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Hi, I’m Anthony Burch, lead writer of Borderlands 2 and its DLC. And today I’m going to talk about inclusivity.
I went to the #1ReasonToBe panel at Game Developers Conference this year, and something Mattie Brice said stood out to me:
“…[developers] are not explicitly saying “you are welcome here,” and because not, we assume we aren’t welcome. That is such an easy thing to correct.”
Upon hearing that, I wanted to clearly state the following: you are welcome here. Regardless of your race, gender, religion or sexual orientation, I personally want Gearbox to be an open and welcoming place to you. I can only speak for myself, of course – I’m just a jerkbag writer who’s been in the industry for less than five years – but I believe that you can see evidence of attempts at inclusivity throughout Borderlands 2.
A WARNING: It’s entirely likely that this article will come off incredibly arrogant, self-congratulatory, and condescending. You’re going to see a lot of “I wanted to do this” and “I feel that this is important,” not because I want to take credit for all of the things mentioned in this article (the vast majority of coolness I’m going to discuss comes from our artists and the voice actors), but because I don’t want to speak for anybody else. Discussions about inclusivity can get pretty hairy pretty quickly, and I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth. Again: this may all come off as irritating and self-congratulatory, and I’m sorry about that.
So, yes. I wanna talk about inclusivity in Borderlands 2, but I also wanna point out that the following examples aren’t perfect, by any means. After all, I haven’t forgotten that Borderlands 2 was rightfully mentioned in Anita Sarkeesian’s (extremely intelligent and important) Tropes vs Women in Video Games series and I will make it my goal to never be highlighted in such a context again. Like I said, I’m just a jerkbag writer – I still have a long way to go, and I need all the help I can get. Please feel free to suggest how I can improve either by hitting the forums or by emailing me firstname.lastname@example.org
Anyway! With those hojillion caveats aside: let’s talk about inclusivity in Borderlands 2. Let’s talk about characters like Ellie.
Ellie specifically bucks against the stereotypes that all female video game characters must conform to mass-market definitions of beauty (not to mention, if I can digress for a moment, the fact that even our more conventionally attractive characters like Lilith and Maya still have infinitely more realistic proportions than most games).
Her look, concepted by Matias Tapia, is considerably more realistic than most female video game NPCs. She exists not as eye candy for some assumed type of (heterosexual, male, 18-27 year old) player, but as a character in and of herself – a character who finds herself beautiful, and refuses to be the butt of anyone’s joke. Ever.
This is why when you first meet her, Ellie is squashing a guy in a car crusher and mockingly ignoring his insults as she pulls the lever. She definitely has to deal with insults about her body on a daily basis, but she refuses to give them any credence: she likes the way she looks, and that’s pretty much all that matters (this is basically the theme of the sidequest “Positive Self Image” where a bunch of bandits make hood ornaments of Ellie’s likeness in an attempt to mock her size, but she thinks the ornaments are so awesome that she asks you to kill the bandits and bring them back to her). Anyone who wants to argue with that, in Ellie’s opinion, is just plain wrong. She considers conventional definitions of beauty limiting, and ultimately pointless.
When I see cosplay like this, I feel stupendously happy, and ludicrously proud of the art team who created Ellie (Concept – Matias Tapia, Character Model / Texture – Kevin Penrod, Rigging – Ryan Metcalf, Animation – Dia Hadley, Jimmie Jackson, James Houchen, Josh Rearick). I love knowing that Hija found Ellie cool, inspiring, or relatable enough to cosplay as her.
Axton the Commando
We also have a few gay or bisexual characters in Borderlands 2. Sir Hammerlock is gay – you’re given a quest to find some old audio recordings by Hammerlock’s ex-boyfriend – and had an entire DLC all to himself. I’m also happy to say that in Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, we confirm that Mister Torgue (an NPC who also had a DLC named after him) and Axton (our playable Commando class) are bisexual.
In a slightly-related story, Axton had some bi-curious dialog in the main game due to a slight hiccup in the writing process. Initially, I wrote a bunch of character-specific reviving dialog so that if you revived Sal while playing as Axton, he might say, “on your feet, soldier,” but if you revived Maya, he’d say, “woah – do you, uh, work out?” We didn’t end up actually getting the character-specific code implemented but the lines all stayed, so in the released game you can revive any male character and Axton still has a small chance to hit on him. After we mentioned this in an interview and some people on our forums expressed a bit of disappointment that he wasn’t intentionally bisexual, I put some more overt dialog in Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep to confirm that, actually, yes – dude is bisexual.
