As cleverer writers than I tend to say: it’s the best game you’ve never played.
I love Tales from the Borderlands. You should, too.
More than that, I’m deeply impressed by the 5-part episodic interactive adventure by now-defunct Telltale Games. And yes; you should be, too.
Why? I mean, besides the fact that the 2015 series is absolutely chock full of clever interactive controls, fun and even harrowing choices, and emotional payoffs, out the veritable wazoo, of course.
Because Tales from the Borderlands is a rare case of a cook who can farm, man.
One of my favorite comedians of all time is Mitch Hedberg. He died in 2005, but his modern-hippie, slow-and-steady style and deceptively sharp jokes keep a lot of his material permanently fresh. Better still, his way of thinking helps simplify some of life’s strangest, most complicated turns. One of his best pieces is about show business and the fact that bigwigs always seem to want creative types to be magically skilled at wildly different art forms.
The bit goes like this:
“As a comedian, they want you to do things besides comedy. They say, ‘Alright, you’re a comedian. Can you write? Write us a script. Act! Act in this sitcom.’ They want me to do sh*t that’s related to comedy but it’s not comedy, man. It’s not fair; it’s as though I’m a cook and I work my ass off to be a really good cook and they say ‘Alright, you’re a cook. Can you farm??’”
Hedberg drives a pin right into the incredible difficulty that an idea, an intellectual property, heck, any person can have trying to excel at more than one field at the same time. Not to mention the doubling and redoubling pressure if one manages to succeed in one area to somehow magically translate that success into branching paths that aren’t necessarily connected. And it’s usually the case that, wouldn’t you know it, cooks aren’t generally known for their farming, stand-up comedians aren’t often hailed for their powerful acting chops, and shooter-looter games aren’t famous for deep, compelling storytelling.
But we all know at least one exception. Maybe a few have already sprung to mind, hmm? I’m sure that, somewhere, there is a gifted sous chef overseeing one helluva multi-hundred-acre farm. We can all admit that Robin Williams made most of Gen-X and younger cry at least once. Whoopi Goldberg was in the freakin’ Color Purple, for crying out loud.
And, for those who played it, we all know that Borderlands, the strange-but-it-works fusion of post-apocalyptic/alien/frenzied shoot-em-up franchise shined at peak brilliance when it took a detour into slower, sharper, single-player-focused gameplay.
Tales from the Borderlands is a standup comic who snagged an EGOT, a winking, red-nosed Patch Adams…it’s a cook who can farm like nobody’s business. Check it out:
The Game: The Borderlands saga began with the first game’s release in 2009, and achieved rapid success. Its financial fortunes and pop culture cache only increased with the sequel and, a few years later, its “Pre-Sequel” set between the first and second game. But, for all its frenetic, co-op-friendly, run-and-gun fun, the creative minds at developing studio Gearbox Software had the sense that the format of their pride and joy kept players at a bit of an emotional distance. What good is a rich universe of motley characters and wild environs if all players tend to do is riddle it with bullets and lasers as they crash on through to the next challenge? The lead writer on Borderlands 2 described the depth of the usual interactions in a Borderlands game by saying that players generally either stared at NPCs while they talked or shot them in the face. He’s not wrong.
A brief collaboration between Gearbox Software and Telltale Games on a poker-simulator game (Borderlands’ lovable klutz-bot Clap-Trap featured as a playable avatar) got the two teams a’talking, and in 2013, it was announced that fans of the Borderlands universe would get a chance to push past the staring/splattering dynamic and cozy up to a more immersive gaming experience. Episodic games like Telltale’s franchise flagship The Walking Dead series were searing hot sellers at the time, and it seemed like this unlikely pairing might just turn a lot of heads. And with Borderlands 3 six long years away, another plunge into the wilds of Pandora was music to many ears.
For *this* iteration, players would have a chance to forgo weapon loadouts and skill tree management in favor of plot immersion, clever dialogue choices, and some actual control over characters’ personalities and story details. Tales is very much in the mold of an interactive mini-series, and so the hallmarks of timed button prompts, cliffhanger endings, and plenty variables in how things end up by story’s end are all proudly at work under the hood here. And all are built very, very well.
Alas, sales of TotB did not reach Walking Dead levels despite overwhelmingly strong critical and player reviews. Telltale leadership opted to move resources to other projects, reassigned personnel, and considered shuttering the series early. Fortunately, fan and programmer enthusiasm was high enough that a loyal skeleton crew at Telltale were allowed to stay on the project to see it to its end. Arguably, the later episodes are the strongest in the series, which is a decisive testimonial on how much influence a caring core of employees can have over a project. Still, the likelihood of a sequel series is gone now that Telltale is no more, making Tales all the more valuable: they literally don’t make’em like this anymore.
The Basics: The Tales from the Borderlands story is focused around two playable protagonists: Rhys and Fiona, a hungry neo-yuppie corporate ladder-climber, and a Street-wise orphan-turned-con-artist respectively. Now, the world of Borderlands was, is, and always will be one marked by the dominance of comically-unfettered capitalism. Most action takes place on the untamed, resource-rich planet Pandora, a teeming hive of scavengers, firearms, and color-coded treasures. There, the concept of “law enforcement” isn’t so different than what you’d find among the denizens of the Serengeti. It’s profit or die, out there, folks. And the number of ways to profit are rivaled only by the number of ways the planet and its denizens know how to kill you.
