At PAX West 2022, we had the opportunity to sit down with James Lopez, Director of Production at Gearbox Software, to learn more about New Tales from the Borderlands.
Unlike previous Borderlands games, New Tales from the Borderlands has more of a narrative focus. Not only will your choices matter in the game, they’re presented to you in more of a subtle way. There are also fun side activities and mini-games to enjoy like Vaultlanders.
If you’re curious as to where the game fits in regards to the Borderlands franchise, or are wondering about the approach to the game’s narrative, here’s everything we learned about New Tales from the Borderlands at PAX West 2022!
New Tales from the Borderlands interview with James Lopez at PAX West 2022
Shacknews: As background, can you tell me a little more about yourself and your work on the project?
James Lopez: Yeah, sure! My name is James Lopez, I’m the Director of Production at Gearbox Software in Fresco. I started in QA about fifteen years ago and slowly failed my way upwards into production, then at some point made the pivot into administrative leadership and that’s how I got into being a director.
When I started on New Tales, I was a senior project producer that’d just wrapped up some time on BL3 and some other projects. I spent most of my career in Borderlands, either as a tester on BL1 or as a producer on all the Gaige DLC for BL2, and then Pre-Sequel as a sort of franchise producer/liaison with Telltale on Tales From the Borderlands. I spent a long time either on Pandora or something involving Borderlands.
Towards the end of BL3 we started talking about new ways that we could tell stories inside of the Borderlands universe. Of course, Tales came up because that was really our first time trying to reach a new audience, and we’d partnered with Telltale because they were phenomenal at telling stories and already had a loyal fanbase that not only played that kind of game, but their games [as well].
But Telltale had unfortunately folded since then, and we were like, well, let’s look at this and see if we can do it ourselves. We talked about the idea for a while — well over a year — then we saw an opportunity to partner with some original members of the Telltale narrative team and started brainstorming on what that story could be because we’d just finished BL3 and [wanted] to tell the story on Promethea again.
[That] percolated for about another six months or so, then we had this idea that we’d pull the trigger on and started planning and had a first draft. Then the pandemic happened and we had to figure out how to shoot a cinematic game during a global pandemic where you can’t be within six feet of each other, found a way to make it work, and now we have a game.
Shacknews: In terms of New Tales from the Borderlands, where does it fit in the Borderlands universe for the characters and the storyline?
Lopez: New Tales takes place about a year after the events of BL3, so at this point Promethea is in a state of reconstruction. It’s recovering from its war with Maliwan and the Children of the Vault. Atlas is helping in that effort and they’ve also watched the space station where they do a lot of research, and that’s where our playable character Anu works.
She’s a scientist working on Atlas tech when all of a sudden Tediore, which is one of the major gun manufacturers that’s been around since BL1, invades Promethea airspace and assaults the Atlas space station and takes a Vault Key and comes down to Promethea looking for a specific Vault to open that they believe exists in the sewers of Promethea.
Anu comes down planetside to look for her brother Octavio who works at Fran’s Frogurts, and between those three, you have your playable characters. Fran’s Frogurts is an elaborate wink back to BL3 because it was Rhys’s favorite place to eat on Promethea. Maliwan blows it up with a giant laser, so when we eventually meet Fran and Octavio, her shop is in a state of slight reconstruction that still has this gigantic hole in it from the laser [blowing] it up.
Shacknews: That’s awesome that there’s continuity from previous games. Are there other little hidden things that fans will recognize in the game?
Lopez: Yeah, I think some people will recognize the Promethea locale and certain things in it. We’ve done a lot to expand the lore of that area; [and] with every Borderlands we always try to expand the universe and add new characters and new places. You drive around quite a bit of Promethea in BL3, so we try to bring you a little more time inside of those same streets. There are some recurring characters that people will recognize, but there are more winks to things we’ve done before rather than major characters. We try to focus more on our new cast, which is roughly 95% new characters.
Shacknews: Is it challenging to go from a game like Borderlands with various combat elements to more of a narrative-focused Tales From the Borderlands?
Lopez: Yeah, absolutely. It’s tricky because Borderlands players, especially those who are really good at it and love it, they’re great at these looter shooter, twitch reaction sort of games. You have to be fast on your feet in a normal Borderlands game. But the people who play adventure or interactive narrative games, they’re not usually that [type of] player.
