Sunday, July 28, 2019

Fallout 4's Sole Survivor is a Synth Theory: Shaun as Evidence

Quick Question Before We Begin: Are any of you fine folks good at getting assets out of games? I'm looking for a picture of the infamous chair from Xenogears, but I can't find a sprite of it online that doesn't already have 1 of the idiots in the cast sitting in it. Can anyone help me out on this, find or rip the sprite of the stupid thing by itself? I'd be very grateful!

Anyway, on with the rant.

Is the Sole Survivor a synth?

The possibility that Nora or Nate could, in fact, not be the real parent of Shaun, but simply 1 of Fallout 4’s innumerable artificial human replacements, is something that a few of the more imaginative players put forth when Fallout 4 was a recent release, one which was generally dismissed as the realm of fanfiction and nothing more. And for good cause: there was not a single tangible piece of evidence to point to as cause to believe it a possibility, and the fact that we start the game on the fateful pre-war morning in which the world was destroyed seemed like ironclad proof that Nora/Nate was the real deal. I dismissed the idea as just an interesting but ultimately baseless notion.

I also dismissed the nutjobs that had certain ideas about 1 particular secret that Rose Quartz might be hiding in Steven Universe, too.

Yes, it seems that time makes fools of all of us in some cases, save the few crazies who piece together a ludicrous theory from scraps of nothing. Just as SU episodes in the past year have blown our minds with revelations that make previous innocuous details suddenly heavy with significance and foreshadowing, so, too, did the Far Harbor DLC suddenly shine a light of feasibility on the possibility that Fallout 4’s protagonist is, in fact, a synth. Suddenly tiny details, like the Railroad’s chair outside Vault 111, had a new possible importance (did the Railroad set up recon because the Institute had been in the area frequently lately--say, to put a brand new synth in the cryo chamber, and then “awaken” it?), and, in an especially clever twist, the greatest evidence for Nora and Nate’s authenticity became the greatest evidence otherwise (the fact that we, the player, only know them from the point of that single prewar morning forward is worked into the story itself, as the earliest thing that Nora/Nate can her/himself recall in specific detail--and the fact that the Memory Den only brings forth a single memory from her/him that has happened during the game’s own course brings even more suspicion to it all!). It’s a brilliant move, honestly, because there’s just enough tiny, tiny related details in the game’s course that Nora/Nate being a synth could be plausible, yet nowhere near enough to possibly be able to assert it for sure. This unanswerable question becomes, in a genius stroke of writing, a part of Far Harbor’s overall theme and exploration into the concept of Truth, and an example of how personal truth is not always so hard and fast within reality as we’d like to think. Is the Sole Survivor a synth? It is impossible to prove one way or another, based on what hard evidence the game has given us.

But there’s more to finding the truth than just sniffing out the material details. When Sherlock Holmes fails...go Hercule Poirot. Follow the trail of human nature.*

Forget whether or not we can prove that Nora/Nate is a synth. It can’t be done. But what we can do, is prove whether or not the question should even arise. What we can prove is whether or not Father, AKA Shaun, would have created a synth of his parent to begin with. Does it fit Shaun’s personality to do so?

Before we begin: because this rant’s gonna be long and it gets tiresome pretending that I value Nora and Nate equally as possible protagonists, I’m just gonna refer to the Sole Survivor as Nora from here on out for my own convenience. Sorry, everyone who denied themselves a superior voice acting performance** and narrative spirit. Just, I dunno, copy-paste this rant into a document program and find-replace all the “Noras” with “Nates” if it bothers you overly.

So, does it fit with who Shaun is for him to have replaced the real Sole Survivor with a synth? To initiate Nora’s search for him, a set of trials to prove the boundaries of her parental love for bring her into the Institute with the intention of making her his successor and its leave his child synth self in her care...does it make sense for him to do all this for a synth? And not only that, but to have done all this for a synth when he had the opportunity to use the real Nora, instead?

No! No indeed. long as you take Shaun at face value. No, as long as Shaun is the relatively normal psychological entity that he presents himself as.

But if Shaun is a sociopath? Yes. Yes it does.

See, here’s the thing about Shaun. He’ll argue to his mother’s face against the notion that synths are people. As with the rest of the Institute’s members, he contends that synths are not real. And he believes that. But what he isn’t telling you--what he might not really even consciously realize himself--is that, if we measure other people’s reality to ourselves in terms of our ability to identify with their minds and hearts, our ability to empathize with them, then to Shaun, no one is real.

Shaun does not possess empathy for others, regardless of whether they’re men or machines; he almost says so himself in the game: during an argument, you can get him to tell you that he doesn’t feel strong emotions, that he didn’t have the kind of upbringing that taught him the importance of loving others. Not an outright self-diagnosis of psychopathy, but pretty darn close! Close enough that it throws certain other things about him into a new light, like the fact that methodology of the Institute under his reign has been one of cold, scientific barbarity, in which humans are kidnapped, experimented upon, and replaced with synths with no regret whatsoever.*** What remorse he expresses about these sacrifices never goes beyond words, words he simply knows he’s supposed to parrot the way all Institute members have parroted them. He doesn’t care about the surface people that he hurts, only the results he gets from their pain...and that’s because he can’t care about them, doesn’t have the capacity to feel the emotional reality of any human being beyond himself.

But just because Shaun doesn’t care about others, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing he does care about. He certainly does care about the Institute: its vision, its progress, and its experimentation. No evidence needed for that one; just about everything he says and does proves it beyond any doubt. And even if he can’t connect to the feelings of other people, he does have his own emotional needs that he’s interested in satisfying--after all, he deliberately sets up Kellogg to be killed by Nora during her quest, as a form of revenge on Kellogg for having taken Shaun from his parents as an infant and thus denying him the joys of being raised by a loving family (a loss and need that Shaun at least recognizes in himself, even if he doesn’t understand what that is, much like an infant recognizes it’s hungry for the first time and cries out for sustenance, even though it doesn’t know what food is). He assumes that retribution is something his mother also wants, but it’s clear from his reaction and words, if she tells him it wasn’t, that it was actually about his own satisfaction. The possibility that it was something that would give Nora closure is, at the very most, only half the reason Shaun set the scenario for Kellogg’s demise...and even that is more easily seen as a part of his experiment with Nora than any empathetic connection to her needs.

