It’s now been about 15 months since I started working 6-days a week, and I’m relieved to report that there’s finally light at the end of the tunnel; I’ll soon be switching to only four and a half days a week, cutting my overtime from 12-16 hours per week down to about 3 or 4. I desperately need that because this has easily been the most mentally exhausting year of my adult life.
Unfortunately that will come at the cost of being less financially stable, but I think I’ll be able to compensate now that I’ll have the time and mental resources to write again. Despite last year being the absolute worst year in terms of my number of posts written and published, I’m still getting 50 to 100 views a day here. So clearly you guys want more content here, and like what I’ve written, so I’ll be redoubling my efforts to create more content here.
I’ve said that before, many times, and not followed through, but this past year has seen a tremendous about of personal growth for me. Something I’ll save for a future post, but it’s been tremendously exciting. I also have new directions I want to go with my blog, which is something I’ve struggled with in the past; feeling like I’m retreading old ground.
Thanks to the insane hours I’ve been working, I haven’t played a video game in well over a year at this point. The time I would have once spent on video games has been spent ballroom dancing, playing the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, going a personal trainer, and generally just going out and being social. My love of video games came from their ability to transport me away this world; the only reason I survived my teenage years was playing video games, and finding belonging and purpose there. It’s exciting that I no longer need that escape to survive and feel happy.
I still love video games though and the potential they have for telling stories. Even though the industry is going through a lot of upheaval and turmoil at the moment, would still love to eventually write for a video game. So I’m going to transition away from my All that Matter is the Ending format of reviews and more specialized, detailed looks at the scripts, direction, and narrative design behind video games. It will take time, but it’ll be coming soon.
In the mean time though, just to get the ball rolling again, let’s start with something easy. I just saw the preview for Borderlands 3 and I’m excited for it because Borderlands 2 remains the only “Looter-Shooter” genre game I’ve ever enjoyed.
Let’s talk about Handsome Jack. (Note: I have never played The Pre-Sequel and so the following won’t include anything that might have been added to Handsome Jack’s story in that game.)
The Great Villain of Borderlands 2:
The “Looter-Shooter” is a genre where you kill enemies to obtain powerful weapons/equipment so that you can kill enemies to get even more powerful loot to kill increasingly powerful enemies. This is the core mechanic in a lot of games, but Looter-Shooters take it to its furthest extreme. What makes the Borderlands series unique is that it wove that game mechanic into the story itself. The game gives us a comical perspective on what a society driven by the desire for better loot might look like.
The player character, known as a Vault Hunter, comes to Pandora looking for loot. The “Vault” they’re looking for is alien, but an entire industry of weapons manufacturers have arisen to provide the most power and exotic ways to main and kill. The people that have come to Pandora to search for the vault are insane, driven only by the desire to kill and loot. Yet despite a setting that would lend itself to a “grim-dark” story of suffering and woe, Gearbox chose a weird and humorous tone instead that paired perfectly with the art direction. The first Borderlands was disappointing precisely because it didn’t have a story beyond the unique setting. Yet it was the unique setting that made me interested enough to buy the next game, Borderlands 2.
It’s of course in Borderlands 2 that we meet Handsome Jack, who is a well written character for a few reasons. The first being that he fits in perfectly with the setting Gearbox created in the first game; there’s always the temptation to make the villain a scary badass, like Darth Vader or Sauron, but that would have fallen absolutely flat in this universe. Instead Handsome Jack operates as a foil for the player character; he’s a vicious smartass who thinks he’s the good guy.
When I first began playing, I thought it was laughable that Jack would think himself the hero of the story. I mean one of the first audio logs you can find in the game is of Handsome Jack laughing hysterically as he blows a woman’s brains out. No one this evil thinks he’s the good guy, right? Wrong. For one pretty much every mass-murdering dictator out there thought himself the good guy. And two, I realized Jack thought he was the hero for exactly the same reasons I did.
When I looked at the story from the outside, rather than from the perspective of my vault hunter, I realized the two characters are essentially the same. Jack achieves his ends by violently murdering anyone who gets in his way. Meanwhile I, the heroic Vault Hunter… did exactly the same thing. Jack is irreverent in his murdering, cracking jokes and laughing as he kills. So does the Vault Hunter.
Jack continually brought up how he was trying to bring peace to Pandora by killing all the criminals that inhabited the planet. Of course to me, the people in Sanctuary aren’t criminals and murderers, but only because I like (most of) them. The truth is though there isn’t a single innocent civilian on the entire planet, everyone from Roland down to the lowliest midget shotgunner is an insane criminal who has undoubtedly murdered someone.
