Satirical video games regularly satirise by including frustrating video game tropes while a narrator commentates “Look how frustrating this is!” The only problem is that pointing out that something is frustrating doesn’t instantly stop it from being frustrating.
The first episode of Tales from the Borderlands, Telltale Games’ series based on Gearbox's Borderlands shooter-looter series, works so well because it satirises first-person shooter and RPG conventions in the context of an adventure game. Absurd tropes can’t be recycled because the game is of a completely different genre. As an exercise in writing, pacing and character development it is a complete success, but it lets go much of the gamier aspects of classic adventure games in the process. In fact, unlike The Walking Dead, Tales From the Borderlands: episode one - Zer0 Sum, would work almost as well as a cartoon.
Dialogue in Gearbox’s series has always been polarising. Two monologues in Borderlands 2 about diamond encrusted horses and the diverse emotional reactions to eyeball gouging deserve to held in the same esteem as Cave Johnson’s “when life gives you lemons” speech from Portal 2. But for every simpering, sarcastic and utterly superb quip spouted by the dastardly Handsome Jack, another character’s line was awkwardly lifted, verbatim, from Breaking Bad or Community. Tales From the Borderlands has fewer of both the former and the latter.Telltale’s contribution to the mythos might be more tolerable to players who bristle at the shameless referential stuff, while simultaneously failing to excite hardcore fans quite as much.
This doesn’t mean the writing is bland or predictable. Far from it. There are certainly references, but they feel less shoe-horned. Tales From the Borderlands: Zer0 Sum is much more even and oozes personality through clever narrative techniques. Rhys, one of two central protagonists, is an unreliable narrator who aches to be a charming action hero. His revisions of important plot points that transform him into a Nathan Drake-esque rogue make for a bunch of terrific gags that poke fun at the machismo of conventional video game narratives.
The game is strewn with memorable characters, but not so many that they cannot be fully developed; a problem that troubles the core Borderlands titles. Loader Bot, a mech with the intractable loyalty of a St. Bernard, is destined to steal countless hearts and even more t-shirt real estate.
Comparisons with Telltale’s other adventure outings, namely The Walking Dead, are unavoidable. In this case, the comparisons merit discussion. The Walking Dead introduced a dialogue tree that allowed the player to select from a number of options. Critically, what separated this tree from that of any other RPG or adventure game was the inclusion of a time-limit that, if not adhered to, would result in your character not saying anything at all. Tension necessarily grew from this system In the setting of an uncertain zombocalypse. A single stray word, or even worse, silence, might result in a character ceasing to trust you. Disastrous, in a world where food, shelter and security are nigh on impossible to come by.
Zer0 Sum uses an identical system, but I found myself choosing my dialogue choices far more haphazardly and with far less thought than I did in The Walking Dead. Borderlands exists in a nitro-charged, unpredictable universe saturated with ultraviolence. It is also far less ponderous, less grounded and driven far more by external forces acting on the characters than it is by the decisions of those characters themselves. It is tough to imagine your choices having much of an impact on a story where a charming robot from space can rocket down from a satellite and flatten bandits into a pink mist with little warning.
Fiona, the second central protagonist, is a con-artist, and the sections where she aims to manipulate another character recall some of the same tension that worked so well in The Walking Dead. Even then it seems like a poor choice would simply result in failure of that section of the game, rather than drastically altering that character’s opinion of you. Compounding this is the fact that, after completing The Walking Dead, it became clear that choices you made had no discernible impact on the birds-eye contour of that game’s narrative.
That said, the dialogue system does have a very occasional unexpected, but rather enchanting, benefit. It nurtures the humourous writing. Silence is often the most amusing punchline to a joke in Tales From the Borderlands and the feeling that you as a player were partially involved in the comic timing of a gag is a satisfying one.
Zer0 Sum is also a very pretty game. The unique Borderlands art style really shines when it is condensed down into only a few rooms instead of being stretched to fill the gaping arenas of a shooter. Unlike The Walking Dead, an art style adapted from a comic book, Borderlands was constructed from the ground up to be a 3D video game. It is saturated with colour and and a characteristic juxtaposition of science fiction motifs and rickety old West-inspired architecture.
Bucking the recent trend of blowing a game’s voice-over budget on actors with enormous star-power but known more for on screen talents than their vocalisations, Zer0 Sum instead employs actors who have built their careers on (mostly) their voice alone.
Troy Baker, who skyrocketed to fame after voicing the protagonists of both BioShock: Infinite and The Last of Us last year, lends his larynx to the aforementioned Rhys. Patrick Warburton is immediately recognisable as the game’s slimey antagonist, the immaculately suited Vasquez and Chris Hardwick, host of the popular Nerdist Podcast, is likable as Rhys’ de facto sidekick Vaughn.
When you consider its succession of undeniable narrative and aesthetic achievements, it might be unsurprising to hear that Tales From the Borderlands is far less gamey than many of Telltale’s prior titles. Not only do the game’s dialogue options feel somehow more arbitrary than they did in the past, there wasn’t a single discernible puzzle in the entire game. Few and far between are sections when you even move your character through an environment with the arrow keys or mouse, and all those sections require is to click on a few icons. Its gamiest parts involve a series of quick-time events. They aren’t bad QTEs per se, but there’s nothing that great about them either. Again, it is the characters and the writing that makes those sections enjoyable and very little to do with the player’s own input.
A minor point: I couldn’t find any way of adjusting the mouse sensitivity. Clicking on objects, even in failstate free parts of Zer0 Sum, felt clumsy and awkward. It might’ve been a way of artificially inflating the tension or the difficulty, but it just ends up feeling a bit frustrating.
There are times when player interactivity makes punchlines more satisfying, but equally there are times when the act of clicking icons is a bit frustrating and detracts from the experience. This isn’t the time or the place to discuss what is or is not a game, or even whether that debate matters in the slightest (hint: it doesn’t). Just keep in mind that Tales From the Borderlands mostly succeeds on its characters and writing and not on its game mechanics.