By Michael Dellapi, Highlighter staff columnist
A large portion of modern roleplaying games is the inclusion of “loot” to incentivize multiple playthroughs or otherwise keep a player engaged for long periods of time. For those unfamiliar, loot refers to items and gear that are randomly dropped by enemies or are otherwise out of the way for the player to acquire. For many RPGs, the loot system adds to the dynamic of consistently growing power that occurs throughout the narrative. As the player grows in level and power, they are in turn rewarded with access to more desirable loot. Games that are not technically RPGs but contain RPG elements use loot to indicate progress. However, the way that certain games tie the accumulation of loot into their story often results in narrative incongruencies. With this in mind, I will look at the “The Division” comparing it with the likes of “Borderlands” to look at how a similar mechanic can have drastically different implications.
“The Division” is an online third-person shooter where players take on the role of special agents who aim to restore order to a disease-ravaged New York City landscape. As one of these agents, the player must simultaneously attempt to get to the root of this epidemic and bring justice to life in a city that has devolved into chaos. One of the primary methods of doing the latter is by taking down the dangerous looters that are supposedly terrorizing the city streets. They roam New York with guns in hand and steal from others without a second thought. This is, of course, totally different from your means of justice which involves roaming New York with gun in hand and taking the criminals’ supplies after they have been defeated. This glaring inconsistency was brought to light within moments of starting my play session with “The Division,” and it became no less uncomfortable the longer the game went on. There was nothing separating my own actions from the actions of my adversaries, barring the sense of smug self -righteousness that permeates the game. Normally this would be a compelling facet of the game, illustrating that when times are at their worst, there is little that the law can account for. However, this point is completely eradicated by the reinforced notion that the player and their colleagues are the sole authority in this corrupted cityscape. Citizens and passersby revere the player as a savior for bringing law to the streets, blatantly ignoring the crucial detail that the criminals are being condemned for the same activity that the player is engaging in (stealing resources from corpses).
The “Borderlands” franchise is very much centric around the mechanic of “shooting and looting” where players must defeat enemies and typically take the weapons that they procedurally drop. However, the context that these actions occur in are infinitely more justifiable when considering the nature of the characters the player embodies. The playable characters, referred to as “Vault Hunters,” almost universally come from a background of crime to some degree. There is likewise not much aside from motivation separating the character from other enemy bandits. The game often showcases the bandit villains in comically evil scenarios, but even the main enemy of “Borderlands 2” does his best to remind the player that they are nothing more than glorified bandits. The disparity between how looting is treated in “The Division” and “Borderlands” exhibits just how strongly narrative reinforcement can impact how a player feels about specific mechanics.