Grinding for Moral Consistency in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

“Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!” is set between Borderlands 1 and 2, and allows players to play as some of the bad guys of Borderlands 2. One trailer (6:40) for BLPS cracked wise about the moral implications of advancing the cause of future enemies, but this question is central to the theme and story of the game.

I. “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” –Kierkegaard

The game of BLPS is played as a flashback. After the events of BL2, the mercenary Athena is captured and interrogated by the victorious heroes of the two previous games. She explains her role in the events between BL1 and BL2, and you, the player, play out those events as she describes them. As a freelance mercenary, Athena is hired by the central antagonist of BL2 (Handsome Jack) to save the moon of Elpis from a renegade military commander. (Yes, the plot is heavily influenced by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness)

A recurring theme is the decision to advance the cause of Handsome Jack, as the post-BL2 interrogation reflects on the horrors he inflicted. The story poses to players the challenge of reconciling Jack’s heroic actions of saving a moon (and its colonial population) with his villainous acts of destruction carried out in BL2. The game asks us whether Jack was a good guy or a bad guy, and by implication also asks: How can we understand his apparent transformation? How can we make sense of a character that displays contradictory traits? How can we evaluate good and evil?

These are deeply important questions for our lives. Discerning between good and evil is at the core of ethics, and permeates decisions we make in our personal, familial, political, theological, and professional lives. Adopting the wrong approach to the ethical questions posed in BLPS can have catastrophic implications if applied elsewhere in life: apathetic indifference, sympathy, empathy, or pity for evil, absolute subjectivism, blind and unquestioning tolerance, or strict act utilitarianism all lend themselves to a variety of atrocities and horrors we intend to avoid through ethical examinations.

II. Virtue Theory Gives a More Complete Evaluation than Some Teleological Formulations

The game challenges the maxim that “the ends justify the means” by presenting several applications of that ideal, including one betrayal by a prominent protagonist NPC to kill Jack and the player. The story also makes a specific note of Jack’s decision to kill three probably innocent scientists on the suspicion that one of them might be a traitor—a decision which he openly relishes, afterward. An NPC asks the player-character for their opinion of Jack’s choice, questioning both Jack’s motive and his nature.

One way to evaluate Jack and his transformation between BLPS and BL2 is in an appeal to virtue theory. On this interpretation, Jack’s actions may have saved Elpis, but his nature and character were malicious and malevolent throughout the escapade. This view affords us the outcome of seeing Jack as a bad man who did a good thing. This view is also consistent with the entire knowledge of Jack’s wanton evil in BL2, in which he is malicious and does only bad things.

III. Grinding, Grinders, and Moral Ground

In any game with a leveling and/or gear system, players often find they want to gain an advantage by gaining extra levels for added bonuses, thereby making it easier to meet future challenges. This is often done through repeating simple and mindless tasks, which slowly and steadily advance the player towards the next level or have a chance of yielding desired items. This slow, steady process is called “grinding.”

BLPS introduced a new feature to the game called a “Grinder.” This machine accepts three items and returns (with some probabilities involved), a better item. This does some amount of “grinding” for the player, helping advance the attainment of better gear more rapidly.

Moral identity advances by an analogous method: a slow, steady, repeated process of small decisions, actions, and attitudes.

IV. The Need for a Good Evaluation of Goodness

Throughout BL2, Jack addresses the player characters as bandits, asserting that they are no different from or better than the marauding psychopaths they slaughter. Jack explicitly sees himself as the righteous hero—even with his dying breath. Because evil will always think itself good and present itself in a positive light, we must have a better approach for evaluating morality than general, easy-to-apply standards handed to us by the most convenient authority.