Borderlands Pre-Sequel: Handsome Jack’s Fall Is Bad

The Borderlands: Pre-Sequel presents us with the fall to evil of Handsome Jack, who is either a low-level programmer or a mid-level manager depending on who has their hands on the script right now. Overall the game suffers badly from different parts of the game being written by different people with little editing for consistency, or alternatively, from one writer who was unable to keep track of character traits and arcs from one day to the next. Feels more like the former, though, like the script is being written by people with a different idea of exactly who these characters are and where they’re going. Is the AI Felicity thrilled with murder or repulsed by it? Is Handsome Jack a low-level programmer or does he report directly to the Hyperion CEO? Once you finish one of the game’s twelve main story missions and move on to the next, these details get scrambled.

Jack’s descent into evil seems to have been written into the outline with enough detail to keep everyone on the same page, but unfortunately it’s just not very good. He commits a series of escalating crimes that starts with the level of violence required of a shooter game deuteragonist and ends with him killing four allies to guarantee hitting one traitor. That’s a good arc that brings him from the fairly heroic place he starts to one step before the violent megalomaniac he is in Borderlands 2. The problem is two-fold: First, we never see him take that final step, and relatedly second, while his crimes escalate over the course of the game, his motivations for committing them are all over the place, not tied to a specific drive that draws him deeper and deeper into evil.

We first meet Jack on Helios station as the rival Dahl Corporation’s mercenaries are attacking it. Jack’s never killed anyone before, but he gets a thrill from fending off the Dahl goons. So his first step here is violence committed purely in self-defense. The writing of individual lines flops hard such that Jack – who is supposed to be charming and heroic at this stage – is more annoying than a claptrap, but overall this is a good idea for a starting point.

Likewise, Jack’s second step on the road to evil is a good one. After the player flees Helios Station to land on the moon of Elpis (which is very distinct from the setting of the first two games: lower gravity, lunar geography, limited air in wilderness sections, in terms of gameplay and art direction the Pre-Sequel is expanding on its forebears in a very good way), Jack directs you to Concordia, the local hub city, which is ruled by a Hyperion retiree who calls himself “the Meriff” (mayor/sheriff). The Meriff is on the take from Dahl and locks the city down, preventing Jack from fast traveling down to safety from the Helios, which is still overrun by Dahl troops (Jack had to stay behind to operate the giant cannon that fired you down to the surface of Elpis – it’s not clear whether staying behind on Helios was done out of heroism or strategy, as there’s good arguments for both).

Once you break the lockdown and get Jack onto the surface, he confronts the Meriff, intimidates him, and then laughs it off and tells the Meriff he’s not going to hurt/kill him, but he needs to get out of town and never come back. The Meriff tries to shoot Jack in the back, so Jack blows him to pieces. Then there’s a side quest where Jack gloats about killing the Meriff in a particularly spectacular way. This is not a bad second step on the road to evil, although it really doesn’t put enough emphasis on how much the Meriff’s double betrayal affected Jack. Later on in the plot he’s absolutely paranoid about being betrayed again, but while he does call the Meriff a traitorous snake and all, he doesn’t really emphasize it the way you might expect from someone who’s developing absolute paranoia. There’s still a chance to come back from this later on, but the Pre-Sequel whiffs it.

The third step on Jack’s road to darkness also mostly works by itself, although it’s starting to get shaky and sets the second half of the fall up for failure. You get a military AI named Felicity, you need to plug her into a giant constructor robot so that she can produce a robot army with which to recapture Helios Station, and Felicity really hates the new body she’s going to be forced into. She asks to be copied into the body instead, but Jack says that will take too long, and installs the only copy of Felicity onto the bot.

So far as Jack’s fall to darkness goes, this works, although it’s a dumb plot thread for other reasons. Wouldn’t copying Felicity into the giant robot just be creating a clone to torture instead? How is that morally superior to putting the original in? It makes sense that Felicity would prefer it, since then it’s the clone’s problem, but as a step in the fall to darkness does it actually matter which one Jack chooses? After Jack has already decided not to copy Felicity, he deletes everything in Felicity’s personality not directly useful to producing robot armies, so presumably instead of deleting those parts, he could’ve not copied them – but as mentioned, he says this after making the decision not to copy Felicity, so we don’t know about it until after the scene when we needed that information to understand the stakes. The reason Jack refuses to copy Felicity is because it would take too long, but transfering files doesn’t take less time than copying them, and that’s not an obscure science fact, it’s something anyone who’s ever had to transfer lots of files knows about.

