I was at my friends’ apartment watching the Eagles scrape out an undeserved victory when I tried to pre-order Borderlands 2. It was too close to the game’s release though. Even with my Amazon Prime membership I would have to pay an additional $10 to have it delivered to my door step by Tuesday. My index finger needed something to do; I checked my email and compulsively refreshed Twitter a couple times while I considered how to proceed. Vick threw another interception and I glanced up at the TV in time to catch the replay.
One of my friends passed me a fresh Yuengling.
“Are you definitely getting it right when it comes out?” I asked him.
“Yea—but I might not get to it right away. I’ve got a lot of work to catch up on,” he responded.
“Well, so, are you going to play it that night or not?”
“Probably. After I get some stuff done.”
“So should I get this Tuesday or not?”
“Yea—definitely get it.”
Ordering it from Amazon would be the easiest option, especially if I just waited until Wednesday. But I didn’t want to sit on my hands for a night and end up playing catch up to a partner who was always five or so levels ahead. Still, neither of us would have a whole lot of time to play on Tuesday night, and $10 extra for a game I wasn’t even that crazy about, and probably wouldn’t keep for more than a week, was too capricious even for me. I decided to forgo my Amazon points, and even the delight of coming home from work to a quaint little “parcel” nestled in-between the stack of other correspondence uselessly crowding my mailbox.
“Fuck it…we’re doing it live!”
“I’ll just pick it up from Gamestop on my way home from work.”
Normally I try to avoid this particular retailer as much as possible. Not because, like some, I believe their emphasis on second-hand sales is cannibalizing the industry. I actually don’t believe that it is. No, my aversion to Gamestop is less philosophical and more diffuse. The stores are small and cramped. The staff is often condescending and as aggressive as any car salesperson one is likely to meet. And these two reasons relate closely to a third: the cannibalization not of sales or some amorphous entity known as the “industry,” but rather the borg-like assimilation of every Mom’n Pop video game store I’ve ever had the honor of frequenting. The blood is bad. The grudge is longstanding. But not enough for me to cut Gamestop out of my gaming life entirely. We all have our moments of weakness.
That Tuesday I drove over to the mall near where I work during my lunch break. It is the very model of modern consumer excess. Which would not be so disconcerting if its excess was properly maintained by a bustling amount of customer traffic. At noon in the middle of the week though hollow promises echo overtop the smooth jazz and world pop.
In the hall a vendor who sells smartphone cases is hunched over her computer scrolling down the length of her Facebook newsfeed.
Inside Gamestop one of the employees reassures an uninformed mother that a 3DS is exactly what she came there for. After handing her the bag he turns to me with evaluative eyes. I pull out Mass Effect 3 and Max Payne 3 from under my arm.
“I’d like to trade these in toward Borderlands 2?” I am familiar with the second-hand market. Gamestop’s in particular. I expect little, assume nothing, and raise my eye brows just slightly to signal my humble intentions.
He takes them cautiously, eyeing me with a look of forced pity, as if to say “well, I guess…let’s see what we can do.” He is taking no chances with me. His presentation is dutiful. He’ll see what they can do. I am familiar with the act. I have been in his shoes many times before, though I’ve never worked for Gamestop, and the exchange never involved video games. But the transactions being conducted were essentially the same.
Then, for just a moment, he drops the entire facade—a move I can’t help interpret as anything but pure dickishness. Having scanned both titles he looks at his computer monitor, then back at me, back at his monitor, and back at me, before looking me up and down as if to make it clear to me that he can make up whatever number he wants for the credit value of my offering.
“$22. Plus since it’s toward Borderlands you’ll get an additional 30%.”
“Great, great. Sounds good,” I stutter. Time is moving on and I want to get something from McDonald’s before heading back to work.
“Do you have a pre-order for Borderlands?”
“Umm, no, why, are you guys all out?” There is no way they are all out. They never are. Pre-orders’ are a scam.
“Hmm, let me check. You know you really should pre-order next time,” he chides me. Fuck you guy, hurry up and get me Borderlands. He comes back seconds later with a box of Xbox 360 copies.
“I’ll have to open our “reserves.” Don’t worry, it’s alright. We don’t like to, but if we must. You know you really should pre-order—“
“—Yea I’ll make sure next time.”
“I don’t know if you’ll get the pre-order dlc now. You really should—“
The rest of the exchange consists of him telling me at length about the DLC that I may or may not get, depending on whether the Gamestop gods ordain that it shall be printed out on my receipt. He lectures me about loot and how different colors designate different levels of rarity and how one item in the DLC package, which I may not get, will give me a better chance of collecting rarer loot.
He finally rings me up.
“Would you like to renew your Rewards Membership? With the extra trade-in value it’ll only cost—“
“—Yea, yea, I’ll take it.” I’m such a sop.
