The Mechanics Of Irony

Borderlands 2 builds that troublesome device into its code.

By: Joseph Leray

Filed Under: Action Mechanics Role-playing Shooters


The funniest quest in Borderlands 2 is about delivering mail to some skagshit-drenched hovel in the dilapidated region of Three Horns. Most habitations in Pandora are rundown and covered in grime, but Three Horns is particularly desolate.

Given Borderlands shtick as a dystopian Western, it’s not surprising that Three Horns’ resident mailman has been crippled by bandits or that Dino, his supervisor, would hire a robot mercenary named Zer0 to fill in. This a hostile, lawless place. Awful, gruesome things happen to morally ambivalent people.

When the mission is complete, a snippet of exposition tells us that the beleaguered mailman straps pogo sticks to his legs and springs back into action, and Zer0 is relieved of dury. This is an example of writing and dialogue typical of Borderlands: gory, violent, crass, crude, ironic, and kind of goofily funny.

I think most people, myself included, like the writing in Borderlands 2. By and large, it’s sharp and clever and shows a knack for characterization absent in the first game. But the most profound humor in that quest, called “Neither Rain nor Sleet nor Skags” – and indeed, the entire game – is a function of its curious mish-mash of role-playing game and shooter tropes, not the pithy dialogue.


It’s a timed quest: your Vault Hunter of choice has 90 seconds to deliver five pieces of mail. The mailboxes aren’t far from the starting point, but they’re in a section of Three Horns likely unfamiliar to you. Anxious about your time, you set off, heading straight toward a multi-level shanty town.

The settlement is called the Frostsprings, and the quest is a great, early introduction to Borderlands 2’s emphasis on vertical enemy encounters: bandits, nomads, and marauders snipe at you from balconies and emerge from beneath stairwells. Frostsprings is full of hallways and corridors, nooks and crannies, and small, tight places. The mailboxes are, of course, well hidden.

“Neither Rain nor Sleet nor Skags” happens very early in Borderlands 2 — without the complex set of tricks and skills available to end-game players, it mostly behaves like a standard first-person shooter. A ticking timer wreaks havoc on best-laid plans — lost, panicked, and exposed to gunfire from all directions, I died several times in this section. The Frostsprings were my own Mogadishu.

I imagine this type of encounter seemed fun in theory, in some design session at Gearbox: the verticality of the town is more dynamic than, say, a corridor or an arena fight, and the timer introduces another layer of risk and reward.

It is, however, unreasonable to expect players to perform suboptimally, and this quest simply was not working for me, the elegance of its design be damned. The frustration of dying over and over, though, was the catalyst for a different type of irony, one borne out of manipulation of the game’s mechanics rather than NPCs telling jokes.

It turns out that, in a game full of gallows humor, “Neither Rain nor Sleet nor Skags” is perhaps the darkest, most brutally ironic mission.

The punchline, such as it is, of the joke is this: the easiest way to complete “Neither Rain nor Sleet nor Skags” is to slaughter everyone first, find each mailbox, and then activate the timer at the beginning of the quest. You can then deliver the mail in peace, to a ghost town. The dead do not read mail, especially when it is being delivered by the haiku-spouting assassin that just killed them.

It’s surreal, it’s absurd, and it’s a perfect lens into the tensions inherent in Borderlands.


RPGs are populated by people that give you mundane tasks — there is a quest in Final Fantasy IX that involves tracking down a lighthouse operator’s favorite coffee, and I once had to return a pair of lost pants to a drunk in a Kirkish tavern in Dragon Age II. There are rats in basements that need slaughtering, and mail in post-apocalyptic wastelands that needs delivering. This tedium highlights vibrant, livable, and internally consistent RPG worlds. There’s something realistic about that mundanity.

First-person shooters, on the other hand, only work in situations in which it makes sense to massacre a shitload of dudes. Most shooters are framed as wars, fantasy adventures, or revenge plots to account for this. Borderlands 2’s Vault Hunters are equal parts freedom fighters and mercenaries — Handsome Jack, the charismatic, a megalomaniacal robber-baron with a plastic face who acts as Borderlands 2’s primary antagonist, calls them terrorists.

Uncharted’s Nathan Drake is famously cavalier about nonchalant violence, an idea pilloried by Borderlands 2’s own Engineer enemies; the blue-collar staff of the evil, intergalactic corporation we’re fighting against. They die quite noisily: “I almost paid off the house!” and “I was only two days away from retirement!” are the common death-gargles.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Yannick LeJacq sums it up: “To reconcile the discrepancy between its androcentric cultural aesthetic as a manshooter and its ‘nerdy’ internal mechanisms as an RPG, Borderlands 2 bridges the gap the same way it does everything: in the loudest, most blatant way possible.”