See, that’s the crux of things with Shaun: it’s all an experiment, and it’s all about seeking to fill the emotional hole that his lack of a loving family created within him. He can’t make sense of humanity through any sort of personal connection, so he instead seeks to understand his species through his intellect, through scientific pursuit alone--and thus he experiments, and seeks to replace the irrational, problematic human race with one that he can understand, because he himself has created the new race and programmed it. He has multiple reasons for unthawing Nora (whether she’s the original or a synth), but the reason that stands out to me as the most true and important, and that which he himself admits to, is that he wanted to see what would happen. He wanted to understand his parent, wanted to understand the family and love he had never had...but he didn’t go to Vault 111 himself, thaw her out, and have a heart-to-heart. He didn’t take the leap and put himself into an unknown, organic situation. No, he instead crafted a few scenarios, put events into motion, and sat back to watch what would happen from a safe distance. Shaun’s method of finding closure on what he was denied, his way of understanding where he came from, his parent, family and love and what could have’s to make it an experiment.

I mean, just...really think about this for a second. Put yourself in the same situation. You’ve gone your entire life without knowing your parents. Without having a strong, loving bond with anyone else, either as a child or as an adult. You’re near the end of your life, and the what-could-have-beens are weighing upon your mind, now that you know your finite time in this world is nearly up. And so, as the last major act of your life, you decide that you want to finally know your long-lost parent, to know how your life began before it reaches its end, to stand face-to-face with the being that represents an entire other existence you could have had. Everything you’ve wondered about yourself but were never able to answer, is locked within this parent. After over 60 years of waiting, you are going to have a chance to meet your parent, for the first time, and in the last major moment of your existence.

Think about all that. Immerse yourself in sixty years of orphanhood, in the desperation of mortality to know total personal closure with yourself. Imagine having your entire perspective on humanity defined by the act of being torn away from your mother and father, and never given an adequate replacement. Feel all that within yourself, and then ask:

What kind of man in this situation would make this reunion an experiment? Not someone emotionally and psychologically sound, that’s for sure.

So Shaun wants answers to his life, closure on the what-ifs, but his first priority is to stand apart and watch as an observer, to seek very personal answers through very impersonal experimentation rather than direct emotional connection. So...why wouldn’t he replace Nora with a synth?

Synths aren’t real to him, but, truly, neither are human beings, not in the sense of reality that the rest of us experience, a reality built on whatever level of empathetic foundations each of us uses for identifying with others. Insisting on differentiating between “real” humans and synths is something Shaun does, true, but that distinction is really just a convenient way to maintain control over the latter. And Shaun very much likes control--just look at the dictatorship he’s established over the Institute as a whole, where he can simply decide for the rest of them who their next leader will be, or order his fellow researchers to pursue meaningless projects that they themselves know have no useful application or knowledge to be found--like his having a synth duplicate of his childhood self created for no reason beyond use in an experiment to satisfy his own personal curiosities. With that child synth, he’s already filled his own part with someone else, at least temporarily, in this experiment, this little play of his, even though he’s alive and has every reason to just play his own role from the start. So if he’s changed out 1 capable actor in the drama with a synth, why not change out the other one? Even if the experiment is to set events in motion and then see what happens naturally, replacing his original mother with a synth for this indulgent little drama still affords him the security of control at its beginning. And then there’s the simple fact that Shaun prefers to work with and experiment on synths--if nothing else, there’s credibility to the notion that he would replace his own mother with a synth for this experiment simply because everything Shaun is about, science-wise, is synth research.

Beyond the fact that it makes sense for this sociopath to decide to use 2 dolls to enact his play instead of just 1 when he feels no greater personal connection to humans than he does to synths, Shaun’s actions and words at the end of the game also make sense of the possibility that the Sole Survivor is a synth. Unfreezing Nora, creating a child synth Shaun for her to find, watching her take revenge for both of them against Kellogg, observing how far she’ll go to find her child...this whole experiment has been like a child playing with his dolls, expressing himself through what he has them do in ways that he can’t through words or conscious understanding alone. So the fact that, no matter what faction you side with, Shaun will always entrust the care of his child synth duplicate to Nora is telling: it’s not a turn-around of Shaun’s mentality toward synths, it’s him asking Nora to continue playing the game of house he’s created, asking her to take care of his most important toy.

It’s a legacy perhaps as vital to him as his legacy with the Institute itself: after all, do we know that his final words to his parent in the plot’s Institute path, “You’ve made a boy’s dreams come true,” is about the Institute’s success? He’s not saying “you’ve made a man’s dreams come true,” he’s not saying “You’ve made your boy’s dreams come true,” he’s deliberately referring to himself as a child entity, unattached grammatically to his mother. And as a boy, was his dream really the furthering of the Institute’s goals and the cementing of its dominance in the region...or was it the dream of having the loving family that was denied to him? That sure sounds more like the dream of Shaun as a boy than the ambitions of the Institute, which better suit the dreams of Shaun as a man. I think that in this ending, Nora has made his dreams come true by being a successful part of an experiment, a childish play to see what his life would have been like that he could, in his last days, live vicariously through. Creating the child synth Shaun means that this play can go on after his own death, a legacy of a second life for Shaun along the path he never had a chance to travel the first time that will last as long as the Sole Survivor’s life...and if she was as much a synth as the child she cared for, why, then the game could be played forever. A legacy of the family Shaun wished for, overcompensated for its being stolen from him the first time by making it eternal this second time.