Now, why are these characters gay or bisexual? The answer is simple: we wanted to make our cast more diverse and inclusive, and it cost us effectively nothing to do so. We’ve received only a few negative emails or forum feedback about these characters. In fact, the positive feedback faroutweighed the negative feedback – how often can you say that on the Internet – and by being more inclusive, we’ve potentially increased our audience. In the future, I’d like to be even more overt in discussing the sexuality of gay or bisexual characters (as this blog post by Robert Yang points out, the “just mention that they’re gay but don’t make a big deal out of it” style of characterization can be limiting in its own way), but these first tiny steps are still worthwhile, in my opinion.
Switching gears for a moment, I want to point out this amazing email about a Borderlands 2 NPC named Karima, who is a chronic stutterer:
I was playing Borderlands 2 today when I came across the NPC Karima in the medicine man mission. At first I was a bit angry she had a stutter –I was hit in the head with shrapnel from an IED in al-anbar Iraq and have problems talking – because the stereotypes surrounding stutterers are not kind. Communication is one of the defining pieces of humanity and when you cannot communicate to those around you, they tend to view you as lesser. I can’t tell my daughter I love her without struggling through those 3 little words. I quickly realized the mission was written such and clearly illustrated just how evil Hyperion is. She was a very sympathetic character. Whoever wrote this went 180 degrees away from what I thought was going to happen in this case. Thank you. In a game where bat shit craziness is the norm – the writers injected a very subtle bit of humanity. For whatever reason, this really struck me. Thank you for taking the high road here. You skipped over cheap laughs here and in so doing made a big impact. Thank you.
Now, I’ll be completely honest – when writing the character of Karima, I did not intend to get this reaction. Karima stutters purely because, while you never meet her in person, we needed to give the player some sense that Hyperion’s presence had harmed her in some way. Giving her a stutter made her affliction clear, and allowed for an easy way to show the player’s actions had meaning – after the first mission, she no longer stutters. Nobody comments on it or mocks her for it because it honestly never occurred to me. In fact, the only mockery Karima receives are gendered insults from a misogynist named Dave, who ends the quest by dying violently (because, like the bandits Ellie crushes to death, I take great pleasure in making bigots and sexists pay for their douchery).
After reading this email, however, I can say with some certainty that if Karima ever shows up again, she will have her stutter back – permanently – and we will continue to write her exactly as we did before. The knowledge that something we did (however unintentionally) touched someone in this kind of personal way is, to say the least, pretty damned great. This email showed me the power of inclusivity in all of its forms.
And just in case this article isn’t already too self-serving, I’ll close with a tidbit from Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep.
I’ve found the whole “fake geek girl” thing alternately interesting and depressing, so there’s a quest about it in Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep. It’s called “Fake Geek Guy,” because my writing is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. To the face. Of your grandmother. Anyway, “Fake Geek Guy” consists of Mister Torgue (a big, muscly dude) having to prove to Lilith (a woman) that he is a true geek and not just feigning interest in tabletop roleplaying because it’s popular. Though Lilith has her reasons for being skeptical of Torgue (“When I was a kid,” she said, “everybody made fun of me for two reasons: my tattoos, and my love of tabletop RPGs”), she’s incredibly mean and condescending to him. In the end, Lilith learns that Torgue shouldn’t have to prove himself and lets him join in the festivities.
My hopes – in my case my incredibly unsubtle summary of my incredibly unsubtle story didn’t make it clear – are twofold. Firstly, I hope some of the guys who beat the “fake geek girl” drum in the past will in some way empathize with Torgue, and therefore with any woman who has ever been on the other side of that argument. Secondly, I hope women – especially the ones accused of being fake geeks – will find something to sympathize with.
In the end, I’d like to be even more inclusive going forward – I want the casts of games I write to get even more diverse. I can only hope that the steps I’ve mentioned here are good ones, and that this article makes it clear that whoever you are – whatever your background, or race, or gender, or religion, or sexual orientation, or mental or physical condition – you are welcome here.