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It’s strange that I’ve never written about a Borderlands game on this blog, because I’ve played them all. But they’ve always been games I’ve played cooperatively with friends, making them feel different from everything else I’m playing. Borderlands sessions are as much about hanging out with friends (many of whom don’t live near me anymore) as it is playing the game. The Borderlands series is great for this, as they don’t require total focus, so we can chat about whatever we like while we blast some bad guys and look for guns with slightly bigger numbers on them. In fact, detractors bemoan how shallow the games are, offering an endless loop of shooting and looting, with a cast of zany characters with dialogue that tries too hard to be wacky plastered on top. And whenever I tried playing the games solo, I never got far before getting bored (except for the first game, on a revisit years later).
But while the series has never had great writing (the second game is the strongest here but still not amazing, the others are pretty bad), it has always boasted excellent worldbuilding. The planet Pandora, on which most of the games are set, is such a wonderfully realized place. Much of it is a desolate desert, although there are frozen plains and rocky highlands too. It’s dingy and dilapidated, covered in the detritus of countless corporate wars. People eke out an existence in rundown ruins, left over when the megacorporations who fought over the planet’s resources pulled out. One of those corporations, Dahl, abandoned their workforce of convicts when they left, creating ruthless bands of killers who prowl the landscape. Add in the hordes of deadly creatures native to the planet, and Pandora is a thoroughly unpleasant place to be… but, a place rumored to hide an alien vault full of treasures of unimaginable value. Players step into the role of vault hunters, willing to brave Pandora’s dangers in search of fortune. Along the way, they’ll learn about the other massive corporations who have an interest in the planet, gleaning tidbits about their different cultures and philosophies, and of course using each corporation’s distinct style of weaponry.
For years, I’d heard from multiple sources — including one of the friends I play Borderlands games with — that Tales From the Borderlands is fantastic. But it’s a very different beast than the main series of games developed by Gearbox Software, which are a mix of first person shooter and loot-filled action role-playing game in the vein of Diablo (or, to use an example I’ve written about on this blog, Torchlight). Like those games, the compulsion loop is fairly transparent, with players accepting quests to travel somewhere, shoot lots of enemies, and collect randomized loot from their corpses. The first Borderlands game was innovative in the way it applied randomized stats to guns, so players never knew quite what they were going to find [EDIT: An attentive reader points out that Hellgate: London did this first, although it was much less popular]. Different values for damage, fire rate, accuracy, etc. meant each new gun felt different to fire (although there are some clear archetypes, like shotguns or assault rifles, and further quirks based on which corporation manufactured them). This is a common element in many games now, but back in 2009 it was the main selling point for the first Borderlands game, and the series has run with it ever since.
Tales From the Borderlands, however, is a Telltale game. Founded by former LucasArts staff when LucasArts decided it would no longer fund development of adventure games, Telltale invented their own distinctive style of adventure game. Released episodically, like a TV series, their games are narrative focused, full of scenes in which the only player input is to make dialogue choices or larger decisions that can lead the story down different paths. Some segments recall classic adventure games, albeit simplified, as players search locations for items or use objects to solve puzzles. Then there are action sequences, which throw quick time events at the player. This combination of elements proved popular with players, but the strain of hitting regular episode deadlines took its toll on the studio, with staff forced to crunch, eventually leading to the closure of Telltale.
I’d never played any Telltale games before this one, so there was an adjustment period. I’m used to poking into every corner in most games, searching out every last secret or tidbit or optional area. Tales From the Borderlands does not allow this: choices must be made, and they must be made quickly. Most dialogue options have a timer, so I didn’t have time to mull over them for long, and they play that trick of not matching the actual dialogue. I might choose an option that sounds like it will be a mildly encouraging statement, only to find that the actual dialogue is not very encouraging at all. I restarted the game once or twice to try different choices after feeling dissatisfied with my first one, especially when the infamous Telltale warnings that characters would “remember that” appeared. Eventually, however, I settled into the right mindset for the game. Players are supposed to say the wrong things sometimes, and most dialogue choices have little impact on the overall story. I started to go with the flow, and really enjoyed myself.
Tales From the Borderlands is set between Borderlands 2 and Borderlands 3. That means that the Hyperion Corporation is in control of Pandora, although they have withdrawn their forces to their giant moon base (shaped like a huge “H”, naturally). One of the protagonists of the game is Rhys, a low-ranking executive in Hyperion who’s trying to scheme his way to the top. The other is Fiona, a grifter with a cool hat who was born in one of the abandoned mining towns on Pandora. Both are decidedly average citizens, especially when compared to the superhero-like vault hunters who star in the main Borderlands games. These two aren’t able to mow down armies of opponents with high tech guns and special powers, they’re just people trying to make a living — and maybe a big score — in this crazy world. In other words, their story is set inside the wonderful backdrop of the main Borderlands games, and it absolutely capitalizes on that.
Even so, it wasn’t quite what I expected. I thought Rhys and Fiona’s story would stay on the sidelines, a tale (heh) about regular folks who are dealing with something far less world-changing than a vault hunter’s antics. The kind of story that wouldn’t seem important to most people, but is pretty dang important when it’s happening to you. And it is, sort of. But it also intersects the main Borderlands games in far more ways than I expected. Major characters from those games appear, and weave in and out of the story. Events escalate quickly, and become momentous enough to have a serious impact on how Borderlands 3 starts. I thought that Gearbox wouldn’t have trusted Telltale to dictate the major events that took place after Borderlands 2 ended, but they did, making Tales From the Borderlands a crucial part of the overall series rather than the standalone spinoff I thought it would be.
