Wednesday, February 18, 2015

In Sight (A Thank-You to Anthony Burch)

On January 30th, Anthony Burch tweeted that he was leaving his writing job at Gearbox Software to work as a writer for a new Hulu series. This news was was met with mass upset by Gearbox fans and applause by detractors. In other words, this one person’s departure from a company caused the video game community to pause, even if for a second. No small feat for an individual to accomplish.

So who is Burch and how has he reached the point that his actions invoke so much attention?

Well, to many, Anthony Burch is Borderlands. And to those many, Borderlands is something truly special. Far more than a quality FPS game, it is a moment.

But we’ll get there.

Prior to joining Gearbox Software, he was best known for co-creating the web series: Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’? The comedy series is an ongoing set of bite-sized episodes about Anthony and his sister’s attempts to bond over video games, often to chaotic and deadly results. The series became massively popular and eventually led to Burch’s writing job at Gearbox. Though he had become a video game writer, he continued to maintain this series, with Season 5 coming out this very year.

Through both Borderlands and HAWP, Anthony has lived publicly. In HAWP, Anthony introduced his girlfriend as a character on the show, eventually including their real marriage as part of the fictional canon. Characters in Borderlands are often an amalgam of his own interests or identity.

This is common, of course, in writing. The significance in this case, however, is that Anthony has done this even when it’s included his controversial social beliefs. Burch is, outspoken and proudly, a feminist. He supports greater representation of People of Color, queer identities, and women in games. This is something he has pushed for in the Borderlands franchise especially.

Specifically as a result of his writing, the series underwent some major changes. The character of Mad Moxxi, a hypersexualized woman from the first game, was given a full and complicated backstory that inspires players to debate whether she’s a hero, villain, or somewhere in between. The muscleheaded Mr. Torgue became famous for angrily shouting “There is nothing more badass than treating women with respect!”. Least subtly of all, an obese woman named Ellie gives you a quest called “Positive Self Image”, which discusses her struggle to stand up to her fat-shaming mother (Moxxi) and establish herself as a confident badass.

Not only has he introduced concepts like this, he has continually evolved the characters alongside his beliefs. As Anthony reevaluated whether certain humor was more toxic than edgy, the character Torgue received an update in which he apologized for “the dark time in his life” and the negative views he espoused during them. A lead character, Axton, was confirmed as being bisexual in a different update. And when it came time for Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel to be created, Burch and certain coworkers argued for the addition of more playable women in the franchise (A discussion that led to the inclusion of the game’s most popular character).

This is a decision that has not been without its critics. Anthony Burch has been labeled as a “Social Justice Warrior” (which is, somehow, a series of three amazing words that is allegedly an insult). He has been maligned by the GamerGate movement alongside Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn as being “what’s wrong with gaming”. He has been harassed on all of his social media channels, with everything from “Your game is terrible” to the far more personal and awful line of jokes about his recent separation. It has been constant. And it has been vile.

Through all of this, he has continued to work on the franchise, introducing more diverse characters in all terms. And though he is leaving the franchise, his efforts are resonating. The cast he has introduced continues to be passed along to teams intent on keeping this momentum going, and the fan base is there to spread the word.

And spread, they have. If Borderlands 1 had an explosive reception, then Borderlands 2 was an absolute super nova. While 2 had a lot of improvements, the most celebrated one was the sharp writing and endearing characters. And, while the game was the most pre-ordered game in 2K’s history, what happened next surprised everyone. The game not only continued to sell after release, it got a staggeringly huge fanbase that bought up every bit of Anthony’s writing the developers could shovel at their gaping mouths. The developers intended to create 4 DLC packs. After the overwhelmingly positive reception to this DLC, developers realized there was still a desire for more content. This not only brought in the 4 bite-sized “Headhunter” DLCs, but it eventually justified an entire new game. No, not Borderlands 3 (but we’ll get there). Rather, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. From start to finish, the game was marketed not as a true sequel but as a means to spend more time with the lore and characters Burch had established. And it sold. Well.

To reiterate: Anthony Burch leveraged a Youtube comedy series with his family into a successful video game, extended DLC, and a sequel, each of which was infused with his signature humor and progressively positive world views.

Burch’s work on Borderlands 2 has been an event in the gaming industry that has resonated with people the world over. He’s received and answered publicly messages from people thanking him for representation. For his humility in admitting to his errors. For working so hard to create a work so singularly hopeful in the messages it sends. For making them laugh in ridiculous length at such bizarre characters. And, most importantly, for proving to the world that these are messages and identities that, contrary to popular belief, sell well enough to sustain a Triple-A gaming company.

There are few like him in the industry, which is a true shame. The world could use more..

But we’ll get there.
Because he made it that much easier.

Ben Worley is a writer, ARG designer, and social media butterfly, and is a massive Borderlands fan. He can't wait to see what both the series and Anthony Burch are up to next.

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