Borderlands 2: The Death of Handsome Jack

When the Vault Hunter player character of Borderlands 2 is sent to Thousand Cuts to recruit The Slab King, they happen across an NPC offering a sidequest. The NPC: Face McShooty. His sidequest: “Shoot This Guy in the Face.” Its objective: Shoot Face McShooty in the face. The quest itself is either a hilarious parody or a reductive deconstruction, demonstrating how every objective in a first-person shooter must, inevitably, be reduced to shooting something. But oddly enough, when players finally confront Handsome Jack at the end of Borderlands 2’s core narrative, they are given a choice.

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Borderlands 2: Getting to Know Jack

Given that Borderlands 2 follows a very recognizable three act structure, it’s fairly easy to chart the course of Handsome Jack’s characterization through the plot. In Act I, ending after the mission “Rising Action,” we see Trollish Clown Jack, who taunts the Vault Hunter about things they do not yet know and bragging about his diamond pony. This is Jack at his lightest, more a fool than a menace, a villain but not yet a nemesis. In Act II, continuing through the end of “Where Angels Fear To Tread,” Jack’s frustration after the failure of his plan unveils his threatening side as he takes a more active role in trying to put down the Vault Hunters. But it’s Act III, ending in the ultimate chapter “The Talon of God,” where we finally get to see Jack’s backstory, where we finally see how the man became the monster.

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Borderlands 2: Where Angels Fear to Tread

For over a week now, I have alluded to the events of “Where Angels Fear To Tread,” which is not the true narrative climax of the Borderlands 2 story but is certainly its emotional climax. It’s a typical Act 2 ending where secrets are revealed and characters are killed that cast the remaining protagonists into their darkest moments. In this case, Angel is revealed to be not an Artificial Intelligence, as has been implied throughout the rest of the series, but actually one of the galaxy’s six elusive Sirens. Oh, and she’s also Handsome Jack’s daughter. Tethered irrecoverably in one of her father’s eridium-powered devices, Angel willingly commits suicide-by-Vault Hunter to stop her father and the resurrection of the Vault Key. In retaliation, Jack murders Roland (who cannot revive with a New-U Station because . . . reasons. Just roll with it) and kidnaps Lilith, forcing her to be the new Siren catalyst in his machine. Using the last of her power, Lilith zaps the player back to Sanctuary, where begins the third act.

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Borderlands 2: A Jack of Two Cities

Before the Vault Hunters are able to infiltrate Control Core Angel in “Where Angels Fear To Tread,” they must first assemble a sort of “disguise” to trick the Core’s security system that they are Handsome Jack. The last step of this is completed in Opportunity, the Hyperion Corporation’s city on Pandora. Concurrently with this, the player is also prodded to visit the city of Lynchwood.

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Borderlands 2: Hatred from Small Beginnings

I have written previously on how Borderlands 2 attempts to elicit feelings of hatred towards Handsome Jack by abusing previously-established characters from the franchise. The player first encounters this in the Southern Shelf, when they stumble across a series of ECHO recording devices detailing Jack’s confrontation with and eventual murder of Helena Pierce. This is an old serial storytelling technique: Establish the threat of a new villain by having them kill an old, but incidental ally early on. It’s easy to understand that this is the feeling I am supposed to feel towards Jack when I hear about the death of Pierce, but since Pierce was barely more than a motionless post in the first Borderlands, functionally incapable of doing more than dispensing and receiving quests, it was difficult to feel any great animsotiy towards him as a result. It’s a storytelling technique that unintentionally highlights the problems that the first Borderlands had rather than improving the narrative of its sequel, and it continues when the player goes to the Wildlife Exploitation Preserve following the events of “Bright Lights, Flying City.”

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Borderlands 2: Pacing

Borderlands 2 has pacing problems. “Pacing” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in videogames rhetoric, so I should qualify that statement in some way. Like so many words we use when talking about videogames, it’s borrowed from narrative theory, and therefore comes accompanied by all the usual complaints that videogames shouldn’t be criticized in those ways since they’re not trying to accomplish the same things that a linearly-consumed, printed narrative is. But since Borderlands 2 is undeniably a narratively-driven given, I think it’s appropriate to use “pacing” here.

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Borderlands 2: Rising Action

When the player first visits Sanctuary after completing a fetch quest for a core to power the city’s shields, Handsome Jack—now firmly in sarcastic supporter mode—gives you his congratulations, but mentions that he’s got a secret he’ll tell you later. That secret is revealed after players defeat Wilhelm, Jack’s cyborg enforcer. Everything we’ve heard about Wilhelm up until now has sold him as a very dangerous person, the monster who defeated all four original Vault Hunters single-handedly. Wilhelm himself goes down pretty easily (apparently the first four Vault Hunters didn’t think to bring a corrosive weapon to the fight), but this ease may have been all a part of Jack’s secret. When Wilhelm dies and fortuitously drops another power core, the player plugs it into Sanctuary’s shield matrix. It’s then that Jack reveals his secret:

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