Wasteland therapy: The oddly relaxing nature of Borderlands

Photo courtesy of Gearbox Software
Photo courtesy of Gearbox Software /

The original Borderlands may be somewhat lacking compared to its sequels, but the world of Pandora remains a strangely soothing one to explore.

Over a month ago — buried beneath a slew of announcements from a rather bizarre panel at PAX East — Gearbox revealed that the original Borderlands would be re-released in the form of Borderlands: Game of the Year Edition for the PS4, Xbox One and PC. But Borderlands 3, which had its first gameplay reveal last week, has been (justifiably) the talk of the town considering how long it’s been nearly 5 years since the last entry of the series was released. There’s no doubt that the game will make waves when it launches later this year on September 13, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

While not necessarily the best, the original Borderlands remains my favorite in the series to this day. There are a number of objective reasons for why its sequels are superior — from basic quality-of-life improvements, to a more ironed-out story, and of course more ridiculously awesome guns — but somehow it transcends its flaws and still feels the most right.

Why is that? Am I just stupid? Is there some nostalgic bias I have for a game that released when I was still just in middle school?

After spending the last month playing the remaster, I can definitively say “yes” to all three of those questions, but there’s also another point I must throw into the fray: Borderlands relaxes me.

Indeed, a game featuring a hilarious over-abundance of destructive weaponry, crude humor and deranged psychos that you blast into smithereens is actually one of the most calming titles I’ve ever experienced. And after some troubles in my personal life, having this game back in my catalog could not have come at a better time.

Photo courtesy of Gearbox Software
Photo courtesy of Gearbox Software /

The last month or so has been hard, and my imminent graduation from college has surely been a part of it. In an effort to spare you from the melodramatic details, though, I’ll leave it at that, and just say that Borderlands helped me progress through this period a lot more easily.

The game still plays as well as it did a decade ago, albeit not without some freezing issues and glitches in the display menus. As touched on before, there is a lot more emptiness and ambiguity with the original Borderlands. While there’s technically a story present, most of it is done through brief dialogue segments and voice-overs; you could probably count on one hand, excluding those short character introductions, how many cutscenes are in the game. The story of Borderlands is secondary — an afterthought, almost, that takes a backseat to its zany personality and cell-shaded art style.

This absence of direct storytelling makes the experience feel a lot more lonely, and double as such considering I tend to play the game entirely by myself. But that’s what I prefer; the barren wasteland setting of the game is a lot easier to reside in while exploring. There’s an almost hypnotic sensuality to it, just going about your business to complete quests and acquire new gear. In a way, there’s an emptiness to Borderlands. The world of Pandora has an uncanny look and feel to it, especially and specifically compared to most other first-person shooters, but the original game doesn’t feel nearly as fleshed out compared to its sequels.

In most cases, that would be perceived as a bad thing. In my case, having a world to casually explore and simple, often repetitive, missions to play through gives me time to explore my own personal headspace. Sometimes I’ll play a podcast or throw on a music stream to add a more soothing ambiance to the background.

I know there won’t be anything I feel pressured to pay attention to, and that helps a lot when you’re in a mental funk and just need something to keep you occupied. I think there’s a bizarre beauty in that; a simpler, more lackluster title with its primitiveness serving a specific purpose better than its successor. Sometimes, less is indeed more.

Photo courtesy of Gearbox Software
Photo courtesy of Gearbox Software /

It might seem ridiculous to most to suggest that a shooter — and one that’s as wacky as Borderlands — could possibly be an appropriate tool to deal with one’s personal turmoil. But to me, the things that make Borderlands, and more so than its sequels, so special are the small things. Discovering loot, comparing the of weapons to one another, interacting with eccentric characters, and exploring the wasteland are more appealing than blowing things up. It’s one of the few shooters that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it feels like a counter-culture oddball compared to the rest of the shooter genre, especially when it first released.

As I sit here preparing to graduate college — after surviving a tumultuous month littered with personal strife and atrophy — I reflect on my appreciation for video games like Borderlands that somehow comfort me. In general, I think about how ironic it is when the simpler things are what end up providing the most sanctity.

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For me, that’s a game about collecting an exorbitant amount of guns and traveling by myself through a wasteland with a lo-fi hip hop stream of beats playing in the background. I guess, just like Borderlands, we’re all a bit wacky in our ways.