We all seek a way to make ourselves immortal, a way to comfort ourselves with the thought that even if we don’t continue forever, something important about us will. Some people want to leave their mark upon the world through their work. Others seek immortality through the family that will outlive them. Shaun wishes to do both: his own flesh and blood continuing to lead the institute, a living legacy of his work, and a parody of the domestic life he’d missed out on, a living legacy of his family. And in both cases, his legacy can last forever, if he uses an ageless synth instead of a human.**** And the whole point of leaving a postmortem legacy on the world is to make it as close to a piece of immortality as one can manage, right?

So in the end, the answer to the question is a resounding Yes. Yes, it is within Shaun’s personality to have replaced the Sole Survivor with a synth. Well within his character, in fact. It fits his methods, it fits his mentality. It fits what we know about him from his own dialogue, and it fits what we can infer about him through circumstance and seeing what he has created. It fits the needs of a sociopath, it fits the needs of a man who yearns for the loving childhood he never got to have, and it fits the needs of a man seeking to leave as lasting a part of himself in the world as he can while his mortality looms over him.

This does not prove that the Sole Survivor is a synth. As I said before, that cannot be proven, at least not as Fallout 4 stands now. But it does prove that it’s not only possible in terms of simple, face-value material evidence, but also in terms of narrative intent, in terms of the character and soul of the game’s central figures and ideas. I daresay, in fact, that it would add even more depth to the fascinating character of Shaun, and resound elegantly with the themes and ideas that Fallout 4 puts forth. On the surface level, whether the protagonist of Fallout 4 is a synth is a choice for the player to make, a choice on what to believe...but below the surface, as you explore the layers of storytelling within the game, there is, to me, no choice to be made, for Fallout 4 is a more thoughtful, more meaningful, more nuanced and fascinating story when Nora is, in fact, a synth, in large part because of what it means for and confirms about the character of the game’s villain. To me, the Sole Survivor is a synth.

* Also, just for the record: Hercule Poirot is way better than Sherlock Holmes. Yeah, that’s right. I just fucking typed that.

** Although, I’ve said it before, but I do want to repeat it: Courtney Traylor does the better job as the Sole Survivor, but there’s definitely nothing wrong with Brian Delaney’s performance. I daresay in most games like this, he would have been the more compelling voice actor. Traylor just really nails the role with her perfect combination of wistful regret, determination, and wry humor, is all.

*** Now to be fair, that was also how the Institute was operating prior to Shaun’s command, too (otherwise he wouldn’t have even been there to start with). But he certainly didn’t lessen the immoral, inhuman practices of the Institute at all while he was in charge, and by all accounts actually stepped them up.

**** It doesn’t fit in with the general tone of the rest of the rant, but it’s also worth noting that making the next great leader of humanity (in his eyes, at least) a synth would also be thematically appropriate in terms of Shaun’s role as the heart and soul of the Institute. After all, would that not be a fittingly literal example of the Institute’s work as the future of humanity?

Thursday, July 18, 2019

General RPGs' Party Members Going Their Separate Ways

Quick Question Before We Begin: Are any of you fine folks good at getting assets out of games? I'm looking for a picture of the infamous chair from Xenogears, but I can't find a sprite of it online that doesn't already have 1 of the idiots in the cast sitting in it. Can anyone help me out on this, find or rip the sprite of the stupid thing by itself? I'd be very grateful!

Anyway, on with the rant.

It’s finally over. You stand and watch in awe at the sight of the crumbling sky fortress that you’ve only just escaped from, as a spectacular light show ignites the atmosphere above it, spreading divine healing across the weary world: a world that you’ve traversed these past few months from 1 end to the other, overcoming seemingly endless obstacles and overwhelming emotional hardships all along the way, a slew of trials both physical and spiritual that have forged you into an unstoppable force of heroism in both body and mind. But it was all for this moment: this moment, in which the world has been saved from the twisted and misguided monster that sought to remake it as he saw fit. And as warm, healing drifts of luminescence gently rain upon you like the cathartic petals of a new spring, you turn to your companions, to the men and women who have shared this quest with you, the ones who have grown with you and supported you in both the best and worst of times, your new family without whom you never could have made it, with whom you have forged unassailable bonds of friendship and love. They look to you, and in this climactic, moving moment of your journey’s conclusion, you smile at them, and say,

"Whew! Alright, GG, guys! I’m out-ski. Catch ya later, gaywads!"

Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but...does it ever feel weird to anyone else, sometimes, when you watch these RPG endings which, at some point, do a short time-jump forward to show you what life is like for each party member after they’ve all gone their separate ways?

It’s just, like...some RPGs’ casts go through so much together, and bond so naturally, that it feels like they pass a point of camaraderie where going back to their lives after the adventure, or even finding new roles for themselves in accordance with what they’ve learned/what’s happened during the game’s events, feels out of character, somehow. Like this team has formed connections so strong, each individual has developed themselves in ways so strongly tied to their comrades, that for them not to continue all being a part of their everyday lives doesn’t even feel true to who they’ve all become by the game’s end, either individually or collectively. There are times when the "show what everyone ends up doing with themselves after everything’s over" ending feels wrong to me.

And there are times when the game itself almost feels like it agrees with me on this point. Like, you take Grandia 2--yes, that’s right, I’m about to speak negatively about Grandia 2, so now is the time to pop some medication if you’ve got a weak heart. In Grandia 2’s ending, you get to see what everyone in the party’s doing after the adventure’s all done, and it’s...kinda off! It’s a little weird, and more than a little random, to see that after all that, Millennia winds up being a teacher, while Elena becomes a traveling performer, and neither they nor anyone else in the party seems to interact very much with each other these days, or feel the need to. It’s like...yes, there are merits to this narrative direction, and I’ve defended this ending in conversations with other players in the past, but even though you can chart how each character’s personal growth could have led them to this point, it feels out of place, like the writers had been so focused on everything in the game proper that, when they reached this point, they realized they’d never really thought about each character’s future, and just went with the first ideas they had that seemed like they might sort of reflect the characters’ development. These were personalities that were intertwined so well by the game's finale that separating them seems to have been an unnatural act.

