The stories of our daily lives unfold through some combination of free will, fate, and the crushing realities of capitalism—but how does a choice-based narrative adventure like New Tales from the Borderlands come into being? The Gearbox development team has carefully crafted the tale of Anu, Fran, and Octavio joining forces to Make Mayhem their Business, but as the player, you're the one in control of how the story gets told.
So how do the writers decide where to drop in all those conversational, comical, or soul-crushing decisions? How do those choices play into the ultimate direction that your story goes? And when is stone-cold silence appropriate?
Lin Joyce, Head of Writing at Gearbox Software and a bona fide PhD in Narrative System Design, has the answers to those questions and many more. In this first New Tales Dev Diary, Lin shares a behind-the-scenes look at how this extraordinary story came into being.
CHARTING A NARRATIVE COURSE
When you boil it all down, the story of New Tales is determined by two core elements: the narrative design and the script.
According to Lin, narrative design affects how the player interacts with the story through play and how much agency they have. Narrative design is the starting point. Then, once everything is charted out, the script can be written.
"As a lead, I have purview over both the narrative design and the script," says Lin. "For any given scene, we're asking, 'What is the player's opportunity to influence this moment? What are the mechanics that could filter into that or make the interaction more meaningful?' But also, 'What story are we telling, and what are the characters saying?' While there were various writers contributing to the script and bringing the story to life, it was my job, above all, to be the custodian of the cohesive vision and to make sure the overall needs for the story were being met."
How in the world does the script go from a blank sheet of paper to the cinematic thrill ride that unfolds between our three protagonists and everyone (or everything) they come into contact with?
"As we're going through the outline and narratively designing it, a lot of the creative process involved letting the characters tell you where they want to go and where the path of the story could split," says Lin. "In the outline, we maintain the thread of consistency that the overall game cleaves to, but when it's time to write, we indulge in the creative process and allow ourselves to ask, 'What would I do in this scenario?'
"The beauty of an interactive narrative is that I can answer it both ways, or all four ways, or however many ways, and see where that takes me. So anytime we find ourselves asking 'What would Octavio do?' The answer is "Don't decide—just let it go—play with that.' In that way it's really freeing as a writer to have the opportunity to examine all the possible things a character might do while being true to who the character is. Some days I choose chaos. Other days I don't. They're both still me."
Of course, any story worth its salt sees its fair share of revisions during the creative process.
"For a story-driven game, the story is the key mechanic, so we made sure that it stayed flexible until the very end of development," says Lin. "Whenever we had the first draft of an episode written, we'd turn it into a playable version of the script with text-to-speech programs reading each character's lines. Then we'd bring all the team leads in for a table read—not just the narrative team, but the design team, character art, cinematics, audio, everyone!
"It was fun having the other stakeholders shout out choices they wanted to try, but it also provided critical feedback. For example, if no one was picking an option, we'd think 'Maybe we've got to go rewrite that; no one seemed stoked about that choice.'"
LIVING WITH YOUR DECISIONS
If you've played the original Tales from the Borderlands or narrative games like it, you'll be intimately familiar with the common sight of "[This character] will remember that" popping up on screen after you've made a particularly impactful choice. But there are no such markers in New Tales from the Borderlands, with the developers making a conscious design decision to keep any ripple effects of your choices ambiguous.
"If a game is telling you through its UI what it thinks is important, then it's also signaling what isn't," says Lin. "That can easily break immersion, or prompt players to game the system."
The temptation to quickly undo a conversation choice or a desperate decision you made can take you out of the plot and out of the moment.
"When I see that notification, I might think 'If this character is going to remember that, and I don't want them to, I now know to close the game, reload, and do it again,'" says Lin.
The same pitfalls apply when games tack binary moral alignments onto the choices you make.
"I might start off an RPG thinking, 'I'm going to pick the choices that are very true to me'—but the minute the game starts telling me that something was a 'bad' choice, I'm like 'Don't judge me! Don't tell me I'm bad!'" Lin laughs. "You start to have this moral conversation with the game's systems rather than with its story. I might've learned more lessons about myself had the game not been intruding in that way.
"We want people playing New Tales to think, 'Yeah, I chose that. This story is true to the choices I made. Because there is no 'wrong' ending—every end point is a justification that honors the journey."
Uncertainty about the ramifications of each choice not only encourages replay, but also conversation among players.
"Because we're not immediately telling you exactly where the tracking points are, there's a lot to discuss and theorycraft," says Lin. "We want people to play and experiment with the game and the story to learn a little bit more. Removing that prompt was just one of the ways to do that."
SILENCE CAN BE GOLDEN
Though it's not always an option, many conversations in New Tales include the choice to simply say nothing and let the resulting silence do the talking.
"Silence can be a perfectly valid response to something—either you don't know the answer, or you want to signal to somebody that maybe they shouldn't be asking you that, right?" says Lin. "Sometimes silence communicates more than words could, but we took that on a case-by-case basis. 'Is silence appropriate here, and if it isn't, then what is?' As a player, I don't often pick silence in narrative games, but writing for silence is often the most fun! You have to make that silence meaningful and impactful any time that it's there. So, for all the people that never pick silence, I'll just say that we have some pretty fun gems hidden in silent options."
A perturbed eyebrow raise or indifferent shrug might really say it all, so try not to overlook the ellipses route. And if you don't select a response—perhaps because you were indecisive or overwhelmed before time ran out—you'll always default to silence if it's one of the presented options.
"In our testing, we would go in and let the game play itself," Lin explains. "Even if the player gave no input, we had to make sure that refraining from talking would still allow the story to be told cohesively. It's a fun test getting to sit back and watch the game roll. We don't want New Tales to be a solely cinematic experience—it's meant to be a game—but we did have to test for the scenario where someone wants to be as passive as possible."
Whenever you're taking a while to deliberate your ideal response in a narrative game, you're technically leaving the other party hanging. But it's worth indulging in some awkward silences to hear the totally tangential lines of dialogue that crop up when someone's patiently waiting for you to weigh in.
"It's sort of a weird dance," Lin laughs. "Those things do happen in natural conversations, but maybe less frequently than we have to put them in.
"We tried to use them as vehicles for humor. If you tap a button, you'll launch into your response, so those idling lines can't contain any critically important information. Whether or not you hear them, the story will just keep moving on.
"We often had fun thinking 'How can I make this entertaining?' 'What's the best joke we can put in here?' and 'How do we add dimension to that character while they're idling?'"
Just as inaction can be a conscious choice during conversations, you're also encouraged to see what happens when you abstain from a Quick Time Event (or QTE). A life-or-death situation will probably result in a fatal Game Over if you flub the QTE prompts, but some moments make it your prerogative if you want to purposely fail a QTE.
"There are soft fails, so you don't have to beat every QTE, and maybe in fact shouldn't," says Lin. "We wanted to prompt you to think 'Is it the right call to do this?' Often the game will allow for both scenarios—so failure is often an option that leads to different results."
You can also set QTEs to auto pass in the menu options, so don't worry about having to panic to grab the controller.
When New Tales from the Borderlands launches on October 21, it'll be up to you how your story plays out, including how often silence and resolute failure play into it. Until then, stay tuned for more Dev Diary articles about the making of New Tales!