This post needs a big, big disclosure message before I say anything else:
1. Though I had no involvement in this series, I have done some paid work for Telltale Games in the past, and it is conceivable that I might do so again in the future. I was consulting with them during the period that Tales from the Borderlands was being made, and I talked with people who were on the team at the time.
2. I have no prior experience with the Borderlands franchise. Everything I know about it comes from playing the Telltale series and from a little casual Wikipedia-reading.
3. I did not pay for my copy of this game. It was given to me to cover, though by someone who is not affiliated with Telltale.
I haven’t been reviewing (or even really talking at all about) recent Telltale work precisely because of the potential conflict of interest here. However, during last year’s IF Comp I offered to do some review swaps in order to get more coverage of the competition: if the other person would write a review of an IF Comp game, I write a review of some work of their choosing. One of the people who took me up on this was Justin de Vesine, who reviewed Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box and Midnight. Swordfight. In exchange, he asked me to cover Tales from the Borderlands and offered to supply a Steam code for it, since it wasn’t freeware. I explained the caveats mentioned above, and he said he was still interested in my take on the series. That seemed cool to me too – Telltale is doing some really interesting stuff, and I’d like to be able to talk about it, as long as I’m not deceiving any readers about my level of distance.
So here we are. Consider yourself warned.
Tales from the Borderlands bills itself as an adventure comedy, and that’s a pretty good description. There’s plenty of genuinely funny dialogue, as well as lots of astonishingly over the top action sequences. (I think my favorite example of this involves the sequence that leads into the Chapter 2 credits: it left me laughing incredulously for some time.)
It’s also a game more than usually about storytelling. The “Tales from…” part of the title is not just marking that this is a set of auxiliary stories from a particular universe. The first four episodes and a chunk of the fifth are themselves framed as a story being told by the protagonists to a listener with unknown motivations – and sometimes the two protagonists disagree about what really happened, Rashômon-style, so you get multiple accounts of the same moment.
Within that structure, there are myriad other moments of story-construction and myth-burnishing and lies told to promote whatever con the characters are currently perpetrating. And quite a lot of the story concerns a protagonist’s relationship with the legacy of the dead adventurer Handsome Jack, who may have passed on, but who is still remembered with statues and legends.
Our heroes, Rhys and Fiona, live in a universe where great fortunes can be made by hunting for vaults full of technology and treasure, but life for most people most of the time is pretty horrible. Fiona is a con artist on Pandora, a largely sandy and dusty planet full of bandits, which maybe owes something to both Tatooine and to many of the planets in Firefly. Rhys is a corporation man, trying to climb the ranks inside the sinister Hyperion. Neither of them is encumbered by honesty or prosocial attitudes.
In the first couple of episodes I felt as though they were still finding their way towards the best type of interaction for this particular story. There are a bunch of QTE action sequences and button mashing events that weren’t all that satisfying to me; I didn’t really like QTE zombie-fighting in The Walking Dead, either, but here it felt even a bit more pointless. That was especially true given that my characters were working in flashback and telling the story of what they had done. Of course they didn’t die! They can’t have died! So having minor timing issues lead to a game over felt even more narratively pointless.
And in any case, part of the point of both Rhys and Fiona is that they’re not actually particularly badass fighters. Their skills lie elsewhere. Fiona does have a gun, but it’s tiny and initially it only has one bullet in it, so you don’t really want to resort to it. What we know is mainly that they somehow survived more or less through luck. Interactions that make them die repeatedly on the way to surviving felt like they were expressing the wrong thing, a reliance on skill that they don’t really have.
That’s not to say that there wasn’t also some good stuff here. I especially enjoyed the moments, rare but effective, where the main interaction available worked either to drive home the disgustingness of a situation (“here, dig this eyeball out of a corpse with a spork”) or to express a character’s emotions (letting Rhys kick over a trash can). Meanwhile, Rhys has the ability to examine everything using a scanner in his eye, and this is basically an excuse for revealing additional quips and comedy.
Finally, there were parts of episodes 2 and 3 where I got so used to the cinematic style and dialogue-selection that I was actively surprised when we dropped back into a more exploratory adventure game mode. So much of this game is about people – about talking to people, boasting to people, lying to people – that exploring a mostly-empty environment happens very occasionally and feels almost disorienting when it comes up.