Of course, there are also times when breaking up the band is a bad move objectively, too. My finding fault with this happening in Wild Arms 4* is certainly not just a subjective matter. The game spent a truly agonizing number of hours letting Jude babble on and on about what great friends he and the others are and about how they’ll always be besties 4eva. Wanting to surgically fuse his palms to those of his friends so they could all hold hands for the rest of their lives is 1 of exactly 2 character traits the kid possesses, the other being an unshakeable distrust of anyone old enough to shave. For Jude to not stalk his friends until their dying day is just outright inconsistent to his character, and for him to instead essentially become a hermit is fucking ridiculous.

And don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of games where this isn’t a problem at all. As well as everyone in Final Fantasy 9 works together, and in spite of the fact that they’ve grown substantially as a group of allies and friends, it somehow doesn’t feel wrong at all, at the end of the game, for them to go their separate ways and return to their lives, or find new lives altogether to live.** They just always seemed to have enough substance and separation as individuals that they didn’t need one another to feel narratively complete, I suppose? Same as with the party in Tales of Berseria--the fact that each party member goes his or her separate way feels natural and right, because even though they all did form a compelling accord as a team of misfits, they’re far more defined as individuals with specific plans, personalities, and values. There was never any doubt that Eizen would return to his life as a pirate (his inability to compromise his free spirit even for the sake of his loved ones is, in fact, a major part of his character), it’s unquestionable that Eleanor would continue to strive to do right by others independent of her allies’ plans, it’s hardly surprising that Rokurou would detach himself from the others to keep pursuing conflict, and so on. They’re far more strongly defined by isolated character traits that neither require nor mesh with their friends than they are by their connections with one another.

And that’s just fine! Final Fantasy 9 and especially Tales of Berseria’s casts have been written in ways that specifically make their groups' separations a normal act--it’s when RPG casts have been created in such a way that separating them seems contrary to their design that I feel put off, not just by the act of dispersal itself.

And there are those games in which the cast’s breakup is an expected and inevitable, and thus acceptable, consequence of the lore itself--it’s sad to see Frog, Robo, Ayla, and Magus leave in Chrono Trigger, but they all come from different times, and must return to them. Under different circumstances, would it feel unnatural for the CT cast not to stick together to some degree? Possibly, at least for some of them (not Magus), but the game’s quite clearly established their origins and necessary roles as making separation unavoidable, so we accept this fated eventuality. They aren’t all just arbitrarily deciding to wander off even though there’s no actual reason they couldn’t keep being a constant in each other’s lives--there’s an unassailable fact of the game’s setting that drives them apart.

This whole thing of splitting up RPG parties in a manner that doesn’t feel right is not a major problem, or anything, mind you.*** It’s a minor complaint, at best, for there are far worse ways for an RPG to treat its cast in its ending. At least this isn’t the "Rocks fall, everyone dies" garbage of Neverwinter Nights 2’s main campaign, nor the needless ambiguity of Final Fantasy 7, which decided to leave the fate of every single member of the cast in the entire game up in the air, save a single character whose development and relevance to the game’s events was finished back on Disc 1. Or worst of all, narrative slash-and-burn finales which are so destructive to their game (and even series) that how everyone ends up in the future is no longer even relevant, like Valkyrie Profile 2 and Mass Effect 3.

Nonetheless, it’s still a weird, slightly unsettling thing, sometimes, to spend 40, 50, 60, even 100+ hours watching a team of characters grow together, coalesce emotionally, become indispensable partners to one another who are closer in mind and heart than even most lovers...and then just go their separate ways, as though, in spite of having developed together through their joint efforts like 2 plants using one another as support to grow ever higher together, there’s really nothing more holding them together than between any given coworkers. Before writers go and decide what everyone in the party is going to do by themselves after the adventure’s done, perhaps they should first take a good, hard look at the characters they’ve created, the party dynamics they’ve formed, and figure out whether it even feels right for that party to be fully dissolved to begin with. Because sometimes it isn’t--sometimes you’ve got a band of friends who have gone through too much together, become too close to one another, to ever feel right anywhere else. I think we need more games like Tales of Legendia, games which can look at their cast after the adventure is over, and realize that these characters’ places are in each other’s lives, as neighbors, friends, and family.

* Dear Palutena in Skyworld, the greatest RPG and the worst actually have something in common. I’m...feeling a little disturbed about that fact.

** Admittedly, I’m not a fan of how Freya ends up, as I’ve mentioned a few times previously, but my issues with that conclusion are unrelated to the matter at hand.

*** At least, it's not a major problem in most cases. It IS a substantial flaw with Wild Arms 4, though, because the party separation at the game’s end in WA4 runs blatantly contrary to 1 of the major messages of the game, and its protagonist’s character.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Borderlands 2's Downloadable Content

A few years back, I purchased and played Borderlands 1, and found it to be...okay. Certainly not the wildly hilarious and epic adventure that the people recommending it to me promised, but enjoyable enough, mostly. I guess. The DLC scene for Borderlands 1, however, was fairly bad, and certainly overpriced by its original rates.

Well, I’ve now played Borderlands 2 from start to finish, and I have to admit, I find it a substantial improvement on its predecessor. The comical tone that the first game struggled to get right has finally been correctly hit here, the characters involved are more numerous and far better (even the returning NPCs who were highly uninteresting in the first game, can now extract a chuckle or 2 from me), and the story, as well as the villain, is so much better this time around. So, then, the question is: did the Downloadable Content for Borderlands 2 improve, as well?

Let’s find out.

Mechromancer and Psycho Packs: These each add a new playable protagonist to the game, those being Gaige and Krieg. It doesn’t really make a huge difference, honestly, given that the protagonist of Borderlands 2 doesn’t really have a whole lot of personalized interaction with the story--their flavor dialogue is unique, of course, but generally expresses the same ideas, and only rarely actually relates to the events of the game’s plot and characters.

