We Were the Pretenders: The VICE Gaming Verdict On ‘Tales From the Borderlands’
Telltale's now-complete series is very funny, surprisingly sincere, and the gaming equivalent of a TV show on Netflix that I can't help but binge watch.
This article contains spoilers – very few for Tales... itself, but if you're yet to play Borderlands 2 and want no part of its plot revealed, click away now.
One of the greatest adventure games of all time, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, begins with its hero, Guybrush Threepwood, hanging precariously over a pit of unknown depth with a treasure chest weighing him down. Tri-Island Area governor and Guybrush love interest Elaine Marley shows up but demands that he explains just how he wound up in this predicament before she'll help him get out of it, so we flash back to where it all started. Guybrush is definitely one to embellish the stories of his own adventures, so who's to say if anything that happens over the course of the game can even be trusted? Well, the game's ending provides a spectacular answer to that question, but for a while, anyway, Guybrush gets to shape his own story, and what really happened matters less than how the tale is told.
Whether the people at Telltale deliberately invoked Monkey Island 2 in the setup for Tales from the Borderlands, I don't know, but the game begins with its two heroes being held at gunpoint by a mysterious stranger who forces them to recount their adventures. Rhys, the former middle manager for the Hyperion Corporation, and Fiona, the con artist who has known nothing beyond the criminal lifestyle on the hard-knock planet of Pandora, make for spectacularly unreliable narrators, and much of the fun of Tales comes from the playful story structure that keeps you questioning whether you're seeing the truth or just one character's version of it. What really happened matters less than how the tale is told, and there's an energy in the telling of Tales from the Borderlands that makes it the game equivalent of a TV show on Netflix that I can't help but binge watch, the ending of one episode prompting me to hit play on the next as promptly as possible.
Though our two narrators are unreliable, some facts cannot be disputed. Rhys and Fiona find themselves thrown together by circumstance into what ends up being a journey across Pandora and to places beyond in search of one of the Borderlands universe's legendary vaults. The pursuit of vaults has often been the engine propelling Borderlands stories, but Tales does far more with this MacGuffin than any of the proper (shooter) games in the series. In those titles, the story serves the gameplay, and as sharp as the writing sometimes is, the characters aren't the focus.
The gameplay in Telltale games, by contrast, is designed to serve the story, which means there's not much to say about the experience of actually playing Tales from the Borderlands. In a sense, if you've played any one of Telltale's more recent episodic games, you've played them all. You make choices and navigate conversations as Tales' two heroes, and when words fail and action is called for, you play quick-time events while Rhys and Fiona struggle to survive whatever crazy situation they've managed to get themselves into this time. A Telltale game lives or dies not by its gameplay but by its pacing, its writing, its characters and relationships. And in these regards, Tales is very good: funny, occasionally subversive, and often unpredictable.
Tales' plot is full of surprises, which is why I don't want to say much about it. Its twists and turns, double- and triple-crosses should be discovered as you play the game. But it's worth noting that, for all its surprises, the story largely is what it is; you're encouraged to believe that your choices have a significant impact on how things play out, as the game constantly informs you that this character or that character will remember something you said or did.
But it's not really true. At one point in my playthrough, a character exclaimed that they were on "a roller coaster of emotions", and this is a much more accurate description of the story that Tales is telling. Your characters' motivations and actions have little effect on where things go. For the most part, they're helplessly carried along by the machinery of the plot. Dei ex machina abound and the story isn't above killing characters off (or, more often, pretending to do so) just to manipulate you into feeling something. Through it all, the story careens ahead along the same narrow track, hitting almost all the same highs and lows regardless of your choices.
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But the roller coaster is worth riding because it's a bit more than just a speedy series of twists and turns. Yes, it's full of unlikely events involving strange alliances, adorable robots, Mad Max-style vehicular battles, narrow escapes, unexpected reveals, noble sacrifices and a whole lot of wisecracks. But it's also a journey that changes the people who are swept up in it. Rhys is kind of a jerk when the game begins; his idea of success is climbing the ranks at Hyperion, a corporation which, to put it mildly, puts profits ahead of people. Fiona is street-smart and loves her younger sister Sasha (who is also in the con game), but she doesn't seem to realise that something is missing in her life, until she sees that her life can be more than what she thought it could be.
As a result of circumstances I won't even try to explain, Rhys ends up with an AI construct of former Hyperion CEO Handsome Jack riding shotgun in his brain. If you haven't had the pleasure of meeting Jack before, well, trust me; he's a megalomaniacal monster that you'll love to hate, and death (spoiler: he gets killed in Borderlands 2) has done nothing to dull his world-swallowing appetite for power or his razor-sharp tongue. His presence in Rhys' mind ratchets up the tension throughout Tales; despite not being corporeal, Jack feels like a very real threat, largely because he does not give even the slightest of fucks about anyone or anything but himself.
But Jack is not just a villain. He's also an embodiment of unrestrained corporate greed, and Tales is refreshingly critical of corporate culture. In one of my favourite moments, my goal was to blend in at Hyperion as an asshole executive, so as I approached two male security guards, I said, "Hey ladies," and asked them what they were up to. I got what I deserved; one of them retorted saying that they weren't up to much other than discussing how casual misogyny manifests in corporate executives. If you ever get to know your corporate heroes, Tales suggests, there's a pretty good chance you'll discover that they're assholes.
While Rhys has an uncomfortably close, personal experience with the (sort of) living manifestation of everything Hyperion stands for, forcing him to question the person he thought he wanted to be, Fiona finds her own sense of who and what she can be challenged as she's tossed into experiences that broaden her sense of what's possible. For the first two episodes, things move along at such a brisk pace that Fiona, Rhys and their ragtag crew of impromptu vault hunters rarely get a chance to speak in anything other than sharp witticisms. Thankfully, the game eventually slows down enough to give all the characters a chance to talk to each other more like real people. The vault hunter Athena (pictured with red eyes, main), for instance, may seem like little more than an unstoppable killing machine in the field, but in Tales' third episode, we see her struggling to balance the job she loves with the woman she loves. It's not easy.
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I don't think it's any kind of surprise or spoiler to say that the real treasure of Tales from the Borderlands isn't whatever Rhys and Fiona might or might not find in the Vault of the Traveler, but rather the friends they make along the way. Stories in which characters end up learning valuable life lessons can often feel trite and cliché, but because of what these two go through, I felt like the game earned the right to show them growing a little.
I sometimes tire of irony and cynicism, characters in games and movies who speak almost entirely in jokes and who seem incapable of expressing a sincere emotion for each other. Fiona and Rhys both start out as pretenders, because their lives as corporate lackeys and con artists have taught them to place value in pretending. But things are different by the end. Tales from the Borderlands is a very funny game but it's also a surprisingly sincere one in which constant cynicism and irony are the verbal tools of the shallow and cruel, and the capacity for emotional honesty is something characters discover on the path to becoming better people. Fiona and Rhys find a kind of truth, and for me, that's more rewarding than any legendary loot drop.
The complete Tales From the Borderlands is out now for just about any platform you'd care to play it on. PlayStation 4 version tested, with code supplied by Telltale Games.
This review made possible by NVIDIA SHIELD. This game is available on NVIDIA SHIELD - check out the NVIDIA SHIELD library here.
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