It’s been a while since I’ve played a Telltale game. I’ve always enjoyed the developer’s output, everything from Sam and Max to The Wolf Among Us, but I’ve fallen behind on their more recent series like Minecraft: Story Mode, Game of Thrones, and Batman. Thankfully, I’ve finally gotten back on the Telltale horse again with Tales from the Borderlands and it feels… weird.
Tales From the Borderlands feels like a different sort of Telltale game, one that, weirdly enough, seems to deemphasize the dialogue choices that have come to define Telltale. To put it simply, Borderlands feels less interactive than Telltale’s The Walking Dead, the series that arguably put them on the mainstream map. This a rather obvious statement if you take it literally: There are fewer puzzles to solve in Borderlands, fewer moments of exploration, and really just fewer moments of any non-dialogue gameplay. So yes, Borderlands is less interactive in those regards, but I’m not actually talking about any of that. I mean the dialogue options themselves feel less interactive.
Granted, I’m way behind in this analysis. Tales of the Borderlands came out a few years ago, but I think the distance was necessary (for me, at least) to properly notice this change. I fell in love with Walking Dead because Lee, the protagonist, became a vessel for my beliefs and morality, a character I worked with Telltale to define and develop. On the other hand, Rhys and Fiona from Borderlands feel like characters that are beyond my control.
For a quick and dirty example, just look at the first five minutes of the first episode of each series. The opening minutes of Borderlands are filled with narration and exposition, so much so that we only get one dialogue choice within those opening five minutes.
In Walking Dead, we start with a conversation, so by the time the first five minutes have passed we’ve made a total of seven dialogue choices. That’s a ratio of 7:1 between the games.
Now that’s hardly a proper scientific experiment, but it does reflect a noticeable change in characterization between the two games. Lee quickly comes to feel like an extension of ourselves: We choose nearly every line he speaks, and the spoken lines we don’t choose are mostly short and factual, nothing that really expresses personality. Our dialogue choices are mostly emotional in nature, so we can shape Lee as regretful, sullen, or angry.
The last dialogue choice is a good example of this: We can shout something to our driver just before he crashes into a zombie. We can warn him with a “Watch out!” or chastise him with “Fucking drive!” or shout in surprise with a “Shit!” The choice is pointless from a story perspective, but it’s a subtle way of allowing us to mold Lee into our own character: He speaks what we feel in that moment. Each choice like this adds nuance to our characterization, so more choices equal a more nuanced Lee.
Borderlands, however, begins with a couple different expository monologues. First we have the unseen narrator explaining the mythology of Pandora, then we get Rhys explaining how his job works. In between we have the framing device for the series: Rhys gets captured and tells his story to his assailant. This is the only scene that allows us a chance to characterize Rhys, but all we really do is choose between sarcastic quips, the kind of banter Rhys does plenty of on his own. We get our one opportunity to characterize hi and all we can do is reinforce his developer-established behavior. We don’t add anything to his character.
Most of the dialogue options in the game are like this: Rhys and Fiona have distinct personalities we have no hand in shaping. We don’t craft these characters, we just control them.
There are good moments, certainly. If you have Fiona save her one bullet, you can choose whether or not to shoot your traitorous mentor. This allows us to shape Fiona’s reaction to the betrayal: Does she respond with vengeful violence or pained passivity? Either way, we’re allowed to shape this important moment in her character arc. Unfortunately, moments like this are few and far between.
Now, this isn’t the first time a Telltale series has had this problem. The third episode of The Wolf Among Us ended with a powerful moment that forced us to consider “What innocents (and not-so-innocents) are you willing to sacrifice in the name of the rule of law and your own sense of power?” Then, in the fourth episode, Telltale failed to follow through on the personal consequences of that dark decision. However, that series also had an amazing opening scene that built a complex world through dialogue. Whereas Borderlands relies on authored narration to explain its world, The Wolf Among Us involves the player in its expository world-building.
Tales from the Borderlands is written in a different style than The Walking Dead or Wolf Among Us, and while it’s not a bad, it does feel like a step backwards for Telltale because it’s a much easier style of writing. It’s always easier to write an independent character than to write a character that feels like an extension of the player. The former allows the writer complete control, whereas the latter forces the writer to tread a razor-thin line of expression.
Walking Dead walked that line, and even did it a second time with Season 2. Compared to those high water marks, it’s more than a little disappointing so see Telltale take such strong narrative control in Tales from the Borderlands.