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Role-playing New Tales From the Borderlands’ characters will be like ‘4D chess’

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To hear Lin Joyce, the head writer of Gearbox Software’s forthcoming New Tales From the Borderlands, explain it, the job players will be doing with her characters is “like a kind of 4D chess,” just applied to narrative role-playing.

That means players will be inhabiting the personae of three characters, making decisions and reactions that players believe are appropriate for them. Then, they’ll also be tasked with reacting to these decisions they made when they’re in command of another member of this protagonist trio.

Those reactions aren’t “good” or “bad” in and of themselves; Joyce says that any hard failures, where a player makes the wrong decision, are limited to some quick-time events elsewhere in the game. For the dialogue — which includes reading body language and facial expressions from full performance capture — players may branch their narrative with a gut call for what they’d do in that moment, or they can try to piece together a multi-character relationship that takes into account the things they’ve done and said before.

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“So, what I might think I would do as Anu,” — one of the new heroes, Joyce explained — “might be true to Anu, but it might make Octavio mad. Then, I’m also playing as Octavio.”

Octavio is the streetwise and cynical counterpart to his altruistic sister. “So, how am I now going to respond to these things as Octavio?” Joyce said. “There’s a lot of interplay there, and it’s also up to you. Do you maintain — like, are you nurturing the group, or not? So there’s lots of, again, 4D chess happening.” To be clear, the player is not in control of the character-switching. That might be done moment-to-moment (as opposed to chapter-to-chapter), but the game is in charge there.

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Concept sketch showing five renderings of a robot character, plus smaller details showing how the robot displays emotions and “speaks”.

A conceptual rendering of L1OU13, an assassin robot players will encounter during New Tales From the Borderlands.
Image: Gearbox Software/2K Games

New Tales From the Borderlands launches in what could be a pivotal year for the franchise overall. Already, Gearbox Software’s shooter series has been adapted in the well-received Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, which launched in late March, and which has performed so well that Gearbox boss Randy Pitchford told investors (of parent company Embracer Group) the studio “clearly” considers it a “new franchise unto itself.”

The door is open, one assumes, for New Tales From the Borderlands’ approach to narrative-driven design and open-ended storytelling to make it more than a spinoff. Gearbox, though it licensed the Borderlands universe and characters, took the Tales From the Borderlands IP back from original developer Telltale Games when that studio closed its doors in 2018.

Joyce, a Ph.D. in interactive narrative systems (with subordinate degrees in English), was brought aboard Gearbox in 2020 and is now its head writer. Gearbox, she said, wanted to extend the core experience that made Tales From the Borderlands successful, while also loosening it from what had been a rigid engine with limited points of interaction. Make no mistake, the story was job one.

Multiple sketched panels of a storyboard, for New Tales of the Borderlands, with vague notes about what should take place in them and how the scene’s camera should be positioned.

A storyboard from development of Gearbox Software’s New Tales From the Borderlands. (Click to expand to see in larger detail.) It shows branching outcomes of a decision within the story, some with hard failure states.
Image: Gearbox Software/2K Games

“The directive was, Hey, we have this IP now; can we do something about it?” Joyce said. “On my side, we just look at what could we do to make that, like, a version 2.0 of the old Telltale game.” That included building New Tales From the Borderlands in Unreal Engine 4, as opposed to a more bespoke point-and-click setup. It involved performance capture, which freed Joyce to write with a little more nuance and less exposition, certainly without the textual callouts from Tales From the Borderlands that reminded players they’d said something an NPC was likely to remember.

“We had a lot of conversations where we looked at, philosophically, like even if these are the same tools, how are we using them differently?” Joyce said. “So, not every QTE is what we would call a hard fail; there is an opportunity for the story to continue there. We call those soft fails. That’s not something we’ve really seen before. There are other things where we present you with a choice, or the possibility for an action, and you might not want to take that action. The right action might be inaction.”

New Tales From the Borderlands will also have other interactive elements to deepen the gameplay experience, so players aren’t just getting a talk-fest or a scavenger hunt for some detail on the screen — two areas where the Telltale games, for all their acclaim, often broke down. Pierre-Luc Foisy, New Tales’ lead gameplay designer, said the three protagonists, Anu, Octavio, and their friend Fran, all have devices that should highlight their personalities. Fran operates a “gadget-packed hover chair”; Octavio has a smartwatch, for example; Anu’s wearable computing is a set of Tech Glasses.

Foisy said that will blend with the writing and the acting to give players a tipoff to whether they’ve made the right call or a choice that’s going to make things harder on themselves. “It will be less robotic, and more human emotion, so you can understand, OK, here, if I do this QTE — it doesn’t feel in character. It doesn’t feel like the right choice,” Foisy said.

Color concept painting showing a large room in an underground sewer, with a lone, flashlight-carrying figure standing in the center of a catwalk above the sewer.

This concept sketch of a sewer environment references the escape scene from the storyboards above.
Image: Gearbox Software/2K Games

New Tales From the Borderlands will also stand apart from the main series because it isn’t set on some postapocalyptic, resource-exploited world, or orbiting vessels doing the exploiting. It’s on Promethea, where the arms company Maliwan invaded during 2019’s Borderlands 3. Joyce said Promethea was chosen early on in the story drafting as the setting for New Tales, and the decision to use three playable protagonists was made to give players a fuller picture of a more complex setting.

“Although they share a goal, they do not share the same motivating forces or personalities,” Joyce said. “So that meant that we could play with their group dynamic more, and group dynamics are pretty central to this story and how it develops.”

New Tales From the Borderlands launches Oct. 21 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.

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