. [Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which will discuss video games eventually, I swear, and can be reached at [email protected].]

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