In fact, a few characters I met when I played Borderlands 3 are actually returning characters from Tales From the Borderlands. And that’s where the difference in writing is starkly apparent. Borderlands 3 absolutely squanders these characters. Vaughn has the same voice, but otherwise sounds like a completely different person, spouting the trying-too-hard dialogue that the series is infamous for. Rhys shows up in Borderlands 3 too, but he’s not even played by the same actor, because Gearbox refused to work with unionized actors. When I first played Borderlands 3 I hadn’t played Tales From the Borderlands yet, so these two just blended in to the generally forgettable cast. Now, however — and Tales actually inspired me to start playing Borderlands 3 again, so I’m not just relying on fuzzy memories — I’m gutted. The writing in Tales From the Borderlands is so much better it’s not even funny. The whole cast is wonderful. I can’t remember the last time I got so attached to characters in a game. To see them join the roster of shallow caricatures shouting about stupid stuff in Borderlands 3 hurts. Gearbox, please work with better writers. Your series deserves it.
I feel like I should be writing so much more about how great the storytelling is in Tales From the Borderlands, but I don’t want to spoil what happens. Let’s just say that Rhys and Fiona’s adventures veer in directions both expected and unexpected. There are twists that connect events to Pandora’s past, callouts to locations from the main games, surprise cameos from familiar faces (who enjoy the same great writing as the new characters, which is awesome), and some genuinely funny bits. The main series has funny moments too, but jokes tend to miss more often than they hit. Not so here. The tone is perfect, effortlessly showing off the kind of humor that the rest of the series so often fails to execute. I love the way it references the weirder mechanical bits of the main games, like how money, guns, and other equipment have a little colored pillar of light above them to make them easier to see (and to indicate their rarity tier). Rhys and Fiona sometimes run into items lying around with their own little light pillars, and the absurdity of it never ceased to make me laugh. As did the countless loot boxes, lockers, crates, and other containers which always seemed to be empty. I guess only the bigshot vault hunters get to constantly find sweet guns in random boxes all the time.
But don’t worry, there are guns. It is a Borderlands game, after all. As such, I was never particularly bothered by all the quick time event action sequences. Of course there are crazy action sequences, this is Pandora. If you’re not fighting off (or running from) a gang of dangerous thugs, or hanging on for dear life during a high speed vehicle chase, maybe you’re not on the planet you thought were on. Normally I find quick time events tiresome, asking players to hammer keys or execute a quick set of commands instead of offering a meaningful gameplay mechanic. But here I didn’t mind, mostly because they’re so easy to pass. I only failed a few all game, which led to a swift death and equally swift restart. On the whole, however, I had plenty of time to press the correct direction key, or repeatedly tap another key to help someone push a heavy object or whatever. The quick time events just made me feel like I was along for the ride, as Rhys and Fiona (and their friends) manage to escape danger yet again.
And as they do, they get some actual character growth across the game’s five episodes. This is where the writing really shines. Rhys, Fiona and company go through a lot, and their journey changes them. They’re different people by the end, having explored beyond the lives they knew, and they’ve had time to learn what it is they really want. Their arcs are so much more compelling than I expected, which made me realize how rarely games do this. Too often game stories are just there to frame the action, and player controlled characters are blank slates with barely any personality. Designers fear to create a character arc for them, lest they limit players, dictating what they should care about instead of giving them the freedom to explore on their own. And yet, this character development is precisely why I ended up caring so much about the cast of Tales From the Borderlands, and got me really invested in the story. There’s even some surprise romance in the story, and it actually got to me. I cared enough about the characters to want to see this budding romance bloom. I honestly cannot remember the last time that’s happened to me in a game. Or even in a film, for that matter. I’m so used to depictions of romance that I understand, but which fail to move me on an emotional level. Finding myself actually feeling this one caught me off guard.
The writing in Tales From the Borderlands is great, is what I’m saying. And I was surprised by how much of that is due to the episodic structure. Since I played long after the original release, I didn’t have to wait for each episode to appear, but they’re so well paced that it felt wrong to play more than one per day. Each episode takes about two hours to play through, each has a stylish opening sequence set to a pop song (something the main games also do), each has an excellent climax and ending, each has its own credits sequence that brings back the theme song. They’re wonderfully complete packages of story, with natural break points in between. The only bad thing I can say about them is that it’s clear there was meant to be a second season of episodes that never appeared. That means there’s still a lot of questions about exactly what happened to Rhys between the end of Tales From the Borderlands and his appearance in Borderlands 3, and the fate of the rest of the cast remains a mystery.
With the demise of Telltale, we may never know what was supposed to happen, although Gearbox did recently release New Tales From the Borderlands, a spiritual successor that takes place after Borderlands 3. The problem, of course, is that it’s made by Gearbox, the studio that so badly botched Rhys’ character in Borderlands 3. And, as I feared, reviews suggest it is pretty bad, especially when compared to the original Tales From the Borderlands. I might play the new one eventually, just for completeness, since I’ve been following the whole Borderlands series so far. But I do not expect it to hold a candle to Telltale’s effort.
I’ve heard others say that Tales From the Borderlands is the best Borderlands game, and I have to agree. I like the main games, but each of them has clear weaknesses. I can’t come up with any weaknesses in Tales From the Borderlands, except that it never got the second season it deserved. I’d even go so far as to recommend it to those who never got on with the main Borderlands games, but that comes with some caveats: the story does intertwine with those of the main games, with many returning characters and references to earlier events. You’ll still be able to follow along if you haven’t played the rest of the series, but these callbacks won’t be as weighty as they will be for series veterans. It’s still worth playing Tales From the Borderlands, though. In case it’s not clear by now, I loved it, and suspect you will too. For a while after Telltale folded, it was impossible to buy Tales From the Borderlands, so take advantage of the fact that it’s available again and check out this excellent adventure.