As the story begins, Rhys, a middle-manager type on the massive space station above Pandora, finds himself inches from career disaster. Unwilling to spend his life cleaning toilets with his bare hands (yep), Rhys decides to make the power grab of his life. He steals ten million bucks from his unscrupulous heel of a boss and inserts himself into an off-the-books underworld deal to buy the ultimate prize: a key to one of Pandora’s fabled vaults, rare and dangerous alien repositories of wealth and power. And deadly monsters. Obvs.
Meanwhile, in the slums of Pandora, we meet savvy con-artist Fiona, her plucky little sister Sasha, and their Fagin-esque mentor Felix. The trio, we find, are just putting the finishing touches on a fake vault key scam designed to fool some underworld scum and their corrupt corporate customers—and net the little dysfunctional family a nest egg big enough to walk away from their criminal ways. See where this is headed?
Add a horribly-timed ambush by local savages during the already-fraught handoff, and you’ve got yourself an interstellar heist comedy well worth the price of admission. The stakes are made all the more interesting due to the fact that the story itself is being told by our heroes after the fact. Months after the events we play out, a mysterious scavenger captures Rhys and Fiona, forcing them, alternately, to tell their diverging sides of the adventure. Multiple times, one of the heroes will go a bit too far in sugar-coating his or her version of events only for their counterpart to cut in with hilarious results.
In Chapter One, Rhys claims to have stopped a crook from cancelling the vault key exchange by delivering a stirring, Braveheart-themed speech about chance, ambition, and regret, only to have Fiona pull the proverbial needle from the record mid-embellishment.
Fiona’s perspective is a terrific payoff: in reality, Rhys, faced with losing the deal, his payoff, and any chance of redeeming his collapsing job prospects ended up sobbing on his knees, begging the disgusted hood not to walk away. This ego-popping gamesmanship occurs to each protagonist *just* the right number of times to keep the gag sharp.
What follows the deal-gone-wrong trope is a planet-spanning (and planet-leaving) adventure as the two player characters amass a small team of friends and foils in the lead-up to an ending sequence equal parts MechaGodzilla, Street Fighter, and PaRappa the Rapper. Seriously.
Player choice does indeed affect many details, of course, so who lives and dies, who profits and who loses out all shift depending on one’s play-style and priorities. My playthroughs invariably focus on prioritizing wisecracks and loyalty to the team uber alles, but your mileage may vary. It’ll be hilarious and fun no matter what, but I’ll say this: never, *never* trust a hologram.
Why it’s Great: I mean, here’s a budget-friendly game that’s equal parts Heat, Spaceballs, Rashomon, and, well, *Borderlands*, what’s not to love?
Ok, ok. I’ll sweeten the deal.
The music is also spectacular. Much like the cinematics that lead into the more traditional Borderlands entries, Tales takes criminally lesser-known bands, usually synth-pop and funk artists, and sets these audio gems running alongside high-stakes set-pieces equally amusing and hair-raising.
Entire articles have been written about just *one* such scene in Chapter 3 set to singer-songwriter Twin Shadow’s “To the Top.” And the game nails this style over and over again, matching unexpected and terrific tunes to peak emotional moments like an art form unto itself.
But wait! There’s more to love!
By investing so heavily in character development, Tales from the Borderlands allows players willing to immerse in the experience to swing from laughter to genuine concern and back again. By Chapter 5’s close, Fiona, Rhys, and company have crashed a space station, mercy-killed the cutest robot of all time, and bonded in the soft glow of overly-territorial space jellyfish.
Oh, and practiced impromptu eye surgery on a corpse. With a spork.
The Epic Scene: Now here I don’t want to reveal too much. What I *will* say is that as Chapter 5 moves into its final stages, an old friend returns and needs your help—in a very literal sense—battling a gigantic monster. Members of the ragtag team are plucked up by a gigantic robot, plunked into a control room on board said machine, and turn their personal styles into fun and hilarious improvisational mech combat suits. Depending on whom you’ve tapped to be your chosen few, you can end up frantically entering button combos to unleash a colossal breakdance routine, wield two snarky-looking but potent finger-guns, and even unleash some Captain America-inspired shield-frisbee-in-the-face action.
It’s a fitting climax: a sharp, character-driven story birthed from a game-world known for its wild and often hilarious violence peaks with a tongue-in-cheek Voltron battle that literally brings all the friends together in one ecstatic blaze of cell-shaded glory.
The Life Lesson: To some degree, the gaming community can be forgiven for passing over Tales from the Borderlands. Expecting a bullet-riddled, adrenaline-fueled game series to partner with anyone and produce something far deeper is…a bit of a stretch. And judging by the sales numbers, plenty of people weren’t up for the risk. But Tales from the Borderlands is gaming’s Robin Williams. It’s funny, it’s moving, and it’s capable of far more than people initially want to give it credit for. The lesson here, I think, is to be open-minded about format changes, makeovers, and the reality that there may be more to a game world, a performer, a cook, a comic, or anyone than we initially expect. Hedberg was well within his rights to complain about being pushed toward things that weren’t in his skill set. The key, then, is letting folks—whether they make food, jokes, or even games, branch out on their own. And, if they’re as good as Tales from the Borderlands, give them a spin.
You might find yourself a fan of a whole new genre.
Or maybe you’ll make friends with a gifted farmer. How can you lose?