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I’m pretty much on-record as not being a big fan of the Borderlands games. I think sometimes my apathy towards the franchise turns to loathing due to a distaste for developer Gearbox following Aliens: Colonial Marines mixed with the absolute love the franchise seems to get. In a post-Destiny world it is especially confusing as to why the game would garner such a passionate group of fans. At best, I can only imagine that a love of constant loot-drops is what brings all the players to Gearbox’s yard.

Tales From the Borderlands is the first time I’ve been tempted to fall in love with the setting.

When I wrote about Nier: Automata I discussed how many believe you must sacrifice either gameplay or story based on your priority. Narrative-driven games must sacrifice mechanics, gameplay and agency while mechanics-driven games must sacrifice story and character. Gearbox and Telltale each deliver an experience in this universe that adheres to this mentality, and in the end I’m left unsatisfied with the end result.

The problem with Borderlands as a setting in the Gearbox developed titles is that it all exists for the sake of the mechanics. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it certainly keeps the world from being as vibrant as its comic book aesthetic. The world looks wonderful and the art direction certainly oozes personality. The problem is that the narrative and games themselves do not support it. Even Borderlands 2 – where each primary quest followed a sort of three-act narrative structure to provide a more engaging and satisfying episodic feel to every mission – failed to achieve anything more than a template for mechanics-based narrative.

At the end of the day, every location in a Borderlands game and every creature within it is designed with no purpose but to be a quest item or loot source. Finding cash in an outhouse once is a gag and perhaps even a self-aware dose of humor. Finding cash and guns in every outhouse stops being a joke and turns into a philosophy: if a player can interact with it, then it must contain loot.

Thus the setting transforms. It’s not an outhouse, it’s a treasure box. It’s not a character, it’s a quest giver. Flavor text and dialogue becomes repeated and drowned out. Enemies become colored and tougher variants of the foes you saw in the first region rather than being unique. Every “unique” gun is nothing more than a list of numbers and texture swap. Gearbox was proud of a procedural system that stripped every weapon of its unique identity. Contrast with Destiny, where players recognize select weapons and armor on sight and understand what it took to get such gear. People complain about the effort it takes to get certain kinds of loot, but that loot carries with it intrinsic meaning while the equipment in Borderlands lacks identity and is ultimately disposable as toilet paper.

Perhaps that’s why you keep finding loot in the toilets?

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Even the main characters themselves are hardly characters. You start off with an archetype select screen, as the names of each character doesn’t matter. They’re an aesthetic and attitude to match the class, but until you chose from a new set of characters in Borderlands 2 none of the original cast had real character.

Borderlands has a sense of humor, right? Well, even there I’d compare more favorably to the likes of Saint’s Row III. A world of violence and depravity where our “heroes” are actually scum themselves. Both Borderlands and Saint’s Row III portray a world in which reprehensible acts are made light of, but Saint’s Row III is able to provide character to its protagonists and villains. Effort is put in to develop an emotional attachment between pixels and player. There is no empathy for anyone in Borderlands except for maybe a single damn bird.

Yes, I’m aware of the Tiny Tina DLC. No, its “narrative” doesn’t fix the subpar “gameplay” of the monotonous loot-grinding that is Borderlands – especially when the vast majority of said DLC is that same damn grind.

So what’s the purpose of my griping here? Well, the purpose is that Tales From the Borderlands highlights just how incapable Gearbox is of actually doing something with their setting. Instead it is left to Telltale to take the basic premise of a horrible world where the “good guys” are still reprehensible people and make you empathize with them. All of a sudden the names of all these corporations not only matter, but are interwoven with each other. Atlas is a now defunct competitor to Hyperion, names I had completely forgotten despite their evident importance in the franchise narrative. The Vaults themselves have greater purpose than a generic endpoint to a long list of quests. They represent opportunity and hope to those that would hunt for them.

Telltale also builds a narrative off of the concept of trust and betrayal. From corporate back-stabbing to the paranoid suspicion that becomes the default outlook on Pandora, Tales From the Borderlands leverages its narrative focus to make sure the player never has the upper hand.

In other words, Telltale took the setting and applied themes to it that fused with the “gameplay”.

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Of course, I use the term “gameplay” loosely, and not for the reasons most do. Telltale games exist so that you can see the story from start to finish, experiencing the thrills more intimately by placing you in the shoes of the protagonist(s). Through a series of quick-time events and well-written dialogue scenes you’ll be thoroughly engaged with the game while being granted enough time or tries to succeed in the more intense moments.

Yet those moments where the player is granted “control” are a mockery of interactivity. On a second playthrough they’d be a tiresome and frustrating break in the action. Hell, even on a first playthrough they disrupt the otherwise positive flow of the experience. Unlike point-and-click adventures of old, Telltale never wants you to be stuck at a single point. They want to make sure you can see everything, and thus challenge is kept to a minimum.

I don’t have a problem with this in theory. Done right, it opens up games to more casual players and allows them to experience the excitement of being involved in a narrative. I should also note that Telltale has clearly learned a number of lessons from their work since season one of The Walking Dead. A lot of these action sequences require the player to aim for specific points as events pass by in bullet-time, allowing some modicum of failure. Unfortunately, many of these moments feel more tuned for experienced players than for casual players.

I suppose a more casual player would be on a tablet, though, so perhaps the issues aren’t so pervasive? Tough to say, but I can see the game – on console at least – going from accessible to impenetrable in a whiplash shift of button prompts.

While this – and most especially the game’s finale – do make the prospect of a second trip through a bit easier to swallow, it doesn’t eliminate all of the tedium that would carry through. The narrative and your choices are what make a Telltale game engaging. The gameplay is present, but it isn’t quite to the point where it is consistently enjoyable. It makes the prospect of going back for a repeat experience an exhausting idea.

Which is why Tales From the Borderlands disappoints me. I want a good narrative that begs for deeper digging, but I want the mechanics to reward that second trip as well. I loved my time with Fiona and Rhys, and the setting now has a distinct atmosphere and dark humor to it that makes me yearn to return.

Unfortunately, I know that Borderlands 1 and 2 aren’t going to give me that experience. Their gameplay is mediocre and despite the mechanical and narrative improvements in the second, the larger world actually hurts the experience by dragging its mundane gameplay and obsession with loot drops far longer than can be sustained. Perhaps Borderlands: The Pre-sequel could improve upon its progenitors – after all, it wasn’t developed by Gearbox, opening up the potential for a Fallout: New Vegas situation – but I am skeptical of the franchise as a whole.

I like Tales From the Borderlands. I enjoy the world they’ve crafted. But if I ever want to come back to Pandora and explore this setting in a meaningful fashion, I have no choice but to replay Tales From the Borderlands. As I learned replaying season one of The Walking Dead, Telltale games don’t quite hold up so well a second time through.

As unfair and unjust of me as it is, I cannot help but feel even more resentment towards Gearbox for this.


 

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