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‘New Tales from the Borderlands’ is more Gearbox than Telltale

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With brightly colored outfits, high-tech glasses and hoverchairs aplenty, “New Tales from the Borderlands’ ” three main characters certainly look the part. And as their journey through a sewer (in search of one of the series’ borderline-mystical Vaults, of course) gives way to “Metal Gear Solid”-inspired box shenanigans and a life-or-death duel with a guard involving action figures instead of guns, it feels the part, too. This is definitely a successor to “Tales from the Borderlands,” Telltale’s unexpectedly spectacular story-driven spinoff of a series not typically known for its story.

But something is missing.

It’s hard to put a finger on what, exactly, as the action plays out during a virtual demo presented by Gearbox, the studio handling development after Telltale, the spinoff’s originator, died in 2018 and then (sort of) came back the next year. The setup is reminiscent of the original “Tales from the Borderlands” while starring a new cast: Anu, Octavio and Fran, three lovable losers who’d likely be background NPCs in a standard first-person shooter “Borderlands” game, bumble, stumble and stutter their way through the machinations of evil capitalists and a planetary invasion on the worst day of their lives. There are jokes and quips aplenty. There are dialogue choices, quick-time events and minigames. Octavio, the main male lead, exudes a certain-to-be-humbled cocksureness that’s reminiscent of previous “Tales” lead Rhys, except streetwise instead of corporate.

But it all hits a little differently. Maybe it’s due to the large quantity of meta jokes referencing “Borderlands,” character archetypes and other video games — the generously poured sauce atop standard “Borderlands” games’ feasts of scenery chewing which the original “Tales” dialed back (slightly) in favor of more stand-alone character-driven shenanigans. Maybe it’s the look: darker, dingier and dirtier, to bring “New Tales” in line with 2019 main series entry “Borderlands 3.” Maybe it’s the lack of Telltale’s signature “So-and-so will remember this” prompt when you make a decision that resonates profoundly — for good or ill — with another character.

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It’s a fine line to walk, echoing back to a beloved cult hit while also charting a new course. But the leads of the new team making “New Tales” say the differences are very intentional. The lack of a “So-and-so will remember this” prompt is a good example. On one hand, Telltale’s signature line pushed players into the head space of considering what other characters might be thinking of them; it got the imagination going with little more than a brief line of text. On the other, it gave certain choices more weight than they necessarily deserved.

“That notification does make you think about [your decision], but also from what we observed, people tended to think that those were the most important choices — the big ones — and in the process it potentially undermined all the other choices you make,” Gearbox director of production James Lopez told The Washington Post. “One of our mottos while making this game is that every input is a choice, and every choice matters. It’s kind of hard to celebrate that idea if we still use the notification, so instead we invested more in a spectrum of consequences.”

In addition, “New Tales” is running on the Unreal Engine instead of Telltale’s herky-jerky old tech, allowing Gearbox to employ a suite of motion capture tools to bring its characters’ faces and bodies to life. The hope, then, is that players will no longer need a prompt to let them know when characters think they’ve done something cool (or incredibly stupid).

“Performance capture lets you understand, ‘Oh, this had an impact!’” said Gearbox Studio Quebec producer Frédéric Scheubel. “If you’re in a hurry, just like in real life you don’t have the weight of the consequences in front of you right away. Performance capture allowed us to bring it forth without a cue. It allowed us to do it with our actors and their acting.”

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While the brief 20-or-so minute demo was heavier on sewer spelunking and gags than heartfelt character growth, Lopez and Scheubel said that character relationships are still very much at the core of this game — more so even than the team expected at the outset of development. The reason for this, oddly enough, is the pandemic. “New Tales’ ” script was written before covid-19 sent us all scrambling into our own vaults for safety, forcing rewrites so that mocap scenes could be shot over the course of 14 months without endangering actors.

“We had some fight sequences where the idea was to have, like, eight to twelve people on set, which was a lot even pre-pandemic,” said Lopez. “So the pandemic happened, and it could have been a matter of us just cutting the actors in half — the number of actors, not the actual actors. That would be a crime.”

But instead of committing a crime against the script (or human actors), the “New Tales” team focused on rewrites that gave the story a more intimate focus.

“We have three playable characters, and a lot of the time it’s them plus someone else,” said Lopez, explaining that shoots usually maxed out at just five actors. “So it was like, these three characters are gonna get really close to each other; we should probably think of the story through that lens. … It became much more of a story about family and unconditional love for each other despite your flaws.”

These unique constraints in mind, it’s not surprising that “New Tales” gives off a vibe that’s part-“Tales,” part-“Borderlands” and part-all its own. That said, Gearbox seems intent on maintaining a direct lineage to the original “Tales,” if not with cameos (Lopez and Scheubel said this one will have a “98 percent new cast”) then with assistance from former Telltale staffers — something the company has repeatedly touted. This makes sense; the original was a uniquely narrative-heavy project whose sensibilities were born of a relatively small, specific group of people.

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However, Gearbox has been conspicuously cagey about precisely which, if any, ex-“Tales” leads are attached to the project. The Washington Post contacted several lead writers from the original “Tales,” all of whom either said they were not involved or did not reply. Most of the game’s main writers, years later, are now listed as having full-time jobs at studios like Remedy, King and the Netflix-owned Night School. One former “Tales” lead who chose to remain anonymous out of concern over potential retaliation said Gearbox only reached out to get his current company to say it’s not working on “New Tales.”

“Our only contact with Gearbox was them asking us to put out a statement that we were not working on it when there was a rumor that we were,” said the ex-“Tales” lead. “We responded to them asking to chat about it before putting out a statement, but they basically iced us. As someone [who] put a lot into the project I was hoping we’d be able to get a glimpse into their plans, but it was radio silence after that.”

In response to repeated inquiries about which specific “Tales” writers contributed to “New Tales,” Gearbox would only say that Bruner House — the new studio run by Telltale founder Kevin Bruner, whose managerial style reportedly contributed to crunch and burnout — was “integral to getting this game off the ground” and that “many alumni from the original Telltale Games narrative team for ‘Tales from the Borderlands’ partnered with Gearbox and worked on the title.” Bruner House’s narrative engine, Beanie, also provides scaffolding for “New Tales.”

Lopez and Scheubel say they did their best to avoid Telltale’s managerial missteps while working on “New Tales,” whose October launch is now just around the corner.

“The development process, we focused on sane energy,” Scheubel said. “The whole studio was mostly doing nine-to-five throughout the project. Even landing this title right now, we have people on vacation. That’s the feeling that we want. That was my priority on the development side.”

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