When developer Telltale Games launched the first season of its acclaimed and hugely influential adaptation of The Walking Dead in 2012, it encountered a choice-driven narrative that the studio would strictly adhere to for each of its titles until its sad closure in 2018. Found some masterful ways to adapt this increasingly worn template, others were just fine, but none were perhaps as odd, memorable, and quietly loved as Tales from the Borderlands.
From the outset, Tales from the Borderlands seemed like a bizarre, if not doomed, proposal that attempted to blend Telltale’s rich, character-driven formula with a childish, open-ended looter shooter best known for its oodles of procedural weaponry is known. But against all odds, it worked sublimethe team at Telltale, used the Borderlands series’ crudely sketched canvas to deliver what, for many who played it, proved to be not only the best Borderlands game, but also Telltale’s best work – a five-part adventure Largely free from the shackles of continuity and expectation, happily experimenting with form and structure, merging dizzying inventiveness and anarchic, unabashed silliness into something of surprising warmth and emotion.
And now, some eight years later, original Borderlands developer Gearbox is trying to recapture the lightning-in-the-bottle magic of Tales from the Borderlands.
“I absolutely love Tales from the Borderlands,” Lin Joyce, Gearbox’s head of writing, told me recently while discussing the studio’s long-awaited sequel, New Tales from the Borderlands. “It’s also true that I did a PhD in interactive storytelling design, so it was a play that I studied. It was like: what are they doing? How do you do that? What kind of story are they telling? And without getting too academic if you look at how they played with the narrative, how they played with time and space and shifts in perspective. All of that was incredible for the narrative structure and design.”
Eight years later, Joyce’s love for perhaps Telltale’s most overlooked game has naturally closed as the team at Gearbox prepares for the upcoming release of New Tales from the Borderlands. It’s a project that feels in some ways like an unenviable endeavor given the incredible fan fondness for the original, but it’s a challenge the studio seems excited to have had the opportunity to tackle. But why even think about bringing back an odd little series spin-off that, despite strong critical reception, was far from a commercial hit?
“I think when you look at what the original Tales did,” explains Joyce, “it allowed us to explore the Borderlands universe in a medium that was best suited for interactive storytelling. It wasn’t a story that could easily be told in a looter shooter. And we certainly have more stories like this that we can and want to tell.”
However, as the “New” in New Tales of the Borderlands suggests, this isn’t a sequel to Telltale’s original – perhaps disappointing for fans given its rather inconclusive ending – but an all-new adventure with a brand-new cast of characters. “When we looked at that,” Joyce explains of the decision to start over, “it was how we’re expanding [Borderlands] universe with…everything that we release and so the opportunity that we had was to move forward and expand [it] in a place we haven’t had before… I think that’s always the goal, to keep telling more stories that people love, with new characters that they want to spend time with, not less.
And so, says Joyce, the first question the team asked was, “How can we look at life in the Borderlands in a really unique way… What happens when we focus on people who aren’t Vault Hunters, who aren’t are trained? , no killers, no weapon bearers, they don’t loot… That’s the essence I really wanted to preserve and honor [from the original]character development”.
To that end, the original game’s characters, including Troy Baker’s Rhys and Laura Bailey’s Fiona, make way for three newcomers – Fran Miscowicz, Anuradha Dahr, and Octavio Wallace-Dahr – but the change, Joyce says, is to offer players something more than just a fresh coat of paint. “When we first sat down to discuss New Tales,” she explains, “we asked ourselves who our main characters are going to be? And as fans will know, Tales from the Borderlands had two protagonists who took turns telling the story. We experienced the two protagonists’ memory of events, which meant that for our protagonists, the actions that players were experiencing in real-time had already happened “So we wanted to take a different direction in New Tales, we wanted the players and the characters to experience events to make choices and face the ramifications of those choices, in a shared time and place.”
