Profoundly In Love With Pandora
The mind of man is as fragile as it is strong. Catching sight of something poignant can have a varied effect on the mindset, depending on which particular aspect of the memory is being triggered, so seeing a treasured locket from a long-gone take-no-prisoners relative precisely at a moment of potential weakness could provide that much-needed morale boost with which to soldier on and work through whatever hardships befall you. In contrast, it is also true that even the most strong-willed and resilient can be reduced to a blubbering wreck if shown something that tugs at the heart strings… “Niagara Falls, Frankie angel“.
We also have an inherent trait whereby places which once evoked particular feelings continue to do so for years to come, shaping the way we view any new areas in which we find ourselves. The first cinema we ever visited may pale in comparison to the high-tech, high-def, 7.1 surround multiplexes of today, but many of us would still have fond memories of those times in a small, darkened huddle where movies would have an intermission and middle-aged ladies would appear from nowhere to sell over-priced tubs of ice cream or cartons of Kia Ora. We consider them to be better times, not because they necessarily were, but because our memories trigger more relaxed and pleasant times where going to a movie was all about watching, rather than texting.
In my experience, video games are capable of providing that same sense of belonging; a feeling of safety and comfort, and none have felt as welcoming as Pandora. Marcus’ battered old bus came to a stop and the doors opened but, rather than the post-apocalyptic setting I had initially expected, there was a clear sign of there having been some natural cataclysm, with the scorched arid earth punctuated by tall obelisks of flint-like rock, and distant vistas covered with giant barnacles, yet no water as far as the eye could see.
Having spent some two-hundred-plus hours in the Capital Wasteland immediately prior to my first visit to Pandora, I welcomed the bright blue skies and lack of crumbling buildings. The Fyrestone Motel may have been boarded up and in a serious state of disrepair, but there was still a strong sense of peace and the skag pups dancing around in the distance as they ran in and out of their rock-caves made it all the more friendly. Then, of course, there was the hyperactive greeter by the name of CL4P-TP, who could only really be described as “perky”, serving as the cherry atop the welcome cake. Not being one to do as I’m told when it comes to open-world gaming, I ignored his badgering and decided to take a look around the various nooks and crannies for signs of life and to get a feel for the area rather than take it for granted that the friendly “Welcome” sign to the right was, in fact, conveying genuine intent.
The random scrawlings of “Turtles all the way down” and “Eat Skag And Die” on out-house walls showed that, while certain denizens were clearly very switched-on, with a more profound outlook on life, others had a somewhat twisted sense of humour. After scouring every available area, and surviving countless attacks by over-excited skags, I did as the little sarcastic rust-bucket asked and ventured into the tiny settlement of Fyrestone. Aside from the initial hostility of the invading bandits, Fyrestone itself was one of those places you’d find yourself hanging out as a kid – abandoned, but not yet at the point of being derelict, and with so many interesting areas to explore.
Over the coming weeks, Fyrestone would become my home, as the Borderlands hub would inevitably start me off in the centre of town. The coloured bunting reaching from one side to the other would flap gently in the wind, silhouetted against the clear blue sky, while that bizarre and annoying little robot would hang around at the bounty board throwing out sarcastic remarks every now and then. Visits to the vending machines became akin to lifting the ‘phone to talk to an old friend, as Marcus and Zed doled out their enthusiastic spiel every time you cared to take a look at what they had on offer. There were no signs of life, beyond the Doc himself, but it was still a welcoming environment and I’d often climb to the highest point of the town, yelling “King of the world” down my headset, which was usually met with snorts of derision from Pete, and soak in the surroundings. It was lonely, but it was home.
With each new area came more reasons to love Pandora. Old Haven may have been an expensive place to visit as a low-level character, with the constant respawns syphoning more money than Vodafone from HMRC, but it was a genuine thrill to see this once-great place now overrun with Crimson Lance guard. Walls still had posters advertising products and events, rooftops had washing lines stretching from one building to the next, and every now and again I’d find a stolen area of grass and would imagine times when the local kids hung out and played together while their parents went about their business. Today, it may be a place of war and destruction… but that wasn’t always the case.
While everyone else moved on to new games, I would return to Pandora several times a week with my trusty partner-in-crime and we’d meander around. Even with no more missions available to us and all achievements maxed out, we were still able to find plenty to do, whether it meant making the trip from T-Bone Junction to Deep Fathoms for endless hours of repeatedly killing Crawmerax on the hunt for the elusive pearl weapons, or scouring every possible crevice for hidden red crates. The attraction was always the same – Pandora itself, and the relative ease with which we’d traverse the map, knowing it as much as we did our own real-life towns. If life threw a curve-ball and made for a particularly difficult day, Pandora was our calorie-filled tub of ice cream, our cupboard of junk food, providing comfort and a guaranteed means of escape.