You get some who are for sure, like I play a lot of shooters but also enjoy that sort of game. But by and large, it’s people who play [games] differently and are looking for something different. Even back on the previous Tales game, we thought about trying to add shooter elements and were like, well, if we want to do shooter elements we’ll just do another Borderlands game. With that in mind, we really committed to the idea of, “How do we reach people inside this genre?” Especially [people] who’ve never played a Borderlands game before.
It’s really tricky because we know how to make shooter games, but we’ve never personally built this kind of game before, and that was a big part of why we teamed up with some of the original Telltale team to try and make sure we understand the philosophy of how you do that sort of thing and how you structure this sort of game. Because these cinematic games are essentially a collection of one long video that you break into smaller bits. So how do you chain these series of choices, when do you branch, and how do you bring them all back together; it’s super-duper complicated. We’re really grateful that we teamed up with them on it because we learned a lot in the process.
Shacknews: Speaking of the narrative, I know that with the Tales games choices really matter. Are there big game-changing choices that you can make in New Tales From The Borderlands?
Lopez: Choice is our most important feature in this game. I think a lot of people think of choice as that time you press the button for a dialogue choice, but it’s really everything you do. Every input you make is a choice — the choice to move forward, the choice to move backward, how you respond to a character’s question. Everything you’re doing is some sort of deliberate decision, and we wanted to reinforce that and support it as much as possible. So you do make choices that have a lasting impact that sometimes you won’t [be able to] tell for a while.
Sometimes you might not know if the decision you make now influences the ending until you get there. We have quite a few decisions that you get immediate feedback on, one way or another. We think of that as like… in the mini-games, the Vaultlanders game, you make a choice whether or not to dodge being hit; you make a choice to attack, and there’s feedback for all those sorts of things that I think people take for granted. It’s a reinforcement of your choice. In addition to that sort of thing, we heavily invested in performance capture which is full body — face, mouth, fingers, the whole shebang. We did that because we didn’t want to rely on the sort of notification process that says, “Someone will remember that decision.”
There are a couple of things about that. One is that it puts an interesting spotlight on the decision you just made, but it oversells the importance of that decision to the extent that it undermines every other decision you make that doesn’t have it. Also, you get buyer’s remorse sometimes with those where you’re like, oh crap, was that the right decision? Should I go back and reload this checkpoint? Maybe that’s like five minutes of the same story I have to replay again before I know, before I decide how I feel about it.
We tried to eliminate that sort of anxiety by doubling down on the performance of the actors. And what we showed on stage at PAX, when you’re first in the sewers, Anu has to choose between Fran’s plan or Octavio’s plan. We chose Fran’s plan and Octavio’s feelings are clearly hurt, he definitely resents that his sister didn’t side with him. We could’ve slapped a notification at the top that says, “Hey, maybe he hates that.” But instead, we used Octavio’s delivery [to reflect] how his feelings are hurt. We leave it up to you to decide if you’re okay with that. We want you to decide for yourself how to feel about it, not have us tell you how to feel about it.
Shacknews: That might also lead to more surprises later on too, right? Because you’re not being given hints, it’s more subtle?
Lopez: It’s very subtle. It’s a little cheesy, but we take inspiration from real life. Imagine I’d been like [to you], “Nice shoes.” Is he being nice? Is he being a dick? What is this? If I have a notification above your head that says you’re going to remember that, “Morgan is going to remember...”, I’d be like oh god, did I do all of that right? But I have to trust the way I said it and your feedback which tells me that that was a pleasant conversation. We like that ambiguity because we want you to be the one thinking about decisions you make and why, and we’re not trying to preach to you about how all of this works.
Another thing worth noting in the input stuff is that we showed that we have a lot of quick time events (QTEs). The good news is that if you’re terrible at QTEs like I am — I’m one of those people if I don’t think about it I’ll get it right, but if I look at the prompt and it says “X” I’m going to press “Y.” I don’t know why, it’s just how my brain works. But if you’re like that [as well], you can tweak the settings to give you more time to almost auto-pass them, so it can be very forgiving. Some of the QTEs are hard fails, meaning you have to reload the checkpoint if you fail them. But a lot of them have soft fails, which means you could be in combat and if you miss the QTE, you might get injured, which advances the direction of the plot in a new way where once it’s done, you have to resolve that. Like Fran gets shot by the guardians while trying to close a tunnel, but she doesn’t have to be shot. If you pass the QTE, she closes it no problem.
