So to continue what appears to be an accidental series of blog posts writing about Gearbox Software’s Borderlands games, I wanted to get something down on paper regarding the newest title, Borderlands the Pre-Sequel. Now, if you follow my writing and Twitter and such you probably already know that I recently reviewed the game for Paste Magazine. My verdict, which I will summarize for you here, is that Pre-Sequel hews pretty close to Borderlands 2 but has enough new gameplay features and narrative/comedic elements to keep my interest.
Also, one of the things I mention in the review is that Pre-Sequel includes a number of queer lady characters, way more than I am used to encountering in stuff made in the AAA dev space for sure. Not that this is a particularly high bar to clear; I have a hard time thinking of explicitly queer women in games full stop, let alone in big industry titles — a number of Bioware characters come to mind, and of course there’s [SPOILERS] the recent The Last of Us DLC and Gone Home. But by and large when we get queer characters at all, they tend to be men. So I was pretty happy to see queer ladies with varying degrees of story importance appear in Pre-Sequel.
This is Janey Springs (I’m vaguely grateful that the folks at 2K Australia didn’t run the ball all the way down the field and name her “Alice”). Janey lives on Elpis, the lone moon of Borderlands‘s typical setting of the planet Pandora. She’s a black marketeer, junk salvager, tinker, amateur childrens’ book novelist, and a lesbian. She’s also one of the first major NPCs you meet in the game, and the first one you meet after actually arriving on Elpis itself. For players who’ve gone through Borderlands 2, she serves a similar early-game feature to Hammerlock in Liar’s Berg, taking you through a series of quests that introduce you to the nuances of Pre-Sequel‘s mechanics and quirks before settling in to being an intermittent presence for the remainder of the game. Interestingly enough, both Hammerlock and Janey are queer characters, something I literally realized while typing the previous sentence.
Janey presents an interesting opportunity to talk about how Pre-Sequel represents queerness in its world in a way that draws on multiple approaches to doing so (compared to the “background” approach I’ve previously written on). While this post is primarily spoiler-free for Pre-Sequel, I’m gonna add a cut anyway just in case. Thus, more about Janey after the break!
Gearbox wasn’t exactly keeping Janey’s sexuality a secret. In the “Welcome to Elpis” video trailer, after all, they pretty much tell you about her straight (heh) out:
So there’s that.
A bit of story background: the opening of Pre-Sequel finds the vault hunters on Hyperion’s Helios space station. Players of BL2 will instantly recognize it as the giant H-shaped thing in the sky that was visible at any hour of night or day. The PCs are hired by Handsome Jack to find and open a Vault on the moon, but this is waylaid by the rival Dahl Corporation attacking and taking over the station. Forced to improvise, Jack puts the PCs in a cannon and fires them at the moon (no, really).
When they land, the first person you encounter is Janey, who was salvaging in the area where you land. She leads you back to shelter and helps you get set up with an “Oz kit” (an oxygen kit-slash-mini shoulder jetpack) so you can survive on the moon’s mostly-vacuum, low-gravity surface. In return, she asks you to kill someone for her: a guy named Deadlift, who — among other crimes — has stolen the key to her “Moon Zoomy” network of vehicle stations (BL veterans: this is the moon’s version of Catch-a-Ride).
In her own words:
And this is just the info you get if you’re playing only storyline missions. An optional quest in this zone called “Tales from Elpis” involves you looking for scattered ECHO recordings (audio logs) of Janey’s attempts at writing childrens’ books. Of course, this is Borderlands, so there’s no way that you’re actually going to get unironic kid stories. Instead, the quest cleverly fills in Janey’s immediate backstory, as each ECHO recording explains what’s recently happened to her. In short: she and her girlfriend were in the area and the girlfriend was killed by a “kraggon” (think fire-spitting moon skags, BL series fans).
This is your first opportunity for real concrete evidence that Janey doesn’t ID as straight before she outright tells you in the screencap above, but there are clues. If you’re playing Athena, for example, Janey’s intro dialogue with you involves an appreciative “…why hello” at one point. But the important thing here is that Janey talking about her now-dead lady partner is never weird for the characters, and Janey never seems to be concerned that talking about it will make things weird. It’s a thing that was part of her life, and so she discusses it without reservation.
