Anyone who missed gaming's last tempest in a teapot missed deadening, mediocre thought. The Witcher 3 was accused of racism in much the same style as attacks that have been leveled at Tolkien's Lord of the Rings for decades: both feature predominantly white characters. To rebuttals, some of which noting that The Witcher is a work from Polish mythology (an overlooked perspective itself), some critics propounded that all Persons of Pale Color are in fact English oppressors. Eventually a fumbling Internet ne'er-do-well of Polish heritage was dragged into the spotlight, having written an anti-Witcher blogpost. Like most Internet fumblers, he used his fifteen minutes to spill Kool-Aid all over himself. Then he attempted to wipe up the mess with his ethnic heritage. The only losers? Anyone with self-respect for their own free time.
It is a certainty that there will be more hubbubs about diversity of race and gender in the fiction of games. The thought occurs: if we're supposed to be so concerned about fictional video game people, why don't we talk about something that's actually relevant to them? A long list of issues becomes apparent, to be sure, but judging by upcoming title Battleborn's two released trailers, character design ought to be at the top by any reasonable measure.
One is unsure who or what to blame for the hodgepodge of cliches. Perhaps it is a radioactive atmosphere, responsible for our age of sequels and IP mining—turn over the nearest rock, and you'll see a Batman reboot squiggling away with the salamanders. Perhaps MOBAs and MOBA-like games have to be manufactured from pure derivation. Perhaps the spirit of Anthony Burch lurks in Gearbox Software even as his corporeal form doodles on Freddie Wong's Hulu show.
Whatever the cause, the results are embarrassing. Avatar: The Last Airbender cobbles each of its fictional animals together out of two real ones, but for obvious reasons one would be hard-pressed to accuse them of copying another artist's work. By contrast, Battleborn's roster of heroes seemingly sprung fully-formed from vats of prefabricated fictional DNA. The first hype trailer showcased a sylvan archer bent on defending the natural order, a concept so generic that even the act of properly attributing it to Tolkien feels lazy. There was also a rather Heavy individual with a rotary cannon slung underhand. Game coverage notes that he has a simple love of murder; one might say he takes childlike glee in destruction. How did I guess?
On the other hand, Gearbox has revealed that Oscar Mike, a character with little more to his name than a rifle and a suit of tactical armor in olive drab, is an intentional mishmash of Call of Duty stereotypes. You don't say. This is only a little less ludicrous than Dick's Sporting Goods announcing that one of their duck decoys is not, in fact, a real duck.
There are predictable objections to all of this; one of them is that the game has not been released yet. One wonders if this would allow Gearbox carte blanche to promote a character with laser swords and telekinesis. Almost as reflexive is the idea that big guns and splodey hitmarker numbers (this is a video game, in other words, and meant to be fun) render unimportant any traditional lines of criticism. Fair enough, given that it would be pointless to waste words on the equivalent of a Clive Cussler novel, but it is abundantly clear from developer interviews that Gearbox's vision is artistically ambitious, not saccharine.
The idea of delaying Borderlands 3 for a new, untested IP is an act of unbridled passion. The premise—several species and cultures colliding around the last star in existence—took three months to formulate. "How could we have been the only dudes to come up with this?" Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford wondered. Others were even more explicit. "We don't want you to get so caught up in this epic narrative that you forget that a lot of what we love to do as players on a second-to second basis is get in and swing my swords at something," said Battleborn's creative director, Randy Varnell.
This is the language of a contender, and the trailers released are invested with an exceptional amount of thematic vitality. In the first we witness planetary masses obliterated in a grand swell of arena rock; the second made alt+J listenable. Yet, all available material suggests Battleborn will struggle in artistic terms. The premise is clearly self-contradictory.* Even if this was not the case, the mind staggers at the notion of populating a fresh world with tropes barely unpacked from their original boxes. In a time when all but one star has faded, and in a mindset wherein we take such a setting as serious and provocative, the choice to populate it with so many obvious archetypes beggars disbelief. Are collisions like vampire samurai really from the future? Are we supposed to treat yet another long-eared tree-hugger as inspired, cool hair nonwithstanding? The whole presentation seems inappropriate, as if Ronald McDonald hired Frank Gehry to design his newest location just so he could sling nuggets out a postmodern wobble-tower.
It is true that part of Battleborn’s appearance is out of its control; cliché, after all, is an inherently relative concept. If Gearbox was the only AAA developer to strike out into MOBA-like territory, the hype of a novel adaptation might have been enough to cover some of its influences. But 2015 is the year the team-based multiplayer shooter has buried the market even before its crop of titles are set to release. That’s the current, incoherent label – Battlecry has an archer as its sole ranged class. Medieval brawler For Honor doesn’t even appear to have an archer. Overwatch, although packed with shooter classes, has heroes with giant warhammers. Whatever the deviations in content, however, they all have the same form. There’s a derogatory name for it: TF2 clone. It constricts the range of possible character themes with specific gameplay roles, and the proliferation of like titles makes these limits all too obvious in the uncomplicated audiovisual language of a game trailer.
It may also be true that Battleborn will sidestep these objections altogether. The game’s writers are certainly aware of its influences, given that the description for three-sword lifedrainer Rath notes that he is in fact “not a vampire, though he gets that a lot.” Awareness of archetype by itself is not enough to alleviate the downsides of such, but it is a good and necessary start. Characters like Montana and Thorn may yet animate their derived appearances with complexity and wit. Outsize tropes could be leveraged for warmhearted satirical commentary, avoiding the usual pitfalls along that road.
But the road will be quite a narrow one. Because of the ersatz nature of its design, the narrative realm of Battleborn may very well go unremarked through its coverage and even in the casual conversation surrounding it. Game balance, fun-factor, learning curve and other elements always threaten to crowd the discussion of any online multiplayer title. It is even a possibility that the only commentary on the game’s artistic intent and symbolism will come from Feminist Frequency’s Twitter account, which will make reliable objections about homogenous female body types if Battleborn gets its moment in the limelight. For the publisher, 2K Games, that will be fortunate. In the commercial sense, that will also be fortunate for Gearbox Software. Perhaps they will be satisfied. For their storytelling ambition, however, that will be sad: a whole universe of a last, solitary star never fully imagined.
What are you feeling about the quality of Battleborn's story - and how much will it matter to you?
* Any culture capable of traveling to the last remaining star would be able to generate enough energy to eliminate the need for a star in the first place. This is not to say that realism is superior to other narrative styles. However, since the idea of a "last star burning" is obviously science fiction, it makes sense to judge it in that purview.