When developer Telltale Games launched the first season of its acclaimed and enormously influential The Walking Dead adaptation in 2012, it hit upon a choice-driven narrative formula the studio would rigidly adhere to across every one of its titles until its sad closure in 2018. Some found masterful ways to adapt that increasingly well-worn template, others were merely okay, but none were perhaps as odd, memorable, and quietly beloved as Tales from the Borderlands.
Tales from the Borderlands seemed like a bizarre, if not outright doomed, proposition from the off, attempting to marry Telltale's rich, character-driven formula to a puerile, open-ended looter shooter best known for its oodles of procedural guns. But against all the odds, it worked sublimely, the team at Telltale using the Borderlands series' loosely sketched canvas to deliver an experience that, for many who played it, proved to be not only the best Borderlands game, but Telltale's finest work - a five-part adventure that, largely free from the shackles of continuity and expectation, gleefully experimented with form and structure, melding dizzying invention and anarchic, unabashed silliness to something with surprising warmth and emotion.
And now, some eight years later, original Borderlands developer Gearbox is attempting to capture the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of Tales from the Borderlands all over again.
"I absolutely love Tales from the Borderlands," Lin Joyce, head of writing at Gearbox, tells me during a recent chat about the studio's long-awaited follow-up New Tales from the Borderlands. "It is also true that I have a doctorate in interactive narrative design, so it was a piece that I studied. It was like, What are they doing? How are they doing that? What kind of story are they telling? And without getting too academic about it, looking at how they played with narration, how they played with time, and space, and perspective changes. All of that was incredible to narrative structure and design."
Eight years on, Joyce's love for what is perhaps Telltale's most overlooked game has, of course, come full circle, with the team at Gearbox currently preparing for New Tales from the Borderlands' imminent release. It's a project that feels like an unenviable endeavour in some ways, given the incredible fondness for the original among fans, but it's a challenge the studio seems thrilled to have had the opportunity to tackle. But why even consider bringing back an odd little series spin-off that, despite a strong critical reception, was far from a commercial hit?
"I think when you look at what the original Tales did," explains Joyce, "it allowed us to explore the Borderlands universe in a medium that worked best for an interactive narrative game. It was not a story that would have been easily told in a looter shooter. And we certainly have more of those types of stories that we can tell and want to tell."
As the 'new' in New Tales of the Borderlands suggests, though, this isn't a continuation of Telltale's original - perhaps disappointingly for fans given its rather inconclusive ending - but a completely new adventure with a brand-new cast of characters. "When we were looking at it," explains Joyce of the decision to start afresh, "it was how do we expand the [Borderlands] universe with... everything we release, and so the opportunity we had was to go forward and expand [it] in a place that we hadn't before... I think that's always the goal, to keep telling more stories for people to love with new characters they want to spend time with, not less."
And so, says Joyce, the first question the team asked itself was, "How can we look at life in the Borderlands in a truly unique way... What happens when we focus on people that are not Vault Hunters, that are not trained, not killers, not gun-toting, they're not looting... That's the essence I really wanted to keep and honour [from the original], character development".
To that end, the original game's cast of characters, which included Troy Baker's Rhys and Laura Bailey's Fiona, make way for three newcomers - Fran Miscowicz, Anuradha Dahr, and Octavio Wallace-Dahr - but the change, says Joyce, is about offering players more than just a fresh coat of paint. "When we first sat down at the table to discuss New Tales," she explains, "we were like, who are our main characters going to be? And as fans will know, Tales from the Borderlands had two protagonists who interchangeably narrated the story. We were experiencing either protagonist's memory of events, which meant the actions players were experiencing in real-time had already happened for our protagonists. So in New Tales, we wanted to go a different direction, we wanted the players and the characters to experience events, to make choices and face the repercussions of those choices, in shared time and space."