The announcement of Borderlands 2 was one of those bitter-sweet moments where, naturally, the thought of revisiting everything that I loved about the original Borderlands made for an overwhelming feeling of excitement, but it was also marred by the fear that Gearbox may actually have ruined my beloved franchise. Thankfully, the various preview events I attended showed that the gameplay itself had been improved for the follow-up, but it wasn’t until I had unrestricted access to the final game that I got to fully immerse myself in the world I’d allowed to become my virtual home. There may be spoilers ahead… you have been warned.
Getting to set foot on Pandora once again, albeit inside a much shorter body than before, was one of those moments that any gamer looks forward to. That initial rush of venturing into relatively-unknown territory while, at the same time, keeping an eye open for in-jokes and self-referential nods for that much-needed sense of familiarity… it was an immersion that I’d missed out on with Fallout: New Vegas and hoped it wouldn’t be the case with Borderlands 2. Admittedly, as much as I enjoyed seeing all the weird and wonderful locations that they’d concocted for the sequel, I longed for the comfort of the little homestead of Fyrestone; to once again climb to the top of the highest point and survey the world around me.
One particular evening, immersed in a story-mission co-op session with Pete, we crossed from one area to the next and, as the area transition finished loading, something happened. Within mere seconds I was ripped out of the complacency that had set in during our mission as my headphones filled with the faint sounds of an acoustic slide guitar, brushed snare and what sounded like an e-bow… and then came the full reprise of the theme from the ‘Fresh Off The Bus’ section of the first game where you first meet Claptrap.
It was a bizarre moment where the excitement of wanting to rush ahead and find out if Arid Nexus was, in fact, Arid Badlands was overshadowed by the peace of being taken back to that first point of the original game… and then I saw it – the opening to Fyrestone where the early “Skags At The Gate” mission took place. This time, however, the view was very different from before. Instead of being able to clearly see the little cluster of dwellings from the platform by the entrance to Skag Gully, a sprawling industrial installation blocked the view and rivers of thick purple slag were dotted around. With Pete still oblivious to where we actually were, despite my constant mumblings of either “holy shit” or “no way… it can’t be?”, I leapt from the platform and into the slag, avoiding all contact with the angry skags… I had other things on my mind, and killing them could wait.
I reached the entrance to Fyrestone and stopped, as something inside me died. I turned around to see the little dip down to where the skags would always be, and to the left was the area where the broken down Dr Zed vending machine lay… but this wasn’t Fyrestone. It wasn’t the sleepy homestead where I’d mentally laid my hat for two years, or the place where I’d jump from one platform to the next in order to empty every deposit box even though I never needed the cash. It had changed. Walking through the gates with the graveyard on either side of me was never so poignant and, for the first time, I actually took a moment to consider the fallen in their graves… because no longer were they buried in a now-abandoned reflection of what used to be their home. Now they’d found their final resting place in a scrap yard, their lives fading to insignificance among the carcasses of mechs and ruined vehicles.
Fyrestone had gone beyond a state of mere disrepair and had become Handsome Jack’s dumping ground for ‘retired’ Hyperion mechs. The dried, dusty earth was now littered with slag puddles and the blue sky obscured by the domineering Hyperion overpass, with shipping containers of mech reinforcements and components dotted along overhead. All at once, the triggered memories of those first tentative steps were being slowly suffocated, and all in the name of progress. Much like the feelings we experience in real-life when we suddenly realise that the childhood swing park has been ripped down and replaced by a swanky new council office or the house in which you were born is now a vulgar high-rise, my sense of loss was almost overwhelming.
As I’d honestly never expected this, I didn’t have a chance to properly pay my respects to the old Fyrestone and bid a fond farewell… nor did I leave on my own terms and have that ‘one last look back’ before moving on for good. Sure, I could always go back and play the original Borderlands again and all will be restored, albeit temporarily, but I already know the outcome and so any time spent there would be with the knowledge that it would soon become a forgotten junkyard at the hands of Handsome Jack. Later, as the achievement popped for “Feels Like The First Time” there was that sinking feeling where, rather than being an homage to the first game, it was more of a goading.
And, as with those moments where we wander through our old home towns remembering sneaky fumbles behind the bike sheds, I’d still muse over all those great memories – “This is where I had my first headshot” , “Aw, I remember when I saw my first badass skag here”, or “I blew myself up right here, trying to boost myself up to see if I could interact with that hidden Claptrap”. In spite of it all, however, this didn’t destroy my love for Pandora. No matter how many robot corpses pile up on my beloved Fyrestone, the humour and sarcasm of its citizens reminds me that I’m home; I just can’t bear to hang out in Fyrestone anymore, regardless of how much loot Saturn drops. There will, in all likelihood, come a time when my heart finds a home elsewhere but I’ll never forget that sense of happiness I found on Pandora.
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