There’s a much more straightforward way to run this scene: Dahl mercenary leader Colonel Zarpedon has already made the offer to let Jack and his allies flee the whole star system, leaving her to blow up Elpis to avert some unknown apocalypse. Her stated motives are altruistic, and while it’s possible she’s lying about that, players in a fall-to-darkness story are primed to accept that the main antagonist turns out to be an anti-hero (or even a full-on hero, although I don’t think you can qualify for that when your plan is to blow up an inhabited moon, even if it is for a greater good – especially since it turns out you can avert the apocalypse by shooting it many times in the face). So instead of offering up the copy/paste plan, Felicity can just try and convince Jack to leave Elpis to its fate. Part of her arc here is that she wants to explore new computer systems rather than being locked to a single brutish constructor-bot body to manufacture Jack’s robot army, so let her talk about how they can take the ship Zarpedon’s offering and blast off for space adventures, find new opportunities out amongst the stars far away from Pandora, the galaxy’s armpit. Jack still gets the next step in his fall to darkness – sacrificing an innocent being in pursuit of his goals, but in service of a greater good in a situation without any obviously better alternatives – but the tradeoffs of Felicity’s proposed alternative would’ve been obvious from the start of the conversation, rather than becoming clear only after a decision has been made, and also Borderlands comptuers can work like regular computers instead of having their rules rewritten in a weird nonsense way.

But the real problems begin in fourth and fifth steps on Jack’s fall to darkness. After returning to Helios Station with a shiny new robot army, the player saves several Hyperion scientists from occupying Dahl forces. Jack receives intel that strongly implies one of them is a mole who took a deal with Dahl and is planning to sabotage Jack now that he’s back in control of the station, but Jack doesn’t know which one (or even that there’s definitely a mole amongst them, that’s just the most obvious explanation). He vents all four of them into space, just to be sure. This is a good moral escalation on Jack’s previous crimes. He sacrificed Felicity against her will for the greater good in a situation where proposed alternatives basically guaranteed the deaths of everyone on Elpis and most of the people on Pandora. It was a trolley problem, Jack took the best option from what was available. But it broke a taboo on killing innocent people, so here on Helios he’s more willing to kill three innocents in order to prevent one saboteur from putting Dahl back in charge of Helios to destroy Elpis.

Unlike with Felicity, it’s not nearly so certain that this saboteur will be able to guarantee Dahl’s victory. With Jack back in control of Helios, there’s no longer any time limit – so long as he controls the station, Dahl cannot destroy the moon. If he isolates these four scientists from any important systems, he has all the time in the world to figure out which one is the traitor, or even just to defeat Dahl’s Lost Legion with his new robot army and make it a moot point. There is some chance that letting the traitor live will allow them to clever their way into retaking the station for Dahl and killing everyone, but it’s not even 50/50, let alone a practical guarantee. Sacrificing Felicity was crossing a moral line, but it’s not clear what better option Jack could’ve taken. Sacrificing the three innocent scientists is an act of outright evil.

But while it’s a good moral escalation, it’s not at all clear why Jack did it. This is where Jack’s lack of reaction to the Meriff’s betrayal comes back to haunt the plot. Yes, Jack’s been betrayed before, but only by one specific guy. Felicity didn’t betray him, he betrayed Felicity! There’s no reason for him to be so paranoid about betrayal that he commits his first unambiguously evil act over it. A second betrayal (ideally somehow tied directly into the Felicity arc, although that would require a significant rewrite of that arc) would really help sell the idea that Jack is paranoid about betrayals in general, when the plot as it is only gives Jack reason to think of the Merriff in particular as a backstabber.

Lilith and Roland, two protagonists from the first Borderlands game and the leaders of the resistance against him in the second, have been Jack’s allies against Dahl in order to save Elpis (Mordecai and Brick are still on Pandora, and I guess the space bus only makes a trip every so often). Jack’s execution of all four scientists convinces them to turn on him –

Hang on, quick side note, not important and too big to fit in a parenthetical but it’s a hilarious writing fail I can’t walk past – Lilith and Roland are in the room with Jack when the scientists get flushed out the airlock. They make no effort to try and save any of them. The player is in the same room, so you can stare right at them while they do this. In the frame story, Lilith is like “you still worked with Jack even after he killed those scientists?!” and, like, you were right there, Lilith! We were in the same room when this happened! Why didn’t you do anything about it?

