Borderlands of Opportunity

Ahhh, Pandora, a land of milk and honey — and by “milk and honey” I mean “blood and bullets.” What makes this dangerous planet so special? It’s the setting to the videogame Borderlands. A merchant in-game says that only a fool would search for something of value here, yet the draw of opportunity brings many aspirants, including myself, to this barely inhabitable rock.

borderlandsEDITv2Daring adventurers brave Pandora in search of a mythical treasure trove known as the Vault, but my own motivations are less grandiose than fame and fortune. I came to this wasteland with a single purpose in mind: to play through Borderlands and then review it. In my attempts at meeting that goal, however, the opportunities presented to me complicated my stay on Pandora to the point where I became part of this world as much as it was part of mine.

signUpon starting Borderlands and first setting foot on Pandora, I quickly realized that I would not survive here alone.The local threats read like a list of sci-fi tropes: alien beasts and insects, dystopian criminals, grotesque mutants, futuristic soldiers, and otherworldly beings. Once I had chosen from the rugged mercenaries to protect me on my excursion, I became more at ease with exploring this land of foreign dangers and foreign opportunities.

classesThe unique abilities of Borderlands‘ playable characters influence one’s avenues to victory in combat. The Hunter sends a pet bird to pick off enemies and scavenge items; the Siren turns invisible to ambush foes with her health-draining effects; the Berserker enters a full-on bloodlust to increase his speed, defense, and melee damage; the Soldier deploys a turret to establish a defensive position on the battlefield. Though all four classes are well-tuned against the enemy hordes, they never force the user to depend on said predefined strengths. The focus of combat remains with gunplay and relies on the abundant firearms scattered across this otherwise barren planet.

weaponAccounting for the munitions present all over Pandora, Borderlands‘ weapon creation system can produce over three million distinct results. By procedurally generating each gun’s attributes, it can form combinations that defy expectation. I recall finding a submachine gun that empties its clip in less than a second, a pistol with sniper-like accuracy, and a shotgun that fires rockets. The weapons on Pandora follow no clearly defined rules, and one cannot predict what havoc the next may unleash.

poseAfter familiarizing myself with the capabilities of my allies and the planet’s all-access armament buffet, I began to enjoy the unavoidable clashes with Pandora’s violent inhabitants. Spread over the desolate surroundings, hostile forces congregate around spawn locations that habitually cause wonky or comical results. Enemies pop into existence from nowhere, and the occasional hut or cave opening resembles a clown car with foes streaming out one by one for minutes on end.

packThe glut of enemies per battle creates intense yet crowded combat situations that start out tactical but end up mindless and frantic once overrun with attackers. Thankfully, enemy weaknesses offer some variety to the mindless killing. Certain species are weaker to elemental damage while others allow the player to shoot vital areas of their bodies.

enemiesAgainst such opponents, the landscape is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, combat requires the player to maneuver around threats for the best position — a savvy combatant might climb up to a vantage point for better view of a monster’s weak spot. On the other hand, character immobility is the most fiendish and reoccurring problem in Borderlands. Strafing around hostiles only to become wedged against a rock is unacceptable in a do-or-die shootout. While navigating a busy firefight, the frustration at being stuck on environmental objects outweighs the opportunity to use them for a strategic advantage.

vantageFunnily, the same issue with environmental collision befalls the inhabitants of Pandora, too. Better yet, AI behavior sporadically breaks to the point where hostiles don’t notice me standing beside them while I blast away. Taking potshots at oblivious or immobilized baddies isn’t honourable, but I’ll do whatever it takes to get to the end of Borderlands and onto my review. When the majority of gameplay involves shooting at things or being shot at, I welcome a respite from the return fire.