On the other hand, of the 6 protagonists introduced in Borderlands 2, Gaige and Krieg are the only ones who are especially interesting or memorable. Yeah, Axton, Maya, Salvador, and Zer0 all tow the line just fine in a plot that neither expects nor requires much of them to be functional, but Gaige and Krieg are just leagues above them in terms of personality and amusing quips.

On the other other hand, though, each of these add-ons costs $10 if you haven’t gotten the Game of the Year edition, and way, way too much. Like I said, this game ultimately doesn’t really require a lot of personal, spoken interaction from its protagonist in order to do what it needs to; you only really get specific characterization for Borderlands 2’s Vault Hunter in some of the DLCs below, rather than seeing much in the game proper. So even though Gaige and Kreig are my favorite characters of Borderlands 2’s protagonists--indeed, the only ones I honestly even especially give a crap about--I would have to say that, if you don’t have a version of the game with automatic access to them, then $10 isn’t worth it. At least, not in terms of narrative content. How much you value alternative methods of gameplay, which both character provides, may influence whether or not either of these characters feels worth it for you.

Anyway, enough of the character add-ons. Let’s get to the meat of the game’s DLC: the campaigns and quests.

Captain Scarlett and her Pirate’s Booty: To start us off, we get...this. Sigh.

Okay, so, this DLC has some good characteristics. has 1. Captain Scarlett herself is engaging and mildly funny, and I wound up really liking her, personally. As a villain, she’s certainly no Handsome Jack, and as a companionable commentator, she doesn’t really measure up to several of the main game’s cast, but still, Scarlett keeps you amused well enough, to the extent that her role allows.

Aside from Captain Scarlett herself, however, this is just a pretty dull miniature adventure. The plot pretty much just sucks: you go to a new area of Pandora to find a pirate treasure, and Captain Scarlett helps you do so, then betrays you. That’s pretty much it. The plot throws no curveballs save elongating some tasks with extra, small quests within them, and the motivation and ideas are just not compelling. I mean, honestly, it’s practically no different from the main plot of Borderlands 1: go to a desolate place, search for a special treasure, deal with the stuff keeping you from it, get betrayed. It wasn’t interesting then, it’s not interesting now. And just like in Borderlands 1, most of the supporting cast feels forced and 1-dimensional. Besides Scarlett--and I want to clarify that while she’s very likeable, she ain’t an amazing character herself--all you get in this DLC are boring characters like Shade, whose 1 joke is stretched so far that it would have gotten old quickly even if it were funny to begin with, that old guy whose obsession with Scarlett is not nearly as entertaining as the writers clearly believed it to be, and some robot that wants to censor stuff, whose ironic humor is weak at best. There’s just no substance here. Nothing’s awful, but almost nothing is good, either.

Captain Scarlett and her Pirate’s Booty was sold for $8 initially, which makes it less costly than the Borderlands 1 DLC packages that I decried, and I appreciate that to an extent. Nonetheless, still not worth it. By virtue of Scarlett, I guess this add-on might be worth, I dunno...$2? $3? But certainly not anywhere close to $8.

Mr. Torgue’s Campaign of Carnage: Sigh. Again. I don’t know whether this is a step up or down from the first DLC.

On the good side, there’s Mr. Torgue. He’s funny, and his humor is long-lived enough to sustain the entirety of this little adventure. Plus, it’s kind of neat to meet him at all, as 1 of the major corporate figures of the Borderlands universe, and, so far, the only 1 that doesn’t totally suck. And at least this time around, you’ve got a few familiar faces along for the ride in Mad Moxxi and Tiny Tina, which is a good sight better than the new and unfunny characters of the last add-on.

On the bad side...the plot sucks, again, with no more depth or purpose than Captain Scarlett’s Pirate Booty’s story had. In fact, it’s a bit worse, because the payoff of Mr. Torgue’s Campaign of Carnage is that after completing it, you get the riches of a Vault, and...they’re not impressive. It’s basically just an explosion of loot and money. Which is nice and all, but this is a Vault! Its wonders are meant to be unexpected and amazing, challenging and leaping beyond the ken of mortal men. Seeing the storied focus of the Borderlands universe reduced to a normal boss payoff is underwhelming, and even a bit damaging to the lore of the games. Additionally, the villain for this adventure, Piston, is very boring and unimaginative,* and the secondary bad guys are no better. Lastly, while I appreciate the use of Moxxi and Tina, I have to say, surprisingly little is really done with them. Mad Moxxi’s just there to perform her plot role and has little else to contribute, and you could honestly just cut Tiny Tina out of the DLC entirely, and it would have no noticeable effect. Which is very strange, because you’d think an add-on story about an explosion-loving madman running a tournament would be a perfect environment for Moxxi and Tina’s characters to thrive in!

So in the end? Not worth the original $10 asking price. Not even close.

Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt: Sigh x3.

Okay, so...I guess this is a step up? Professor Nakayama is a little more amusing than Captain Scarlett was as a villain and a hell of a lot better than Piston, and there is, I guess, something a little closer to an actual plot, this time around, unlike the previous 2 DLCs. Also, Nakayama is not forced to shoulder the entirety of the entertainment burden the way Scarlett was, and in the way that Torgue turned out to be, in that this DLC also unexpectedly involves Claptrap, who is always good for a chuckle or 2.

But ultimately, Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt still feels like a complete waste of time. It may be stronger than “Find a Treasure” and “Win a Tournament”, but the plot is nonetheless weak, listless, and predictable. There’s a single twist right at the end, and that’s really just a joke that plays on your expectations of video game conventions, good for a tiny laugh and nothing more. And with such an unremarkable story to work with, the characters and villain in this DLC can’t really do much to liven things up. In the end, this DLC, much like the last couple, doesn’t feel like a new side story to Borderlands 2 so much as it does just an excuse to extend your playtime. $10 for this? What a ripoff.

Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep: Finally! Now this is what I’m talking about!

Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep is great. Just a solid, hard score of Great from me. 2 thumbs up, absolutely. The premise for this DLC is a lot of fun and a creative new approach to Borderlands. The story to it is good, and on a meta-level, it’s very good. It’s engaging and fun throughout, inviting back almost all the major characters of Borderlands 2’s main campaign and using them to their strengths--not to mention, it also brings in Mr. Torgue again, which is a nice bonus, because as disappointing as the previous DLC packages have been, he was definitely a diamond in their rough. It’s funny, with plenty of sidequests that poke fun at the fantasy genre and RPGs, and make fun references (without going too overboard with them, thankfully) to various aspects of geekdom, including even an interesting little look at how longtime geeks feel about this decade’s trend toward nerdy culture becoming more mainstream and finding more socially popular kinds of people experimenting with it. This DLC even has your Vault Hunter say a few lines now and then specific to her/him! It’s a small thing, but it’s something I wish had been done more in the regular game.

Lastly and most noteworthy, Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep is a great use and exploration of the major characters of Borderlands 2. In being a retrospective of the game’s own events, this DLC provides great character development for Tiny Tina, and some decent development for Lilith, Brick, and Mordecai, and it does so with skill both overt and subtle--the scene at the end, as the Handsome Sorcerer is defeated, is a great, well-written piece of obvious character development for Tina and the others, but there’s a lot of dialogue throughout the campaign that subtly reflects the DLC’s purpose and the characters’ development, too. I really love some of the dialogue that the Sorcerer’s Daughter screams while you’re fighting her, very quietly insightful about what this whole DLC’s really about.

Honestly, there is nothing about this DLC not to love. It’s fun, it captures the best aspects of Borderlands 2 perfectly, it’s refreshing, it deepens the characters and lore, it’s silly but also moving...this is 1 of the best RPG add-ons I’ve come across, without question. I don’t even care what the asking price originally was for Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep: it was worth it. This is the perfect final note to this game.

What a damn shame it wasn’t actually the last Borderlands 2 DLC.

T.K. Baha’s Bloody Harvest: I have no idea why this exists.

Okay, fine, that’s not accurate. I know darn well that this DLC exists because capitalism is a bloated, horrific nightmare that’s allowed to grow to its nonexistent heart’s content in the video game industry. Some executive at Gearbox Software decided that he’d rather use twenties than tissues as his cum rags, and so this, and every add-on below, was hastily slapped together.

What I meant was, I have no idea why, from a perspective of actually giving a shit about artistic integrity of storytelling, this exists. It’s a boring, roundabout “Go Here, Kill X” quest with a Halloween theme that involves a minor character who got killed off about 5 minutes into Borderlands 1. There’s no point to this, there’s not much in the way of humor, and frankly, a halfhearted coat of Halloween paint doesn’t actually add anything to the Borderlands 2 experience.

But worse than the fact that this is at best an appetizer of an adventure devoid of any good qualities, is that it’s all that, after Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep. As I said, TTAoDK is, as a DLC, basically the perfect final note for Borderlands 2 to end upon, a closing to a solid game that manages to be pleasingly fresh, comically signature, and meaningfully retrospective to Borderlands 2. So while T.K. Baha’s Bloody Harvest would be a throwaway bit of drudgery under normal circumstances, the fact that it comes after what is clearly and perfectly the end of Borderlands 2’s events just all the more brightly highlights how utterly superfluous and unwelcome this DLC is, how obvious a careless cash-grab that proves its creators value avariciously scamming their benefactors out of more money more than they value the dignity of their art.

This is overpriced at $3, it was overpriced at the $1 sale price I paid for it, and you will miss absolutely goddamn nothing by avoiding it. This is basically the third season to Borderlands 2’s Rurouni Kenshin.

The Horrible Hunger of the Ravenous Wattle Gobbler: This’s just as unnecessary as the last little DLC, but I guess this one’s got enough going for it that it’s not completely worthless. It’s a mildly amusing little Thanksgiving-themed sidequest, which, honestly, you wouldn’t think would work better than the Halloween theme of the last DLC, but somehow it does. I mean, it’s not hilarious, but Mister Torgue, its central figure, is always good for a chuckle or 2, and while they feel like a stretch, I am, ultimately, a sucker for Hunger Games references, and they do strangely sort of fit. But what makes The Horrible Hunger of the Ravenous Wattle Gobbler decent is the fact that it actually has a little bit of story to its events, and that it advances the Borderlands lore, even if only a little bit. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this tiny nugget of an adventure is worth the $3 asking price, but if you can get The Horrible Hunger of the Ravenous Wattle Gobbler on sale (I got it for only $1, myself), then it’s enjoyable enough to be worth picking up.

How Marcus Saved Mercenary Day: There’s a couple halfway decent jokes here, but overall, this Christmas-themed DLC has just about nothing to offer. The overall quest is dull, there’s not really any sense of purpose to it, and the new character is a really overdone Christmas personality caricature. Most of all, the personality holding the whole DLC together is Marcus. With how frequently Marcus is involved in Borderlands 2’s events, I get the feeling that the writers have grossly overestimated how much players care about this guy--he’s not funny, he’s not interesting, he’s not likable. T.K. Baha wasn’t a strong enough or important enough figure that he should have had his own DLC, but at least that guy is friendly. Marcus just has nothing about him that makes an audience give half a shit about him, and having him as the narrative mainstay of this adventure is a point against it. Save your money, even the paltry $3 this would cost, and avoid How Marcus Saved Mercenary Day.

