Borderlands 3, the latest game in the 10-year-old series, is a bit of a time capsule. The original Borderlands was released in 2009 during a golden age of narrative-heavy first-person shooters. Its biggest selling points included a four-player cooperative design, a ludicrous number of procedurally generated guns, and a dark but deeply silly sense of humor. And developer Gearbox has maintained that style and tone for years, holding out against the rise of never-ending massively multiplayer shooters like Destiny and Fortnite.
Borderlands 3 will be released next month, and based on my recent preview of the game, it offers more and weirder options than its predecessors. The series’s original, fairly basic video game archetypes have evolved into elaborate classes, like the robotic “Beastmaster” FL4K who can summon animal companions but also turn invisible and charm enemies. The game offers a billion gun variations compared to Borderlands’ mere 17.75 million, and they feature exotic new capabilities like secondary fire modes and weaponized hamburgers. Despite all this, the two hours I’ve played of Borderlands 3 felt comfortably familiar — from the frenetic gunplay to the self-aware jokes.
There’s one big change in Borderlands 3, though: the world has been invaded by murder streamers.
Borderlands is set in a fictitious galaxy that’s run by ruthless corporations and filled with people and animals who will almost invariably attack you on sight. The last major installment, 2012’s Borderlands 2, pitted players against a slimy executive known as Handsome Jack. But our cultural reference points have shifted since then, and the universe has shifted to match them. Now, the villains are essentially a pair of evil Twitch streamers. This seems exactly as ridiculous as it sounds. But since Borderlands has always been ridiculous, it also sounds kind of perfect.
“In 2012, the idea of what we have as a modern streamer or YouTube star, it was still kind of nascent, and it didn’t have the power that it has today,” says Sam Winkler, the co-lead writer of Borderlands 3. “There’s still this fixation with the monolithic corporate head that you just want to have insult you for 30 hours until you shoot him in the face.”
In 2019, there’s a newfound anxiety about the influence of social media, and Borderlands 3’s villains, known as the Calypso Twins, are the personification of those fears. They operate the hyper-violent real-life equivalent of a popular streaming channel on the prison planet of Pandora, and they’ve amassed a cult of bandits known as the Children of the Vault, which aims to challenge the corporations. They also want to be “the most popular murder streamers in the galaxy” — which, co-lead writer Danny Homan confirms, means that murder streaming is, in fact, a full-fledged industry.
“I think what was so curious to us was just this general idea that the power balance has shifted in media in such an interesting way, and that someone can so quickly rise to a level of influence that they might not know what to do with,” says Homan. Borderlands 2 ended with corporations pulling back from Pandora, apparently leaving a power vacuum that was filled by entertainers. “If you take that one step further into a world like Borderlands, you go, well, if you’re bad and you have that level of influence — what could you do with it?”
Dystopias where real ultra-violence becomes entertainment (or as Homan puts it, “good content”) have been around far longer than Twitch and YouTube, and so has the trope of celebrity cult leaders. But Homan and Winkler also talk about specifically modern dynamics — like the parasocial relationships that fans build with their favorite streamers, the tension between streamers and old media gatekeepers, and the amplifying power of social media.
“We didn’t want to parody or caricature any specific streamers or YouTubers,” says Winkler. “But any one of these people with 10, 20 million followers — if they woke up one day in a bad mood and said, ‘That guy should die,’ 99.99 percent of those followers are going to be like, ‘Whoa, kind of an overstatement, guy!’ And some of them are going to show up at that person’s house. And that’s powerful and that’s dangerous in the real world, let alone when your entire audience is just billions of psychopaths.”
Winkler is describing the anatomy of a real-life harassment campaign — a very real danger for many streamers and other internet users. Sites like YouTube have been blamed for pushing lonely, disaffected viewers toward extremist ideology. Borderlands 3 seems to explore this dynamic in its typically over-the-top fashion. Homan describes the twins’ message as “everyone’s been telling you that you’re terrible, but I love you, and I think you have value — and I’m going to help you become a cooler, better, more murderous version of yourself.”
The writers say they weren’t thinking about online radicalization, though, and they don’t talk about the game in relation to real harassment or threats of violence. They describe it as a general exploration of how internet fame can go wrong. Borderlands 3 is explicitly a game for streamers. (Even if its publishers burned some goodwill by intimidating one of them with private investigators.) The game includes a Twitch extension that lets viewers engage with players, and its writers think the Borderlands style of humor translates well to video. So parodying streaming culture seems like an obvious extension of that principle, regardless of any bigger cultural dynamics.
But the storyline still seems interesting because it reflects new and different political fears, even if it’s indirect or unintentional — the way Borderlands games have riffed for years on the worst elements of capitalism with a cynical, detached, and somewhat absurdist tone. Borderlands 3, according to its writers, is canonically about how populist demagogues exploit social media, resentment, and fandom to fill the cultural gaps left by powerful corporations. Also, there’s a gun that shoots hamburgers.
Borderlands 3 will be released on September 13th for Windows, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.
Correction: Corrected spelling of co-writer Danny Homan’s name.