In hindsight, it’s funny that I wasn’t really looking forward to seeing Telltale Games’ take on Gearbox Software’s zany science fiction FPS/RPG hybrid. I love Borderlands, and I love Telltale, but I just didn’t see much common storytelling ground there. I was quite wrong, obviously, as Tales from the Borderlands has turned out to be easily one of the best games of the year and the culmination of everything that has made past Telltale adaptations brilliant.
Take the hilarious writing of Tales from Monkey Island, the epic action set pieces of Jurassic Park: The Game, the emotional highs and lows of The Walking Dead, the sheen of noirish cool that permeated The Wolf Among Us, and wrap it all up in the Mad Max-inspired insanity of Borderlands with a fresh twist and you’ve got the makings of a genuine magnum-opus.
Playing through Telltale’s latest was like an extended shot of pure storytelling joy. Around every corner there was something that either made me laugh, think, feel, or just plain kicked ass. It made me want to go play the games it was based on with a new appreciation for the world they created, which is probably the highest praise you can bestow on a game like this. The following are five ways that Tales from the Borderlands proved itself to be at the top of the heap of an already extremely impressive collection of stories Telltale has adapted from film, television, comics, and video games.
Setting the pace
Gauging proper pacing is an elusive thing sometimes, especially when delivering chapters in an episodic format every few months. At times the individual stories in each episode can feel somewhat disconnected from one another and….well, episodic. Trying to find a balance between making each one stand alone somewhat like with The Walking Dead: Season 1 and crafting an ongoing escalating narrative is tricky, but for Borderlands, Telltale really seems to have found the best possible way to do it.
Discarding the notion of stand alone episodes with different variations of the same theme and a grand finale at the end, what Telltale did instead was use each episode to show us different aspects of the Borderlands mythos, each with its own build-up and climax, while telling an ongoing story and using every scene to craft characters’ relationships to one another without feeling the need to be all things in all episodes. The stakes just keep getting higher and higher as the story unfolds, but as ambitious as it is, the story somehow it never loses its sense of playfulness and surprise, deftly turning tragedy into comedy, comedy into triumph, and triumph back into tragedy. It’s not an easy thing to do effectively. In fact, it’s extremely rare, but they did it.
Beginning as a simple story of a corporate stooge and a street smart con-woman retelling their stories in flashback after being taken by mysterious captor, the number of elements and twists and turns that come into play is astonishing. After going into outer space and back again facing giant monsters, old Borderlands friends and foes, and life-or-death decisions, going into the final act almost seemed like overkill. Like, what else can this game possibly throw at me? But then it made me laugh, cry, cheer, laugh and cry and cheer again and I wondered how anything could be that perfectly measured and surprise me at the same time. From its humble beginnings and through all of its wild changes in scale, setting, and tone, the story always flows perfectly, and that’s a big piece of this awesome puzzle.
One of the things that makes this particular work of interactive fiction stand out in the ever-widening field is its approach to humor. While the light tone often reminded me of the delightful Tales from Monkey Island, in that game the dialogue was more like an old RPG where you cycle through all dialogue options to hear the responses. In Tales from the Borderlands, you actually get to dictate a lot of the comedy yourself, or even tone it down if you’re looking for a more serious approach.
Whether you decide to repeatedly yell “enhance” at a computer in a mockery of the trope where saying that magically makes an existing picture higher resolution, immortalize a fallen comrade with a Cowboy Bebop reference, downplay another character’s feat of awesome before failing mightily at the same task, quote an epic Jaws’ one-liner while pulling the trigger on the final boss, or go for a less nerdy approach to these situations is completely up to you. And having the option to mock a bad guy’s hair and later be given a choice of which elemental bullet to shoot him with -opening up the opportunity to set said hair on fire- is just too good.
The fact that this game has so many jokes and clever callbacks and some of the best ones are completely optional and often reliant on certain sequences of choices speaks volumes about the depth and quality of the writing here. I remember when Borderlands 2 caused ire in some parts of the internet by appropriating dozens of memes and Telltale seems to have taken that lesson to heart. While there are dozens of pop culture references, they are more timeless geek homages than attempts to pander to the temperamental millennial demographic that date the humor. Any game that recreates the pretend gun battle scene from Spaced on a John Woo scale is fine by me, and if it isn’t with you, you probably suck anyways..
