Tales from the Borderlands Shows Us How To Dance Differently on Pandora

Tales from the Borderlands’ shift from first-person shooter to adventure game is a powerful one. Having earned significant praise from many critics, the re-introduction to Pandora with less firepower and more dialogue not only highlights the strengths of Telltale’s previous outings, but brings out the best parts of a series that thrives on vibrant and tumultuous energy.

Shifting from one mechanical genre to another happens occasionally. The Halo universe jumped to both twin-stick shooter and real-time strategy, and the fighting game Soul Calibur took a stab at a third-person adventure on the Wii . Both changes introduced new ideas, but still relied on a central idea of violence to convey similar meanings.

Telltale shows not just how games like Borderlands can survive the mechanical jump, but highlights the hidden strengths of their original incarnation as well. In analyzing this transition, we stand to learn much about the intrinsic strengths of a game’s aesthetic, and can learn how to engage with them across different contexts of play.

Not Just for Shooting: Psychos Push the Narrative

To start with, the Psychos don’t make an immediate appearance from Tales, but when they do, they’re both familiar and fresh to the adventure format at the same time. A common enemy from the Borderlands games, their bark dialogue is often idiosyncratic but meant to serve as a warning. Some choice quotes include:

“NO! Mommy bled for us both! She bled for us both!"
“I'm gonna beat you to life!”
“They told me to bring a pail lunch...you look pale enough to me!!”

In other words, they’re occasionally dangerous punching bags meant to reward players for listening closely to the audio around them. In Tales, though, Fiona’s ability to “Speak Psycho” is both a narrative tool and humanizing element for the recurring villains. At two instances in Episode 1, she can intimidate a pair of mini-Psychos into fleeing, and make friends with a racing Psycho before the final encounter. The choice to pursue these options (or not) gives the Psychos a new angle while preserving their original function as disposable enemies, and with the reduced combat, their lines can stand out more clearly and their function as black comic villains becomes enhanced. This humanization extends to other villains such as Bandits and Grease Face, and gives weight to the idea introduced in Borderlands 2 that Hyperion has ruined these people’s lives.

It should be noted the Psychos’ lewd sexual jokes appear to have been reduced, as their presence in Tales would be less throwaway and far more intimidating than in their original context.

You Ain’t Never Had A Friend Like Me

With Borderlands 2 Vault Hunter Zer0 flashing around in the background, Tales becomes a full Borderlands game as told through the eyes of four non-superpowered characters. True to Telltale’s intent with this series on focusing on “the unseen heroes” as stated in the opening monologue, we see challenges that Zer0 (or a typical Borderlands player) could breeze through presented on a more relatable level while still inhabiting their original characteristics. It’s a remixed version of a familiar Borderlands encounter displayed in a new form, but still retaining its familiar characteristics.

Players also have the option to “make a new friend” out of newcomer Shade. Shade’s appearance in Episode 1 stands in for the “questgiver” character in the other Borderlands games -- the crazy, cartoonish, pop culture reference whose dialogue is peppered with useful information and psychotic non sequiturs. While this Hunter S. Thompson lookalike might be relegated to being a voice with an internet connection in the previous games, Shade gets more tools to display how familiar NPCs  function in the world of Pandora. He simultaneously exists as both a helpful and disruptive force, aids the narrative mechanics from slipping into a lull, is a living product of Pandora’s southwestern U.S.A. analogue, and still gives the player a thermostat to see how the players’ choices affect the world of Pandora.

Telltale Handles Boss Fights Like A Boss

Telltale games haven’t necessarily tackled boss fights before; their previous violent encounters usually entail moments of high drama, excluding select encounters in The Wolf Among Us as more traditional boss enemies. But in Tales the final encounter against Bossanova is literally an embodiment of the typical Borderlands “Boss” (It’s in his name!) A dubstep-wielding Bandit lord disguising a pipsqueak voice, the final Bossanova event encompases a multilayered fight across a wide space and big, boisterous moments.  The fight is reminiscent of Krom’s missile-sniping from Borderlands or Captain Flynt’s fire-ridden encounter in Borderlands 2. Despite the lack of gunplay, Tales’ setpiece is remarkably similar in scope, energy, and comedic potential, giving both player characters and their sidekicks a series of challenges that embody the entirety of the space. Rhys and Sasha’s simultaneous battle with Bandits and a giant Skag are the source of comic relief behind the “summon bigger fish” mentality of the series. While an Alpha Skag feeds on a thieving psycho, Vaughn and Fiona’s Death Race challenge maintains both emotional and physical speed and velocity across a wide space, using the circular arena to its logical extent as previously wrecked cars become new Quicktime obstacles as the characters circle around the track.

Though any of these examples could have existed in a previous Borderlands game, the shift from first person to scripted narrative gives more weight to small, individual dangers, such as the Alpha Skag or the wrecked truck in the roadway. As the sequence builds to a climax not with Bossanova himself, but Fiona’s foster father Eric, we’re reminded of how impersonal a similar encounter in Borderlands might be by Zer0’s zipping about in the background. Thus, by recontextualizing the concept of boss battles, Telltale successfully retains the intrinsic energy of its original design and successfully adds stakes that feel less mechanical and more personal.

Though the challenge of branching video games out from one mechanic to another is hardly a new one, Tales’ early success is a strong lesson for developers lucky enough for the opportunity to expand their games’ world beyond their original mechanics. By seeking out key, strong characteristics of the original game, and concentrating on how they interact with a new set of mechanics, developers stand to learn both about their original creation and about the new ways it can be explored.