Three protagonists, the team ultimately decided, "allowed us to look at the world of Promethea through the eyes of more people who, although they share a goal, do not share the same motivation... each acting as a window into the world and the story uniquely. But it also then allowed us to bring in a mechanic of group dynamics that's central to the story... Interpersonally they are grappling with hard things in a high-stakes situation, and the way they are able, hopefully, to stay bonded - it's in player control - [with] respect for differences, respect for one another, and finding ways to move forward, [that] was sort of a takeaway for me."
New Tales from the Borderlands' three protagonists also meant the potential for three uniquely different sets of abilities, helping facilitate another key focus for the team - a closer marriage of story and gameplay than was perhaps evident in the original. "I think part of the challenge we embraced is how are we going to do this differently?", explains Joyce. "And that meant that while there has to be good story logic and compelling character development... in every button press, we wanted to make sure we were injecting character and consequence."
As such, the personalities of New Tales from the Borderlands' three protagonists help dictate how their sequences will play out. Fran can take a more brute-force approach to puzzling, for example, thanks to her supremely well-quipped hover-chair, while Octavio - with his always-online outlook and social media presence - uses his smart-watch-like ECHOdex to get help from friends or to progress the story. And as for Anu, her skillset is intended to be a homage to the original game, with a greater focus on exploration and item use.
But like the original Tales from the Borderlands and its multitude of outlandish QTE set-pieces (who can forget the Spaced-like finger-gun fight?), Gearbox's follow-up, while remaining predominantly narrative-focused, isn't afraid to lean into action when the story demands it.
"[That was] one of the things we wanted to keep," explains Pierre-Luc Foisy, lead game designer on New Tales from the Borderlands. "Because when I played Tales back in the day, it was one of the Telltale Games that was best for the action scene. So we tried to keep that but also improve upon that where we could. So for example, free-walk sequences, where you're controlling a character, sometimes felt a bit like [they] didn't fit with the story at that point, like they were kind of just a break... So we tried to make them a little bit more involved with their story, and also a bit more like action sequences... Fran is a good example of how she can make her way through obstacles or puzzles within the game in a more action-y, new way".
"But even in our action sequences," adds Joyce, "we are doing things a little bit differently, where inaction can lead to more story rather than failure. And sometimes it might be that inaction is the right choice. So it's more that you also need to be engaging with the action in front of you. Are you going to take the action? Are you not going to take the action? It's not meant to be just like, 'I see buttons, press 'em'. So in that way, we always use action as a way to progress story. It's not action for action sake."
Another evolution for the series - and perhaps the one most notable in the New Tales from the Borderlands footage shown so far - is the shift to performance capture. "That was a big pillar for us," explains Joyce. "It really matters to be able to see our character's reactions to choices, in their face, in their body language... Eight years ago, we didn't have as much access to [that], so you kind of had to signal to players and give them feedback on their choices, whereas now we have performance capture acting as feedback - the actors themselves, the characters, are bringing all of that straight to the forefront, and it heightens the story. You're feeling it in a way that eight years ago just would have been a little bit harder."
In light of Gearbox's various attempts to improve on Telltale Games' ageing narrative formula, it's perhaps surprising to hear that one of the studio's increasingly unfashionable staples - episodic gameplay - has remained. While New Tales from the Borderlands is a single, complete release, its story is split across multiple episodes. "I think it's always nice to give players breathing room," Joyce explains of the decision, "[for them] to be able to come up for air, to have some resolution to think about. And it also gives us ways to have rising and falling action with our narrative structure in a way that's easy to track and to feel. A movie has an overall arc, but when you do something episodically you get five mini-arcs as well as an overall arc, and so it just allows us to do a little bit more storytelling."
Eight years on from the release of Tales from the Borderlands, it'll fascinating to see whether Gearbox's impending follow-up, with its new development team and a whole new cast of characters, can capture fans' hearts in the same quite the same way. For Joyce and Foisy, though, the hope is obviously yes - and the team seemingly has plenty more Tales it would like to tell if the opportunity is there. "One of the things we realised with this project was that we wanted to establish ourselves as better storytellers," says Foisy, "and also develop some new processes along the way. So yes, we would like to continue doing that."
New Tales from the Borderlands releases for Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S on 21st October this year.