Friday, July 12, 2024

It took a gay wedding for Borderlands to take anything seriously

Borderlands is not a series well known for its emotional maturity or narrative complexity. Its dedication to endless, fast-paced gunplay and an avowed repudiation of anything approaching tact or nuance have earned it a legion of fans, who rally around its cathartic, cartoonish violence. Borderlands’ typical approach to problem-solving is “fill it with more bullets”, and the only thing deadlier than its infinite arsenal of guns is its refining of ‘dad jokes’ into a real-world weapon. So, when developer Gearbox announced it would be featuring a gay wedding, and making it the centerpiece of the new Borderlands 3 DLC, some players may have doubted the sincerity of the move.

Given its reputation, some might expect Borderlands to treat a gay wedding as one big puerile joke, poking a metatextual finger at the very concept of same-sex marriage. Or, given the series’ AAA status and the fear publishers often have of “offending” any potential customers, pulling a last-minute swerve and having the nuptials called off. Rest your little gay hearts though – neither is the case.

Instead, the new Borderlands 3 DLC, Guns, Love, and Tentacles, invites players to the wedding of esteemed adventurer – and fan-favourite supporting character – Sir Alastair Hammerlock, and Wainwright Jakobs, heir to the Jakobs Firearms Corporation, and actually follows through with not just the ceremony but the reception afterward. You’ll even get involved with a spot of wedding planning – albeit in unique yet appropriately violent fashion.

However, if you’re expecting a deep and tender love story for the ages, think again. The expansion is still Borderlands to its heart: guns, bullets, and a near-religious commitment to ridiculous excess are the order of the day. The gathering is set to take place on Xylourgos, a frosty planet with some unsettling secrets. It’s a nice starting point; perhaps nodding to the icy climes players first met Hammerlock in, early on in Borderlands 2. Explore further though, and you realize the whole planet has a bit of a Lovecraftian affliction – strange architecture presages madness, near-abandoned fishing villages imply the cold loss of the deep ocean, towns are populated by cursed individuals and, most notably, giant tentacles from some ancient slumbering god wrap their way around and through everything.

While the main thrust of the campaign is a chaotic shootout against eldritch evil – Borderlands 3 players will relish the chance to gain a few levels and acquire some exclusive loot along the way – Gearbox fills the rare quieter moments with some surprisingly tender and emotional writing. Separate missions where you accompany Wainwright or Hammerlock have each open up about their fears and insecurities about their impending marriage, their last-minute doubts about whether they’re good enough for the other, or about how they want the wedding to be perfect for their soon-to-be-husband. It’s gentle, heart-warming, and human, reflecting the anxieties and concerns real people experience ahead of their wedding.

The grooms’ nerves are put into stark focus by Guns, Love, and Tentacles’ main villains, Eleanor and Vincent. Tied together in unholy matrimony for centuries, their lives extended through unnatural means, each encounter has them derisorily mocking Hammerlock and Wainwright, calling their love fickle and uncertain, implying it’s impure, at one point outright saying it “isn’t as strong”. Their antagonism – coming from an opposite sex couple – is a perfect metaphor for the struggles same-sex couples face when trying to marry their partners. Their sneering condescension will be all too familiar to any queer players.

The blurring of genres here, combining romance with horror, is certainly no mistake. It’s a canny observation, rather – committing to someone else, forever, can be a terrifying prospect. That this is explored with two male characters, carrying with them all the real-world perceived baggage that “men fear commitment” – and more specifically that “gay men are inherently promiscuous” – makes it all the more potent.

Of course, gays love a more Halloween approach to horror too, and so it’s nice to see Gearbox having some fun with the aesthetic. While the Lovecraftian vibe is nailed throughout, it also throws in plenty of campy touches, from new character Mancubus Bloodtooth – equal parts John Waters, Richard O’Brien, and Vincent Price – to eternal comedy sidekick Claptrap phoning in reports of his own never-seen sidequest, replete with references to countless genre clichés. There’s plenty to laugh at, despite the weightier, personal themes that Guns, Love, and Tentacles explores.

Ultimately, Hammerlock and Wainwright’s romance and gay wedding proves to be one of the few things that Borderlands takes seriously, and woven between all the anarchy, gore, and terrible puns you’d expect from Borderlands is some of the series’ most serious, tender writing. There’s real power in showing that these two men are beyond in love with each other, that they each put the other first, that they draw strength from each other, and that their love is just as valid – no matter what some old straight people like Eleanor and Vincent say.

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