Tales From The Borderlands is more relevant to the average twenty-something living in America than most shows on television.
The United States is a rough place to live in when you’re part of a marginalized group. Even more so when you’re part of two or three. This is seen in more fruitless job searching, lack of healthcare and ongoing workplace or day-to-day discrimination getting in the way of financial stability and proper mental health. This is even more evident in ongoing trends of more and more twenty-somethings moving back in with their parents for reasons relating to shifting healthcare norms, chronic illness and/or disabilities and lost jobs. Not everyone can afford to get their own place and even a roommate can be off-limits depending on your background.
Media, however, is pretty disinterested in acknowledging this beyond the occasional mean-spirited quip. Stereotypes in popular culture aren’t kind to adults who live with their family — there are plenty of films and shows with one-off characters used as walking punchlines due to living with their parents or even having them in the regular vicinity. Heck, one of the most common insults flung around the Internet is the ‘loser who lives in their parents’ basement’. The lofty and idealized ‘accomplished twenty-something with a degree’ and American nuclear family (established as white, Christian, middle-class, able, heterosexual and cisgender with the occasional ethnic variance) are the standards and fuck you if you dare deviate from it!
When I hear ‘conventional’, I don’t really think of a four-bedroom house with an immaculate lawn and white-picket fence in secluded suburbia. My mind more runs along the lines of the twenty-something juggling a studio apartment and two part-time jobs with no health insurance wondering if they’ll get jumped for a hate crime on the way back home. What can I say, I’m biased!
The onslaught of tone-deaf shows like Big Bang Theory and Girls and countless romantic comedies reinforce day-in and day-out the myth that to not be financially independent is to be burdensome or a raging loser. What makes Tales From The Borderlands stand out amid the pack of ‘tee hee you live with your mom’ commentaries and ‘why are Millennials so lazy and dependent’ thinkpieces is the more nuanced approach to ‘unconventional’ families and living situations.
Fiona and Sasha are the female leads of this Choose Your Own Adventure-style sci-fi action romp (with the former playable alongside male co-lead Rhys) and we spend quite a bit of time with them as they get caught in a whirlwind of intrigue and betrayal after a scam gone wrong. Early in the game you find out Fiona and Sasha were adopted by their father, Felix, when they were kids attempting to survive in a hostile wasteland with the only thing they had at their disposal — their wits. Crafted into con artists over the years, Tales From The Borderlands begins when they try to create the ultimate con together — one that’ll net them enough money to leave the dangerous planet of Pandora and buy them a better life. It’s as funny as it is dramatic and is accompanied by some truly hilarious dialogue and one hell of a soundtrack.
There’s no eye-rolling by any of the supporting cast about living with one’s father, no arbitrary social standards to frame these two characters as lazy or guilty or a burden. It’s especially poignant to see just how underprivileged they are, too. They’re very poor women of color (though Fiona is white-passing) who are also implied to be LGBT+ — Sasha, in particular, gets a few hints dropped here and there as well as some additional fodder in deleted lines suggesting she’s bisexual. Although this game is set in a distinctly fantastical science-fiction universe, the parallels drawn to our everyday reality make a bit more sense with characters that reflect those who possess the most societal barriers.
This isn’t even the end of it, I’m happy to say. Another reoccurring character — an antagonist (later turned anti-hero) by the name of August — shows yet another ‘unconventional’ family structure in a more nuanced light. We find out his mother Vallory is a notorious crime lord, someone Felix (and everyone else) is very afraid of, and he’s been working under her as a second-in-command of sorts. There’s no mention of a father or even a love interest, suggesting she’s running the show solo with her son. While nothing in the game mentions they live together, they do work together and operate as a family unit.
As neat as it is to see a single father as the major influence in these two sisters’ lives, single mothers often have more barriers to overcome in fiction and real life — they’re either portrayed as tragic or irresponsible if they aren’t killed outright for the sake of character woes. The closest we get to anything humorous involving said ‘unconventional’ family is when it’s first revealed Vallory is August’s parent — even then, the humor is more directed at the fact a reoccurring villain is being put in their place by an even bigger villain. We get a one-off comment that, thankfully, doesn’t transform into a snide running gag.
“What about August?”
“Who cares. Probably getting chewed out by his mom.”
“Yeah, she looked pretty mad.”
The societal pressure to move out of the house as soon as possible and get your own place is also very much a Western construction. While it can be a tad difficult for the average American to wrap their heads around the norms of other cultures (give it a try!), many countries frequently see twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings living with their parents or relatives with nary a second thought. Multiple generations living under the same roof is as mundane as a cloud in the sky in many parts of China, while South Korea sees unmarried adults sticking around with their parents until they find a partner a common occurrence. The United States is far from the only economy to see financial woes, to boot, so this is something that is unlikely to change overnight.
I stayed with my mother a few years after high school when I attended community college. I later had a temporary living stint with a teacher and her daughter while I worked a full-time internship at a neighboring high school, only to later move back in with my mother when both the job and my studies weren’t working out for me. Once I obtained a better-paying job I gained enough money to save up for my own apartment…only to lose said apartment later that year when I lost it. I moved in with my boyfriend for a few years, then broke up with him late last year. Cue living with my mother again.
I’ve bounced between apartments, temporarily stayed in houses, occasionally lived in trailers. That Sasha and Fiona’s home is constantly on-the-go hit home for quite a few reasons and these little details did a lot to transform a fun little spin-off of a popular first-person shooter franchise into something that could be startlingly relevant for years to come.
A daily diet of media that pushes forth glamorous images of clean, sky-rise apartments, polished houses and stable lifestyles causes some serious emotional indigestion after a while. It’s difficult not to be embarrassed sometimes — I frequently feel the urge to downplay or outright hide the fact I’m staying with my mother, even being hyper-aware of my circumstances and my still-prevalent desire to have my own place in the future (because I will forever a withdrawn shut-in who generally prefers the company of plants and cats). Then again, to be ashamed of poverty is to be ashamed of something not entirely in your control. When poverty is an actively generated force, fiercely protected at that, there comes a moment you wake up from the cycle of self-hate and blame.
Homeless people are punished for being homeless — fined for loitering, sleeping on benches and entering certain vicinities are but a few of the many joys they have to experience on top of being shit poor and left without medical options or social support nets. Education isn’t guaranteed to get you a steady job, but it is guaranteed to sink you many thousands of dollars into debt. There are still a plethora of legal protections that put the interests of business before the interests of employees, ranging from laws that allow you to legally fire transgender workers and slyly worded ableist requirements in everyday job applications. With chains stubbornly wrapped around your ankles and roadblocks placed in every pathway, you eventually have to stop blaming yourself for tripping.
So it’s pretty darn nice to have at least one game that treats ‘unconventional’ families and living situations not as a mark against character, but as one of many, many ways of living on this frustrating planet. That redefines exactly what ‘unconventional’ even means and puts it squarely back into the territory of the real-life fantasy that is most of the messages we see on the average television commercial or newspaper ad.
Tales From The Borderlands sees the two sisters embracing a new and strange family through their death-defying escapades across Pandora, nearby moons and space stations — one composed of not just relatives, but friends and allies. While the average audience can’t entirely relate to narrowly escaping giant alien beasts or having their livelihood threatened by an artificial intelligence constructed from the memory of a long-dead dictator, a family fighting for a better future despite the deck being loaded against them is a much-needed dent in an archaic social faux paus.
Like a Millennial trying to navigate crushing debt and prevalent stereotypes, Tales From The Borderlands is a hidden gem that shouldn’t be taken for granted.