immobilizedThough the combat in Borderlands can reach tedium at times, key mechanics borrowed from role-playing games eliminate the dullness normally tied to repetitive gameplay. This action game hybrid uses an experience system for improving character proficiencies. As players progress along a hierarchy of upgradeable skills, they develop specialties that shape their role in battle. For example, the Berserker can become a damage-resistant tank, a beefed-up brawler, or an explosives expert. As always, the choice remains up to the user, and there are so many choices to make…

skillsPandora conceals more than just the Vault, many things to distract the fortune seeker as well as the game reviewer. Incorporated with the other RPG elements, quest lines define Borderlands‘ main narrative and side-story progression. Quests range from the commonplace (turning on a town’s power generators) to the heroic (saving the friendly populace from bandits) and the mysterious (uncovering clues about the Vault).

Side-quests, usually retrieved from the planet’s network of bounty boards, exemplify one or two things: Pandora is neither a friendly nor enjoyable place, and the Vault is the only thing worth idolizing on this godforsaken rock. Overall, I find the game contains too many missions that repeat sentiments. Five hours of content could disappear without negatively impacting the story or pacing.

folksThroughout my time playing Borderlands, opportunities piled up before me until I didn’t know what to do with them. At first, they manifested as straightforward choices like picking from the four playable classes. Soon enough, a steady influx of weapons, abilities, and quests diversified my options. The paths I took then furthered my potential but seldom delivered me to a final outcome. Every step forward elongated my stay on Pandora without directly helping me finish Borderlands or reach my review. My in-game decisions, which first appeared beneficial, delayed progress towards the goal I had set, as decisions often do in real life as well.

caveEventually, I beat Borderlands and was ready to review it, but the myriad opportunities available to me soon fragmented my writing. During my play-through, I had thought up many points to include in the review, but finishing Borderlands once proved insufficient to confirm them. I conducted extensive research by replaying the game numerous times. With each replay, I discovered new directions to take with my writing. Budding thoughts grew into content worthy of their own pieces. By the end of my research, I had several full-fledged concepts to write about.

Each article required its own planning, composing, editing…all the effort done many times over yet with no final result because I couldn’t focus on a single project. I saw the scope of my endeavours and began to feel burnt out — investing so much into a fool’s errand like Pandora will do that. After a while, I went catatonic with the review; I stopped playing Borderlands, and I didn’t contribute to my writing for months.

stoopIn the real world, I carried on with my day-to-day activities. In the back of my mind, though, I was stranded on Pandora, slouched on a stoop in some putrid commune just waiting for my ticket off of this place. I was rotting here, and I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to think outside the box. I knew that, to escape Pandora, I needed to write myself off. So that’s what I did, and that’s what you are reading. The only way for me to leave was by writing about how I was stuck.

titleDespite its outer image showing a destitute planet of dunes and slag, Pandora is practically stuffed to bursting: weapons littering the terrain, enemies spilling out from spawn holes, tasks covering bounty boards, limitless choice and boundless opportunity. Borderlands‘ content emerges from the overabundance on Pandora, but a blend of action gameplay and RPG structure deftly hides most excess from view.

With Borderlands‘ multi-faceted nature, I can focus on whatever aspect is most appealing. When I feel satiated by the bloody combat, I shift to developing my character’s abilities. Once that bores me, I switch to exploring the planet for more quests and then return to the action with newfound opportunities. Every time I change focus, the subject matter differs enough to retain my interest. The guns have randomized stats; the enemies exhibit varied weaknesses; the quests send me to diverse locations around the map. Slight alterations allow me to perceive similar content as fresh experiences. Only when I dwell on a single element for too long do I notice the repetition.

lootIf I fail to look away from a particular angle, Pandora’s bleakness shows itself again. Borderlands‘ combat would get monotonous without the supporting structure of quests and character growth to segment the action. Likewise, its RPG shell would be vacant without gunfights providing the necessary gameplay through which to grind. Borderlands‘ individual components appear simple and bare, but together form a beguiling combination that casts a favourable light from nearly any perspective.

vistaAnd there lies Pandora’s paradox: from so little comes so much thanks to endless amounts of potential. The source of all that potential, though, is false hope. People arrive on Pandora touting dreams of discovering the Vault. While the pursuit is admirable, anyone who strives toward a goal must first come to terms with an important fact: along the way, one will encounter unforeseen delays only resolved through mundane activity. Hope-filled opportunity seekers venturing across Pandora need supplies and safety before they can set out to find the Vault — or to beat a game and write a review.

