[Gearbox writer Anthony Burch and concept designer Scott Kester talk about how they view the direction they should be taking with the Borderlands sequel, touching on narrative, art, and design decisions that keep the game interesting for players.]
The first Borderlands took what was seen as a big creative risk in terms of its tone, art direction, and its blend of elements from the shooter and loot-based action RPG genres. There was also a big payoff: strong reviews and big sales.
The team at Gearbox reconvened to define the direction of the upcoming sequel. Of course, the expectation is "more, more, more of the same," but Gearbox's Anthony Burch, writer and Scott Kester, concept designer, don't quite see it that way.
In this conversation, they describe the reasons for setting the game five years after the conclusion of the prior game's final DLC pack, why they set the game in new types of environments and how they build them, and how the team keeps the writing for the game both dark and humorous.
In Borderlands 2, the writing is quite interesting because it's very sarcastic, sort of tongue-in-cheek. How big is the writing team on the game?
Anthony Burch: You're looking at it. [laughs]
AB: I'm the only person with the credit "writer". I mean, the overall story was hashed out by myself and Paul Hellquist, with some help from Jeramy Cooke, who's the art director; Paul Hellquist is creative director, and Mikey Neumann who is the... what's his official title? "Mikey Neumann" is his official title. And yeah, we hashed out the story over a couple months, and I am writing the script and all the battle dialogue.
Obviously I haven't seen too much of this one yet, but I've played the original. It's got a very specific character; the whole game is very much imbued with character. How do you keep everyone on the same page, creatively?
AB: It's usually like, I'll write something, and the parts that stick out as being right will go out to the team. I'm constantly going between different departments.
A lot of game developers will be like, "Yeah we have a writer; he's totally part of the design team!" and he writes the script and leaves. Every time we want to build a new location or something like that, we have a meeting, and I'm involved in all of that stuff. So it's kind of going back and forth on that stuff.
And the guiding light is always that Borderlands can be funny, but it's also got to have a hard edge to it. So if you look at the character of Scooter in the first game, he's like "Haha! Funny redneck guy!' and says goofy things, but at the end of the day he has you save a guy from being killed just so he can murder him slowly, off-screen, for having sex with his mom. So there's still a little bit of an edge there, and that's always the place we want to go to prevent things from being too silly.
And you, Scott, are the concept designer. What does that role entail?
Scott Kester: I created all the main characters. I'm an artist; I created all the main characters, a lot of the environments, props, and things. When we changed the art style, I was one of the guys that took the first crack at redesigning all the characters.
You mean during development of the original game?
It's a very distinctive game. I feel like people are afraid to try stuff like this. Still, it's good that you did.
SK: Yeah, and one of the realities of when we were doing the first one was we took that risk to change that, and a lot of people thought we were crazy. But we knew it was something that we really wanted to do.
And we felt the game, with its gameplay -- with the shooting elements and the RPG, the fusion of that -- we felt we needed something that wasn't the norm, to bring that triad together together. And it was a gamble, but we're very appreciative that people accepted it, because it's one of those things where people could easily go, "What is this?!"
AB: "Cartoon game?!"
SK: "This is all silly!", and we weren't sure how it was going to be taken. I'll be honest -- I was extremely nervous when the first screenshots were released; I was like, "Oh my God, they're going to hate what we're doing." There was a little bit of a mix, but overall it really showed that it was nice that we tried something a little unique and people took to it.
So we're hoping that maybe across the industry we see a little more, not just our game, but maybe people trying some things. But in this day and age, with budgets as what they are, it's a gamble to take a risk. So we stuck to our guns, and it paid off for us.
Do you lose access to some of the shortcuts? A lot of games have tread in the footsteps of other games -- in the conventions.
AB: Not necessarily; if anything it might help clarity. Because when everything has to be perfectly realistic, and shaded, and stuff like that, it's hard to bring things out from the environment, and draw attention to them. And we already have this rough concept art style, I think.
SK: Yeah, and that's one of the things: we just really wanted to be us, so we didn't want to be somebody else. And really, when we looked at the artists on the team and the designers, and even the writers, as we started making these visual changes, it started influencing game design; it started influencing, obviously, the writing.
And that was really cool, because instead of like doing a me-too, we were just kind of saying, "Well, this is us, and we're happy to be who we are." And I think people may see that in the way that the game came together.
It sounds like things take a creative turn when you move outside the box.
SK: Yeah, it was interesting because the game design was always good. Like, the loot loop always felt nice; but there was something that wasn't quite "there." And when that slid into place, it seemed like the idea bubble just turned on for people, and game designers started doing crazy stuff, like creating midgets and big arm dudes. The writing got more interesting, the names of the guns.
And that's where I think a lot of people really enjoyed that life -- we were intentionally funny. [laughs] And it also just kind of said, "We don't take ourselves that seriously. And we're not trying to be pretentious at all. It's more about just having fun with it."
It seems like the first game was really an underdog, and it really performed very well. The second game, well, now you've got the built-in expectations thing going. So how does that affect you guys creatively, this time around?
AB: It's an interesting line to toe. Because -- I can only speak narratively -- but the challenge was there's a lot of people who really liked the characters and the world of Borderlands -- how do we satisfy those people, while also acknowledging that some people maybe wanted more out of it?
And so the solution we came up with was like, "Alright. Well, the Vault Hunters from the first game as playable characters, we want to make some new character classes, so let's make those guys NPCs." If you've played the first game, you already have this built-in attachment to them, this emotional attachment, especially if you played as them.