Comparatively, when she tells you straight up “I’m not into guys” in explaining her litany of woes (and reasons she might want Deadlift killed), this is pretty direct, at least by video game standards. She never actually deploys words like “lesbian” or “queer” but she flat-out says “I’m not into guys.” There you go.
Hilariously, this scene also led to a really entertaining post on Brass-City-of-Dis-adjacent cesspool 8chan, referenced in the following tweet:
wow this SJW->skeletons chrome extension makes the GG's whining over the Pre-Sequel sound infinitely cooler pic.twitter.com/pQrjDNyhm8
— wee, but swole (@alexlifschitz) October 14, 2014
Do I even need to go into that part? I don’t, right? Good. Moving on.
Janey is probably the most prominent queer woman in the story but she’s not the only one, by far. Established bi lady Moxxi is a significant factor in the game’s plot as well, though her sexuality is never particularly relevant nor does it really come up. The only time it does, though, points to what I wanted to talk about in this post, re: Janey Springs.
Moxxi and Janey both ‘live’ in Concordia, a city on Elpis that gameplay wise serves the same hub city function as Sanctuary did in BL2. At one point, Moxxi sends you to the black market to obtain some technological parts and explains that she’d get them herself, but she’s afraid of running into Janey, who clearly has a pretty strong interest in her. Later on in the same questline you accidentally eavesdrop on Janey talking to the black market vendor, interrogating him over who picked up the parts (the tone of the conversation making it pretty clear that Janey set the whole thing up as an excuse to “run into” Moxxi).
What’s interesting to me in this situation is my only comparison cases for “queer characters unafraid to make the first move,” both of which come from Bioware’s Dragon Age 2: Anders and Isabela. I don’t want to go too much into detail on those characters since this is really about Janey, but it’s enough to say that both of them are characters who can be read as queer (believe me, the blog post about bisexual identity and Schrodinger’s sexuality is coming someday) and are not afraid to make overtures toward PCs first. This becomes fractured in DA2‘s since Isabela, who is confident and sex-positive, is also slut shamed a lot, and Anders hitting on your character was apparently so big a deal that it not only sparked this infamous post on the Bioware forums but also a petition from a gay person calling for David Gaider to be fired (though as people have said on Twitter, that last one might be astroturfing).
Hilariously enough, though, my reaction to Janey and Athena’s interplay in the early part of the game was surprisingly negative. Janey never says anything overtly sexual, merely playfully flirtatious. I mean, here’s an example:
Like… pretty low impact, there. When they first meet Janey says a similarly sort of “…well hello” kind of line of appreciation. What struck me about Athena’s reaction, however, is that it was a little odd. She says “I’m — uh. Uh. Thank you?” It’s inocuous, in retrospect, but at the time I wondered: why is she so reticent? It’s very awkward-sounding, and to be honest, Borderlands has already established itself as a game world where homosexuality isn’t a big deal (see: Hammerlock in BL2). The extension of this is: why would anyone care, anymore? Isn’t that the dream of a future where being queer is — and I use this term with considerable reservation — “normalized”? It didn’t make me angry, but it did give me pause.
Flash forward to a second quest for Janey, where she mentions getting a “sexy scar” on her stomach from a kraggon encounter. If you’re playing as Athena, she adds: “EXTREMELY sexy. Athena.” Athena’s awkward-sounding response: “What? I — I’m going to, uh… keep shooting things. And focus on that exclusively.” So, again: things got real awkward when Janey made even the simplest of passes, the most basic of flirtations. Now I was starting to feel a little concern about this, especially in the context of Moxxi’s discussion of Janey’s pursuing her, which gave the strong impression of Janey as a creeper/predator.
You can see how that went in my head, right? “Great. We get a cool lesbian character and she’s That Girl who is a creeper and can’t leave straight people alone.” It stuck in my craw, as most “one step forward, two back” situations do.
While I played Athena for my review playthrough primarily, I spent some time with each of the characters so I knew the nuances of how they differed. This means I spent some time with the other woman playable character, Nisha the Lawbringer. However, I didn’t play her extensively, and her interactions with Janey that I observed were… friendly, but not flirtatious like they were with Athena, so I asked series writer Anthony Burch on Twitter if Janey ever was similarly flirty with her. Here was his answer:
@laevantine She's only attracted to Athena. She accidentally flirts with Nisha but corrects herself, and Nisha says she's straight anyway.
