Gearbox's online shooter was blown away by the success of <i>Overwatch</i>, but spare a thought for how its story really did promote awesome female characters.
I know, I know: we love to hate Battleborn. With Overwatch's general excellence, its brilliant accessibility and incredible cast of characters, it's easy to enjoy watching Gearbox's ill-fated shooter wallow in the shadow of Blizzard's latest multiplayer smash. I don't personally play Overwatch – competitive games are my least favourite type of game, below watching the clock tick during a slow day at work – but even I'm in love with Mei.
But let's pretend Overwatch doesn't exist for a minute, and talk instead about what makes Battleborn great (not that anyone's really playing it, based on the waiting times to get a game going). And that's the fact that its story is actually all about women becoming friends while saving the last star in the universe. Honestly, the story is as disjointed as it can be. It's really only developed during quick bits of dialogue, and the majority of character back stories are hidden away in locked lore challenges, all of which means it's hard to really feel any connection to these colourful avatars at the very beginning of the game.
Battleborn opens with Kleese, an obnoxious scientist, recalling the tale of the most epic of fights to save the last star in the universe, Solus, from destruction. Which, okay, admittedly, is kind of habit for Gearbox – this follows the same template established by Marcus in Borderlands, but with a less lovable and more annoying narrator. When Mellka, narratively the main character of the game, hears Kleese's voice, she responds how we all respond: "What a minute, is that... ugh, that's Kleese, isn't it?"
(What I'm saying is, yes, Kleese is the Claptrap of Battleborn.)
Okay, so moving along to the good bits. In the prologue, which you are forced to tackle solo, you play as Mellka, a badass woman of colour character who is an Eldrid refugee and trained among an elite commando group. As Mellka, you are tasked with rescuing Deande, a woman who's supposedly the right hand to the main villain of the game, Rendain, but who has actually been double crossing him in an attempt to thwart his control. It's worth mentioning, too, that Rendain gained power by a staging a coup against the Jennerit Empress, effectively taking control away from a woman dedicated to saving the universe, in order to turn the said faction into a patriarchal society working toward destroying the universe.
Given that Deande has been working with Rendain ostensibly, and given that Rendain has done some really bad shit to almost everyone in the universe, but specifically to the Eldrid, Mellka doesn't really trust Deande. Which is totally fair. Deande's track record doesn't exactly make her worthy of trust (given, you know, her past experience with torture and supporting Rendain's slaughter across the universe). When Deande tries to introduce herself to Mellka, the player-character's response is, "Nope. You're mistaken. My name is... Pissed Off Eldrid."
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The prologue consists of Mellka kicking serious ass as you fight toward retrieving Deande and evacuating to a safe place, since Deande represents the only viable hope in actually stopping Rendain. At the end of the introductory cinematic, Mellka jumps to make it onto the ship, but is only saved from certain death by Deande, whose hand was there at the last second to save her. (My heart.) As you progress through the story mode, either solo or cooperatively, Mellka and Deande remain locked away and function on the sidelines as the two characters propelling a lot of the action of the story forward.
Mellka and Deande function as the heart – and hope – of Battleborn. Deande represents perhaps the major player in the campaign to stop Rendain, because she is the Jennerit informant the resistance has been waiting on in order to gain the upper hand against the game's main antagonist. And Mellka represents the heart of the game, because the Eldrid has been all but wiped out by the Jennerit and represents a highly motivated force in leading the rebellion against Rendain. In a game where the story is disjointed, abstracted and basically rather inconsequential to the enjoyment of the game, Mellka and Deande offer a bit of narrative consequence and a character arc to follow and become invested in.
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And as you go through the eight episodes that form the story mode for Battleborn, there are two main threads that remain consistent throughout it: Rendain is a terrible person who is working toward eradicating all other species and who must be stopped, and Mellka and Deande learn to respect each other, and then to trust each other. By the end of the story, the pair is fighting alongside each other, having proven themselves to each other, and comprises one of the most unstoppable and indomitable lady friendships in video game history and headcanon. Both the opening and end of Battleborn's story sees Deande and Mellka holding hands. Okay, one is saving the other from death by grabbing their hand, but grabbing is still holding, and regardless: these images of trust bookend the story mode, and that's a fact. And how cool is that?
Randy Varnell, the creative director on Battleborn, has repeatedly told interviewers that this is "a game about characters". And while the whole cast is undeniably wonderful – there's Shayne and Aurox, a teenage girl and her symbiotic guayota, a rock monster whose race was wiped out, and Reyna, a support character who is a woman of colour and also the leader of the Rogues, to name just two more – it's the relationship, and the room the connection between Mellka and Deande has to grow into, that makes Battleborn a tiny little light in the massive shadow that is Overwatch.
What I'm saying is: Battleborn isn't perfect, but it's really cool to see a game's story focus so purposefully on two women developing respect for each other, and coming together to take down a megalomaniac dude. Maybe a little more celebrating of that side of the game, which is directly opposed to most shooters' emphasis on Guys With Guns, could have helped its fortunes when going up against the runaway juggernaut driven by Blizzard's newest crew of heroes.
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