Music makes the people come together
Telltale has run the gamut when it comes to incorporating music into their art. From the evocative score of The Wolf Among Us to the closing credit folk tunes of The Walking Dead and the straightforward use of the film score for Jurassic Park, a lot of approaches have been tried with varying degrees of success. But Tales from the Borderlands trumps them all with its awe-inspiring use of music in its credit sequences.
While the score is normally more understated like Wolf Among Us’s was (aside from some EDM-fueled action sequences), Telltale treats each chapter like a Bond film in that they all start out with an awesome scene to hook you and then segue into a musical number for the credits to kick it up a notch. For all of the praise that the dialogue deserves, the scene montages during these opening credit sequences is where Tales From the Borderlands does some of its finest work. A lot of the devices used in these sequences have been done before, such as dramatic time slowing and credits appearing as part of the scenery, but I have never seen them used more effectively.
I’m going to resist the temptation to expound each opening sequence, but I’ll just say they might be worth the cost of each episode by themselves. Artistry, humor, character development, and a variety of emotions from joy to sheer desolation are portrayed in these wordless sequences that set the stage for each section of our protagonists’ journey and the accompanying music is pleasantly diverse and fits each scene to a T. And if you ever thought you’d never be genuinely inspired by a cheesy 80’s-style power ballad, think again. Episode 4’s “Back to the Top” is my new go-to pump up anthem.
Arguably, the most important thing in modern storytelling is the people in the story. You need to care about them, or at least relate to them in some way. This isn’t the 1900’s anymore. To make a truly great story these days, even the villains have to be worth rooting for on some level. While I might argue that Telltale knocked nearly every aspect of this game out of the park, they really outdid themselves with the cast of Tales from the Borderlands.
Not to bring the quality of the writing up again, but anybody who can effectively make the word “hi” spoken by a monotone-voiced robot a catch phrase is doing something very right. Rhys and Fiona by themselves are memorable protagonists, but the ragtag crew they put together over the course of this story is one for the record books. Drawing from the familiar, but always offering someone new as well, this is one of the best gaming casts ever.
Fiona in particular is a heroine for that ages. We don’t often enough get characters where the primary means of conflict resolution is acheived through intelligence as opposed to brute force, and she is a prime example of how to do it right. Dressed to kill with a knack for withering sarcasm and an elegant derringer up her sleeve just in case things get nasty is my kind of lady. Rhys makes for a perfect foil with his polar-opposite background and bumbling, self-deprecating nature, but at the same time the two share distinct similarities that illustrate that there is no cultural divide too large to stop decent people from connecting, cooperating, and coexisting with one another in spite of friction.
How these two characters interact and shape their relationships is largely up to you, but that was my experience. Yours could be different depending on your own choices, which brings us to my final point.
One thing that really sets Tales from the Borderlands apart from the rest of Telltale’s ever-growing catalog of massive successes is that it really feels like a game where you have genuine consequences based on your decisions. Not just a different ending based on a dialogue choice or two or whatever, but things that work out in unexpected ways.
Obviously, we’re not at a point that every single decision you make leads to an entirely new version of the game like so many people seem to expect. The stuff that’s happening in the story is going to happen, and until we find a much cheaper way to make video games, that’s how it’s going to be. But sometimes the little things can really change your personal experience with a game.
Who’s available to join your vault raiding team for the final act is directly affected by your actions over the course of the story. Even apparent throwaway dialogue to strangers can have an effect on your reputation and future options. If you save your money or decide to give somebody who betrayed you a second (or third) chance, you may be pleasantly surprised. One particular plot thread was only resolved because my choices were narrowed and it ended up making my story so much more satisfying in the end. Even your apparent mistakes can have surprising silver linings.
It’s really cool to see things work out in different ways based on your decisions and have some positive and negative consequences based on what seemed like flippant choices at the time. Player choice is the biggest thing that separates interactive entertainment from more traditional media and the more it can be worked into the narrative, the more satisfying a virtual story is going to feel in comparison. It makes for a more immersive experience, adds replayability to the game, and helps make Tales from the Borderlands stand above even the best tales that Telltale has told.