Jack reveals that Angel, the entity that has been guiding you the whole time, works for him and uses her to bring down Sanctuary’s shields. My first time playing there was definitely some mild panic and a sense of horror watching Jack bombard the city from orbit. In a sense that’s a testament to how well the game is written, because if you look at it objectively, bombing Sanctuary isn’t as heinous as act as it first appears. This isn’t just a city, it’s a city on Pandora, which means it’s filled with people who, even at the best of times, could only be described as criminally insane. So really, the worst thing you can level at Jack for this attack is that it’s just unsportsmanlike. It’s after this attack on Sanctuary, however, that the game goes from an okay story to an outstanding story.
Angel doesn’t just work for Jack, she’s his daughter. Jack has essentially imprisoned her, and while he’s obviously using her to further his own ends, you can still tell he loves her. From Jack’s warped perspective, you can see how imprisoning Angel might seem to him like protecting her; they both exist in a world where violence is not only a means, but an end unto itself. Angel is tired, however, and perhaps even heartbroken over what she’s seen her father become. She guides you through Jack’s defenses and tells you how to kill her, both to frustrate Jack’s plans and to end a life of slavery.
And when you’re in that room, about to kill her, Jack pleads with you not to do it. I want to give some serious props to Dameon Clarke, the voice actor behind Handsome Jack, because he sells these lines. He’s so convincing that, no matter how many times I replay the game, I always feel regret over killing Angel. His desperation and fear, his pain, feels so authentic.
Don’t you know what you’re DOING?! Who cares about the goddamn key — you’re gonna end the life of an innocent girl!Handsome Jack to the Vault Hunter
That line always makes me pause and in my first playthrough I even searched the room, looking for some secret easter egg that would allow me to both save Angel’s life and set her free. But it’s not there, there’s only one way her story ends.
These events significantly shift Jack’s character, as well they should. One of the first times Jack calls you, he’s munching on popcorn and telling you he named his fancy new space horse “Butt-Stallion” in your honor. That wise-cracking, irreverent character dies the same moment Angel does. In his place comes a Jack driven by a cold fury so chilling that it still gives me goosebumps to think about. Jack’s penchant for elaborate traps and creatively sadistic methods of killing is replaced by a single-mided determination to kill the Vault hunter.
Angel…I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you.Handsome Jack
Jack was abusive, his love for his daughter twisted by a desire to possess and harness her powers, but from his perspective you murdered his daughter. In reality her death was just an elaborate method of assisted suicide, but all Jack sees is that you pulled the trigger. His motivations for wantting you dead are understandable, and even relateable.
And at the end of the day, that’s all I want from characters: relateable, human motivations that drive their actions. That’s exactly what I got from Handsome Jack, and that’s why he was the Great Villain of Borderlands 2.
No, no, no… I can’t die like this… not when I’m so close… and not at the hands of a filthy bandit! I could’ve saved this planet! I could have actually restored order! I wasn’t supposed to die by the hands of a child-killing psychopath! You’re a savage! You’re a maniac! You are a bandit AND I AM THE GODDAMN HERO!Handsome Jack
Yeah… we all think we’re the hero, don’t we?
Good to see you writing again, my friend. Keep it up. I’m enjoying reading your takes on some of my favorite games and some I need to try!
Hey John, glad that you’re keeping yourself busy. I have an interesting recommendation for you. Have you tried playing any of the Dark Souls games? They’re notoriously difficult but it’s okay because they’re all masterpieces (yes even DS2). It’s funny because it takes a very hands-off approach to storytelling. Most of the lore and narrative is revealed through conversations with NPCs, item descriptions and details in the environment. First time playing you will be crushed repeatedly with no idea what you’re doing and why, but once the puzzle pieces come together around half way through everything clicks and you realise that the story is rich, emotional, intelligent, tragic and awe-inspiring. It’s a new frontier of storytelling I think you should experience, if you have the guts for it lol.
Hi Cameron, good to hear from you. Well I wish I’ve been keeping busy doing things I want to do, like writing, rather than exhausting myself doing a job I’d rather not have. But we all have to do what we have to to survive.
I did try Dark Souls a few years ago, I think on your recommendation. Unfortunately I don’t think I’m a hardcore gamer, because I just couldn’t get past that difficulty curve. Constantly dying on the same bosses over and over again just drove me up the wall, and I never had that moment where the puzzle pieces clicked. I just didn’t have the time or patience to “git good.” Hahah I may try it again at some point in the future, but I may have to use cheats to experience the story. 😉
Oh and as for the actual article, I totally agree, Handsome Jack was an absolute joy! You should try Telltale’s Tales from the Borderlands because he features prominently as a hologram companion (yes I know I can’t stop recommending things)
Shamus Young has great long form reviews of games, including this one, which also delve into the game play elements. Check em out people, you will enjoy them. Also, great article and I am glad you are going to have a chance to scale back and relax a bit.