Mad Moxxi and the Wedding Day Massacre: I guess this one’s alright. This little wedding-themed DLC sees a conclusion to the feud between the Hodunks and Zafords, so it does, I guess, actually advance the lore somewhat...although I’m not sure whether anyone actually cares about that subplot enough to warrant a DLC focus. Mad Moxxi’s the main narrative figure in this adventure, and she’s able to carry it fairly well and keep it interesting--which, I guess, makes this her best moment in Borderlands to this point. Ellie’s there, too, a little, and she’s as middle-of-the-road okay as ever. Still, there’s some content here that reaches higher than average, at least, like the happy couple’s bickering, which is funny, the amusingly unexpected (yet somehow obvious) use of Shakespeare right at the end, and, most importantly, quite a few lines of monologue and dialogue spoken by your Vault Hunter. The protagonists of this game get precious little in the way of development within the game itself (especially poor Gaige and Krieg), so these lines are quite welcome, especially since a few of them actually develop the characters while they crack wise.**

I don’t know whether a few decent laughs and some snippets of rare character dialogue are really worth the full $3, but I reckon that Mad Moxxi and the Wedding Day Massacre is at least worth getting on sale, as I did.

Sir Hammerlock vs. the Son of Crawmerax: This is the final DLC for Borderlands 2, and it’ Not bad, I guess. It, like everything after Tiny Tina’s DLC, is just a very short stint more akin to a sidequest than an actual adventure. The main quest for this add-on is rescuing Hammerlock from the son of the big monster from the first game, and it depends way too hard on the strength of your nostalgia for that final big, repeatable boss battle in Borderlands 1. For anyone but a diehard fan of the first game who grinded for hours against Crawmerax, the main affair of this DLC is nothing of interest.

With that said, a lot of the peripheral stuff in this DLC is pretty good. Hammerlock is so-so, as he always has been, but most of the narrative dialogue in this mini-adventure is done through Lilith, Mordecai, and Brick. I’ve become fond of their dynamic, and in addition to being funny, it also advances the lore a bit here and there for them. I’m also pleased with the fact that there are, again, unique lines of monologue for each Vault Hunter as you go through the quests in this DLC, providing decent little snippets of character development/reinforcement (Gaige, as usual, is the best). Lastly, the secondary quest to this DLC involves the Borderlands 2 main characters personally, which is a good way to get in a last little bit of character-building for them. And as I said before, that’s something they all desperately need more of.

I am, admittedly, a little miffed that this is the last DLC to the game (or rather, that it WAS the last DLC to the game; see below). It’s fine enough as a finale to these miniature holiday-themed sidequest-styled add-ons, sure, but as I said above, Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep is the perfect DLC to serve as the epilogue to Borderlands 2, and while there have been some merits to some of these minor packs that came after, we could have done just fine without any of them. That said, however, on its own merit, Sir Hammerlock vs. the Son of Crawmerax isn’t all that bad for its side content, so I suppose it, like the Thanksgiving and Wedding Day DLCs, is worth it if you can get it on sale.

Commander Lilith & The Fight for Sanctuary: This DLC came as a complete surprise to the Borderlands fanbase, as a DLC released for Borderlands 2 a whopping 5 years after the last add-on. Not only that, but it was even a proper DLC, not one of those bite-sized, halfhearted little money-grabs like above 5 were--Commander Lilith & The Fight for Sanctuary is a sizable campaign with a full-on story attached to it! Not to say this thing isn’t a money-grab in its own right, mind’s clearly being released for the express purpose of amping up Borderlands fans for the forthcoming release of Borderlands 3, in the hopes of convincing them to get the new title. Gearbox ain’t doing it out of the kindness of their hearts, or anything.

(It won’t work on me, incidentally. They can release as many promotional adventures as they like, I ain’t buying any game made by a developer that slaps their fans in the nuts with an exclusivity deal on Epic. Fuck those guys).

At the same time, though, they didn’t half-ass this thing, and I have to appreciate that fact, because I daresay most developers would have largely phoned in a marketing stunt DLC for a game released 7 years ago. CL&TFfS presents us with a new adventure occurring long after the events of Borderlands 2 and its add-ons, and also some time after the events of Tales of the Borderlands (can’t speak much to that; I have yet to play it). This new adventure will give you a solid few hours of content, and acts as a preparation for the events of the upcoming Borderlands 3, which is a pretty neat idea. I’ve certainly seen such things handled worse.***

With that appreciation intimated, however, I gotta say, this DLC is pretty uninteresting. I mean, it definitely has some decent moments, I’ll not deny that--Tiny Tina gets a few moments of character development that are just right for where her character is and handled quite well, it’s neat to actually see Butt Stallion in the flesh (er, quartz) instead of just as a part of the previous fantasy DLC, and the finale to the questline about Scooter was pretty touching, which I definitely did not expect, given that I have neither witnessed the events of Tales of the Borderlands nor ever possessed even the slightest interest in his character. And there are certainly several jokes during this DLC’s course which drew a little chuckle from me.

But those are small moments of notable positivity. The rest of the time, things are just...bland. The story of this add-on is ostensibly about Lilith growing into her position as leader of the Crimson Raiders, since Roland is now long-gone. But there’s little substance to that story--you don’t see much really happen on that front, no particular scenes of character growth or catalyst moments to bring about the end result, and frankly, there doesn’t seem to be any noticeable difference between Lilith at the beginning of the DLC and Lilith by its end. The rest of the returning cast is likewise unremarkable for the most part, mostly showing up, I think, just to remind you of their existence so you’ll be on top of things when Borderlands 3 rolls around, and the couple new characters are outright boring, including the antagonist.

And the latter's a real problem, because I'm realizing more and more just how vital a powerful villain personality like Handsome Jack's was to keeping the Borderlands 2 formula functional during the main game...this new villain-of-the-day Hector cannot do what the Borderlands narrative method needs him to. Not to mention that the gruff, single-minded military commander villain archetype is, by this point, beyond stale in this series. This guy’s, what, the third? Hell, that number might be higher; I haven't played the Pre-Sequel or Tales of the Borderlands, so there might be even more boring, overused soldier archetypes in this series than I know.

And beyond the cast, the plot itself is just a by-the-numbers affair that has little to nothing to say to the audience. It tries to cram in a little moral at the end about not realizing that things were already good and didn’t need to be changed or whatever, but it’s a rickety, frail little narrative purpose that expires momentarily after its creation.

