I was sorely tempted to just write, “It is a Telltale game,” for this review, because I think that over the last three years or so people have come to understand a lot about what that means in terms of gameplay, graphics, and overarching game design. However, I think that you all probably expect a bit more effort from me than that, so hopefully as we go through this spoiler-free review we can better our understanding of Telltale Games and their body of work.
One of the most refreshing things about Telltale Games is that they don’t do the same thing twice when it come to their narratives. The Walking Dead tells a gripping tale of grisly sacrifice and survival. Both seasons focused on a single protagonist and developed them over the course of five episodes into characters for whom players really cared. More than that, the first season was about a leader, the second was about a follower struggling to grow up. The Wolf Among Us spins a dizzying tale of neo-fantasy noir, complete with suitably muddy issues of crime and justice. Players become a moral authority within the Fable universe, the word of law for the denizens of Fabletown, no matter how much they grumble. Each season that Telltale has made tells a different narrative in a different way while still using the same underlying game mechanics and graphics engine. Tales from the Borderlands sticks with the mechanics, but adopts a more comedic, lighthearted tone that stands out from three seasons of grim and gritty violence.
Tales from the Borderlands Episode One - Zer0 Sum kicks off the five part season by introducing players to Rhys and Fiona, the unreliable protagonists of the series. They’ve been captured by an enigmatic resident of Pandora who wants to know the stories that led them both to him. They each take turns telling their version of events, sometimes breaking in on one another to correct a misremembered moment or interject what “really” happened. Rhys, a corporate ladder climber for the evil Hyperion Corporation, and Fiona, a fast-talking Pandoran con artist, make for an entertaining duo. Telltale successfully plays off of their differences to great comedic effect.
I love these choices for the narrative direction of their fourth game series, if for no other reason than because it is a different approach to video game narratives. It is far from the first video game to have a framed narrative told through unreliable narrators, Dragon Age II used the same storytelling device, but game developers rarely opt to try to take their stories this direction. Unreliable narrators and framed narratives present numerous difficulties, especially in video games, but when it works, it works fantastically. The best part about Zer0 Sum is that the writers, Pierre Shorette and Adam Hines (presumably with some input from Gearbox’s Anthony Burch), use the unusual narrative mechanics of framed storytelling for some great laughs. They aren’t using the device just because; the use has a definite goal in mind and it pays off, which testifies to how well Shorette and Hines know their business.
In addition to the functional narrative difference between Telltale Games’ previous efforts, Zer0 Sum represents a huge change of tone from what many people have come to expect from the studio. Tales from the Borderlands takes a very lighthearted stance when it comes to its world and characters. Everything is clever, a little bit tongue-in-cheek, even the violence. You can kind of see Telltale’s roots in the Sam & Max adventure games shine through if you squint a little. The changed attitude and infusion of humor make Tales from the Borderlands pop. It comes as a breath of fresh air released between the ends of both The Walking Dead Season Two and The Wolf Among Us and the release of Telltale’s six part Game of Thrones series.
It would be a mistake to place the tonal change completely in the writer’s hands when the art direction perfectly captures the Borderlands vibe. Telltale’s game engine really thrives when it is paired with graphic novel or comic book material, which proves to be very helpful when adapting it to Borderlands. The stylized world of Pandora lends itself very well to Telltale’s art style, resulting in a very aesthetically appealing game. Players of Tales from the Borderlands will notice the improvement and appreciate it, especially if they have played previous Telltale series and felt underwhelmed by the visuals.
For all of my talk about story mechanics and visual styles, like all Telltale games, Tales from the Borderlands lives and dies on the strength of its narrative. In that regard, Telltale came out guns blazing. Zer0 Sum propels itself along at an almost breakneck pace. There are few dead moments where it feels like nothing is happening. I loved the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but one of the things that I felt held it a bit back was the occasionally ponderous pacing. There was a lot of quiet that served less as introspection and more as waiting to find the thing that moves the story forward. In the grand scheme of that first run of five episodes, it wasn’t a big deal, but there were definitely moments I found myself wishing it would move along. There are relatively few quiet moments in Tales from the Borderlands, but even the rare opportunity to relax has something going on that makes player decisions and actions feel immediate.
Beyond pacing, Tales from the Borderlands begins answering one of the big questions I had while playing through Gearbox's Borderlands games: Where are all the "normal" people? Tales from the Borderlands helps players understand how Pandora functions as a society. It turns out that the people who live there aren't all insanely violent and some are just average people trying to make their way on a world gone mad. Really, that's probably part of the core message of the Borderlands games. The world, life, is crazy and there aren't really any normal people. Just some that act a bit crazier than others. I'm interested to see if that message evolves as the future episodes release.
I have a bit of a test that I sometimes run to see how people with short attention spans and less inclined toward games might react toward a more story-heavy game. I play the first half-hour of a game with a family member or friend and get some feedback on what he or she thinks about what they just saw. I usually don’t mention the test in my reviews since it only tangentially helps me to get a fresh perspective on what I just played. However, it is interesting in this case because I did the test with the same person for both the first thirty minutes of The Walking Dead Season One and Zer0 Sum. I was a bit shocked that they had completely different reactions to both. The Walking Dead gameplay left such a small impression on them that they didn’t remember the experience at all. On the other hand, they really wanted to see more of Tales from the Borderlands. In both instances, this person insisted on just watching the gameplay unfold. The results of those informal tests tell me that the narrative is strong enough to inspire interest that exists separate from the typical Telltale game mechanics.
Ideally, I think that game developers should approach game design in a way that weaves mechanics and narrative together. I loved this year’s Transistor so much precisely because everything in it, gameplay, narrative, setting, etc. furthered its message. Usually it isn’t a good idea to separate mechanics from storytelling, but in Telltale’s case, the mechanics aren’t important to what they’re trying to say with their games. In fact, the biggest criticism I can level against Tales from the Borderlands is that it doesn’t do anything interesting with the mechanics that have now supported three complete episodic games, all three of which have been insanely successful. It is hard to fault them for staying their course or from arguing that the design is ineffective. Choosing dialogue options invests players in the protagonists and makes the story feel personal. Participating in combat via quick-time events makes the danger feel more immediate. Placing the burden of gameplay almost entirely on directing conversations and making decisions eases development for Telltale. I get it. However, I think the challenge for Telltale in the years ahead will be blending gameplay and story together more effectively. They found a combination that functions, but until they find a better way to present their amazing work they’re barely scratching at the surface of something incredibly powerful.
Tales from the Borderlands Episode One – Zer0 Sum is a Telltale game. Expect a lot of story, dialogue choices, and quick-time action sequences. If you were too impatient for their earlier titles, Zer0 Sum might have enough momentum to sweep you up into the larger drama. However, if the gameplay of previous Telltale adventure titles turned you off, Tales from the Borderlands doesn’t do anything that might change your mind. On the whole, I found it laugh-out-loud funny more than a few times, was generally smiling, and thought that it was one of Telltale’s best efforts to date.
Tales from the Borderlands Episode One was reviewed PC and is now available for PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, iOS, and Android (so, basically everything)