One of the optional missions in Borderlands 3, a cooperative sci-fi shooter that released last week, is to bring a minor character some coffee. The task seems easy enough: go to a cafe, fix a machine, and find a container to hold the brew. Choose to accept it, however, and you’ll meet resistance every step of the way. A dozen people will die in a pitched battle over a single coffee cup in a corporate office. And absolutely nobody will find this strange. It’s morbid, silly, and a good example of Borderlands’ over-the-top parody.
Borderlands launched in 2009, and it’s known for its mashup of post-apocalyptic tropes, space opera, and dark humor. Borderlands 3 repeats a now-familiar formula with mixed success. If you like the games, it’s a new addition with some welcome mechanical tweaks as well as more weapons and powers. As Polygon’s Ben Kuchera writes, though, it’s dragged down by its dull antagonists: a pair of murderous futuristic live-streamers called the Calypso Twins. A game can survive without a good villain, but in Borderlands 3, the twins aren’t simply boring. They’re a good concept and a driving force in the game, yet they’re fundamentally mismatched with Borderlands’ world. And above all, they’re a huge missed opportunity.
Borderlands is set in a far-flung galaxy with planets that are either ruled by warring weapons corporations or left to post-apocalyptic anarchy. Each game casts the player as a “vault hunter” who’s seeking mysterious treasure-filled lairs guarded by cosmic monsters. But on a more basic level, the series is an absurdist extension of first-person shooter logic: an alternate reality where every problem, no matter how petty, must be solved with guns.
People in Borderlands treat murder the same weird way that first-person shooter fans do: it’s very serious when it affects a character they personally care about, but otherwise, it’s just a way to get things done. And the series’s best moments hinge on that contrast between the believably mundane and the cartoonishly hyper-violent. If a character is trying to look tough, it’s probably at least partly a facade, and they’re hiding an inferiority complex or a surprising soft spot. If they’re unassuming and cheerful, they’re probably completely unfazed by horror. It’s not groundbreakingly subversive, but it’s alternately funny and creepy.
The most memorable Borderlands villain, a loathsome sociopath known as Handsome Jack, embodied this conceit perfectly. He was a recognizable caricature of a successful CEO placed in a situation where his vanity, vindictiveness, and amoral ambition could be taken to bizarre yet conceivable extremes.
But the Calypso Twins — named Troy and Tyreen — are exactly who you’d expect to find in a Mad Max pastiche. They’re sneering mall-goth megalomaniacs who put skulls on everything, capriciously torture their followers, and want to become gods. Other characters instantly recognize them as a world-shaking threat, even before they seem particularly bad by Borderlands’ high standards. While we get a sibling rivalry subplot and surprising details about their parentage, there’s nothing relatably human about them.
The twins yell shout-outs to their subscribers and remind viewers to “like, follow, and obey.” But they don’t have the charisma, openness, rhetorical savvy, or inspirational abilities that define good YouTubers and Twitch streamers — even unrepentantly mean ones. The game tries to make internet celebrities scary by making them gritty and one-dimensionally evil, rather than twisting recognizable side effects of online stardom. And there are hints that we could have gotten something better.
Before release, Borderlands 3’s writers compared the twins to well-intentioned internet stars who can’t handle their own power; not people running obvious harassment campaigns, but positive influencers whose fans can mob “haters” into oblivion. In our own world, it can be frightening (and common) enough to see a seemingly nice person refuse to understand the harm they’re causing or call victims the real bad guys who deserve what they get. In a setting where the stakes are ludicrously deadly, it’s even more potentially chilling.
This dynamic would also establish the villains as the heroes of their own story. Borderlands did this masterfully with Handsome Jack; from his perspective, he was a protective father trying to turn a violent hellscape into a prospering and functional society. The Calypso Twins are hard to read as anything but cynical monsters, especially because it’s obvious that they’re only pretending to care about their fans. Meanwhile, back in real life, an affable Disney Channel star like Jake Paul can unintentionally turn his neighborhood into a metaphorical war zone, and vicious criminal pranks get carried out with a lighthearted thoughtlessness that’s almost scarier than the Calypso Twins’ overt sadism.
There are many people who don’t play Borderlands for the narrative. It’s a looting-heavy role-playing game that produces a soothing loop of incremental self-improvement, like Destiny and Diablo — two series with plots I barely remember, despite playing for dozens of hours. But even if you’re not closely following the story, it’s hard to ignore the characters constantly chattering into your earpiece.
I enjoyed Borderlands 3’s shooting and looting much more when the Calypso Twins dropped off the radar for a while, replaced with a more familiar kind of Borderlands antagonist: a horrible corporate executive who was laser-bombing another CEO’s planet while indignantly claiming to be his friend. But that’s a kind of villainy the series has been exploring for years. With Borderlands 3, we almost saw a new kind of monster, but not one that felt real enough to be scary.