"How am I not just writing fanfiction right now?": How Borderlands 3's writers are putting your favourite Vault Hunters through hell for the greater good

Like me, you’ve probably had that moment when you’re sitting with your buddies, chatting about your favourite game, and then someone says something that’s just plain wrong. You try to resist the urge to correct them, but you ultimately fail. "Actually…" you might begin, before informing them of their mistake. It's okay! There’s no judgement here, I promise. Turns out working on a game like Borderlands 3 when you also happen to be a huge fan of the series is just as hard. Sam Winkler, co-lead writer of Gearbox’s upcoming looter-shooter game, is in this exact position, so I chatted to him about what it’s like to work on Borderlands 3 and how you resist the urge to let it become fanfiction. 

Not quite fanfiction

Although it might be hard to separate the fan side of your brain from the oh-dear-god-I’m-actually-working-on-it-now realisation, Winkler actually found that his encyclopedic knowledge of Borderlands was more of an asset than he realised. "I was a diehard Gearbox fan before I worked anywhere near it," Winkler tells me, "so I’ve been that person in the writers’ room where someone will be like and I go ‘well actually in the lore… ’ and everyone stares at me like I’m crazy". But that knowledge comes in handy when the writers are trying to piece together what happened in the seven years between Borderlands 2 and Borderlands 3. 

I asked about the role the Siren Maya, with her slick new long hairdo, plays, and Winkler opened up about what it's like to resist the urge to descend into fanfiction especially when you're dealing with your favourite Vault Hunter. "Maya has gone off to try and find out more about what it is to be a Siren, and what her role in the universe is as this very rare thing. Speaking personally, it was extremely overwhelming [writing her story] because I think I played through Maya as my second playthrough in Borderlands 2." One of the best things about Borderlands and its fandom is the passion players have for their favourite Vault Hunter, as their playstyles and powers are so unique that picking your Vault Hunter of choice is basically the equivalent of a gaming personality test good enough to make Buzzfeed look at its feet in shame. Though if you didn't pick Gaige or Krieg, just know that I'm judging you a tiny little bit right now (I kid). 

Toeing the line between knowing what a character would actually do, based on their personality and history, and not shoe-horning in some kind of fan fantasy situation can be difficult, as Winker found out himself while working on Borderlands 3. While talking about what it's like writing Maya's storyline, he told me that he thought long and hard about "how do I make this true, how am I not just writing fanfiction right now?". Self-regulation sounds like a big part of the process, one that's all too easy to forget when you just want your favourite Vault Hunter to be happy, dammit! 

However, according to Winkler it's important to remember that although there's lots of returning faces, they're not going to be the same people they were in Borderlands 2, or who you might have imagined them to be. "We want them to have their own personal arcs because the events of the game are wild and traumatic," Winkler tells me. Uh oh. That doesn't sound great for the characters in Borderlands 3, does it? Then again, it wouldn't be a particularly interesting game if it dealt with a monotonous month of upkeep on Sanctuary 3 now, would it?

Making sure it’s accessible

But even if you've never played a Borderlands game in your life (which you need to remedy right now), Winkler and his team have done everything they can to make sure it's still playable. "We never want it to be inaccessible right, like the Avengers-style 'you’ve got to watch 20 movies before you do this'. I never want to throw out a player understanding something so I can do a 1% joke. There’s a lot of 1% jokes in there, don’t get me wrong, but I think people will be pretty happy with where we’ve taken these characters". So even though there'll be plenty of inside jokes, no one will be left playing catch up. 

It all comes back to how Winkler and his team want to make sure players feel invested in Borderlands 3, which is also why the Vault Hunters now actually talk back to NPCs, instead of being silent protagonists like Gordon Freeman (although they did tend to be pretty darn chatty in combat or when a loot box was in sight). 

"We want the player characters to be participants," says Winkler. "We’re never gonna be that deep RPG with branches of dialogue or anything like that, but we want them to feel like actual characters that are reacting," he continues, which makes it easier to inevitably get emotionally attached to your Vault Hunter of choice and cry out in alarm and outrage when they get unjustly killed on their second wind. Or is that just me?

Regardless of whether you're a diehard Borderlands fan or want to see what all the fuss is about, the journey the characters take sounds like it's going to be a trip that's more than worthy of your time. Having been a fan of the series since the very first game, I'm preparing myself for some inevitable heartbreak when it comes to their character arcs (RIP, Roland and Bloodwing). When Borderlands 3 comes out on September 13 you'll get to give it a go for yourself and witness Winkler's writing first hand. 

Here's our Borderlands 3 preview which runs down everything it's doing to reinvent the franchise, or look below to see it in video form!

Zoe Delahunty-Light

While here at GamesRadar, Zoe was a features writer and video presenter for us. She's since flown the coop and gone on to work at Eurogamer where she's a video producer, and also runs her own Twitch and YouTube channels. She specialises in huge open-world games, true crime, and lore deep-dives.