The first Borderlands game had a pretty generic shooter plot and got a bunch of attention for reskinning itself into one of the first magenta games. It didn’t go full magenta untilt he sequel, and I like the light sprinkling better than the more concentrated doses later games had, especially the Pre-Sequel (and I’m slightly worried about how bad it’s going to be in 3, which I have not played yet). I’m not here to talk about line-by-line dialogue, though. This post is about the tangled plot of Borderlands 1 and how it could’ve been much smoother without really changing anything except a bit of expository dialogue.
Borderlands has two recurring problems in its plot. The first is that it doesn’t tell you the significance of what you’re doing until it’s already done, with characters like Angel (whose motives for helping you aren’t even explained or even hinted at in this game), Dr. Zed, Marcus, and Patricia telling you what to do and then explaining how it gets you closer to the end goal of finding the Vault after you’ve done it. The first and obvious rewrite, then, is to move an explanation for why you’re doing what you’re doing to up front.
And second, which is that you are always proceeding directly towards the Vault, which means the path to the Vault is ludicrously convoluted. And although the Vault is talked up as the central MacGuffin, it and its Eridian creators are barely in the game. You don’t encounter the Eridian aliens who built the thing very much until the very end, just outside the Vault, and when you do encounter them, it’s not any more significant than as a new enemy type. It’s an interesting new enemy type and I’m glad it’s in the game, but you do not spend the finale learning ancient Eridian secrets. You spend it fighting the Crimson Lance mercenaries. The only Eridian secret is that they actually built the Vault to contain some tentacle monster, not to hold treasure, and that tentacle monster stabs the only built-up villain of the entire game to death to yoink the final boss fight for itself.
The actual gameplay of Borderlands isn’t about Vault hunting at all. It’s about defeating bandit chieftains and later the Crimson Lance. So rather than bothering with all this Vault key fragment nonsense in the first place, maybe it’d be better off to cast the protagonists as bounty hunters and mercenaries. The Vault is Patricia Tannis’ obsession, and Commandant Steele’s (Commandant Steele being the commander of the Crimson Lance). The player’s got a list of bandit chiefs to take down and that’s their MacGuffin, only dragged into all this Vault business because everyone else cares about it.
So here’s my proposal for a fix: You are here to kill five bandit chiefs making trouble near New Haven on behalf of the Hyperion Corporation. You aren’t an official Hyperion employee or anything, just a freelance bounty hunter who’s picking up some forgotten contracts in the ass end of space. You’re not even clear why Hyperion cares about these bandits, seeing as how Pandora was settled by Dahl, mostly abandoned, and is now run by a combination of the locals and Atlas Corporation’s Crimson Lance, without Hyperion really having any stuff around for the bandits to bother with. But whatever, you’re in it for the money, and the bandits you’re after are Sledge in the Arid Badlands, Mad Mel in the Dahl Headlands, Jaynis on the Trash Coast, Krom in Krom’s Canyon, and the bandit king Flynt in the Salt Flats. You get told all of this by Angel, who is openly working on behalf of Hyperion (though she doesn’t need to reveal that she’s wired into a psychic spy satellite or anything). Instead of all these bandits being brought up for the first time only when they become directly relevant to the plot and then forgotten about as soon as you’ve killed them, the game initially frames its plot as a quest to go and kill these five guys, since that’s what you’ll spend 90% of the game doing.
The game’s opening is about the same except that you are told Nine-Toes answers to a bigger bandit chief named Sledge before you kill him, so Sledge doesn’t get dropped on you out of nowhere after dealing with the early quest chain that treated Nine-Toes like he was the region’s bandit chief. Dr. Zed (the main plot NPC of the Arid Badlands) also tells you that Sledge has been really putting the squeeze on the town lately because of his feud with Mad Mel over in the Dahl Headlands. Apparently Sledge got some alleged alien artifact and Mad Mel is trying to seize it from him to curry favor with Flynt, the bandit king. All three of those guys are on your list, so whatever, you’re just here to hunt bounties. You find the Vault key fragment while looting Sledge’s stronghold and Commandant Steele of the Crimson Lance tells you that you are in so much trouble for extrajudicially executing eight million Pandora residents and having contraband alien technology and you should surrender yourself to the Crimson Lance immediately. You ignore her.
Your next target is Mad Mel in the Dahl Headlands, who is angry at you for killing Sledge. Mad Mel hated Sledge and now you have deprived him of the joy of killing Sledge personally. He also wants you to hand over the Vault key fragment you found in Sledge’s stronghold so that he can give it to Flynt. You kill him.
In the game as it is, Mad Mel’s relationship to Sledge is unclear, but he rallies the bandits after you defeated Sledge and seeks revenge on you. This isn’t terrible, but it makes Mad Mel seem like he’s a step down from Sledge despite the fact that we’ve never heard of him before. Mad Mel seems much better equipped than Sledge, since he has tons of heavily armed dune buggies (driving around firing rockets at these is the main gameplay of the Dahl Headlands). Mad Mel is dealt with much faster than Sledge, so having him be a vengeful lieutenant is fine – I just like the idea of bandit rivalries better, since it suggests that the bandits have frequent gang wars with each other rather than being a united bloc. Bandits are the vast majority of the enemies in this game and I think having them be explicitly fighting each other helps make Pandora feel lawless and violent rather than under the oppressive heel of a unified Bandit Regime.
In New Haven, Helena Pearce says she can help you with that Vault key all these bandits are fighting over if you help her with her side quest (you run around and push some buttons in moderately dangerous parts of the map). She directs you to Patricia Tannis, local Vault expert, whose whereabouts are generally unknown, but Crazy Earl knows where to find her. Crazy Earl sends you on a few errands before he’ll tell you where Patricia is camping in the Rust Commons.
