‘Borderlands 2' and the lessons in storytelling

Gearbox Software, the Dallas-based studio behind Borderlands and its forthcoming sequel, Borderlands 2, learned a lot of lessons about storytelling after the release of the first game, according to studio president Randy Pitchford.

Gearbox Software, the Dallas-based studio behind Borderlands and its forthcoming sequel, Borderlands 2, learned a lot of lessons about storytelling after the release of the first game, according to studio president Randy Pitchford.

Pitchford told Polygon that the entire game has benefited from technology optimizations and the sequel will be stronger than the first game, but its storytelling has only gotten to the level where it is currently at because of lessons learned from the original Borderlands.

"From a storytelling point of view, in Borderlands 1 we had a really clever twist – at least, we thought we had," Pitchfold told Polygon.

"The game basically said: ‘You're a vault hunter and you're looking for a vault and it's on Pandora somewhere. You've come across all these ancient alien ruins and as best as we can interpret from the alien ruins, it looks like there's going to be incredible wealth and power and capability and alien technology for whoever finds the vault. If you find it you're just going to win, so go do that.

"It turns out that no, the expectation was give me my loot, I opened the vault, give me my treasure and I'm mad at you now for not doing that."

"And the twist that we thought was really clever – spoiler alert if you haven't played Borderlands 1 – was when you find the vault, people misinterpreted all those ancient alien ruins and the thing that's contained inside is powerful, but not in a good way. It's actually a prison, not a vault of treasure. It's meant to contain something horrifically evil, so at the end you open this vault expecting ‘cool, give me my treasure', and instead this evil tentacle monster comes out that tries to kill you and we thought that was a clever twist, like it'll be so funny and obvious, the planet is called Pandora, everyone will see this coming.

"It turns out that no, the expectation was give me my loot, I opened the vault, give me my treasure and I'm mad at you now for not doing that."

Pitchford says the team learned that if they are going to set up expectations about something that is going to happen in the story and it ends up twisting into something else – even if that twist is seemingly more logical – that expectation gap between what is expected and what eventuates can't be so insurmountable from an emotional point of view that players feel as though they've been tricked.

The other lesson the team learned was that labelling their game as a partial role-playing game (RPG) confused some players about what Borderlands was meant to be. Pitchford says that when people think of RPGs, it could mean a different thing to everyone person. For some people it's character development and loot, for others it's dialogue trees and choosing different paths. In Borderland's case, it was the customization and levelling-up of characters as well as the wealth of loot that players could pick up and use to shape their own experience.

"You can't simultaneously have a dialogue tree with a FPS"

"The RPGs we were borrowing from were like picking a character, levelling up, selecting loot, skill trees, things like that," Pitchford says. "What we specifically did not borrow from, in fact we made a very purposeful decision not to do, was things like the choose-your-own-adventure side of it with dialogue trees where you'll meet the character and there will almost be like a cut-scene presentation, then you'll be given a choice that you can respond with. And this goes back and forth with questions and answers. We very specifically did not do dialogue trees. They're cool, I like those games, but if that means RPG to you, then I think that's a mistake to blend with a first-person shooter (FPS) because the nature of that loop is completely different to that of an FPS.

"You can't simultaneously have a dialogue tree with a FPS, so we borrowed from RPGS the things that you can simultaneously do with an FPS that aren't mutually exclusive."

Having established what Borderlands is and isn't in the first game, Pitchford believes the confusion should no longer be an issue in Borderlands 2.

With a bigger budget and more resources, the sequel is also doing away with mission text. Story will now be delivered through interactions with characters to create a more organic way of learning about the world and the stories of individual characters.

Borderlands 2 will be available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC on September 18th in the US. Read more about its new character, the Mechromancer, and and the customization of the characters here.

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