There’s a scene in Tales from the Borderlands, in which a man who started a business club when he was ten years old, in order to create an excuse to hand out business cards, has a three and half minute long finger gun battle with a horde of accountants over a petty embezzlement dispute in an office break room. And it’s awesome.
I have previously written about the importance of Telltale Game’s 2014-2015 release line-up, including Game of Thrones, Minecraft: Story Mode, and Tales from the Borderlands. The company has enjoyed a remarkable streak of commercial and critical success since the release of Season 1 of The Walking Dead in 2012, but as Telltale grows and ramps up its production levels, it’s still an open question as to whether or not it can adapt its trademark formula to a wider range of stories and genres, and thereby establish itself as a premiere developer in the video game industry.
Telltale’s primary challenge in adapting the Borderlands franchise is in managing a dramatically different tone. The company’s flagship The Walking Dead games, as well as The Wolf Among Us and later Game of Thrones, all tell rather grim and serious tales of betrayal, murder, and misery. Ironically, the Mad Max inspired setting of Borderlands technically swims in those same waters but takes on a gleefully irreverent tone towards its themes of death and madness. The writers at Telltale are undoubtedly talented, but aside from a few moments of comedic relief in their previous games, audiences have never seen the company take on anything like the manic insanity of the Borderlands franchise before.
However, in other ways Tales is less of a departure from Telltale’s famed TWDs than GoT or Minecraft. Like TWD, Borderlands has a rather generic setting and loose canon that’s easy to build off of without having to worry about drastically altering the established world. Plus the Vault Hunter-based plots have a similar dynamic to the group-survival plots of TWD, with a relatively small group of characters traveling between points of interest over a short period of time (in contrast to the sprawling, large cast, political intrigue plot of GoT). As a result, the core story mechanics of Tales is closer to their wheelhouse than the more complicated GoT or the loose blank slate of Minecraft. Even the art style of the Borderlands series is remarkably similar to that of the trademark Telltale engine used in all of their games.
Tales of the Borderlands is built on the brute strength of its own personality. It’s fun, and not just in the gameplay-mechanical sense, but in an all-encompassing aura of atmosphere and tempo. Admittedly, the massive caveat for my evaluation of Tales is that I have never played another Borderlands game (my only preparation was reading the plot summaries for Borderlands 1 and 2 on Wikipedia), yet the game’s personality shined through its story, setting, characters, art direction, music, and every other aspect of the game. Every scene and line of dialogue is crafted with a level of detail that is nearly unparalleled in video game writing. In terms of pure fun, Tales is the best game Telltale has made thus far.
On the other hand, Tales ultimately fails to come together. At the conclusion of its second chapter, I genuinely thought Tales could end up being Telltale’s most consistently well written game, even above TWD. But sadly, the exciting character dynamics at the heart of the fast-paced adventure, unsatisfyingly unravel due to some poor storytelling decisions. Which isn’t to say the game ever stops being enjoyable, it’s always a blast. But ultimately, Tales amounts to less than the sum of its parts, leaving it a shallow, scattershot, but again, overwhelmingly fun graphic adventure experience.
Just as with Telltale’s adaptation of Game of Thrones, Tales from the Borderland’s most ingenious aspect is its selective subject matter within the game world’s established canon. The main plot concerns an outfit of misfits turned Vault Hunters who end up resembling the Guardians of the Galaxy. Their adventure takes the group across the entire spectrum of the Borderlands universe, from Pandora’s outposts, to its wastelands, old ruins, make-shift cities, and the ominous headquarters of the evil Hyperion Corporation, as well as introducing the player to creatures and characters from all walks of Pandoran life. Even though I had never played a Borderlands game before, I never felt lost in the setting or lore due to the well-crafted plot and top-notch presentation.
