The Apocalypse, Sideways: 92 Hours In L.A. With ‘Borderlands 3’

The cover of Borderlands 3

The buildings in L.A. largely come in two varieties – they’re either animal hospitals or megachurches, and a fun game is to try and pick which is which from a distance. It’s harder than it first seems. This is because everything in L.A. looks both very beautiful and also deep in a state of decay; it’s like a model of a ruined city, rebuilt exactly in diamontes, marble and pink plaster.

As for the people of L.A., a lot of them either hate their city or regard it with gentle bemusement. Some alternate between the two. Their main pastime is complaining about the traffic, which is so bad that a five kilometre trip from the airport takes two hours, every minute of which my Uber driver spends telling me how much he hates driving in L.A.

“I think it’s the worst place in the world,” he says, squinting at me through the rearview mirror.

“For traffic?”

“For everything,” he says, and crosses three lanes of roaring cars with a single spin of the wheel.

The other thing that the people of L.A. don’t like doing is fixing signs. Every building is emblazoned with giant letters that spell out slogans, adverts, names of stores, and every building is missing at least a few of them. This fills with me a particular kind of anxiety that I will quickly learn is an integral part of the experience of wandering around L.A. The worst is when I see that the Netflix building is missing its ‘E’. Netflix is valued at many billions of dollars. Surely it would be worth spending a little time and money sending someone to the top of the building armed with a giant ‘E’?

But that’s the thing: L.A. is predicated on a kind of curated carelessness. No-one appears to in any real rush to get to where they’re going, and so they sit idling in their cars on the massive, clogged highways. At a Denny’s I visit, a food order takes an hour to be filled. One morning, I try to find Judy Garland’s grave in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. But the map I pick up from the information counter is all out of scale, and I spend a lot of time wandering in circles. After an hour, I ask a hooded man, sitting in front of Chris Cornell’s grave, staring very intently at the grass, if he can help me.

All of this makes the city the perfect place to play 90 minutes of Borderlands 3 in, which is what I am in L.A. to do.

“What’s the rush?” he asks, and then goes back to staring.

If you are the right kind of person, this laidback quality can seem fun, refreshing and typically American. In fact, there is a lot about L.A. that is typically American. For one thing, the city is full of that particularly imperialist brand of extremity – extremity that is taken to be self-justifying. The pizzas are the size of a child’s coffin; the buckets of soda must be picked up with two hands; the popcorn comes with half a stick of butter melted into it. These things are this way because why would they not be? Because what is wrong with making things as big as they can possibly be? If you are able to bake slices of margarita pizza so large that they must be dragged across a restaurant table, why would you not?

But even all this fun stuff has the faint whiff of the apocalypse about it. There is only so much cheese in the world, after all, and when you see what appears to be quite a lot of it melted into a single pizza base, it’s hard not to start thinking about how this is all going to shake out in a hundred years or so. Excess is fine, after all, but it has an expiration date, and in L.A., that expiration date seems particularly close.

Borderlands 3

All of which makes it the city the perfect place to play 90 minutes of Borderlands 3 in, which is what I am in L.A. to do. After all, the Borderlands franchise has always taken a particularly sideways look at the apocalypse. From the very opening moments of the first game, it’s clear that things are bad on Pandora – people are murdering each other with abandon, for a start, and there are a multitude of beasties whose only wish is to remove hearts from chests. But, as horrible as everything might be, nobody seems particularly concerned. The general attitude to the peculiar deaths that Pandora provides is a kind of resigned, unhurried disdain, like getting torn limb from limb by a flying pterodactyl thing is about as much of an inconvenience as having to do your taxes.

That blasé attitude is applied even to the gameplay. In one notable Borderlands mission, you must shoot a Psycho in the face. But there is no challenge – he has asked you to do the killing himself, and he stands there, willing you on, unarmed, until you pull the trigger. In another mission, you must collect party supplies for Claptrap, a fridge-shaped robot who is also definitely a sociopath. At every point that a Borderlands game could do the thing a regular game would do, it does the opposite, which gives it a chaotic, kinetic energy entirely of its own.

