New Tales from the Borderlands has allowed Gearbox to explore a different kind of story that expands on the Borderlands universe. By introducing us to a fresh cast of protagonists in Anu, Octavio, and Fran, the adventure lets us see what civilian life is like in a setting that's no stranger to bullet-torn chaos. In doing so, New Tales from the Borderlands echoes its lineage while positioning itself as a spiritual successor to 2014's Tales from the Borderlands. Gearbox in turn sees this as an opportunity to leave its mark on choice-driven interactive narrative gameplay – maintaining the levity and razor-sharp humor the wider series is now renowned for.
"In terms of story structure, it was important to us to structure it sort of like an interactive sitcom, like a game that focused on comedy; which I really rarely see these days," says lead writer Doug Lieblich. "And also we wanted to ensure that every choice felt important, and it wasn't just a player pressing a button because they had to. We wanted the player to feel like, oh, the game respects me. And I'm here for it. We also, just as people who love games and love this genre, wanted to take risks with how we do things, subvert expectations of what you might see in an interactive narrative."
To bring New Tales from the Borderlands to life, Gearbox assembled a writing team with talent boasting a broad range of areas of expertise. Head of writing Lin Joyce, for example, has a PhD in narrative system design, and joined Gearbox in 2020 just as the studio was hiring staff to work on the project. Joyce was soon joined by lead writer Lieblich – who wrote jokes for David Letterman once upon a time, and who also came with experience working in animation, on the sketch variety TV show, Night of Too Many Stars, and in game development with Telltale Games (on The Walking Dead and Minecraft: Story Mode) and Ghost Story games.
"Doug and I collaborated together, with the two of us crafting what would become the outline for New Tales," Joyce says, speaking of the beginning of development. "We worked with the other developers and kind of came to 'this is the story that we want to tell'. And beyond that, we were lucky to bring on other great writers with game industry experience, and also other writers with backgrounds in film and television. We ended up with a pretty fantastic writers room for the duration of writing out the episodic script for New Tales. I think each writer really brought something additive to the storytelling experience that we wanted to craft."
Joyce used the script as a design document to determine narrative structure, how it conveys the story, how much interactivity it affords, how many branches it will have, and how to seed in conditional choices and call back on those choices to make a player's history "come alive". Joyce also had to ensure the script could work for performance capture, which the team had committed to early on in development. The pandemic presented some "curveballs" which did inform their approach, but as Joyce was championing narrative and structure, Lieblich came on board to champion the story.
"What I've always loved about Borderlands, even from the first one, was its tone. I love this sort of sardonic sci-fi tone, I found it incredibly original, and refreshing. And I love that we could carry that tone into our game," Lieblich says. "And also, not necessarily revolve around violence and killing. In fact, it was like a commentary on that. So we could be funny without, like, mass killing. I also liked the Borderlands universe because it's kind of a cautionary tale to our own society of like, what happens if you privatize literally everything and everyone's out for themselves, and there's no sense of community. And I think we play off of that in interesting ways. It's an endlessly interesting setting to explore."
The team was afforded a lot of freedom when it came to the direction of the story, but there were still certain guiding parameters they wanted to honor. The first was ensuring that this was a story that would be best suited to an interactive narrative game – one that couldn't be told by a Borderlands looter shooter title. "It was also to expand the universe or the understanding of the universe through characters that we normally wouldn't get a chance to spend as much time with," says Joyce. "So our three protagonists are not Vault Hunters, they don't consider themselves to be Vault Hunters. So it is being able to look at what civilian life is like in this universe, and how anyone is able to kind of get through a day with all those bullets flying around."
