Building Worlds: Signs in Borderlands

[Building Worlds is a series where Dan Cox examines one facet in a video game and shows you how, from that one angle, an entire society is reflected.]

"PIS OFF" sign from Borderlands

I walked right past it the first time. I didn’t think anything of another random sign. But then I noticed it again. And again. Every few hours further into the game, there was this sign. These two words kept looking at me from wall after wall. Every time I gained access to a new area, someone was there before me leaving this phrase behind them.

I’ll admit that I thought it was just crude humor at first. This had to be some joke placed in the game by the developers for the player to find. But then I thought about it more. Its placement was purposeful and it was in the same color and layout each time. This was not some recurring joke, but a part of the greater world. Many of the other signs used in the game were, I realized, in the same style too. All of these signs must have been done by the same person! Someone, somehow, was trying to leave messages for others to read.

The planet is full of criminals. That’s what most players know, but there is more to the world than just that fact. Have you ever wondered how they got there or why they all had weapons? If these people were prisoners, why allow them to move around and attack others whenever they wanted? What is the behind this situation?

Borderlands takes place on the planet Pandora where, decades before the game starts, colonists tried to live on the planet. Due to its harsh climate and slow rotation cycle, they had very little success. The companies that funded the expeditions decided, once the colonists were starting to leave, to use the planet as a mining operation. They would use convicted criminals as the labor force and try to, covertly, locate the hidden alien technology that was reported to be hidden on the planet.

This lasted for a few years. Once the planet’s slow rotation moved from Winter to Summer, things changed. The animals that had been hibernating woke up hungry. The remaining colonists left. Soldiers came in to keep the peace and the convicts were let loose to fend for themselves.

By that point, the rumors were widespread: there was a Vault to be found on Pandora. Treasure hunters came from vast distances looking for the hidden treasures, technology or even just the celebrity to be found in clearing out some criminals. That is why the player finally sets foot on the planet: to find the technology and, in the process, lay claim to the glory and riches.

If the world is being run, for the most part, by criminals, it presents an interesting situation. Anything that is changed, created or mutated by this work force gone wild, must have been done for some purpose on their part. Even if it is just violence against those who kept them in prison, there would be a pattern. The activity would be grouped in small areas and against certain targets. That is, of course, what is found by the player, but it also extends farther than that: signs were posted.

Using a workforce of criminals speaks a great deal to what their crimes were. If they were to be killed anyway, why not use them for mining on a planet where they will probably die during the task? After all, these criminals are supposed to be the worst of the worst. If they die, would it matter? But what if, in those thousands of workers, there was an innocent person? How would that person fit into the power structure?

That is what I began to think about each time I saw the same sign. What if there was one rogue sign maker in the whole world whose efforts I kept seeing? Working for either himself or the other various feudal lords of the wastelands, this one person’s signs were there before me time after time. Even more important, what does this sign say about these criminals?

"PIS OFF" signs from Borderlands

“PIS OFF” is obviously an aggressive message and the misspelling must be taken into account too, but there are more antagonistic ways to communicate that an area is owned exclusively by one group. The use of heavily armed guards would do it. That would be enough for most people. Yet, someone saw fit to post signs to warn travellers before they entered an area. Not just mutilated corpses or crude signs, but actual writing posted in a prominent way.

That is what gives me hope for the criminals on Pandora. It’s not just the messages on the signs, but the fact that the signs were created in the first place. To make a sign is an act of intention and purpose. To commit in writing a message for others to see, to care where they go in this case, is to look beyond the moment’s pleasure and into the future. To write and then place a sign is to expect others to come along and read it.

Even if the words are misspelled and the message crude, the signs are, well, a sign of civilization. “PIS OFF” is more than just another indication of a world in chaos. It’s a peek into the changing culture of groups of people who have banded together.

The work force, the criminals, did not ask to be brought to the planet nor set free to fight for their survival. Most of them stay within small areas and try to make the best of the situation. It’s only when treasure hunters and Vault seekers move into these areas too that the signs appeared. These messages were placed at entrances and in open areas for others to see. They mark the edge of one land from another. They serve as a warning: come closer and we will take action protect what is ours.

The signs are there for a reason.


  1. Casey

    Could… could the reason be lazy level design? 😉

    • Dan Cox

      I can’t comment on if it was lazy or not. I don’t know what their process was like or if they were under a very tight deadline. Perhaps it was. Or maybe it wasn’t. Of course, that’s not really the point here. It’s there regardless.

      While it’s easy for me to see items like this as just dropped into a world, they have to be seen in the context of their world and cultures. The player comes across these signs, so they have to be seen as “found” objects and, in some way, a distilled version of someone else’s thoughts. These signs match the tone of the game and were placed for a reason. Trying to determine their meaning, as if I was one of the characters themselves coming upon them, is part of the fun for me.

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