“The guide book is 30%—“
“—No thanks.” Not that much of a sop.
“You can also save on the game’s DLC season pass—“
He finishes the deal. My receipt prints out. The redeemable code is there! I push on, out of the store, and to the dismally tiled food court for my double burger before heading back to work. In the parking lot at work I palm the translucent green package with one hand while the other shoves the last gratuitous bite of a generally unnecessary meal into my mouth. The fast food coma would set in soon, but for now I was still riding high on the wave of dopamine it was pumping through my system. And the anticipation of playing Borderlands 2 that night would sustain me for the rest of the afternoon.
My only experience with the first Borderlands was the ten to fifteen minutes I spent watching someone else play it on the giant flat screen in their parent’s bedroom. There were clothes everywhere and we sat on his bed because his TV was busted, or something, I can’t remember. Untold shooting and a fair amount of NPC screaming ensued. We joked: “There will be numbers,” “There will be bodies,” and “There will be loot.” I expected no less from its long (over?) hyped successor.
That night I unwrapped the plastic and popped the disc into my 360. My friend invited me to join his game, but I needed to input my codes first. Over my headset I told him about the guy at Gamestop.
“Yea man, who the fuck cares. How much longer is your download going to take anyway?” he asked.
“Not much longer,” I told him. “Apparently I get a relic that boosts the ratios on rare loot getting dropped.”
He explained that he hadn’t gotten the pre-order codes on his receipt. He was a little miffed. “You should really pre-order the game next time,” I told him.
Borderlands 2’s beginning took me by surprise. The arctic refuge you traverse is wrapped in the quieting effect of a light snow fall. Pandora’s Northern Lights are melancholic, subdued by the infringing eye of that giant Hyperion space station that watches over the planet. In the icy wilderness you feel isolated, despite never actually being alone; people constantly talk at you through a transceiver. And yet the existential solitude remains, even if never forcing you to fully confront it.
My friend, playing a Siren, ran ahead, pushing us through the game’s tutorialized introduction while I, playing a Gunzerker, trudged through the snow trying to get my bearings. It was months since I’d last picked up a first person game, let alone a shooter, and my muscle-memory needed some time to re-adapt itself.
So instead of heading up the vanguard as my character was supposed to, I came in late to most of the fire fights, emptying every container and picking up every stray bit of cash I could get my hands on. This was in fact even more disorienting. Though I got back into the swing of lighting up monsters and blowing bandits’ heads away faster than not, it was the constant looting that paralyzed me the most.
I was hooked, instantly and against my will. It went from fun to ridiculous very fast. I wouldn’t need ammunition, and the amount of money you can grab early on doesn’t really warrant the time you spend trying to stop and pick it up. It didn’t matter. I was a loot fiend in the worst kind of way: grabbing useless junk and opening nonsense containers just for the thrill of seeing what was inside. I couldn’t make myself stop. And it was awesome.
Borderlands 2 knows this, taking full advantage of the players at its disposal. It has several endorphin loops layered over top of the other, each dripping with positive feedback. First I was collecting Benjamins, next I was hoarding guns. Then came the uridium, and the hankering for “just one more level-up,” to which I could never mount any substantive resistance.
At some point I picked up a new relic, but after considering all the rare loot I might miss if I dropped my current one, thought better of it and thrust it aside. I had bought Borderlands 2 with the original intent of “experiencing” it—of bringing my own self-centered justice to Pandora’s less civilized provinces. Little did I know that the planet’s brutish sprawl had already been “civilized” by capitalist arrangements and consumptive impulses more devastating than anything I was packing. Only three hours in and I was already feeling the effects.
For the next seven days my friend and I logged in every night and played Borderlands 2. The time was spent somewhat equally between getting further in the story and completing side missions to build up levels and test out our continually evolving arsenals. The game is intensely cyclical, almost transactional, with most of its missions constructed something like the following: Go to A, meet B, find C, take C back to A, go tell B. It is not so different, in fact, from the way that most of our lives, the ones taking place in late capitalism’s West at least, are organized.
Indeed, each day in which I played Borderlands 2 followed an unsettlingly familiar trajectory. Despite manufacturing’s relative decline in advanced economies, the organizational practices and methods it inspired live on for everyone who goes to school and most people who have a job. The assembly line still rules our lives, informed by our fealty to efficiency and low prices.
I have a spreadsheet I keep in order to maintain my bank account’s solvency. It consists of bimonthly paydays and weekly bills. If my life could be distilled into cash flows it would be the size of roughly 200 kilobytes. If my life were the sum total of all time spent not sleeping, producing, or consuming, it would be about three and a half hours, or just over a tenth of the total time my heart will spend beating on any given day.
