Borderlands 2 writer on setting up a sequel, and why death matters

By Steve Watts, Jan 02, 2013 10:30am PST

Borderlands 2 followed in its predecessor's plot points and tone so seamlessly, some fans may not have realized that it brought on an entirely new, dedicated writer. Anthony Burch, who had made his name outside the development community with his self-started web series Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin'?, was tasked with continuing the franchise.

"When I came on-board, there were a bunch of different ideas as to how different plot threads could have been finished up, and we started to pick the ones that made the most sense for the story we wanted to tell," Burch told Shacknews. "A lot of it was working with the pieces we had in the first game to create something new in the second game."

Be careful, though, readers. This interview is filthy with spoilers.

One defining trait of Borderlands 2 was its smarmy villain, Handsome Jack. Burch said that the character was very clearly set from the start, but he worked to flesh him out a bit. "He was funny but he was kind of one-dimensional," he said. "So all the dialogue he has after Angel dies, we made that a lot darker and a lot more angry to give him an arc. In earlier drafts of the script, you kill Angel and he's like "joke joke joke," and so we tried to add a vengeful streak into the later part of the game. But he was always kind of a smarmy jerk that you were supposed to like and hate at the same time."

Angel's death scene was one of the darkest parts of a game peppered with dark moments, as it tasked the player with quite literally killing a man's daughter before his eyes. Nailing the tone was the most difficult part. "That scene in particular went through revisions. It was finding the right amount of anger for Jack to have. Recording the dialogue in the first session he was just completely freaking out, and it just seemed weird. That's a completely reasonable response because your daughter just died, but it was pressing this completely different emotional button that made no sense." That climactic scene leads to Jack's shift toward outright vengeance, and a real anger that replaces his dismissive attitude. So that's led some players to ask: is Jack the good guy, and the Vault Hunters the villains?

"In my mind, I thought this guy believes that he has legitimate reasons for enslaving his daughter," said Burch. "He's not this evil piece of shit that knows he's an evil piece of shit. He believes he's the good guy, and thought that by restraining Angel he was using her power to make the world a better place and keeping her safe. And so once you kill Angel, I think in Jack's mind, he's the protagonist in the cop movie where his daughter is killed and he goes on a rampage."

Angel's death was one of two major characters who didn't live through the second installment. The other was Roland, one of the playable characters from the first game. Burch joked that he's "a hack who loves Joss Whedon," but pointed out that killing Roland was meant to give the game some weight.

"I wanted to do everything we could to dispel the idea that Borderlands is a series that story doesn't matter, that nothing has a lasting effect on the universe," he said. "To me the most obvious and stark way of doing that was to take a character that you've played as and kill them, because the world is demonstrably different for you if you played as Roland. Even if you don't like it, it sets up the precedent that this is a franchise and universe that really earnest bad things can happen."

Now that we know bad things can happen, it leads to the question of the future. The game sets very clear pieces in play for a sequel, in the form of a Vault map that leads to several planets outside Pandora. But Burch feels satisfied with some of the story hooks he's already put in place, and in particular the magical element of the Sirens' existence. Lilith and Maya were both playable characters with magical powers for the purposes of gameplay, but Angel's identity as a Siren cemented them as a larger part of the mythology.

"Sirens are sort of our version of 'magic' in the Borderlands universe, so it gives you a lot of opportunities as a writer," Burch said. "But like most of the things in the first game, it's cool to set up neat little rules and then give yourself room to move around. So we didn't get into too much detail about what the Sirens are. The story isn't effectively about them and we wanted to establish some canon but not paint ourselves into a corner.

"We've set up all these things that we can follow up on like Sirens and Vaults -- all that kind of stuff but we're going to cross those bridges as we come to them -- which is sort of how Borderlands 2 was, we have all these threads, which ones do we want to follow up on and which ones do we want to save for later."

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