Honestly, it all just feels more like Borderlands 1 than Borderlands 2. It's grasping for a humor and style that it just can't quite seem to make properly convalesce.

Also, there’s a rather crappy little sidequest in this DLC about Claptrap know that feeling you get when you’re watching something really, really stupid, and you just feel incredibly embarrassed that this is something you’re actually sitting through? Like just the act of watching or playing something this crappy is a stronger association with it than you're comfortable with? That’s the feeling that you get from the Claptrap sidequest in this add-on. It’s basically a little thing where Claptrap tries to get rich from cryptocurrency, the jokes of which are clearly written by someone whose only knowledge on the subject is from hearing other people mention Bitcoin in passing. I know practically nothing about cryptocurrency and finances in general myself, and even I feel like a fucking economic genius compared to whatever grumpy 120-year-old frontier prospector that Gearbox rescued from a collapsed mine and asked to write the jokes on this one.

More than that, though, there comes a moment in which Claptrap selfishly decides to leave Lilith’s band, now that he’s supposedly rich, and then, when that doesn’t work out, goes begging Lilith to be let back in, all the while with Lilith grunting indifferent assents. Claptrap’s portrayed as a greedy, selfish traitor the whole time.

Now, there's been this recent controversy between Gearbox’s CEO Randy Pitchford, a pathetic, childish narcissist with the kind of temper that one most frequently associates with domestic abuse, and the original voice actor for Claptrap, David Eddings, who left the company and the role after having the audacity to ask to be paid for his work. Knowing this, I can’t possibly believe that this, this sidequest of forcing the selfish, foolish Claptrap to repent and come crawling back to the group he abandoned, is anything but an incredibly immature, pitifully passive-aggressive attack on Eddings by Pitchford. It’s both distasteful and sad to witness, the greasy CEO worm equivalent of a 6-year-old angrily imagining the amazing party with cake and balloons and ice cream that they’re going to have which YOU’RE not INVITED to!

The stuff that denounces Claptrap isn’t even written all that well. Like, there’s a basic level of competence in the overall dialogue of the characters in this game, regardless of whether they’re particularly interesting characters or not, and the stuff Claptrap’s saying that makes him out to be so greedy and stupid and whatnot seems like a cut below the standard. If I had to make a guess, I would, in all honesty, estimate that Randy Pitchford might have written this personal attack himself, been so enamored with the heroic image in his infantile mind of personally delivering these crushers to a character symbolizing Eddings that he wouldn't let anyone else who might be more qualified or, hell, just not a cancerous tumor to the gaming industry as a whole, handle writing it instead.

At any rate, that’s the long and short (but mostly just long; damn I am a wordy bastard) of Commander Lilith & The Fight for Sanctuary. It’s kind of dull, with a few good moments and a single shamefully pathetic one. So what’s the verdict? Well, I didn’t have to pay for it, as it was offered to anyone with Borderlands 2 for free until 07/08/19, so for me, I’ll admit, it was worth playing. It hasn’t left much of an impression on me overall, but it was worth the time I put into it, at least. And keep in mind, I played Borderlands 2 only a year before this DLC came out, so for me, Borderlands 2 is a recent experience--someone who played the game back when it was a current title might get a lot more out of this in terms of nostalgia. So if you can get it during this short window in which it’s free, I’d recommend it; it’s mostly not a negative experience, at least. Once they actually start charging for it, though...I’d say don’t pay more than, say, $3. Wait until there’s a sale. It’s really just not worth more than that.

And with that, I close the book on my Borderlands 2 experience. What’s the verdict? Well, much like comparing Borderlands 1 and 2 as a whole, I find Borderlands 2’s DLCs to be a noticeable step up from the first game. Borderlands 1’s add-ons weren’t all bad, but none were actually worth what they cost, and most weren’t even worth the reduced 25% that I paid for them. Borderlands 2, at least, has 1 add-on that’s actually worth its price of admission, and we did get the recurring character of Mr. Torgue from these things, which is a bonus, even if his main DLC package wasn’t worth it. So Borderlands 2’s DLC landscape is a marked improvement over the first game.

But with that said, when not compared to its predecessor and just judged on its own, Borderlands 2 has a subpar DLC gallery. The majority of these things are just not worth the money, and frankly, even if they were free, a few of these things still wouldn’t even be worth the time. Most of the ones that aren’t just an outright mistake to play through still would only be worth buying for a significantly reduced sale price, or, in the case of the final package, if you got it while it was still free. Yes, there is Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, and that DLC absolutely is great...but no matter how high quality it is, the fact remains that it is the only 1 out of 11 add-ons that actually hit its mark. That’s still better than some games I’ve played, sadly enough, but it’s not acceptable, especially when the high quality of that 1 DLC proves that they were capable of far better. I give Borderlands 2 a thumbs-up overall, but as a whole, its DLC scene doesn’t cut it.

I still miss The Witcher 3.

* Also, I have to say, it really annoys me that they use the same damn joke twice in a row with him. When Captain Scarlett is introduced, her title card amusingly tells you straight up that she is totally gonna betray you. It’s kind of funny that the game’s self-aware enough that it’s gonna spoil what it knows is an obvious plot twist anyway. But then in this DLC, soon after Piston is introduced, Mr. Torgue comments on how obvious it is that the guy is gonna betray you. Once is funny enough to let it slide, but twice? Twice in a row? Really, Borderlands 2?

** What in the world does Gaige see in Hammerlock?

*** Remember that time Xenosaga 3 buried an entire game’s worth of events that occurred between it and its predecessor in a lore codex, and then decided to just march forward without the slightest attempt at introductions and narrative catch-up because it just assumed that the very first thing you wanted to do in the game was sit down and read a bunch of disorganized files and glossary entries for an hour? And how your first opportunity to do so only came after lengthy opening cutscenes involving characters, situations, and references that required that reading to follow?