Inevitably, the hopefuls succumb to Pandora’s wicked charm: turning mundane activities into what appears new and enticing. Once the routine seems enticing, partially-relevant opportunities show up everywhere. No sane person would want to scrounge for food among the garbage heaps of Pandora unless he or she were on the planet that promised treasure of incalculable value. People come for the Vault but stay for every other reason. It’s the only way this place retains a population.

foodSettling into routine can be all too easy even when it means sweating out existence on a planet of dust, guns, and death if only for another crack at a fading, idealized opportunity. Even I, not a vault hunter but a videogame reviewer, became victim to Pandora’s unassuming attractions. With my time spent on this planet, I’ve witnessed the rise and fall of many hopefuls, and I’ve reached a few conclusions.

For various and unpredictable reasons, people’s goals often become unobtainable. Suppose the treasure hunters succeed at finding the Vault. After all the strife they would have endured getting there, the contents could never meet their expectations. The same goes for other motivations; reality can solidify any dream into false hope. At such a point, one must settle on something more feasible. Otherwise, one risks getting trapped in a cycle of misleading opportunities.

vaultI was caught in the same predicament after experiencing Pandora for myself. The review I had planned from the start became impossible to write with my other ideas dragging it down. At the same time, I couldn’t replace my original article with one of my side-projects because that would sacrifice the initial goal for a tangential one. To solve the dilemma, I needed to divert my attention away from the unreachable and falsified opportunities of Pandora and to pursue instead a new motivation that was in itself realistic and of my own volition. By writing this article and escaping Pandora’s clutches, I have achieved that goal.

roadAs I pen these last few lines, I am packing my bags to leave Pandora. Will I ever return? I had so many ideas dug up from this planet that had also dug into me. Nevertheless, I doubt I will write about Borderlands again. There are other videogames to play and other places to explore. Besides, I prefer not to grow any fonder of this diamond in the rough. If I look at it for a second longer, another glint of light, another facet of opportunity, will surely catch my eye. It’s Pandora’s way.

planetplay-time: ~165 hours (eight playthroughs)
score: 7.8


The Trial of Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist


Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist is not intended for people with photosensitive epilepsy. This article, however, is intended for everyone.

“All rise for The Honourable Judge Stuart Matheson. Case 111624: Randy Balma vs. the Municipality.”
“Please be seated. Let’s begin.”
“Mr. Balma, what do you have to say for yourself?”

* * *

Hey, you ever hear of a guy named Randy Balma? He’s sorta famous around these parts — the talk of the town. A trial is taking place right now concerning Mr. Balma. Personally, I’m not interested in what the legal process sees in a man. I’m more curious to know who this guy really is, and what I think of him.

Searching for clues on the internet, I found a videogame developer by the monicker Messhof, real name Mark Essen, creator of Nidhogg, Flywrench, Punishment, and one titled Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist. I figured that Messhof, at some point in time, had ties to Mr. Balma. At least, he knew the guy well enough to include him in the title of a videogame.

I hoped that Messhof could provide me with genuine information on the man of the hour. I emailed Mr. Essen asking for an interview, but he never replied. I felt as though he purposely withheld information, as though there was something that needed to be kept secret.

Questions about Mr. Balma still burned in my head. To learn whatever else I could about Randy, I decided to explore Messhof’s game for myself.

Opening Comments

Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist conveys its meaning through abstract imagery. I include extensive screenshots with the following descriptions, but these accounts pale to the game in motion. So please, download this game (it’s free) and play it. If you cannot, then take in the following as though you were investigating the mystery of Randy Balma for yourself.

