I’ll be honest: for all their popularity, I’ve never been able to get into Borderlands. I find its shooting and looting mechanics repetitive and uninteresting, and it features the best-written and performed characters ever to annoy the crap out of me. But I’ve always thought the world of Borderlands - a colourful, sci-fi Western frontier planet full of raiders, weirdos and murderous beasties - to be full of potential. I’m happy to report that “Zer0 Sum,” the first episode of Telltale Games’ adventure adaptation Tales From The Borderlands, taps dat potential.
Tales takes its title literally. In this first episode, the story is literally told by its two playable protagonists as they’re captured and interrogated in the inhospitable Pandora desert. Rather than playing a geared-up, action-Jackson Vault Hunter as in the Borderlands games proper, here you’re playing a pair of competing con artists - flawed, funny and fucked-up in their own ways. Fiona is an honest career criminal on a routine score; Rhys a dishonest company man turning to crime to get back at his boss. In “Zer0 Sum”’s three or so hours, their stories develop and intersect in interesting ways, and clash in ways even more so. Swapping between protagonists in such a character-driven game could have been confusing and unfocused, but Telltale have put in a lot of work both in writing and graphical look and feel to keep Rhys and Fiona distinct.
I won’t spoil the story here, but it’s a Coenesque romp of crime, incompetence and catastrophe that drags its characters through a variety of environments and past a host of colourful characters. I don’t know how many are returning faces from earlier Borderlands games, but I like them here. They’re larger than life and wacky as shit, but in Telltale’s hands, there’s a human core to them that keeps them from grating. That also helps the world feel more believable - important when dealing with heavily-stylised sci-fi like this. Telltale have even built in the trademark Borderlands obsession with loot and weaponry, but not in gameplay - it’s a character trait, and in that context it works almost as a parody of the main games.
I especially like how pathetic most of the characters are. For the most part, this is a cast of lovable idiots. There isn’t a single character who’s genuinely great at their job, and that goes a long way to generating sympathy and comedy alike.
And comedy in video games is really hard! It’s super difficult to achieve good joke timing in an interactive medium, but Telltale mostly nails it here. The script-heavy point-and-click adventure genre is uniquely suited to comedy, but Telltale’s cinematic style pushes it even further. Their writing is really funny - I laughed a lot - and it’s matched by the direction, which packs in sight gags throughout. There’s an eye-mounted scanner gadget Rhys uses, in particular, that even returns the adventure genre’s oldest trick - written jokes - to active service.
Tales also boasts narrative tricks you don’t see much in video games. Neither narrator is really reliable - I think only Call of Juarez: Gunslinger has used that device recently - which makes the conflict between them all the more entertaining. We see the first half of the episode play out from both Rhys and Fiona’s points of view, so setups in one are paid off in another in clever, subversive ways. The ways in which characters lie say more about them than any number of truths. Best of all, the story finds ways to split the cast up into odd-couple pairings, creating promising relationships that I can’t wait to see develop in future episodes. (All this also bodes well for the studio’s forthcoming Game of Thrones title.)
For a game bearing the Borderlands moniker, there’s less action than you’d expect, so if you’re expecting to shoot stuff: tough. The Telltale Tool isn’t designed for action, and it’s not great at rendering weapons fire, but it can deliver point-and-click ‘splodey action variations on the suspense’n’violence bits from The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us. In these sequences, you’re basically clicking through an action movie, but it’s a really good action movie, with some creative action direction that values character beats over coolness. But even the best action sequences - like the insane climax - still don’t hold a candle to the simple joy of playing out a conversation between two characters.
I was talking to a friend (and fellow corrupt game reviewer) about Tales From The Borderlands the other day. He was convinced that the whimsical, weird, wacky world of Gearbox’s Borderlands was an ill fit for Telltale’s “weighty consequences” style of game. But to call Telltale a studio of “weighty consequences” is to ignore its history of producing games like Monkey Island and Sam & Max, and to mischaracterise its M.O. as one driven by tone rather than storytelling style.
So no, Tales From The Borderlands is not a “serious” game. At times, it’s downright silly. But it’s definitely a Telltale game, albeit one where the “big choices” frequently boil down to which flavour of bullshit to peddle (barring consequences as yet unforeseen). “Zer0 Sum” is a refreshing return to comedy from the studio, and it paves an exciting path ahead for future episodes - and for future Telltale games to come.