Roland and Lilith delay their retaliation against Jack despite being in a position to potentially save the scientists with quick action. It makes sense they’d hesitate, since canonically only half of their team is present while all four of Jack’s team plus Jack himself is on hand, and it’s not clear how many of them would take Lilith and Roland’s side if they turned on Jack immediately. Nisha’s a pro-murder psychopath, CL4P-TP is programmed to obey Jack, and Wilhelm’s not sadistic but is sufficiently amoral that he’ll probably side with Jack on momentum and not feel bad about it afterwards. Athena’s a toss-up, which means Lilith and Roland would be rolling the dice on 3 vs. 4 odds at best. But Athena’s facing pretty much the exact same moral calculus, and Lilith and Roland try to kill her along with Jack when they make their first move, trying to blow up the entire Helios station after they’ve left but while Jack and his team are still on it. Athena helped Jack power down the laser that was trying to blow up an inhabited moon, and Lilith and Roland’s sabotage happens as you’re powering that laser down, something which is clearly intended to kill Jack, who Athena is standing like twenty feet away from (it doesn’t work). So Athena helped Jack insofar as his goals were clearly noble (whether or not he had an ulterior motive), and then continued working with him because his opposition had just tried to kill her. Writing off Athena as collateral damage was ruthless but defensible, but where does Lilith get the gall to then act like Athena siding with Jack was some kind of act of malice?

Anyway, and the final arc is about racing to the vault, Jack hoping to use it to conquer the world while Lilith and Roland want to keep it out of Jack’s hands. At the end, Lilith stops Jack from unlocking the vault (although Jack is interacting with it long enough to learn of the location of the vault he’s chasing after in the second game) and maims Jack’s face, leading to his otherwise unexplained Handsome Jack mask in the second game. Then she just kinda leaves without finishing Jack, and without the player character(s) doing anything about it. This is supposed to be the final betrayal that sets Jack up for his fifth and final step towards darkness – totally unrestrained megalomaniacal violence.

I think the idea here is that Jack now has a severe grievance against Lilith and Roland in particular, and the Pandoran populace takes their side over his, so he grows to resent them? But we never see Jack express any faith that the hoi polloi will take his side or stay out of the conflict altogether, nor is there ever a moment where the people are seen visibly siding against Jack. The next time we see Jack is at the start of Borderlands 2, when he’s already well into his reign of terror. The final arc is fought exclusively against Eridian vault guardians and Dahl leftovers with no visible leadership (the face of the Dahl troops, Colonel Zarpedon, is already dead), when it could’ve been fought against a combination of Elpis militia and Dahl leftovers all joining Roland’s side, along with some ex-Crimson Lance guys left behind on Pandora who come up with Brick and Mordecai in response to Roland’s distress signal.

The final gauntlet descent to the vault is pretty repetitive in the game as it is – Zarpedon’s defeated and Roland and Lilith fade into the background while you fight a bunch of faceless mooks which, cool-looking and fun though the aliens are, have no motivation except to protect the vault. These aren’t our main antagonists, but we fight them across four different regions. It’s a full arc of the game where nothing happens until we finally get to the bottom for the final cut scene, where the extent of the character development is Lilith punching Jack so hard it burns half his face off. Since we have so much space to work with already, and since we already have models for Concordian citizens, Dahl soldiers, and the Crimson Raiders (the latter will have to be brought in from Borderlands 2, but it looks like the same engine, so that shouldn’t be too hard), we can use those to portray a coalition coming together to stop Jack.

Roland rallies the Dahl soldiers, who’ve just lost their leader, against Jack. Jack is annoyed, but only a bit. He was going to hunt down all the remaining Dahl soldiers anyway to tie off loose ends, and adding Roland and Lilith to the list is a minor inconvenience – they’re only two vault hunters while he’s got four. After defeating Dahl’s remnants, Concordian militia reinforcements arrive, with Moxxi and/or Janey Springs serving as the voice/face in the radio chatter. Then Mordecai and Brick arrive with the first Crimson Raiders. In the game as it is, there’s a boss fight halfway to the vault against a Dahl gunship with basically no character or personality, and in this version you can replace that boss fight with a fight against the four vault hunters of the original game (bonus points: This is potentially the moment when Wilhelm, playable in this game, defeated the original four vault hunters, an event in the backstory of Borderlands 2). You might even want to shuffle the exact position of the fights around so that the game’s final boss against an Eridian super-guardian is the mid-point boss and the vault hunters are fought in the final chamber right before opening the vault, although that leads to a problem where you win but actually you lose, with Lilith getting the last laugh on Jack despite the fact that you just barely depleted all her hit points, which is never fun. I still would’ve preferred it over the meh ending the game gets, though.

