No Place for A Hero: Kaitlin Tremblay on writing, mourning, and Borderlands
It’s a big week for Kaitlin Tremblay. She’s written a videogame that teaches death positivity and she’s also just put out a book about one of the most irreverent videogame multiplayer shooter series to ever grace the market. Both releasing at the same time should be enough to inflict a weird sense of disorientation, but not when the author has such a clear sense of honesty and purpose in everything she puts into the world.
Tremblay is the lead writer on A Mortician’s Tale, newly released on Steam and itch.io. The game follows a funeral home director who must prepare bodies with technical precision (and in somewhat graphic yet cartoonish detail), then spend an equal amount of time interacting with the survivors paying their respects to the deceased. The game is based on the work of authors and activists around groups like The Order of the Good Death who have taken the world of death positivity and discussion out of the shadows and into the public sphere. A Mortician’s Tale aims to normalize and educate players on the less-talked-about aspects of death, while also crafting an emotional journey that shows how human it is to grieve and that grief is not the same for everyone.
Conversely, Tremblay’s new book Ain't No Place for a Hero is the latest in ECWPress’ Pop Classics series, focusing on pop cultural works the aesthetic or cultural value of which may’ve gone underappreciated. Previous entries have celebrated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Elvis Costello. Tremblay’s entry is not just an all-encompassing exploration of the Borderlands video game series but a personal journey as well.
Finding connections between murderous gunslingers on an alien world and catering to the emotional needs of those experiencing profound loss should be more difficult, but Tremblay sees a clear connection between the two.
“[Both A Mortician’s Tale and Ain't No Place for A Hero are] about dealing with mourning in a serious way,” Tremblay says. “This is about conflict and compromise and how relationships help you move forward.”
It’s an almost upsetting connection to make.
As someone who never gave Borderlands the time it deserved, I asked Tremblay to explain why she chose this subject. “It’s an underdog,” she says. “There’s so much great presentation and genre work, but it gets written off as silly when in fact it is deeply subversive.”
Tremblay sees the entire franchise as an intense takedown of toxic masculinity produced by a team of writers who knew exactly what they were doing. “Sometimes the joke is just a joke about a gun that is annoying, and that joke knows what it wants to do and it does that,” says Tremblay. “Other times, it’s a character clearly defined by their relationship to women, and the jokes exist to inform the player about much more complicated issues.”
For example, the character Torgue has a tournament for men to battle in, but the tournament is actually run by Torgue’s grandmother who once “gummed a man to death.” This brutal male character is defined by, and controlled by, a tough woman and her issues live through him. In a grander sense, Borderlands mocks the entire concept of the Hero’s Journey as if it were a direct assault on the house that Joseph Conrad built. There’s an attack on the concept of a power fantasy, especially with a sense of morality that isn’t interested in making anyone traditionally Good. “You are not a good person,” Tremblay says of these games, “especially if you’re killing more people than your enemy. Even the overarching villain, Handsome Jack, is grounded in this humanity and motivation that makes him more of an everyman than the so-called heroes.”
Make Pandora Great Again, indeed.
In general, the series has volumes to say about what it means to be a man, for players like Tremblay who are listening. “It’s a silly world,” Tremblay says, “but the series also tries to say some important things. They don’t always work, but the fact that they try is worth some attention.”
I ask Tremblay to sell me on Borderlands as something worth my investment of time, despite a half-dozen false starts on my behalf. What isn’t clicking for me and how do we get past it?
“I don’t want just anyone to play Borderlands,” Tremblay answers. “Especially with how NPCs can interact with female characters -- it can be an unpleasant experience. But there’s also a welcoming sense of difficulty sliding that adapts to meet your needs.”
This difficulty comment is a reminder that I’ve always played Borderlands alone and that I’m perhaps doing it wrong. “The first four times I played, I played solo,” Tremblay says. “Then I shared it with friends and a partner. It changes the experience, because of course Borderlands isn’t the story of one person. Resistance is only possible in a group. Especially the DLC Tiny Tina [which] would have been just terrible alone, because it is about dealing with loss through groups and consoling each other; like a D&D game about feelings.”