But as with the other Borderlands games (at least by reputation), it’s the characters in Tales that carry the whole story. The two player-characters are Rhys, a middle manager at Hyperion, and Fiona, a street-urchin con artist born and raised on Pandora. The former is a sort of corporatized Sterling Archer who hopelessly emulates the legendary Hyperion President, Handsome Jack. But unlike Archer or Jack, Rhys clearly doesn’t possess the raw ability to match his obnoxious confidence. His partner/side kick, Vaughn, is a “nice guy” accountant who actually is pretty damn smart, but lacks the bravado to climb the corporate ladder on his own, so he meekly accepts a secondary role in supporting Rhys. The dynamic between Rhys and Vaughn may very well be the best writing in the whole game, and highlights how few other video games have successfully managed to create a great bromance.
Alongside them, Fiona and her partner/sister, Sasha, are street-tough small timers who play off Rhys and Vaughn in a compelling odd couple paradigm. The Hyperion boys are dreamers who understand modern technology and the big picture dynamics of Pandora, but have no idea how to survive outside of their air conditioned offices. Meanwhile the Pandoran girls are well-versed in the ins and outs of life on their harsh home world, but never seem to know the full implications of the epic factions and relics they mess with. Add in a couple of charming robotic companions and a plethora of wacky supporting characters, and Tales easily has one of the best ensemble casts since Mass Effect 2.
Tales manages to achieve one of the rarest of video game distinctions: it’s funny. I’m not entirely sure why so few video games have managed to be consistently funny (the only ones that come to my mind are the Saint’s Rows and the Portals), but I have some theories. Maybe video games aren’t funny because they’re too long, as evidenced by comedic tv shows typically coming in 20-30 minute packages. Or maybe the mechanically intensive sections of most video game genres simply aren’t equipped to carry the tone and rapid delivery necessary for comedy. For instance, how much does the player think about the story in an Uncharted game during a 20 minute series of shootouts?
That’s probably why Tales works so damn well. Telltale’s episodic formula breaks the 10-12 hour game into manageable chunks which periodically refresh the tempo and tone. Likewise, the cinema-style graphic adventure gameplay allows the writers to constantly weave jokes in-between player mechanics to prevent the type of “zoning out” typically caused by long, mechanically intensive sections of gameplay in regular games.
As much as I love the writing of Tales, it’s difficult for me to describe it in any more detail than I already have. Tales is fun and funny. That’s it. There’s no way I can convey this particular type of writing quality outside of the context of the game’s excellent pacing and cinematography, which demonstrates that despite the technical limitations of Telltale’s games, the developer continues to pay close attention to what is still an extremely underrated aspect of video game storytelling. Special attention needs to be given to each chapter’s musical montage which sets a new industry standard for the use of licensed music in video games.
And with all of that good stuff, it almost pains me to have to bring up the bad. Because there truly is a ton of great work in Tales from the Borderlands. A lot of love was put into making an original and interesting story in a fun setting with some of Telltale’s best writing ever. Yet the game’s structural problems can’t be ignored, and unlike with GoT, Tales’s problems cannot be attributed to the strains of adopting Telltale’s trademark formula to a radically different story. Rather, Tales’s problems seem to be the product of plain old bad judgement on the part of the writers.
I mentioned earlier that the story in Tales never comes together, and I think that’s an apt description. There is a lot of set up in the earlier chapters split between two player-characters, two sidekicks, two charming robots, and maybe ten random supporting characters that the last few chapters (especially the final one) completely fail to pay off.
(Heavy SPOILERS ahead)
Pretty much every important character’s arc either doesn’t make sense or is non-existent.
Rhys starts out as a Handsome Jack worshiper but changes his tune late in the game when Jack (who lives on through an AI implant in Rhys’s head) reveals his psychotic plan to build a cyborg army. This change occurs despite Rhys having full knowledge of Jack’s arbitrary tendencies to murder colleagues, subordinates, and random bystanders for fun from the very start of the game. There is pretty much no signifier whatsoever as to why this one particular plan of Jack’s is worse than any one of the billion crimes he was infamous for committing during his life.