With an expanded universe that's ripe for storytelling, the team landed on the idea of setting New Tales from Borderlands in a location from past titles in the series that they themselves wanted to spend more time in. A rather unfortunate event in Borderlands 3 inspired them to bring the story to the planet of Promethea and take a closer look at Fran, who's Frogurt shop was unceremoniously blasted by a Maliwan laser. "In Borderlands 3, we only experienced that moment through Rhys because it's his favorite Frogurt store," Joyce says. "You're just like but what about Fran? Like what about the person that owned that? So that gave us a wild hair to kind of play with and bring it down to a very specific civilian level story."
Tales from the Borderlands has earned a lot of love from players and has become somewhat of a cult classic since it first released back in 2014. It's not surprising, then, that there's already a lot of excitement surrounding the prospect of a new adventure that follows in the same spirit. It's clear from speaking to Joyce and Lieblich that they admire everything that's come before, and are all too aware of players' expectations. But with New Tales from the Borderlands, Gearbox is trying to deliver a fresh iteration that carves a path of its own. While there will be homages to the original Tales from the Borderlands, and the wider series, the writers knew from the beginning that they wanted to create a story that anyone could enjoy, regardless of your knowledge of the series or Tales.
"It was important to both of us from the jump that this story stands on its own two feet," Lieblich says, "that it was agnostic to the Borderlands universe in a sense. Like, you didn't have to play the Borderlands game to appreciate this game, you didn't even have to play Tales from the Borderlands to appreciate this game. We want anyone to be able to step in, and appreciate a good story, beginning to end, with no prior knowledge."
"For example, I have friends who are not gamers, and I will force them to play this game," Lieblich laughs. "And I want them to enjoy it because anyone can enjoy a good story. You may not know what it's like to flee an intergalactic Corporation, but you know the [feeling of] anger of watching your business get blown up, the joy of seeing a friend or a sibling. So that's what we wanted to highlight in this game. Now that being said, we also took great pains to create homages and references to the original to reward fans who were familiar with the game with both Borderlands and Tales from the Borderlands."
"There are certain elements of Tales from the Borderlands that fans will expect. And many of those we honored, and others we iterated," Joyce adds. "But Doug and I also had a lot of conversations - and this was with design, as well - looking at Tales and saying, what is the opportunity here? This game was [released] nigh on a decade ago, what's changed? How can we do things differently? So you'll see things like we did not feel the need to always provide a silent option. We provide silence where it makes sense, where silence is a logical response to something, whether that's a 'I'm not going to dignify that with an answer' silence, or 'I have no idea how to communicate with you' silence. So, the silence makes sense in those moments."
Certain changes they made are all part of Gearbox's effort to make choices feel like they matter in New Tales from the Borderlands. As the team approached the story, they knew they wanted to make every dialogue choice feel like it could affect your journey in some way, with different story branches and endings to discover. "Some of the fundamentals of interactive narrative, I learned at Telltale," Lieblich says. "There's one phrase that always stuck with me, which was: 'Imagine your dialogue choices are like bullets coming out of a gun'. So you want to feel [the dialogue] leave your mouth, and you want to feel it hitting the other person in the face. We wanted to make sure each choice felt like a commitment, that the player was committing to a particular point of view and was risking something."
"We also wanted to make sure that each choice was emotionally charged, that it wasn't purely logical or diplomatic," Lieblich continues. "And then we wanted to ensure that once you delivered that choice, you felt the impact as if you had said something vulnerable, or you said something cutting, and then how would that affect them; even if it wasn't a life or death decision, but it still felt like it had a meaning."
Ultimately, Gearbox wants you to enjoy the journey and experiment with the choices you make when New Tales from the Borderlands lands on October 21, 2022. "Just have fun, dive deep, and experiment with the game," Joyce says to prospective players. "There are branches or additive story elements in surprising places, and I would say we played a lot with choice and when to make one and when not to. So at that level, I think we are also telling a story in some surprising ways with design and sort of subverting expectations. Hopefully it gets people talking and you'll hear about things you didn't see in your playthrough and then you'll want to go find those things right. So enjoy the journey."
Look ahead to other exciting releases on the horizon with our roundup of new games for 2022 and beyond.