Booting the game shows a loading icon of white text and a baby’s hand followed by the title screen/tutorial page prominently indicating the deceptively simple controls. Overall, the title screen presents a bleak and foreboding entry point to the game, like the unlabelled VHS tape to some unknown horror film.

The opening cutscene pictures a disgruntled man with yellow skin, red lips, and burning eyes locked in an empty stare. The words “i feel like i been awake before but i can’t be sure and i’m drugged up on drugs and i think they are affecting me” scroll across the screen in red letters. A pulsing gray circle opens up between the man’s eyes, expanding to fill the entire screen. The enveloping grayness transitions to the first playable section.

Exhibit A – Stage 1

Stage 1 is most easily described as the “bus on freeway” scene. The user controls a yellow vehicle reminiscent of a children’s school bus. The user must drive the bus down a lengthy road while navigating an obstacle course of red cars.

Hitting a guardrail or an errant car triggers a cymbal or drum sound, which adds comicality to the dangerous driving. Rimshots play out after the implied joke of bumping into things. Pileups perform cacophonous percussion arrangements.

Despite the constant threat of car crash, safety isn’t a primary concern while barrelling down this freeway. The frantic cars cannot damage the bus, but they will likely knock it off course. Impact with a car shoves the bus around in wild swings.

To make matters worse, the controls switch direction at random intervals. Pressing the left arrow key may turn the bus right and vice versa. This faultiness in steering contributes to the destruction ultimately caused by the user. It’s difficult to finish the level without moments of pure carnage.

Oddly, huge wrecks look appealing instead of gruesome. Explosions billow rainbows of colourful smoke, which morph into pixelated smudges that obscure the freeway and lead to more crashes. Stage 1 successfully combines vehicular mayhem with comedic sound effects and delightful colours to produce an uncomfortable mood that is tough to ignore.

The bus eventually reaches its final destination: a stopped gas tanker intersecting the entire road. Ramming into the tanker cues another crash of sound. Rainbow smoke spews from the collision and covers the entire screen. The game then loads an introduction to the second level.

This cutscene shows open sky with clumps of land in the distance. A shimmering beam of light shoots up, and a red projectile erupts from the multicoloured terrain. It climbs the screen and ascends into the atmosphere.

Exhibit B – Stage 2

Stage 2 commences, providing a better look at the unidentified flying object. Up close and without the burning redness, the projectile is clearly a clock tower flying through the air. Archaic satellites litter the sky as the clock tower’s prey. Hitting a satellite breaks a piece off the flying tower and destroys the target, causing more raucous drums and colourful explosions.

The control in this level once again disadvantages the user. The clock-rocket accelerates quickly and turns with extreme sensitivity, making it easy to spin out instead of executing a gradual turn. In addition, the rocket expels a thick, smokey exhaust that challenges the user to make heads or tails of the situation.

Destroying all the satellites requires careful turning and a clear understanding of the gravity present. Without any more targets, the clock tower is free to soar up to the highest point in the level. Flying off-screen proceeds to the third stage.

Exhibit C – Stage 3

In Stage 3, the player is a small, yellow spacesuit who floats within a circular arena. The arena itself appears to be a complex, layered clock found in space. Various orbs inhabit the clock along with the yellow spacesuit. The larger orbs come in different sizes and depict baby faces, while the smaller, more elusive ones pulse bright colours. The coloured orbs are the targets of this level. Arrows point out their locations at all times.

The spacesuit looks quite helpless while propelling through space. The intrepid suit can swim around the emptiness, sometimes latching onto orbs that block its trajectory. Navigating the space-clock can be tricky because invisible currents pull the player towards the outer rim. When trapped in a current, the suit’s swimming stroke becomes ineffective at best.