There’s a degree of dismissal Borderlands gets for its immaturity, best summed up in this section from Ain't No Place for a Hero, regarding parental reviews:
"Common Sense Media, written by parents whose children are either interested in buying the game or currently playing it, yielded an interesting perspective on the game. One parent warns that it includes 'incest and liquor-induced cannibalism,' which is not wrong, not even in the slightest. Another review boiled Borderlands 1 down to being about 'people who try to find gold and technology.' The four-sentence review doesn’t say much else about the game, and I love that rather than remarking upon the crass humor, sexual innuendos, violence, cannibalism, and all the other very clear aspects that make it a very mature (immature?) game, this parent deftly identified the whole crux of Borderlands. Its surface is crude and vulgar, but underneath that offensive and outrageous exterior lies a simple treasure hunt."
“It is both super smart and immature, guache shit,” says Tremblay. “We’re these grotesque flesh bags [as people] and without some of the honesty of grossness, Borderlands would have never sold me on its ability to deal with sin.”
These leads into the aspect of comedy that the series demands. There’s a lot of things that comedy can let you do, or get away with, or sidestep. There’s a power there, and Tremblay introduces it thusly:
"Undeniably, one of my favorite things about Borderlands is Butt Stallion. Butt Stallion is a pony made of diamonds. A living, breathing, gun-pooping diamond pony, who defies all logic but is the embodiment of pure happiness (for me, anyway). Because she poops loot. And because she’s made of diamonds.
One of the maps you have to traverse is called Ore Chasm, a delightful play on 'orgasm.' Ore Chasm is home to Innuendobot 5000, a robot reprogrammed to speak only in wonderful, sexual innuendos by the NPC bartender, mission-giver, and beautiful badass Mad Moxxi. Which is silly, crass, and wonderful. The entrance to Ore Chasm is through Human Dwelling Place, home to Mal, a robot who really wants to be a real human (a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s murderous AI HAL 9000). Mal tasks the players with finding human garments for him to wear, eventually escalating to the point where Mal wants players to dismember enemies so that he can wear their body parts in his attempt to become more human. Which, you know, the Vault Hunters do willingly."
This is all to say that the world can do whatever it wants, and in that choosing can be profane as all hell. But Tremblay believes that the writers knew how to never overdo it. “It’s making fun of other things,” she says, “but never as much as it is making fun of itself. And that’s strength. To know that you can’t be irreverent and hold yourself to an annoyingly artistic standard at the same time.”
While humor in games can be terribly complicated, representation is often more difficult. One of the most powerful passages in the book focuses on Tremblay’s bisexuality and the queer-erasure she experiences on so many different levels. “Talking about this is never a small thing, and there is no end point in finding representation,” Tremblay says. “There will always be queer people making queer media, and that should be celebrated, just as when writing about the discovery of queer characters can be done candidly.”
She cites two Borderlands characters as an example. “Athena and Janey are two characters in a relationship [who] live in a garage and are just trying to make it, while also having real-life couple arguments. Sometimes you have to look for a single line of dialogue to prove a character’s alignment, but in Borderlands it is always there and done intentionally.” And that knowledge of non-cisgender, non-white-dude existence is part of the draw, for Tremblay. “Borderlands has an asexual character,” she says, “who is sexy as hell. Because just ‘cause someone is asexual, doesn’t mean they can’t be sexy as hell. That’s just real.”
Which circles us back to Tremblay’s work on A Mortician’s Tale: what makes this real?
“I’ve been to a funeral every year since [I was] 14,” she explains. “I have a lot of experience with death."
Tremblay continues, "When writing the reactions of people going through loss, I know what it means to see every different kind of reaction. Mourning has nuance and that nuance doesn’t make how you deal with it any less human. A funeral is dictated by your relationship to the person. The feeling in the room is different if it was a child or a parent or a lover. But also fixating on your pantyhose doesn’t mean you are paying any less attention. Not all mourning is just constant crying, and it can all change at any time.”
Tremblay is building a world in games based on honesty about human emotions, human interactions, and how we all deal with losing what we love the most. There will always be a market for that, and there will always be an audience who finally sees themselves represented in that material.