In Borderlands 2 you play as a vault hunter, that is, a freelancer. You complete missions, and confront Handsome Jack and the Hyperion Corporation, in exchange for experience, money, and sometimes items. If my “experience” with Borderlands 2 could be distilled into the subtraction of inputs (ammunition and equipment, level-ups and bad ass tokens) from outputs (people met, places scene, and missions completed), it would scarcely warrant further discussion. But even if I can’t actually perform the calculus, the question persists: what have I gained during my time on Pandora?
By the following Monday night my friend and I embarked on the game’s final story missions. I had become a fast draw which meant that I had gotten pretty slick at running alongside a bunch of containers and opening each before running back the other way and grabbing anything and everything that was inside them.
My gun skills had gotten decidedly less smooth though. I’m not sure if the game keeps a counter for how many times you’ve died and been regenerated by the Hyperion Corp. If it does I hope never to stumble upon it. By the end of the game I had maxed out certain character traits enough to go into Gunzerker mode more often and for longer periods of time. And a class modifier gave me bonus damage (but lower accuracy) for dual-wielding two of the same kinds of weapons. This meant two automatic pistols, and two sub-machine guns.
Consequently I turned into a one-man engine of fiscal expansionism, making the Hyperion Corp. tens of thousands of dollars as I bought hundreds and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Never backing up, down, or behind cover, I destroyed enemies quickly, and died even more quickly. But you can’t put a price on the rush built off headshots, elemental effects, and disemboweling robots.
Except that there are in fact many ways to put a price on it.
$60 for the game. A certain percentage of my character’s wealth upon every regeneration. Countless hours between the boundaries of work and sleep spent tromping through the game’s exploitative wastelands on the hunt for momentary thrills. The Hyperion Corporation was there for the uridium and the vault. I was there to pop off a few thousand bad guys and collect some rare loot. We’d both be leaving once we’d gotten what we came for.
If by this point any part of you is wondering why I haven’t dwelled on the game’s story it’s because there isn’t one—Borderland’s 2 is akin to Beckett’s How It Is; an exercise in trying to find out just how much a plot can be reduced before it disappears altogether. Boiling down its MacGuffins into a lukewarm soup of postmodern reflexivity and ironic wit, the game points out the futility of your endeavors and its narrative project at every available turn. Like life, capitalism’s sick joke is played out just slowly enough to be missed entirely if you’re not paying attention, i.e. too busy spending, acquiring, and consuming while ping-ponging back and forth between objectives.
In the physical world we live, laugh, work long hours and buy tons of shit, and then die. Borderlands eradicates the dying though and collapses this impasse, allowing players to repeat this cycle as many times as they need to in order to reach the point where your skill tree is complete and your guns are flawless. Not to “what end,” but to “no end,” with the perfect load-out rendered useless by every enemy and obstacle’s inability to oppose it. You can’t take anything from this life into the next, and in Borderlands you wouldn’t want to.
Staring down this abyss as my friend and I came to the end of the game, a silence settled over the static hum of our two headsets. Is this what we came here all this way for? To fight a “Warrior” just 10 meters north of a respawn point? The waves of lava and cavernous fires were not for show: this was hell. To live, die, and be reborn, only to re-encounter the same old chore with each additional incarnation. After a few minutes the HP density of the beast in front of us started to sink in, just like the endless streams of bullets being unloaded upon it. The work was steady; the payoff continually diminishing.
It was already nearing one in the morning, with work to look forward to the next day, and I moved to my side so that I could be half lying down in my bed as my friend and I set ourselves to extinguishing the last quarter of the enemy’s health bar. Stopping to catch a breather I went downstairs to pick my last bottle of Dog Fish Head with the hopes of numbing myself to the cloud of disappointment swirling around the AM victory lap.
When our tedious slaughter finally proved successful, weapons, cash, and ammunition splashed across the map as if several hundred loot pixies had all combusted simultaneously. It was magical, comforting, and made the led something to quicken inside me as I ran toward the itemized deluge. The fix was in, my buzz was restored—oh hallelujah! Praise Hyperion! Thank you 2K! Long live Gearbox!
To say this euphoria was only momentary would be an understatement. After collecting, exchanging, and selling the loot pile remained properly ravaged. My friend’s and I’s avatars looked at one another with growing resignation. Our temporary high was crashing. We went forward. The credits rolled. “Dude, I’m never playing another minute of Borderlands again,” we both muttered in unison.
So what had I gained from playing Borderlands 2?
This question still dogged me, and I tried to seriously answer it while on my way to work the next morning. I had, indirectly, gained a greater appreciation for the peculiar fascination of gun lovers. When your mode of being in the world is reduced to shooting, comparing, and exchanging guns, this is probably likely to occur. Looking at shape and functionality, advantages and disadvantages, manufacturer and design—all of these considerations result in a greater appreciation for the thing itself instead of the negative outcomes associated with it. Perhaps then, I could file away this slight emotional insight and recall it for empathetic effect next time I argued about gun rights with other people. Perhaps.