A ragtag coalition of heroes assembles to stop Jack from achieving ultimate power from the vault, successfully stopping him from unsealing it at the last minute in the final cut scene. It’s like playing the Siege of Helm’s Deep as the orcs – one unexpected enemy after another shows up to stop you until finally it’s too much. Jack comes steadily more unhinged, promising vengeance on all the people who’ve shown up to stop him, all during a climax where you are, in terms of narrative and tropes, now playing as the villain.

This also helps with another problem in the story, which is that it’s framed as Athena (one of the Pre-Sequel’s protagonists) telling Lilith her side of the story on Elpis in the aftermath of Jack’s fall at the end of Borderlands 2. Lilith is extracting this story from Athena while Athena is tied to a stake and several Crimson Raiders are aiming assault rifles at her, waiting to fire on Lilith’s command. And Athena was present when Lilith and Roland tried to assassinate Jack in the immediate aftermath of his execution of the four scientists, and would’ve died along with him, despite having no say in what happened to them. So Lilith tries to kill Athena for being on the same space station as a threat, and then has the gall to put Athena on trial for it. If the climax of the story is, rather than punching through Eridian guardians where Lilith’s only involvement is to sucker punch Jack with her teleportation powers and then leave, a battle against a coalition co-led by Lilith, it would make a lot more sense for her to consider Athena an enemy.

It would even make sense for Lilith to have considered Athena an enemy in the story as it is before hearing her side of the story – from Lilith’s perspective, Athena aided Jack in his rise to power as part of a quartet of Vault Hunters every other one of which turned out to be evil (Nisha and Wilhelm are bosses in Borderlands 2, and the claptrap in the party is specifically the Interplanetary Ninja Assassin Claptrap who was a villain in the DLC from the first game – although Claptrap is back to being an ally in Borderlands 2, so that one’s kinda back and forth). But by the end, it should be really obvious that Athena acted to save the people of Elpis, briefly continued to assist him after Elpis was saved because his enemies were trying to kill her, and deserted Jack once he went full tyrant. This does not stop Lilith from ordering Athena’s immediate execution (she gets better). You could alter the frame story so that Athena is being interrogated but not facing imminent execution, and at the end Lilith could be suspicious but not homicidal. But if you really need Lilith to try to kill Athena here (I haven’t played the third game, maybe it’s a plot point), having Athena confess to taking Jack’s side in the Battle of Elpis would make sense as grounds for execution in a way that helping Jack fight an alien security system does not.

And it makes sense with Athena’s character to have done so. She’s very mission-focused, she was an assassin for the Atlas Corporation (villains of the first game), and she only defected after being tricked into killing her own sister, so it’s entirely in keeping with her character to keep helping Jack because that’s the mission and not turning around to realize the moral implications of her actions until after something terrible has already happened.

When I rewrite a game plot that doesn’t quite work, I often find myself straining against conflicting goals in a way that I imagine is very similar to what the developers struggled with. Not this time, though. There’s a much better climax to the story just sitting there, using existing art assets and flowing directly from the existing game and into Borderlands 2, and the Pre-Sequel walked past it to do something stupider.

2 thoughts on “Borderlands Pre-Sequel: Handsome Jack’s Fall Is Bad”

  1. I am increasingly convinced that Tales from the Borderlands was peak of Borderlands, and that it’s not just me having virtually no memory of Borderlands by now.

    >but transfering files doesn’t take less time than copying them

    Nitpick! Transferring files can take more or less time depending on the architecture. Modern memory architecture involves page tables – mappings of virtual memory locations to the actual position on the drive. In this situation, transferring files within the same physical space is incredibly fast. Since nothing actually moves anywhere, you are just replacing the virtual marker for that physical space.
    But for data movement between two different physical devices, transferring would take longer than copying. Because transferring *is* just copying, but with an extra step of deleting data on the old device. Which may be fast (you are wiping the marker in the memory table) or secure (you are wiping the actual data you had on the physical drive).


    1. Oh yeah. And Pre-Sequel had that big promise of “you can play as Handsome Jack!!!11
      And then it turns out that it’s not even the actual Handsome Jack, it’s just some impersonator. Lame.


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