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Game Anatomy: Handsome Jack


Copyright 2K Games and Gearbox Studios

I’m going to admit, even for the limited definitions I put out for Game Anatomy, Handsome Jack does stretch them, a lot.  Unlike a lot of things I’ve covered in these articles, Handsome Jack is an NPC, and I’m not talking about him as a boss fight at the end of the game.  I mean Handsome Jack, the character, and how he basically makes Borderlands 2 the game that it is, and without him, it is a much lesser game.

First of all, let’s start with the obvious: Handsome Jack is one of the most evil bastards in video games.  A murderous, sociopathic, selfish psychopath, Jack has almost nothing redeemable about him.  Worse, he goes on to declare himself the true hero of the game, and that everyone should bow down and follow him, while doing nothing but murdering people for pretty much no reason.  See, Borderlands 2 takes place on Pandora, a world with tons of bandits, lawlessness and people whose brains have been completely destroyed and mutilated by the world itself.  It’s a really, really awful place, but it’s not without its good people.  There is a civilization here.  Jack, however, wants to kill everyone on the planet and sell it off to rich people across the galaxy (also claim an ancient alien superweapon to continue doing this).  He’s not just a murderous psychopath, he’s the head of a interstellar corporation with a private army and a space station capable of firing on people from orbit.  Not only does he want to kill a bunch of people, calling them all bandits, he can do it and he does.  It’s gentrification literally weaponized.

What makes Jack work, first, is that he acts as a foil to the Vault Hunter.  It doesn’t matter which one, all of them, none of them, whatever, it’s to the player he serves as a foil.  Throughout the whole game, the player goes about murdering pretty much everyone that they meet, taking their stuff and using it to kill more people.  The justification is that those people are bandits or psychos, that they need to be put down for the good of society, and the Vault Hunter, and by definition, the player, sees almost no people aligned with them for the first several hours of the game.  Of course, once the player gets to Sanctuary and links up with Roland, this changes a bit, but it doesn’t change that the player and Jack are, on a superficial level, doing the same thing.  Jack even points this out on multiple occasions, implying that the player should be on Jack’s side, should be helping him, instead of fighting against him.  This of course is ignoring the fact the player signed up with Jack at the beginning, and he tried to kill them, to take responsibility for their actions.

Borderlands 2 is a game where the primary game loop is to kill bad guys, steal their weapons and use those weapons to kill more bad guys.  It’s got some engaging gameplay, if it’s a little simple, and said bad guys have too many hit points, but it’s very similar to a loot of other loot shooters in that regard.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of nuance, either.  The player is going to come in with the assumption that the people they’re shooting are bad, and that the player is playing a good person, just doing what they need to to survive and help out the world.  While this is literally true within the context of the game, Handsome Jack gives it the nuance.  By comparing the player to what Handsome Jack does, we can see that not only are we not just murdering everyone we see (mostly), but we’re not just doing it for selfish reasons.  Except maybe Salvador.

In addition to him acting as a foil, another thing that makes him work, is that he’s an asshole.  He’s pretty much one of the worst villains in video games.  His job is the exact same as Freeza from Dragon Ball Z, in that he kills entire populations of planets and sells them to rich people, but he’s also a man who’s had busloads of refugees murdered (refugees from a town he destroyed), personally had his daughter locked up, personally murdered several innocent people and he buys a living horse made out of diamonds.  Not a statue.  He then calls the player to tell them, then names it Butt Stallion, after the Vault Hunter.  Just to gloat.  Part of the reason Jack works so well as a foil is because he makes it very personal, pretty much for no reason.

Jack spends most of the game calling the player with a combination of gloating and taunts, often kicking them when they’re down, or blaming them for things he did.  He is hilariously petty and vindictive, at one point eating chips while calling just to prove the Vault Hunter is beneath them.   By doing this, it injects all of the flavor and context the game needs to make the core gameplay loop work, because otherwise, he’s right, you really are a psychopath.  See, one of the problems of a lot of games like Borderlands, and that can be FPS games or loot shooters, is that the player kills a truck ton of people, often for no reason.  The original Borderlands didn’t have Jack, and very early on, it’s hard to tell who the player is supposed to kill and why, and while it does give some context, it’s not the same.

By making it personal, and by acting as a direct foil, we’re able to see the Vault Hunter, who in other games would be a murder hobo, as a hero.  Yes, a lot of people are going to die, and not all of them are people whose brains have been irreparably damaged, and that is sort of weird how many people players kill in a video game, but Jack gives the player something real to fight against.  Give them something legitimate as an enemy, and turns the tables on the assumptions of the game, by making your goal not that different from the villains.  Even the means are the same, but at no point are any of the Vault Hunters murdering innocents.  In fact, because of the damage Jack causes, the Vault Hunter gets to go out of their way to help innocents.  Plus, we get to see how many settlements of “bandits” Jack has wiped out, and see that his destruction has only made Pandora worse, and that’s saying something.