Successfully landing and pushing off from a coloured orb pops it and cues an incessant beeping added to the level’s ambience. The sound intensifies by breaking a second orb, and it doesn’t stop until the player eliminates the third. When all three coloured orbs are popped, the whole space-clock collapses, sending the yellow suit, the remaining baby orbs, and huge multicoloured explosions drifting out to space. This solemn scene lingers for a while before cutting to the fourth stage.

Stage 4…I had a difficult time deciding whether to include Stage 4 in my article. At first, I felt it had to be experienced on one’s own. I wanted to omit it entirely so that people would play the game to find out, but I knew of two groups who would never get to see this level first-hand.

The first group includes those with health problems. Stage 4 is the real reason an epilepsy warning sits atop this article. I think most of the game is safe to play for the photosensitive, though Stage 4 uses a constant strobe light effect and should not be attempted by those at risk.

The second group includes those who simply do not care to play. Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist might be too shocking or weird for some to experience in person. I hope that is not the case.

Not wanting anyone to miss out on the fun, I will now divulge the contents of Stage 4. Here it is:

Exhibit D – Stage 4

I like to call Stage 4 “The Creature”—a strange octopus composed of baby parts. Its main body is a large baby head. Dozens of mouths link together forming eight tentacles with hands at their tips. The Creature is the playable character of the level, situated in an environment that looks to be nothing more than rapidly flashing lights.

Stage 4 no longer implements the directional arrows that previously pointed out objectives. Instead, the user must look into the eyes of The Creature for guidance; its irises gaze in the direction of its nearest target. Amid the strobe lights, The Creature hunts down more baby orbs from Stage 3.

Annihilating all the remaining baby orbs causes The Creature to rest momentarily before bursting in the game’s final explosion. The title appears on screen, and fragmented black lines spurt from The Creature’s resting place. So ends a playthrough of Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist.

Closing Comments

Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist incites emotion from any manner of appreciation. The title alone is provocative. Randy Balma is a unique and eye-catching name in itself, but the second half makes for a whole other beast. The term “Municipal Abortionist” is an interesting one. Abortion is a heated topic in society, so mentioning it is bound to rile some people. What takes the cake, though, is the word municipal before Mr. Balma’s trade. Adding the thought of a municipality, a very local area, makes the title far more personal than if it were “Randy Balma: Abortionist.” Randy is municipal. He’s in your area.

The game excels due to its narrative or lack thereof, depending on one’s point of view. Going from one playable stage to the next may give the user a sense of progression, but nothing directly indicates that the levels are connected as part of a complete story. The user is the one who must connect the dots, who must string together cutscenes and levels to perceive them as a single thing. The gameplay in each level is disparate from the next, and the cutscenes are nearly incomprehensible, yet together they feel cohesive as they develop the themes and atmosphere of the game as a whole.

Among its themes, Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist toys with concepts of control. The first three stages have elements that hinder the user by obscuring the field of view or by supplying improper movement. Such methods of disorientation make the user feel less capable of controlling the player, and they depict a mix of confusion, inebriation, and powerlessness within the main character. Supposing this game does relate to Randy Balma, how can we criticize his actions if we are not fully in control either?

In truth, it’s difficult to ascertain whether this game really is about Randy Balma. Labelling the bus, the rocket, the spacesuit, or the Creature as Mr. Balma would be a stretch. All gameplay characters are reduced beyond a single human entity. So where is Randy?

Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist assaults the senses. Presented so abstractly, its supreme bizarreness leaves the user questioning what they see. The game communicates through feelings and moods, not necessarily by the direct visual representations on screen. Its discordant elements unite to express not an idea but an elaborate, perhaps frightening, concept: the concept that is Randy Balma. And Randy isn’t out to prove a point; he means to make you feel a certain way.

The verdict? Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist does good work. I respect its angle, you might say.

* * *

“The case is dismissed. All current charges are laid to rest.”
“You’re free to go, Mr. Balma.”

Play-time: ~10 minutes (single playthrough)
Rating: 9.7