Borderlands 3 Guns, Love, And Tentacles Expansion Doesn't Address Issues With Lovecraft's Work
With the release of Borderlands 3's second campaign DLC--Guns, Love, and Tentacles--Gearbox introduces a problematic Lovecraftian story into the loot shooter.
This article, originally posted on March 29, 2020, has been republished to amplify black voices in GameSpot's support of Black Lives Matter. Donate to the effort to fight systemic racism here.
With the release of Guns, Love, and Tentacles: The Marriage of Wainwright & Hammerlock, the second story-focused DLC for Borderlands 3, I figured that now would be the best time to jump back into Gearbox's latest entry in its first-person loot shooter franchise, seeing as I hadn't found an opportunity to do so since writing GameSpot's Borderlands 3 review. The Borderlands franchise has typically had a decent track record when it comes to post-launch campaign expansions after all--so I figured, "Why not?"
However, I wasn't particularly enthused by my time with Guns, Love, and Tentacles, largely because Gearbox's interpretation of H.P. Lovecraft's work incorporates some of the problematic parts of the author's worldview and then does nothing to address them.
It's the DLC's portrayal of black people that irks me the most, largely because of the Borderlands franchise's style of storytelling. Borderlands games traditionally explore concepts or pieces of pop culture through sarcasm, satire, or playful homage. Gearbox takes something that already exists and adapts it to match its style of irreverent Borderlands mayhem.
When this process works, it really works. For example, Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep from Borderlands 2, which sends you on a tabletop RPG adventure that riffs on Dungeons & Dragons, is a fun DLC, both in terms of theme and gameplay. There's also the whole Greek mythology symbolism that acts as a throughline for all four games, such as each Siren being a beautiful but dangerous woman and the planet Pandora acting as a vault, all of which contributes to the more fascinating aspects of Borderlands' lore.
Guns, Love, and Tentacles is a Lovecraft-themed DLC, incorporating certain aspects of H.P. Lovecraft's stories and the Cthulhu Mythos as the backdrop to the overall narrative. Unfortunately, what makes the DLC feel more adaptive than interpretive is in how it treats Sir Hammerlock and Wainwright Jakobs, the two characters who are at the center of Guns, Love, and Tentacles. The DLC is about the two characters getting married and facing the unfortunate snag of holding the venue on a planet ruled by a cult. The cult's leader, Eleanor, deems the couple's love to be impure and weak and so Wainwright becomes the unwilling host of her husband's spirit--doomed to slowly transform into her beloved unless you decide to do something to stop the process. As Hammerlock is rendered a passive bystander for pretty much the entire DLC (he helps you on your quest to save his fiance on only one occasion), all the agency falls to you.
So the story of the DLC is that a woman who's essentially an otherworldly witch robs a gay couple of their happy day, questions their relationship, and then tries to fix the "flaw" of their love by transforming one of the men into her own husband, so as to create a supposedly more pure love. That's already a little strange and more than a bit homophobic, but when you also consider that this DLC is Lovecraft-inspired, it becomes even more problematic.
It all boils down to this: H.P. Lovecraft was racist--and an outspoken white supremacist-level racist at that. This isn't a case where we must separate the artist from his art either, as the man incorporated his views on people of color into his literary works. Just look at his poem "On the Creation of Niggers," which states that the gods created man and beast and then created black people as some unexplainable in-between creature.
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His hateful opinions regarding people of color extend to his stories that cover the occult and cosmic horror as well. For instance, "The Horror at Red Hook" refers to Brooklyn, a New York City borough with a citizenship mostly composed of colored folks, as "leporous and cancerous with evil dragged from elder worlds" and the people who live there as "hordes of prowlers" who elicit a "babel of sound and filth." The third chapter of "The Call of Cthulhu" refers to the murder of the "queer and evil-looking crew of Kanakas and half-castes" as a "duty," seeing as the group of people of color and those of mixed race are of "abominable quality." The Deep Ones in "The Shadow over Innsmouth" are meant to be monstrously horrifying because they represent the impure offspring of interracial couples.
So now, looking at the storyline of Guns, Love, and Tentacles, you have to take into account how Gearbox has written the black characters--in this case, Wainwright and Hammerlock--because that's a part of Lovecraft fiction too. And in this sense, Gearbox is rather spot-on. The two black men are too worthless to help themselves and have a love that's constantly scrutinized and questioned throughout a majority of the DLC, while the antagonist is "purifying" their love by transforming one of them into her white, heterosexual husband. If she just falls in love with and marries Wainwright, that would be, in Lovecraft's eyes, a gross intermixing of the races, so Wainwright has to transform into her husband first in order for the love to be genuine. Lots of red flags there, but very Lovecraft.
The problem is that Gearbox does nothing to dismiss them.
Now, I get it. It's a Borderlands game. I don't expect Borderlands 3 to tackle the nuanced ins-and-outs of every aspect of what makes a Lovecraftian story. But if your game is going to adapt Lovecraft's stories and incorporate the themes and messages of those stories, then you should address their problematic parts too. Guns, Love, and Tentacles doesn't do that. Wainwright and Hammerlock don't even get the chance to showcase how their love is worthy of overcoming Eleanor and her husband--you defeat the villainous couple while your allies helplessly watch. Guns, Love, and Tentacles is one of the few situations where Borderlands' traditional irreverence could have been sharpley used to mock Lovecraft's horrible views and actually address issues with his work, but the DLC makes no attempt to do so despite the opportunity.
And, of course, in doing so, Guns, Love, and Tentacles takes on the same flaws as Lovecraft's work. The actual mission structure in Guns, Love, and Tentacles is of okay quality--like Borderlands 3's main campaign, you have too many annoying platforming sections and bullet-sponge boss fights breaking up the enjoyable bouts of looting and shooting. But Gearbox's seemingly wilful hand-waving of Lovecraft's views in Guns, Love, and Tentacles gives the DLC's story a terrible aftertaste that ultimately results in a poor campaign expansion for Borderlands 3.
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