Three protagonists, the team finally decided, “allowed us to see the world of Promethea through the eyes of more people who share a common goal but don’t share the same motivation…each one acts as a window on the world and but it allowed us.” then also to bring in a mechanic of group dynamics that is central to the story… Interpersonally they wrestle with difficult things in a high stakes situation and how they hopefully are able to stay connected – it’s in player control – [with] respect for differences, respect for one another and finding ways to move forward, [that] was kind of a snack for me.”
The three protagonists of New Tales from the Borderlands also meant the potential for three uniquely different sets of abilities, which helped enable another key focus for the team – a closer connection between story and gameplay than was perhaps apparent in the original. “I think part of the challenge we’ve taken on is how are we going to do this differently?” Joyce explains. “And that meant that while there had to be good story logic and compelling character development… with every button press we wanted to make sure we were bringing character and consistency.”
As such, the personalities of the three protagonists of New Tales from the Borderlands determine how their sequences will play out. Fran, for example, can take a more brute-force approach to the puzzle thanks to her extremely well-equipped hover chair, while Octavio – with his constant online perspective and social media presence – uses his smartwatch-like ECHOdex to get help from friends or to change the story to advance And as for Anu, her abilities are meant to be a homage to the original game, with a greater focus on exploration and item usage.
But like the original Tales from the Borderlands and its multitude of outlandish QTE set pieces (who can forget the Spaced-esque finger gun combat?), Gearbox’s sequel, while remaining mostly narrative, isn’t afraid to lean into action, when the story calls for it.
“[That was] one of the things we wanted to keep,” explains Pierre-Luc Foisy, Lead Game Designer at New Tales from the Borderlands Scene. So we tried to keep that, but also improve where we could. For example, free walk sequences where you control a character felt a bit like at times [they] didn’t fit the story at that point like they were just some kind of break… So we tried to make them a little bit more involved in their story and also a little bit more like action sequences… Fran is a good example of how they do obstacles or puzzles within the game in a more action-packed new way”.
“But even in our action sequences,” Joyce adds, “we do things a little differently, where inaction can lead to more story than failure. And sometimes inaction can be the right choice. So it’s more about you. You also have to engage with the action in front of you. Will you do the action? Won’t you take the action? It shouldn’t just be: “I see buttons, press them”. So in that way, we always use actions to advance the story. It’s not action for action’s sake.”
Another development for the series – and perhaps the most notable in the New Tales from the Borderlands footage shown so far – is the shift to performance capture. “That was a big pillar for us,” explains Joyce. “It’s really important to see our character’s reactions to decisions, in their face, in their body language… Eight years ago we didn’t have that much access to that [that], so you kind of had to signal the players and give them feedback on their choices, whereas now performance tracking acts as feedback – the actors themselves, the characters, bring all of that right up front and it reinforces the story . You feel it in a way that would have been just a little harder eight years ago.”
Given Gearbox’s various attempts to improve on Telltale Games’ aging storytelling formula, it might come as a surprise to hear that one of the studio’s increasingly outdated staples – episodic gameplay – has remained. While New Tales from the Borderlands is a single, full release, its story is split into multiple episodes. “I always think it’s nice to give the players room to breathe,” says Joyce, explaining the decision: “[for them] to be able to catch your breath, to have a resolution to think about. And it also gives us ways to have rising and falling actions with our narrative structure in a way that’s easy to follow and feel. A movie has an arc, but when you make something episodic, you get five mini arcs plus an arc, so we can tell just a little more story.
Eight years after the release of Tales from the Borderlands, it will be fascinating to see if Gearbox’s upcoming sequel can win the hearts of fans in the same way, with its new development team and an all-new cast of characters. For Joyce and Foisy, however, the hope is obviously yes – and the team seems to have plenty more stories to tell should the opportunity arise. “One of the things we realized with this project was that we wanted to establish ourselves as better storytellers,” says Foisy, “and also develop some new processes along the way. So yes, we would like to continue that.”
New Tales from the Borderlands will be released on October 21st this year for Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S.
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