The Descent of Wilhelm: Borderlands The Pre-Sequel

Wilhelm is a hybrid between a man and a Hyperion Loader-robot.

Borderlands 2 players will be familiar with Wilhelm — the only boss fight that doesn’t get a splash screen — Wilhelm is a hulking cyborg with almost no meat left, who throws a train carriage at the player and takes some serious punishment before he finally collapses (killing his repair drone makes this fight lot easier). Wilhelm’s first appearance in this game is in the mission “Handsome Jack Here!”, wherein he murders a train-full of refugees. Those who listen to all the ECHO-log audio diaries scattered around the game will also know that this character is responsible for perpetrating a massacre at New Haven, causing the anti-Hyperion resistance movement to retreat to Sanctuary.

Pre-Sequel players see a different view of Wilhelm: a playable Vault Hunter working for Handsome Jack (starting with the character class “Enforcer”). I’ve been playing a lot of Wilhelm, and I must say I’m fascinated by the character.

Wilhelm The Enforcer, (from the Borderlands TPS intro cutscene)

Wilhelm The Enforcer, (from the Borderlands TPS intro cutscene)

Playing as Wilhelm is quite nice, he has a pair of drone assistants Wolf (an attack drone) and Saint (a medical drone). Investing skill points in Wolf’s skill-tree turns Wilhelm into a glass cannon, investing in Saint makes Wilhelm into a super-durable tank, but his most interesting skill-tree, “Cyber-Commando,” makes Wilhelm himself slightly better in every way, without really affecting his minions. The more Wilhelm gets developed on this tree, the more of his body-parts get swapped-out for machinery and the more echoing and metallic — the more robotic — his voice gets. As he becomes more and more mechanical, Wilhelm’s use of language changes, too: upon getting back up from being knocked prone, a Cyber-Commando’d Wilhelm is more likely to say that he is “Rebooting” or “All systems green!” than “back from the brink”.

To get this achievement in BL2, you have to kick Wilhelm's robotic ass.

To get this achievement in BL2, you have to kick Wilhelm’s robotic ass.

At some point in his past, Wilhelm gave an interview to a journalist, which is recorded on ECHO logs which players can find laying about Triton Flats. Whilst his past remains largely mysterious, Wilhelm sums himself fairly bluntly:

Wilhelm: I’m really good at killing people. I wanna be a robot.

Wilhelm is advised by NPCs to go easy on the bionics: Janey Springs points out that there’s some “rustvirus seeping into the skin around your eye implant”. She advises him that addiction to bionics could turn him into an emotionless killing machine. His dismissive response doesn’t indicate that he doubts that he could be corrupted in this manner, it shows that he doesn’t see being turned into a robotic killing machine as a problem. Working with Handsome Jack is a great fit for Wilhelm, since Jack shares Wilhelm’s enthusiasm for the idea of Wilhelm being turned into a monstrous robot:

Angel (on ECHO): He was born with a very mild case of bone waste, which means he’s had a lot of skeletal implants. Subsequently, he may have gotten addicted to cybernetic enhancements.
Jack (on ECHO): He’s addicted to surgically shoving metal into his body?
Angel (on ECHO): Yes. He’d be a good hire, but you run the risk of him being more machine than man after several years of service.
Jack (on ECHO): Frankly, Angel… that sounds totally awesome. Sign him up.

Of course, Jack is enthusiastic about the idea of having robot-killing-machine Wilhelm as an employee, rather than about the idea of gradual roboticization in general. Jack is quite happy to enable Wilhelm’s aberrant behaviour if it nets him a robot killing machine for a good price.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is a game about falling from grace: specifically, Jack starts out well-intentioned and courageous, and gradually becomes cruel and corrupt. The player characters’ reactions to Jack’s behaviour are telling in that Athena (the conscience of Jack’s group) gets disgusted and leaves, whilst Nisha (cruelty and schadenfreude incarnate) ends up dating Jack. Claptrap (who is merely Jack’s tool) is wilfully discarded by Jack, whilst Wilhelm undergoes a similar transformation to his employer — as Jack turns from a self-appointed hero into a complete bastard, Wilhelm turns from a human eccentric into a robot monster as he upgrades himself again and again, losing a little more humanity each time.

Decisions, decisions. Wilhelm ponders which part of himself to upgrade next. (Screenshot from Borderslands: The Pre-Sequel.)

Decisions, decisions. Wilhelm ponders which part of himself to upgrade next. (Screenshot from Borderslands: The Pre-Sequel.)

Slowly turning into a monster by repeated bionic upgrades is a done-to-death sci-fi trope, but it’s rare to see a character embracing their fate. Wilhelm doesn’t so much fall from grace, as he gleefully jumps down, with Jack egging him on. Wilhelm even worships a robot deity;

Wilhelm: …I gotta give HUGE thanks to my deity the Almighty Robot Policeman — all praise to the prime directives.

All priase to the Prime Directives!

I realised there was a Christ-analogy in this movie, but I think for Wilhelm, it might be more intense.

To conclude, Wilhelm fascinates me not just because he’s an awful person (as is the way with Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel player characters) but because he actively seeks out a destiny that most characters would consider a nightmare. Wilhelm is under no illusions, he is not deceived by Jack at any point; he genuinely wants to be turned into the monster he is by the time he appears in Borderlands 2.

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