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How Tiny Tina got ready for her most unexpected close-up in Wonderlands

‘It’s so bizarre that she could be popular enough to justify her own game,’ says Ashly Burch

Image: Gearbox Software/2K Games
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Tiny Tina, the impish Borderlands NPC now better known as an unhinged Dungeon Master, is Ashly Burch’s first video game character. The actor behind Horizon Zero Dawn’s Aloy and co-lead of Apple TV’s Mythic Quest makes it clear her career effectively begins with the out-of-control Dungeon Master now pulling the rug from beneath Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands.

And yet, Burch says, she is still learning about the character she created with her brother Anthony a decade ago. Tina started as a pastiche of someone they both knew in high school, melded with a four-year-old “in her pterodactyl phase, where she’s kind of screaming in response to everything,” Burch said with a laugh.

“I didn’t know there was going to be that other piece to it,” she said in an interview with Polygon. That “other piece” is somewhat spoilery, but for those who played Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, the premium expansion to 2012’s Borderlands 2, that piece is also present in Wonderlands’ fourth-wall demolishing story, and it gives the tongue-in-cheek shooter some bittersweet, lump-in-the-throat depth at the end.

[Ed. note: Spoilers for Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands and Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep follow.]

“It’s so bizarre to imagine that she could be popular enough or important enough to justify headlining her own [game],” Burch said. Not only that, a game in which she is leading A-list comedians Wanda Sykes, Andy Samberg, and Will Arnett through an off-the-rails tabletop RPG campaign. “We’ve recorded the whole game, the game is out, I’ve seen the game, I’ve played the game. But it’s still, like, hard for my brain to compute.”

Wonderlands is by definition a Borderlands spinoff; it uses the same systems, relies on the same gameplay loops, and involves some of the same characters in its meta-story. But Tiny Tina’s unexpected popularity comes from the very humane realization that she leads this wacky role-playing game as a means of grieving her friend Roland, the vault hunter who dies at the end of Borderlands 2. By leaning into that character device again, Wonderlands makes its parent series seem almost like the spinoff. At any rate, its blend of magic, firearms, and zany character classes is for sure a fresher take on the formula than 2019’s Borderlands 3.

Sam Winkler, Wonderlands’ writer, said Gearbox Software had always envisioned a follow-up to Dragon Keep as the studio was developing Borderlands 3. But then “it just became clear, Hey, we have so much here, we want to give it its own platform,” Winkler said. “We said, ‘OK, all right, if this is not, you know, an addendum, if this is not a coda to a larger story, but its own stand-alone thing, then we have to think differently about when it takes place and what the characters are here. That’s where we arose with this idea of ‘We want Tina, because Tina is this.’”

This brings back Burch, in a very familiar role, but one which wasn’t necessarily a lead. So where Winkler felt an obligation to give Burch room to grow and lead the character she’d created a decade ago, Burch reciprocated, understanding that she needed the structure Winkler’s story would provide for someone who had been a comedic-relief supporting cast member.

“Depending on what projects you’re working on, some people are very specific about the script,” Burch said. “Which I don’t begrudge; you pour your whole heart and soul into this thing, and you spend so much time with it, you don’t really want people to mess with it. But it’s really fun, when you’re an actor, to have people who want you to play with it, want to see what you bring to it, want to be surprised. […] I had a lot of freedom to mess around or improv, to try weird things, and they were always receptive to it.”

Winkler says giving Burch free rein with Tina was essential to developing the script as well as the character. “The amount of improv that is part of Tina is so crucial,” he said. “If you ask Ashley for three takes, you are going to get three wildly different things. And the amount of content that we are able to get from these sessions allows us a lot of wiggle room.”

Wanda Sykes portrays Frette, a robot caught up in a zany tabletop adventuring party in Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands.
Image: Gearbox Software/2K Games

This was especially critical as Burch, Sykes, Arnett, and Samberg all recorded their lines solo, reacting to a director’s prompts instead of an actor next to them. “This idea of role-play and, you know, ‘I attack the dragon,’ or, ‘I slice the bartender’s head off,’ that kind of thing — they did that extremely well,” Winkler said of Burch’s co-stars. “Like Andy has this line about romancing the drawbridge [early on in a tutorial level]. He immediately understood why that was good. […] They’re very sharp at what they do, so there’s very minimal onboarding.”

Burch, however, still understood that a high-energy character like Tiny Tina requires more guardrails, even when she’s the lead and the personality driving the whole game. “In other contexts, you’re getting Tina in bite-sized chunks,” Burch explained. “So she’s screaming half the time. Something new about this game also is that Tiny Tina is giving you gameplay information. I don’t think that’s ever really happened. She has to be your tutorial person, which is not a role that she usually fills. She’s usually doing little raps and talking about ladies’ butts.

“So yeah, this is another fun thing about doing Wonderlands — it’s weird to use this word in regards to Tiny Tina,” Burch continued, “but what is a more subtle joke here? What’s the more understated way that we could play this? And I think, I hope, other people agree that we were successful in finding a way to balance that, but she still feels like Tina.”

Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands launched at the end of March for PlayStation, PC (as a timed exclusive on the Epic Games Store), and Xbox. Last week it launched for Windows PC via Steam. It’s been a critical success for Gearbox Software and 2K Games, and a necessary reset for a 13-year-old tentpole franchise.

But it’s also a lesson to developers — and actors — to simply go with what works; the audience is never wrong. Tiny Tina may have been an unexpectedly endearing character, but just because Burch and Winkler didn’t plan on that happening doesn’t mean they can’t develop her, and develop situations for her, like they knew she would be a fan favorite all along.

“I don’t think I would have expected the story that y’all chose to tell,” Burch said to Winkler. “It is such an interesting thing, being an actor who feels such investment and connection to a character. And then, because you are in close collaboration with writers, you discover things about your character that you didn’t even know.”