What you don’t see in that playthrough is what happens afterwards because she got shot. In the final product when people are playing it, half will see that you unlock a unique version of the narrative where she gets patched up, which may sound trivial but is a callback to the inputs that you made either intentionally or unintentionally. We want people to think about how they’re interacting with the game. What does it mean to make these choices? Once people realize you can fail a QTE and it continues, we’re really hoping that after that moment, every time they engage in a QTE, they’re making the decision of, well wait, do I want to experiment with this? Do I want to try? Do I want to win? What happens if I fail? Just interacting with the game in a new way they might not have really thought about before.
Shacknews: That leads into my next question of there being a lot of different ways you can go about things. Are there different endings you can get? And with there being a lot of replayability, duration wise, how long does roughly to run through the game?
Lopez: Broadly speaking there’s little over twelve hours of cinematic content that someone can consume in one playthrough. Mileage obviously varies by how you play the game. I keep talking about choice, so the first time you play Vaultlanders is the only time we require you to play Vaultlanders. We do it that way because as game developers, we want to introduce to you the things inside the game, teach you how it works, and try to suggest why you should do it. By playing Vaultlanders, you get (if you win) a Vaultlander. If you lose, you just play again.
We never want to penalize the player because that’s not fun. Vaultlanders is not meant to be a hardcore thing. It’s an incentive, but after that, we leave it up to you. You can play the rest of Vaultlanders or not. If you don’t care about collecting the figurines, you can skip all that. There’s free-walk sequences [as well] where you walk around a room and interact with everything and try to find [things]. Like sometimes you open a box for no reason because it’s Borderlands. No one has personal boundaries or property in Borderlands, right? But if you’re digging around, you might find a Vaultlanders figure in there. So there are reasons to do it.
If you don’t care and just want to experience the story, okay cool, go do it. There are very few things that we force you to do in this game, because it’s the user’s choice. I think I went on a tangent. Does that answer the original question?
Shacknews: I think that answers most of it.
Lopez: Oh, and you asked about playtime. If you do all the things, it takes longer. If you skip things, it’s going to be a little shorter. But if it’s a little bit shorter, okay cool, that’s your choice. You play the game however the hell you want to. We just want to get it out in front of you.
Shacknews: It sounds like the playtime flexibility makes it easier to jump back in after you finish the game?
Lopez: With a game like this, it’s difficult to do speedruns because there are no artifacts that make you run faster and you can’t grenade-jump over a wall to shortcut something. But if you want a shorter playthrough, you can skip the mini-games. If you play everything the game has, there’s a lot in there for you to do in each playthrough.
Shacknews: Can you talk more about some of the mini-games in New Tales from the Borderlands?
Lopez: The one we’re primarily talking about right now is Vaultlanders. It’s a fun one to talk about, but there are other mini-games you can experience that are character-centric. From what we showed at PAX, all three characters are together, but they’re not always together, and they definitely don’t start off together. There are individual things you can do that play to each character’s ability. So we have Anu who’s a scientist, and we have some science-based puzzles that she can interact with that are exclusive to her. Fran has her own things that are Frogurt-related as well as some other stuff I can’t talk about right now, unfortunately. Octavio does as well, but since we can talk about Vaultlanders right now, I’ll just say that that is a mini-game that happened completely by accident.
Originally, it was just this dumb one-off joke about the idea that people collect figurines of their favorite Vault Hunters. Then, somewhere along the way during a script review, we were like, what if we turned this into some sort of fighting game where they fight each other, and we’re like, “Yeah, what if?” Over a couple more script reviews of us “Yes, and…”-ing the whole time, eventually we were trying to decide how detailed we want to make a fighting game when we’ve already made this decision that with New Tales, it’s not a skill-based game. If we [go that direction], we’re going back to shooter Borderlands, which is definitely skill-based. The answer was, well, we make a fighting game that doesn’t require a lot of skill. That eventually became two guys just smashing toys together and that’s how we got Vaultlanders. So that was a thing that wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did because we’re crazy.
Shacknews: Has the development team played a lot of Vaultlanders with each other? I’m just curious, like when you’re playtesting sort of thing, because it sounds like a lot of fun.
Lopez: Yeah, it’s a very feature-lite game, specifically so that anyone can play it. But it’s very silly, it’s very irreverent. This is very much a comedy title. There’s some serious stuff going on in it — there’s a planetary invasion, opening Vaults is always really dangerous, and in this game Tediore are very much the bad guys, and unfortunately bad things happen.