And let's use them to drive along the story. But also tell this brand new story about this brand new antagonist called Handsome Jack, and what he's done to Pandora, and set it five years later, so it feels like this fresh start; it doesn't feel like I'm walking into the same desert, on the same bus, and dealing with all that kind of stuff. And the gun system and what we've done with that -- taking something awesome and turning it up to 11, essentially.
SK: It's kind of a tough situation, because you want to invent, and you want to make these things new. But if you don't stay true to what you were, people might cry foul. But you also don't want to get into... a thing I say a lot is that I'm imitating myself, like, "is this what I would've done?"
It's not about that. I think Borderlands is -- and will always be -- more about what feels best for the game, and what is the gut reactions to those things. But we really wanted to give somebody something worthy of the original.
We were very fond of the first game, and we really want to make a true sequel, and make it worth people's time to check it out, and not just re-skin the last game and play the same character, shooting the same things, in the same environment.
AB: Seeing the environments really, to me, sort of encapsulates how we think about a sequel. Because it's like you have these beautiful new arctic tundra areas, and these grasslands and stuff, and it feels completely new; all you mostly saw in the first game was just dust and dirt and all that stuff.
But even though it looks very different, it's still in that Borderlands style -- it still feels very harsh and very wasteland-y, and still feels connected to Pandora. It doesn't feel like we were like, "And now we're on planet X!" And you have no connection to the original game.
SK: That was one of those things that, as you go, "Okay, we're going to do this, but does this feel like Borderlands?" And luckily, the way we render the art and the way we draw it and create this stuff it helps the cohesion there.
But we also know we're not making beautiful, lush environments. It's still harsh -- everything around every corner wants to kill you, but it's just to stay true to the nature of what the game is.
Very often when you see concept art, and then you see what the game actually looks like, there's a really big gap there. I'd guess there's not as much a gap here, but I was wondering if you could talk about that.
SK: Man, this game, I mean, I think when you see the model for our antagonist -- Handsome Jack -- it's like a spitting image of what I drew, just way better looking. [laughs]
We really pride ourselves, and a lot of times we'd shown people an image of the characters next to each other, and sometimes they couldn't tell what was the in-game art and what was the actual concept art.
For me, it's really awesome because I'm watching these super talented guys take my scribbles and turn them into these amazing... It's amazing to see. And it's really rewarding for me.
AB: I think production and design-wise it's really useful, too. Because we have an awesome guy named Kevin Duke doing concepts for the new gun art, and when he makes a mockup of a gun and shows you like, "This is what a screenshot might look like," you don't have to mentally leap at all, and be like, "No, how would that really look when we put the models in?"
Because the concept art style -- it looks like a screenshot; it looks like exactly what it's going to look in the real game. It's super useful for getting feedback, and all that kind of stuff.
SK: It's fantastic, and that guy is a beast.
I want to ask about the five year gap in the story. Why, narratively, was the decision made?
AB: We wanted to bring the Vault Hunters into a new emotional place. We wanted you to feel a little bit surprised about where they find themselves, and to basically show how Handsome Jack has changed this world.
Because we want to show you Pandora, but show you a Pandora that is not 100 percent untamed, not 100 percent no civilization anywhere. Borderlands is still very much sort of a Wild West -- you're not going to meet too many friendly people -- but we wanted to have this presence of Handsome Jack.
So when you look at the moon, and there's a big Hyperion Base, you can never forget that Handsome Jack is screwing over the moon. That five year gap gave us the time we needed to feel like that's a reasonable amount of time for the world to have changed, and for all the original players to have changed circumstances.
And everybody's got a different grudge against Handsome Jack, and you'll get to find out what those grudges are as the game goes on. And what's even better about that is you get to learn about who the Vault Hunters are as characters now because you're not controlling them. So you can see like, "Oh, how did Roland bounce off?", or "What's Mordecai's story?" or "What's Brick's story?"
It's about giving the story some breathing room, so you can do different stuff with it.
AB: Exactly, yeah. Because we want to be like, "Okay, exactly after Robot Revolution, this is what Roland did." Like, "Really, all that stuff happened to him in the 30 minutes after I put down Robot Revolution?" You'll see the Vault Hunters in very different circumstances than we last saw them, and we needed those five years to justify that.
It sounds like there's a tremendous amount of content compared to the original game; it sounds like a much bigger game. Is that accurate?
SK: The physical size is larger than the last game. The one thing that we're really trying to do, though, that we're priding ourselves on, is that there's so much more diversity inside of that, and there's so much more life. When you're talking about enemies, you're talking about guns, environments.
I feel like we've created more art already for this game than we did for the entirety of the last game, at this point in development. We've got a monumental amount of new stuff in the game, and that is really impressive to me. And we're really trying.
AB: Even more so, I think, than just the sheer amount, the bulk of it; it's about making sure those environments are really dense. So you saw on top of the dam, I think, you know all the bloodshot decals, and the bandits themselves look very different. You saw all that environmental storytelling of, where you just walk around a corner and a loader just impales the guy on its arm, and that kind of stuff. Making sure that the world just feels much more alive, and the experience feels like an immersive, cohesive adventure, rather than just like, "Let's do a shit load of assets and find a spot for them."
SK: Yeah, and the way that we build the environments is, we just take these elements and start jamming them together. And that's kind of like the ramshackle nature of Borderlands -- it's very "I don't know, how would you fix this? Well, I have this piece of sheet metal and I got a couple two by fours!" And that really allows us to get creative with the props that we make. And I think you'll see, in this game, we've really sort of upped the ante, as far as the visual interest around the game. Not only in that, but like Anthony said in the life of the world in itself, and the density of it.