I certainly enjoyed my time early in the game spent lumbering across Pandora’s tundra. These moments of thoughtful seclusion were both calming and restorative. Much like taking a stroll through the neighborhood or a nearby park, coming home each day to hike through Gearbox’s quirky environments and varied climates was a nice way to wind down from the day. At least in the beginning.
And the game’s wit is undeniable, if at times somewhat taunting. I would not be surprised if my faculty for irony and sardonic humor was greatly enhanced by Borderlands 2’s penchant for uber-self-awareness.
At which point the nagging feeling that I had actually gained nothing from my time with the game blossomed into full-blown remorse. I felt frustrated, alone, and somewhat empty. Except the dizzying northern lights of Pandora, its satire and endless cycle of reward and progress were not. Work was slow. Mostly predictable. And no one there is very funny. No loot to collect either, though there is a vending machine. Much like those in Borderlands 2 though what’s inside always—without exception—fails to live up to the anticipation prior to looking. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll be something in those glinting, old-world, mechanical spirals that will make this morning brighter than the dark tinted office windows will otherwise allow. Maybe.
What Borderlands 2 did manage to do was to bring this hopeful consumerism not just into my home (Amazon has already done that), but into the limitless space of my imagination. In fact, unlike Amazon packages which arrive all too infrequently, Gearbox had created a playground littered with smiling packages just waiting to be stripped open and plundered. Some of them need to be shot first. Others just need their lid removed or button pressed. All of them contain a highly sought after fragment of physiological gratification.
That day after getting back from work I stopped at the beer distributor (Welcome to Pennsylvania). This one in particular is known for stocking imports and micro-brews. Cases of autumn seasonal and Oktoberfest beers lined the entrance. I decided to be festive. The autumn leaves were changing outside, but I wasn’t feeling very connected to that colorful molting. I hoped a case of Troeg’s Dead Reckoning w0uld jog my synapses with its unique blend of “coffee and cocoa characteristics,” “earthy tones,” and “pretty assertive” hops.
That night, beer in hand, I itched to put Borderlands 2 back in for another spin. I don’t know why. I understood, in some capacity, that I didn’t want to play Borderlands 2 anymore— only some stunted, junkified part of me did. Still, soon enough I had plugged in my headset and located my friend online. We started playing through the game again together. Neither of us asked what the other was doing still playing. Neither of us had to.
I played until I was too drunk and tired to make out the stat comparisons on my 20” standard def TV. The next day, during my lunch break, I posted Borderlands 2 for sale on my Amazon seller’s account. There were only five other used copies listed at the time. When I refreshed my email ten minutes later it had already sold, fetching a net total of $40. That night I played more Borderlands 2. And the next one. And for several hours over the weekend. I told myself I would ship it on my way back to work that Monday.
A week later it remained unshipped. I canceled the order issuing an “inventory shortage” as my excuse. I came to terms with the fact that I wasn’t going to sell Borderlands 2. That I would probably waste an indefinite of my time on earth playing it. This is one definition of despair, a result of 21st century America’s bourgeois accoutrements.
Thank God for this kind of despair. I am one of the lucky ones, unlike the countless number of bandits, bullymogs, and other Borderlands creatures in need of “civilizing,” as well as the greater part of the real world’s population, neither of which inhabits a cushy perch from which the phrase, “Thank God,” can said so ironically.
If I could’t sell Borderlands 2, I could still displace it – order another game and scratch my itch for “something new” and “different.” So I logged onto Amazon to refresh my memory of what was coming out soon. I sought out games to preorder, checking for special deals and compelling limited addition offerings. I ordered Pokemon White & Black 2. Both copies, since my brother wanted one and it would give us both someone to play against and “co-experience” the game with.
The next week they showed up. Pulling back the metal lid of my mailbox, something in my brain turned on and pushed other anxieties gently from my mind. Brown is a dull color, but not the brown of an Amazon package – no, that brown is is patches of electricity woven together to yield an emotional uplift. It’s like the familiar excitement of when a friend text messages you, or when you recognize someone’s name who you miss on the margin on GChat.
I took the packages inside and handed one to my brother as I passed his room before taking the other upstairs to my room. On my wall-length bookcase sat numerous purchases from days, weeks, and years passed, now bereft of that initial surge of magic. I made my way to my bed, making sure to step out of the way of several stacks of books and comic books, and opened the package and shed the game’s plastic. I palmed the case for a few minutes, admiring its shine and fresh smell. Then I took out the game and put it into my DS to begin traipsing through another world, to begin work on a new collection.
You can purchase moments of bliss, and have them sent to your home, and they have no observable negative health effects. They are expensive and short lived, though.
Still, I have money to spare, and they are cheaper than the alternatives.
Further Reading: Waves (Medium Difficulty)