Fiona starts out as a small time con artist who, at the behest of her treacherous mentor, becomes a Vault Hunter after receiving training from Athena. The problem is that no indication whatsoever is given as to why Fiona would want to follow this path or why her mentor would recommend it for her. Actually, Fiona’s characterization in general is pretty light, all things considered. Ultimately she ends up coming off as a less cocky and less interesting version of Rhys.
Sasha has no personality and is extremely boring. Ok, I guess she’s kind of spunky, but that’s about it. It’s bewildering that Rhys and Vaughn have this great buddy dynamic where they build off each other’s strengths and weaknesses, while Fiona and Sasha are virtually interchangeable. That is except for the for utterly inexplicable and completely forced love triangle between Sasha and two other characters.
Vaughn is great. He’s likeable, funny, works fantastically with Rhys, and has a fully realized arc from timid wimp to wasteland badass. So why did the writers put Vaughn on a bus in the beginning of Chapter 3 and almost entirely leave him out of the story until the second half of Chapter 5?
Guardians of the Galaxy serves as an apt contrast to Tales. Both stories are about a rag-tag team of misfits who come together for a common goal. Initially their personal quirks make their alliance one of situational convinence, until the end of the story when everyone has gone through their arcs and the team comes together stronger than ever. The only problem is that in Tales the character arcs are all broken or absent, so the eventual triumph of unity seems arbitrary and forced. The characters all appear to bond by the sheer force of spending a lot of time together rather than by going through any meaningful personal growth.
I know this criticism sounds needlessly pedantic when talking about a light, fun, crazy adventure story, but the lack of cohesion becomes glaringly apparent in the final chapter, which is not only the worst of the five chapters, but also retrospectively weakens the entire game.
The first half of Chapter 5 is jarringly dark compared to the story’s otherwise breezy tone, with a whole bunch of likeable characters being brutally killed before the player’s eyes (I thought the final defeat of Handsome Jack is actually one of the best scenes in the entire game, but still feels incongruous with the tone). Then the main plotline of trying to open the Vault of the Traveler is hastily resolved with little fanfare and an unsatisfying and depressing conclusion. With the in-game flashback finally over, the narrative returns to the present where it seems like the player will be treated to an epilogue of all of the characters’ whereabouts after the disastrous events of the rest of the game.
But for some reason the game doesn’t just end. It actually goes on and on and on for a long time. Out of nowhere, the story pulls a Dark Knight Rises, and the whole Vault Hunter team reunites to take on the Vault of the Traveler again. It’s just plain bizarre and completely grates against the rest of the game. Chapters 1 through 4.5 consist of the various Vault Hunters coming together and getting into multi-factional shenanigans over the course of maybe, a week, as they inch closer to the score of a lifetime. Characters come in and out of the story, there are kidnappings, ransoms, espionage, scams, betrayals, and a million other little events which complicate an epic adventure to find the precious artifacts of a lost alien civilization.
Then during the last half of the game’s final chapter, after an unspecified gap in time, all of the characters are reassembled despite being sprawled across Pandora, they come up with a plan, they open the Vault, fight the Vault monster, and finally get their prized loot. These events could easily have constituted an entire sequel’s worth of story (like a Bioware-style “collect a team of crazy characters to help with a big mission” plot) but instead they were hastily packaged together in a weird epilogue/afterthought of the main story to bring some semblance of closure to the otherwise superb plot’s weirdly somber ending. It just doesn’t work.
(End of SPOILERS)
Unfortunately, there is no clear explanation as to what caused the problems in Tales from the Borderlands. Maybe it was the shifting team of writers attached to each episode which caused some sort of disconnect between chapters, but Telltale has always operated this way and hasn’t suffered from these problems with their other games. Regardless, Tales contains enough great content to outweigh its overarching errors. It stands as an excellent addition to the Telltale library and does a far greater job than the company’s adaptation of Game of Thrones at proving Telltale’s quality as a developer. If a sequel to Tales is ever produced, and Telltale’s writers learn from their mistakes on this game, their future product could prove to be a landmark in the frighteningly uncommon subgenre of legitimately funny video games.