Borderlands skates around the issue by being hyperbolic, exaggerated, and self-aware, and it creates irony by mixing its RPG mundanity with its FPS aggression, by making the mail recipients and your enemies the same people. The presumed beneficiaries of RPG tedium — the townspeople and commoners whose lives are improved by the hero’s problem-solving skills — are, in this case, a band of violent, aggressive, and possibly cannibalistic psychopaths.

The biggest takeaway from “Neither Rain nor Sleet nor Skags,” then, isn’t that Borderlands is full of MMO-inspired fetch-quests (which it is). It’s that the game uses FPS gameplay to make those fetch-quests funny, to push them out of the mundane and into gruesome, gory absurdity. Violence becomes, if not a punchline, the set-up to one.


The further into Borderlands 2 one progresses, the more the gunplay becomes a means to an end, and less an end unto itself. A few hours after the mail mission, you’ll be dispatched to a different bandit encampment in the tundra, to destroy their heaters. “They’ll be too cold to fight!” you’re told. The joke, of course, is that they become enraged when the heat goes out and the bandits fight you anyway. Later, you’ll find a non-playable character named Face McShooty, and his quest is simple: “Shoot me in the goddamned face!” Borderlands 2 as Gallagher routine.

There are a handful of investigative quests, too: someone was murdered in the hub-town of Sanctuary, for example, and the sheriff (of course) needs the Vault Hunter’s help. You could interview the other townspeople and learn about the crime: only one shot was fired (this rules out the suspect with the grenade launcher); the town doctor healed someone after the barkeep roughed him up for getting rowdy. Knowing how shields and health in Borderlands 2 work is crucial to correctly identifying the guilty party.

Or, you can just shoot one of the potential four candidates. It doesn’t matter who, the sheriff doesn’t care: the quest completes, and Zer0 claims his reward no matter what. It’s a poke in the eye to anyone who used an old envelope to draft up a logic-grid and used the game’s mechanics to figure it out.

This trend — of making violence abstract, of reworking the mechanics of each joke to take the game’s tropes into account — culminates in the Eridium Blight, a post-apocalyptic horrorshow dominated by sulfurous volcanoes and slagged ashes. A quest called “Kill Yourself” unlocks, given to you by Handsome Jack. You do so by jumping off a cliff, only to be respawned immediately — richer and with more experience points than before.


The game’s internal mechanics follow a similar arc, gradually making gunplay less important as time goes on. Each character has a unique Action Skill and, before long, Vault Hunters will be summoning turrets and robots to fight alongside them, or turning invisible, or trapping enemies in balls of dark energy. Gaige’s Close Enough skill allows bullets to ricochet off solid surfaces, mitigating players’ inaccuracy or unfamiliarity with shooting mechanics.

The Borderlands 2 endgame is centered around farming bosses for rare equipment and theory-crafting the best possible builds and weapon combinations. Given the game’s low drop percentages for high-level loot, players are forced to find ways to be as efficient as possible, finding new ways to maximize damage output and minimizing wasted time. With the right set-up, even the game’s toughest bosses can usually be killed with one clip, the internal calculus of damage-per-second having eclipsed player skill, violence having been abstracted to the point of meaninglessness.

The granular, minute-to-minute strafing and grenade-throwing and shooting can be satisfying – a series of quick decisions with which to better assert oneself on an environment – but they’re rarely just that. The exploding heads and gooey viscera and melted flesh are a means to an end — to more weapons, to a self-aware punchline, to a way to expose videogames as Twilight Zone caricatures of real life. Combat in Borderlands is always the function of some higher process, and the “87 bazillion” guns we were promised are the endlessly disposable nuts and bolts of the game’s over-arching irony, but not the goal in and of themselves.


If you happen to drive back through the Frostsprings for whatever reason — say, to farm a group of assassins in the nearby steamworks plant that sometimes drop rare weapons — you’ll find that the same group of bandits, psychos, and killers have re-spawned and re-occupied the little shanty town, their mailboxes now full. Vault Hunters may be calloused, mass-murdering capitalists, but at least they make the mail run on time.

Filed Under: Action Mechanics Role-playing Shooters

About the Author:
Joseph Leray is an associate editor at Destructoid. His work can also be found at Touch Arcade and MTV Multiplayer.

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