Warning: This post contains spoilers for Borderlands 2 and its downloadable content Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep.
Few games do comedy well, and it is extremely rare to find one that does satire well. Borderlands 2’s main game hits the first mark in that it succeeds in being genuinely funny thanks to sharp writing and several clever parodies, but the fourth DLC, Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, has moments of pointed social satire hardly found in other games. The narrative structure and the fact that it is DLC provides fertile ground for Horatian satire without compromising Borderlands 2’s trademark tragic/comic tone.
The plot is structured as a framed narrative, a story within a story. The outer story describes Tiny Tina’s Bunkers and Badasses (read: Dungeons and Dragons) campaign, which she plays with the three remaining original characters: Lilith, Mordecai, and Brick. The inner story is the fantasy world where the gameplay takes place. Here the player fights orcs, skeletons, and wizards in a medieval setting inspired by Tiny Tina’s imagination. The fantasy story is a comic retelling of Borderlands 2’s original story while the tabletop story is about how Tina, a 13-year-old girl traumatized by the loss of her parents, comes to accept the death of Roland.
Above: Handsome Jack is recast as the Handsome Sorcerer, the DLC’s main villain.
As a franchise, Borderlands ’s tone has always been two shots wacky, one shot sad. “Any goofy wacky moments,” said lead writer Anthony Burch, “are anchored in something more serious, or more meaningful.” Tiny, for example, is a wonderfully comic character who spouts lines like, “Real badasses eat chocolate chip cookies. I’m gonna get that tattooed across my back in Old English font.” Yet, Tina is also tragic. In the quest “You Are Cordially Invited,” the player finds out that her parents were tortured to death, which subsequently shattered her mind and turned her into the person she is now. It is testament to developer Gearbox Software and Burch’s writing that the tone of the main Borderlands 2 game mixes the tragic and the comic so well. Like oil and water, tragedy and comedy do not often mix; however, Borderlands 2 manages to emulsify the two.
Even through the goofy and wacky moments in Borderlands 2’s main story heavily outweigh the serious ones, the game ultimately plays its story straight. The overarching narrative driving the player is the quest to save Pandora, and it is the serious moments (saving Sanctuary, the death of Angel, killing Handsome Jack) that move the main plot forward. The comic and satirical elements often come out through side quests and dialogue.
Unlike the main game, Assault on Dragon Keep’s framed narrative separates the comic and tragic elements. The tragic elements, like oil, float to the top (the outer, tabletop narrative) while the comic elements, like water, remain at the bottom (the inner, fantasy narrative). The tragic element that fuels the outer narrative, as mentioned, is Tiny Tina coming to accept the death of Roland. She does this by creating the inner narrative, the fantasy campaign that parodies the events of the original game.
As a form of wish fulfillment, Tina will inject Roland into the game as an nonplayable character (comically voiced by Tina). In another example, the player fights the evil sorcerer’s daughter, who is a parody of Angel. When Lilith asks why the players had to kill the sorcerer’s daughter, who “wasn’t as bad as you seem to think she was,” Tina’s response is telling. If not for Angel, everything would have been OK. She clearly still harbors grief and resentment. At the end of the DLC, though, Tina has used the fantasy campaign to work through her feelings and finally comes to accept Roland’s death. Emotionally, this personal story hits harder than anything in Borderlands 2’s main game. However, the emotional weight of the tabletop narrative is balanced by the sheer zaniness of the fantasy world.
Above: Roll for initiative, SUCKAS! After that, we’re going on a harrowing emotional journey.
There are any number of examples where the fantasy world turns the wackiness up to 11, which in turn provides the foundation for satire. Fortunately, Gearbox took this opportunity to include a few instances of pointed social satire in Borderland’s goofy, over-the-top style. This is not sharp and aggressive satire; rather, it is Horatian satire that playfully criticizes some social vice and directs gentle, mild, and lighthearted humor toward what it identifies as folly instead of evil.
The side quest “MMORPGFPS,” for instance, makes fun of player behavior in massively multiplayer online games, or MMOs. The player comes across three NPCs waiting for a monster to respawn. In order to kill the monster, the player must grief the NPCs, causing them to rage quit. This quest is more than the simple wink and a nudge reference humor (as in the “Lost Souls” quest, which parodies the game Dark Souls).
Similarly, “Ell in Shining Armor” makes fun of the sexist depictions of women in fantasy. In this simple fetch quest, the player picks up armor for Ellie, who is about to become a guard at Flamerock Refuge (the main hub town). The player must decide to bring her a typically skimpy piece of armor or find one which is more practical and “less atrociously sexist.” Ellie is quick to point out that “it ain’t like the bad guys are going to aim for my saucy bits.” One has to admit Ellie makes a good point — one that makes the typical hypersexualized images of women in fantasy seem even more absurd.
Above: You could be practical …
Above: … or you could be as sexist and absurd as every other fantasy game character.
The “Fake Geek Guy” quest, though, is perhaps the DLC’s sharpest example of satire. Early in the main quest line, Mr Torgue joins the tabletop campaign as an NPC. After assigning a couple of ridiculous quests to the heroes, Tina makes Mr Torque prove he’s a true geek by answering a series of wildly esoteric questions about nerd culture. Mr Torque fails, but the group acknowledges it was being exclusionary, and he is allowed to keep playing. (After all, even though he hasn’t suffered for his geekiness, he is still interested in “sci-fi, fantasy, and unicorns and bleep.”) The satire here lies in making fun of the exclusionary nature of nerd culture and the aggression against “fake geek girls.”
Above: “Torgue, why are you even playing? We all know you aren’t actually interested in nerdy stuff, muscle-boy.” Why is it funny to exclude Mr Torgue but OK to hate on geek girls?
It is commendable that Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep takes the opportunity to lampoon real social problems in geek subculture. After the success of Borderlands 2 and its three previous installments of DLC, Gearbox clearly felt it could take a few risks with the franchise, one of which was social satire. Given the successful use of Horatian satire and the dearth of any other games that do it well, one can only hope it becomes a staple of Borderlands in the future. Assault on Dragon Keep is overall a fantastic addition to Borderlands 2 and, more importantly, it shows how DLC can explore new themes and ideas.