What’s In a Game

Early on in BORDERLANDS, I pick up a pink gun called the “Lady Finger” from behind a grave. It’s a curvy, single-barreled pistol, and I grip it in my right hand’s fingerless glove. When I press “tab” to look at its specs, the words “Omnia vincit amor” (“Love conquers all”) pop up in red. I, Lilith—a Human Siren from the planet Dionysus—store it in my backpack, next to my submachine gun, and continue towards New Haven.

The Lady Finger quickly becomes my favorite weapon, mostly because its magnifying scope lets me shoot enemies from far away. I can feel safe from a distance and clever from the periphery, standing on a sandy cliff or crouching behind a sheet of rusty metal. Things get complicated, though, when I’m attacked by “skags,” the resident pests of BORDERLANDS, which look like mutant wild dogs. They run great distances to attack me, and a scope doesn’t help much when one’s gnawing at my legs.

Up-close encounters are an unavoidable part of the road to New Haven, the virtual city I’m trying to reach on the planet Pandora. It’s a part of the universe of BORDERLANDS, the popular role-playing, first-person shooter video game made by Gearbox Software in 2009. BORDERLANDS’s version of New Haven is described online as:

“…the zone and town that is located in a vast junkyard between The Dahl Headlands and The Rust Commons West. It was founded by the former inhabitants of what is now Old Haven.”

Old Haven is currently occupied by The Crimson Lance, a private military force that took over after “the colonization of Pandora went bad.” The BORDERLANDS story exists in the aftermath of that turn, which happened when rumors of an ancient vault filled with alien weapon technology went public.

Things get complicated, though, when I’m attacked by “skags,” the resident pests of BORDERLANDS, which look like mutant wild dogs.

My desire to reach New Haven comes from an incandescent hope that the virtual New Haven will parallel the real-life city. The only nod towards Connecticut on the BORDERLANDS Wikia is in the “Trivia” section, which reads: “The famous Winchester Repeating Arms Company was located in ‘New Haven,’ Connecticut,” meaning the only obvious connection between the virtual city and its real-life counterpart is “guns.” But part of me still believes that unlocking the BORDERLANDS map could, in turn, unlock a crucial part of this city’s character.

Lilith, New Haven, and the entire BORDERLANDS universe first existed in the head of Matthew Armstrong. He was the lead designer of BORDERLANDS and BORDERLANDS 2, and while he left Gearbox Software a year ago for what he tweeted were “new adventures,” he hasn’t forgotten the games. After getting in touch with him (on Twitter) and telling him about my quest to New Haven, we exchange a series of emails—he doesn’t respond to requests for a phone call. His answers are always written in orange. (“Because they’re LEGENDARY,” he explains.)

“The theme of BORDERLANDS has always been ‘isolated people finding family,’” he wrote. “Mind you, this is in the middle of people shooting and killing and acting all crazy, but that’s just the fun coating on the outside.” Traveling across barren landscapes, I along with other Vault Hunters are at the mercy of stoic rock formations, apocalyptic decay, and endless skags. Brief moments of safety serve as stepping stones to the treasure.

I’m right outside the gate to New Haven, but now, the gate is locked. When I defeat Mad Mel in a flaming monster truck stadium, a robot called a claptrap leads me to the barrier.

“New Haven is home,” Armstrong writes me when I ask about its place in the game. “You really want the player to feel a connection to the hubs because that adds some bit of weight to the combat.” That connection is difficult for the designers, though. It forces them to quickly forge a sense of belonging before the player moves onto the next location, especially since the map is a mystery until a player reaches it.

While the game starts out with simple missions, it gets tough when I have to confront “bosses,” the more powerful villains blocking the way to new locations. I tell Armstrong that I’m having trouble defeating the brawny Bone Head, and he cautions me that there’s more to it than the final result.

BORDERLANDS, he says, is more than just its “golden path” of Main Quests. To advance, I have to complete Side Quests, too. They don’t lead me to New Haven directly, but with each completed Side Quest, I become a more integrated resident of Pandora. After collecting some magical seeds for a friend in Skag Gully, I level up. I approach Bone Head from behind, destroy his shield with two shots to the head, and take him down with a couple close-range bullets. I realize that I can’t get by with keeping at a distance, such as that allowed by the Lady Finger—I can’t play BORDERLANDS if I don’t interact with the world of it.

After leaving Fyrestone, I make it to the Dahl Headlands. It’s more of a dingy campout than a civilized settlement, crawling with tiny axe-wielding men called “psychos.” I’m right outside the gate to New Haven, but now, the gate is locked. When I defeat Mad Mel in a flaming monster truck stadium, a robot called a claptrap leads me to the barrier. It types in a code with its insect arms, and I teleport inside.

In New Haven, houses have decayed into landfill heaps. The sky droops in chemical yellow, held up by smoke stacks. After passing under a corroded metal arch, I wander through what used to be a town intersection, where characters loiter in front of makeshift shacks. I can press “E” to talk to them—“Ever thought about settling down? We could use someone like you around here,” one says. The supplies I previously found in high-tech boxes now hide in old washing machines. Nothing here is familiar to me. The streets made of packed dirt and are nothing like the ones I use to get to class.

“We didn’t name it after New Haven,” Armstrong writes. The map is merely “an early town in a dangerous frontier,” meant to give “a sense of safety and provide a reminder about the town the settlers left behind.”

I’m disappointed, but not surprised. I’m not even sure how the New Haven I know could be communicated through a desert landscape, especially an animated one. Even in a virtual world, there’s no being in two places at once, and trying to learn about a real city—the one I live in—through the eyes of a video game character is a little like trying to use the Lady Finger as an all-purpose weapon: clumsy.

But even without the familiarity, I feel sustainably safe. Skags, bandits, and psychos don’t flood out of every open door. For the first time, no one wants to kill me. I make myself at home.

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