— Anthony Burch (@reverendanthony) October 13, 2014
Now, Nisha is sort of amusingly wry, even cheerful in a way (in an early quest with Janey, she once quips “Why didn’t you tell me you enjoy killing things? We could be besties!”). If you play through the quest with the sexy scar comment as Nisha, Janey will instead say “Sorry, didn’t mean that as a come on, Nisha. You’re not really my type,” to which Nisha responds pleasantly enough, “No harm done. I like ’em handsome anyway.” So that’s good, right? Nisha’s personality has this undercurrent of wanton violence to it; if she was displeased with Janey, I doubt she’d have been so nice.
This stuff got me thinking: was I looking at Athena’s reaction in the wrong light? Added on top of this were some additional audio logs you can find in the early part of the game that talk about Athena’s past. She’s an assassin, formerly of the Atlas corporation, from an all-woman assassin group. The audio logs you can find are of General Knoxx of the Borderlands DLC “The Secret Armory of General Knoxx” which is, not coincidentally, where Athena makes her first appearance in the series as an NPC.
Knoxx’s logs talk of a very efficient killer who is also a young woman with problems. She’s seeking a girl named “Jess” that Athena claims is her sister and who might be on Pandora. Athena tells Knoxx that when she finds Jess — and she believes she’s tracked her down — then the two of them will escape Pandora together. As Knoxx himself puts it: “Nice kid, which is surprising given what you people do to Assassins when they’re young.”
So, let’s think about this for a second. Athena was probably raised to be an Assassin since she was very young, and Knoxx’s statement implies that they are thoroughly traumatized in some way by this process (hence his surprise that she turned out relatively “normal”). She fought alongside a group of all-women assassins that, in the course of the Secret Armory DLC, she helps the Vault Hunters of Borderlands to find and kill these women. In the intro to Pre-Sequel, Athena mentions that during that time, she was a gun for hire and desperate for work, hence her acceptance of Jack’s offer.
I realized I was looking at this the wrong way. Athena’s reaction to Janey’s overtures isn’t a gay panic. It’s just that Athena herself is a damaged person who has problems dealing with emotional intimacy. The truth is, there’s a good chance that “Jess” isn’t Athena’s biological sister at all. She may be a fellow former Assassin. Taking all of Athena’s characterization in Pre-Sequel into account, I’ve realized that she just puts all of herself into the mission and shuts out distracting things. As a result, she has kind of a stunted emotional development. Her reaction to Janey isn’t because she has a problem with lesbians, it’s because the idea that someone might be interested in her is jarring and strange (and, depending on her relationships with her fellow Assassins, even potentially triggering). So in her awkwardness, she decides to focus on the thing she feels comfortable doing: killing things for money.
I’m glad I took the time to really think about this situation, because it’s been really enlightening in terms of thinking about interpreting queer characters in this sort of situation. It was obvious that my initial interpretation came from looking at the game in a “real life” context. I, as the player, am not in the future-space context of Borderlands where queerness is (again: word used under duress) “normalized.” Nowadays, hitting on the wrong person as a queer individual can end in real violence. So seeing Athena’s awkward response, I interpreted it in that frame. But really, isn’t the promise of these fictional spaces that we can be free of that interpretation for a while? It’s hard to say. I don’t think I have a good answer.
It’s difficult to say what my interpretive takeaway from this experience is, other than this: we need to balance understanding media is consumed in a “real world” context with being able to take fictional worlds in their own contexts. Pre-Sequel spends effort to include queer characters (rare) and queer women (more rare), and then takes the additional step of letting them be overtly flirty with others in a comfortable way. When I had my initial cranky reaction to the situation, my problem was never with Janey — who was acting consistent with her characterization and wasn’t being creepy or too sexual — but with Athena, whose responses felt strange and off-putting. But getting more of the fictional world’s context helped to change that interpretation of Athena and broaden my understanding of her character at the same time, and that was absolutely worthwhile.