This slightly rearranges the order of quests compared to the game as it exists, where Helena sends you to Patricia, and Patricia sends you to Crazy Earl, who allegedly has a fragment of the Vault key. You do a bunch of errands for him and then he tells you that actually the bandit chief Krom stole his fragment. They try to wring a joke out of it, but ultimatley it’s better to just split this into two different objectives, first to locate Patricia Tannis, then to retrieve the key fragment, so that the player is making more obvious forward progress rather than the whole thing being a big waste of time with a lampshade hung on how much time was wasted. This isn’t massively annoying in the game because ultimately it was an excuse to kill a bunch of bandits and that’s what we’re here for, plus capping the quest chain off with a quest to kill a bandit boss is better than Crazy Earl just handing the MacGuffin over after we finish a few fetch quests. But definitely throwing a lampshade on your plot cul de sac doesn’t make it less of a plot cul de sac, and we could always just not have one of those – if Crazy Earl’s quests aren’t very high-stakes (and they’re not), then don’t have them be the lead-up to a MacGuffin and then throw in yet another previously unheard of bandit chief at the last second to provide a proper climax.
In the edited version of the story, you learn from Crazy Earl where Patricia Tannis is located, and she can verify that the bandit king Flynt is after the Vault, and so is the Crimson Lance, and probably so is Hyperion, seeing as every bandit they’ve sicced you on is fighting over it. The key to unlocking the Vault is split into multiple fragments, Sledge was assigned to get one piece but went rogue when he tracked it down, hoping to keep the contents of the Vault for himself. Jaynis is in charge of getting another fragment from a rakk hive that’s swallowed it while Krom is in charge of guarding the fragment that Flynt has already acquired. Patricia says she wants to get there first For Science! and Marcus Kincaid says he’ll help you sell the stuff and get filthy rich should Patricia discover it has some kind of alien superpower like being an infinite source of energy or a cache of ancient alien art or whatever. You kill Krom to get his key fragment, and then help Jaynis’ brother Taylor stage a coup to seize control of Jaynistown before Taylor betrays you and you kill him too, and with the bandits finally out of the way, you hunt down the rakk hive.
At last, you have all three fragments of the Vault key! In the game as it is, at this point Patricia Tannis sends you on a quest for a fourth key held by Flynt (said to be leader of all bandits but heretofore unmentioned), contradicting her earlier claim that there are only three. It seems like a plot hole, but later it turns out the Crimson Lance showed up while you were gone and put a gun to her head, telling her to send you after the strongest bandit in the area in hopes Flynt will kill you and then taking the Vault key for themselves. This is reasonably clever, but its problem is that its twist is that what appeared to be a plot hole was actually Patricia Tannis bullshitting for in-universe reasons. It’s not like Borderlands is otherwise examining the distinction between player and player character or anything, they just disguise a plot twist as a plot hole and it’s super jarring.
So for this, Patricia Tannis just tells you that she needs to do Science! to the Vault key now she has all three fragments. From her preliminary research, she suspects the Vault does not contain treasure, but rather is a prison for some kind of psychic poison radiation thing. You head off to kill Flynt because 1) there’s still an outstanding bounty on him and 2) he is definitely coming after you for the complete key and also revenge for killing all his vassal bandit chiefs. When you get back, the Crimson Lance have abducted Patricia Tannis with the intention of forcing her to open the Vault.
In the game as it is, the reveal that the Vault is a prison and not a treasury is saved for the very end of the game, when Commandant Steele opens it and gets impaled by the tentacle monster instead, depriving the player of a boss fight against the only villain who’s received any build-up over the course of the game. The other bandit villains have been a conveyor belt of bad guys where each new one is introduced soon after the last one is killed, but Commandant Steele is actually present throughout the whole plot. And some tentacle impales her. Much like with Crazy Earl’s lampshaded plot cul de sac, it’s bad writing in service to an obsession with twists and jokes, and you could instead just have the writing be good: Let the final boss fight be with Commandant Steele as the Vault opens some crazy unstable energy field that affects the battlefield and maybe spawns a bunch of Eridian alien enemies, but the last boss is still Steele. She’s the one who’s been calling you on the space phone to talk shit periodically through the whole game and her Crimson Lance baddies have been the main enemy faction for the game’s entire finale (there’s a whole thing where you have to raid a Crimson Lance fortress to save Patricia Tannis and re-activate a communications network and stuff which I’ve skipped over here because it’s all unexceptional and works fine as a vehicle for gameplay). The last boss needs to be with Steele, not this mediocre off-brand shoggoth.
Also worth noting that, although this probably wasn’t even conceived until later, Commandant Steele is a siren, a woman with arbitrary space magic powers, the same as one of the playable characters, Lilith, whose arbitrary space magic power lets her become incorporeal for a few seconds. Sirens have weird blue tattoos that spontaneously manifest on their bodies, and Commandant Steele has those tattoos. She never demonstrates any powers, but she could’ve, and they could’ve been tied to the Vault somehow. It doesn’t even have to be explained how, the Vault can just supercharge her powers in some way to make her a cool final boss. That would mean that there needs to be some explanation for why specifically Commandant Steele’s powers are supercharged so that people playing Lilith have an explanation for why their class power isn’t also powered up somehow, but that’s not too hard to work into the part near the end where you’re blowing up the Crimson Lance fortress and can involve some kind of prepwork that Commandant Steele did that Lilith can’t. And that can be Commandant Steele’s undoing, like, she gets set on fire from the inside out by the power overload or something, thus explaining why Lilith never tries to replicate it after the fight (plus this serves as foreshadowing for Borderlands 2, when her powers do get an upgrade, although for gameplay purposes there still needs to be a reason why that didn’t happen for the Borderlands 1 DLCs when she’s still playable).