But at the core, it’s a very lighthearted game and Vaultlanders kind of reinforces it. But [yes], it’s a blast doing focus testing. Even before we do focus testing we’re doing dev tests and episode reviews, which are not so much episode reviews but more of like, we take a scene inside of an episode and go, “We’re playing this today, we’re taking a look at it.” I’ve probably seen the Vaultlanders fights at least a hundred times. They’re stupid and fun every time, because it’s silly.
Shacknews: I know you mentioned the game’s mo-capping and how it’s more subtle. How does combining the written portion, the narrative, with cinematic elements help set the scene? Like which one came first: storyboarding, or did you guys focus on how you wanted certain scenes to look with different characters first?
Lopez: The answer is yes; we actually did it both ways. Ideally, we start with a script or a concept of a theme and then parts of the storyboarding to mock it out. We have this tool that, if you ever watched featurettes for Pixar stuff, they have a similar thing where you have a storyboard to see how it’s supposed to play out, then eventually you add in temp VO and the whole sort of thing. We had a similar process for this.
But sometimes you have to hit the ground running and shoot without storyboards. Which I don’t recommend, because it’s kind of stressful because without that guidance, you’re completely at the mercy of your actors — who are amazing — but they want that guidance. And [also with] what the director and the writer are trying to convey, it’s way easier to do when you’ve got visuals. But we’ve definitely done it both ways and it’s super-duper helpful.
We have some awesome artists at GSQ [Gearbox Studio Quebec] who spent a lot of time making sure it works. You know we talk about how it was shot non-stop for over a year — they were cranking out storyboards for about eighteen months. Very busy people who are amazingly talented and super patient with us.
Shacknews: Can you talk a little bit more about the cast and who people can expect to hear voice-wise?
Lopez: In the previous Tales we had some very notable voice actors who are prolific in the industry. In this case because of the pandemic, we were limited on where we could shoot and who we could use. We teamed up with a mo-cap studio in Vancouver called Beyond Capture, and we partnered with them.
They had an amazing casting call where we found a lot of really great people that ended up becoming our primary characters. So we have Fran, Anu, and Octavio, we also saw Lou13 briefly in there, and Susan Caldwell. Those are probably our five main actors that spent a lot of time with us, but we worked primarily with Vancouver talent. There were a few people from Montreal and the Quebec area that flew across the continent to spend a year in lockdown just shooting with us because they love the idea of this game, and we’re super grateful to them for that. They brought the game to life in a very special way that we could not have done otherwise.
Shacknews: I know you’ve mentioned you don’t need to have played the other Borderlands games to play this game. But at the same time, there are things for existing fans as well, so I wanted to ask if there was anything else you wanted to add to that?
Lopez: We do have some callbacks in the game for the ultra-fans. But part of the beauty of having an almost completely new cast in a completely new story is that we don’t have to rely too much on the things that came before for us to tell a story. Gearbox has this motto that we’re here to entertain the world, and it’s a lot easier to entertain the world when they don’t have to have played like six games in order to do this one.
I personally really like that. I hope that we can go back and visit characters from other games and expand their lives and their lore a little more, but I’m really excited that anyone can pick up this game and play it. We do some onboarding early on with like the Marcus intros, which are a hallmark of the Borderlands franchise. He always does a pretty good job of onboarding them, but also as you’re meeting characters early on in the first episode, you’ll find out everything you need to know in order to play the game.
I also wanted to go back to that actor question for a second because I don’t think that most people will recognize them, but the woman who plays Fran was in one of the Hallmark romance movies. I don’t remember the name of it, but it’s the one about pies or something like that. So fans or maybe fans’ moms will recognize Fran, but she’s awesome.
Shacknews: Awesome, thank you for taking the time to speak with me, I’m really looking forward to New Tales from the Borderlands!
Lopez: Thanks, I hope you enjoy it! We spent like two and a half years making it, and we still love it. I think we love it the longer we’re on it. But we are very excited to get it out the door also.
Shacknews: Finally, what’s the release date for New Tales from the Borderlands?
Lopez: It’s going to be October 21.
We want to thank James Lopez again for taking the time to talk to us and dig even deeper into what people can look forward to in New Tales from the Borderlands. The game is set to be released on October 21 for Xbox One, Series X|S, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, and Windows PC with pre-orders available now on the official website for New Tales from the Borderlands.
For more from PAX West 2022, be sure to read through some of our other coverage including an interview with Monkey Island's Rob Gilbert and Dave Grossman, and our preview of High on Life from Squanch Games.