Gosh, people sure do like Borderlands. When Tales from the Borderlands—the joint endeavor from Gearbox Software and Telltale Games—was first announced, I remember thinking that was an odd decision. Sure, Borderlands is fun and all, but Telltale games are about the investment in a story and its consequences. No one really came to Borderlands for that.
I guess I was wrong. As a row of cosplaying attendees stood under the screen of Dallas’ Alamo Drafthouse and Borderlands 2 writer Anthony Burch points out the tattoo of one Psycho, my mind is still absorbing the fact that some fans played the game for the lore. Maybe I am the crazy one for thinking that it was all the guns and the shooting that made it fun. I like Guardian Angel and Claptrap and all but not enough for these people.
Then, as the event went on, it seemed like I was doubly wrong. This premiere event where the entirety of the first episode of Tales from the Borderlands was played (by committee) showed that perhaps it’s not even the characters or the narrative bound to this alien world of Pandora that draws people back in, but the particular brand of humor. The sort of thing where referring to one of the leads Fiona or Rhys as a “meat bicycle” is one of the top jokes of the night.
And that’s strange, because there is genuinely so much in this episode that can provide a more complex chuckle than a base and childlike guffaw. Rhys, with his cybernetic Echo eye implant, scanned a taxidermied spiderant, for example, and latently described the frozen baddie as “also a racist and totally hates that restaurant you love” (or an approximation of that). That’s a good laugh. So is the part where Rhys tries to strangle a guard. The cheap laughs, though, win by sheer volume. (Acceptable, but we know they can do better.)
The story in Tales from the Borderlands—or at least in this episode—is that Fiona, a career conman, and Rhys, a cheated Hyperion employee, are reliving the circumstances that brought them together and into the harsh custody of a shotgun-toting nomad. As bits and pieces of their story line up and misalign, we piece together some version of the truth. While this is not a wholly unoriginal structure, it is ripe with intrigue.
I originally thought this would be the source of rapture where you would be attempting to reconcile the reality with one of two slightly skewed versions. Instead, this rarely came into play and then also provided one of the aforementioned cheap laughs. Not say it didn’t get a brief huff of humor out of me, but it still felt hollow, almost as if it was a cursory goof.
It did, however, get close to managing something even more interesting. The character’s stories quickly collide and provide fantastic elements of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead-type situation where Fiona is hiding in the wings and goes through our reliving of the choices we just made as Rhys. And I quite literally scooted to the edge of my seat as my mind reeled from the possibility of having to merge the Telltale-ian decisions we are about to make as Fiona with the consequences of the choices we made as Rhys.
Unfortunately, it never quite got there, though it’s not an impossibility that it will happen in a later episode. It does, however, highlight one of the main differences of Tales from the Borderlands with Telltale’s other recent offerings like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us (and, in all likelihood, their upcoming Game of Thrones game). Those are far grittier and infinitely more steeped in the idea of consequence.
This, what with its source material, is intrinsically more lighthearted. Many of the choices never felt like they would lead to something I would regret for the months to come but more of the situation where I would snap by fingers, go “aw shucks,” and move on. Once again, definitely not a bad thing, but it does call to question why have the choices in there at all. As more Telltale games come out, a singular experimental possibility looms larger and larger: why not just put out a movie or an animated short?
The interactions begin to seem perfunctory. This especially becomes the case in this game’s many (many) action sequences, which also seems to be a consequence of the source material. I didn’t find any added intrigue by swiping a direction to dodge gunfire when the other side of the coin was likely to lead to just trying again. And that goes for any similar scenes in The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. It always seemed like the weakest and most superfluous component of their games.
A strength, though, is definitely the voice acting. In addition to Troy Baker as Rhys and Nolan North as an enterprising thief/fence—both of whom you know you are going to get quality from, even if they are a known commodity at this point—you have Laura Bailey as Fiona and Patrick Warburton as Hyperion executive Vasquez. Warburton is, well, come on, he’s god damn Patrick Warburton. His voice is absurd and absurdly hilarious on its own. And look at Bailey’s Wikipedia page. That’s a lot of credits. She must be doing something right (and she is).
As an aside, the whole format of the night was odd. There was really no systemic way or instituted mechanism by which the crowd of fans could decide together on the choices to make. Instead, it was just yelling, which really meant the people ten or 15 rows back were at a severe disadvantage in this ad hoc democracy. And the stick jockeys also quite often went with their own choices rather than the crowds, though something tells me that had more to do with the fact that people eventually got tired of yelling.
But that wasn’t the odd part. No, the strangeness emerged as I realized that this was the community playthrough that could ostensibly be extracted from those post-episode statistics Telltale likes to show off. These were the homogenized choices of merging many individual voices into a single vote of smacking someone in the face or attempting to tell a half-assed lie. Also that most people like to play like assholes for the inconsequential things, but for the big decisions, their instinct to be good still emerged. It was almost heartwarming if it wasn’t concerning conmen and thieves and more assholes.
It was an interesting night showcasing a pretty good game. Probably not many other games could succeed in this format, or at least those not in episodic form. And especially those that aren’t based primarily in storytelling. It’s an interesting contrast of what people do watching YouTubers and Let’s Plays where it’s the commentary that they look for. At this event, it was dead silent save for the crowd yelling their, uh, thoughts.
I guess what I’m saying is if you have a chance to go back in time and go to that thing, it would probably be worth it.