In order to play the 90 minutes of Borderlands 3, I must get into a large bus, emblazoned with the lead art from the game – a Psycho, arms raised in a beatific pose, surrounded by red roses. We drive for a while through the suburbs of L.A., which leaves a very different impression than Hollywood Boulevard or the Sunset Strip. There are lots of posters on the lampposts, and most advertise different services designed to get you a good divorce, or a desirable alimony deal. At one point, I spot a man in a business jacket counting out cigarettes, handing them to a young boy no older than 13.

The Borderlands venue is easy to spot – it is a giant, imposing warehouse, covered in more art from the forthcoming game. Inside, the décor ramps up a notch. There are statues of the key antagonists of Borderlands 3, the waifish Calypso Twins, who I will later learn are modelled on Youtubers. There are grinning Psychos on every wall, some of them painted in the style of Edvard Munch’s scream, some in the style of Warhol’s soup cans. And there are rows and rows of computer monitors, lined up as though we’re about to sit down and take a test.

Many of the developers wander the space. They are polite, informed, and very eager to talk about their job, which for the last three years has been to design a billion guns. A little later, when I sit down with Grant Kao, one of the developers, he talks about a rifle that he built with the reverence that one would usually reserve for family members and friends, or a particularly beautiful work of art.

Before we get to the computers, there is a presentation. Randy Pitchford, the head of Gearbox, comes out on the stage wearing a jacket emblazoned with the number three. He is an enthusiastic, excitable presenter, and he shows the footage off with a great deal of pride. When one joke goes by too quick – two pipes, one labelled ‘Coolant’ and the other labelled ‘Heatant’ – he points it out. “These are the jokes,” he says, wryly.

Borderlands 3

There is a lot to be excited about what we are shown. The excess that makes the Borderlands franchise what it has only been ramped up – there are more guns, more minibosses, more quips. Antagonists explode into piles of radioactive goop; thrown rifles bounce around the screen like beach balls; rocket launchers fire burgers; and every gun, of which there are many sorts, has the ability to turn into a different type of gun. It is a lot, but that is exactly the point.

When the presentation is over, we file over to the computers and get to playing. I know that I should take time to study the game’s mechanics slowly, so that I can write about them later with more detail. But instead, I instantly begin fulfilling the main function of Borderlands games, which is shooting things. I shoot at a brain in a jar called Gigamind, who is an early antagonist; I shoot at robots, and cultists, and Psychos.

I have a great time doing all this, because nobody makes shooting things feel fulfilling in the way that people who make Borderlands games do. When the 90 minutes is over, I feel distinctly mournful, like I’m a toddler who has been pulled away from the snacks table at a party. But there is something suitable even about the brevity of the hands-on gameplay. I run around for an hour and a half, shoot things, and then it’s all over. It’s like microdosing LSD, or having the briefest of strokes.

Borderlands 3

It is time to leave. Every attendee has been given a Psycho mask, and many are wearing them for a quick farewell photograph. On the way out, I pass a group of six or seven journalists in a scrum on the stage, their faces obscured by the blank, possessed stare of the psycho. “Cheese!” someone says to them. Maybe underneath the masks, they are smiling.

Out on the street, the bus is waiting. On my way to it, I pass three L.A. residents: a man with a face painted blue pushing a pram; a young woman holding a boombox blasting Puccini, and a young person in an immaculate suit wearing a single giant boot. For a second I think maybe it is performance art, designed to tie into the Borderlands 3 event. But then the woman with the boombox starts asking me for money, and I realise that it is not. It is just L.A.; it is just this strange, slow, technicolour kind of apocalypse.

It is just the world sinking into disrepair, fabulously. I get onto the bus. After a moment, it pulls out, and we join the L.A. traffic, which feels infinite but isn’t.

Joseph Earp travelled to Los Angeles as a guest of 2k.