On the positive side, I felt like the interaction integrated better and better over the course of the series. Partway through the game, Fiona gains the ability to fight not by choosing what to hit, but by choosing what consequence she wants to achieve. Setting up her fight sequences becomes a matter of choreography rather than lining up a target – pure choice rather than the very weak QTE skill test it had been before. And the final episode has some gameplay where the QTE bits stop being an annoying imposition (I am so tired of button-mashing the letter Q!) and became a joke about combat-combo games. So that was pretty entertaining as well.
And I really enjoyed the final episode. I am going to be a bit spoilery about its structure because that is the only way to discuss it, so consider yourself warned.
So in the final episode, there comes a point where you need to assemble a team to go up against the main boss monster. You need three people, and there are potentially seven characters who could go into those slots. Not all seven are necessarily available to you, though. Some might be dead, or alienated from you, or just not interested in the mission, depending on what you’ve done before. Your choice of companions also determines exactly how you play out that boss monster, so you have past narrative choices causing perceivable consequences for the gameplay experience.
Perhaps it’s purely because players are trained to estimate how much effort the creators have invested in various outcomes, but to me (and to many other commenters I’ve seen online), gameplay payoff for narrative choices feels more consequential than just getting new elements in an ending montage, or even the wrap-up conversation that Lee has at the end of The Walking Dead S1.
There are two other things about this I really liked that other reviews haven’t commented on as much.
First: yes, you’re getting to pick a team that reflects your gameplay desires and your theories about who might be best in a fight. Like a lot of people, I picked the badass vault hunter Athena for my team, and that felt like a no-brainer: she was one of the best fighters in the lot and also had been around for quite a lot of the preceding chapters, and I’d even meddled in a good-natured way in her romantic life. (To positive effect, I should add.) Meanwhile I left Athena’s girlfriend at home, because while I was sure Athena could take care of herself, I was afraid the girlfriend might not be up for what we were going to encounter and I definitely didn’t want to get her killed at this late stage of the game.
But your team choices may also be a way of expressing which characters you think are narratively the most important, the ones you really committed to and want around in your endgame because the story feels most balanced that way. A few of your options have a stronger tie to the original Borderlands franchise than others, but I didn’t particularly have a reason to care about them, so I emphasized the characters that I thought were important based just on TftB.
So, to sum up, when I was picking my crew, I was thinking simultaneously about player-as-protagonist motives (which of these people do I trust most? which do I want to protect?); player-as-gamer motives (which of these people have the best skills and are most likely to win?); and player-as-reader or player-as-coauthor motives (which of these characters really need to be in the endgame to make it feel like this story tied off well?)
“Which of these plot strands do you care about the most?” is a cool question to ask at the end of a game, especially if you can do it in a way that feels reasonably natural; and I think that was the case here. It also fits really well with Tales from the Borderlands being a story about stories. When I got to the end, I felt that my story had been tied off neatly and well (if not without a cliffhanger).
Second, having a crew gives Rhys and Fiona a different kind of heroism than they would have otherwise. Mal Reynolds has a crew. Danny Ocean has a crew. Having a crew means loyalty and mutual debts and a certain amount of putting up with other people’s idiosyncratic crap, but it’s a truer form of superheroism than being a Son of Krypton or having a bunch of high-tech gadgets made by Wayne Industries. You have to earn a crew.
Up until the crew-picking stage in Tales from the Borderlands, a lot of our allegiances have been heavily driven by circumstance – we teamed up with someone because we had to or because our interests temporarily put us on the same side. But the people on our crew join of their own free will when we ask them to, because we’ve formed a bond. Our selections are paid off with a sweet montage where we go pick up all these guys, and they’re all glad to see us and totally willing to skip out on whatever they’re doing in order to join our quest. It feels really good.
Tales from the Borderlands really only works because it emphasizes the friendships between the characters, and makes those friendships central. Fiona and Rhys are both pretty dubious human beings in some ways – Rhys perhaps more than Fiona, especially given the number of people he winds up killing. The best people in this story are not human at all: the robots Loader Bot and Gortys are kinder and more loyal than anyone with human flesh. But if they’re to work as protagonists, Rhys and Fiona need to be people we can enjoy driving, and that in turn depends on their social connections.