Earlier in the series I paid lip service to the notion that “the story doesn’t matter”. Hey, it’s just a comedy game, right? This isn’t Mass Effect. We’re not here for the story so it’s okay if it doesn’t work. But now that I’ve made my case against the story, let me do a face-heel turn:
Story matters more than most people think it does.
It’s true that not every game needs to be Planescape: Torment. I’m not expecting Witcher 3 levels of storytelling from Bulletstorm. Death Road to Canada doesn’t need to tell a story like the Last of Us.
A story doesn’t need to be big, complex, profound, clever, poignant, hilarious, long, incisive, or surprising. But if a writer tries to make a story do those things then it’s worth looking to see if they succeeded. Even if you don’t care about the story in terms of learning what happens next, the story provides the context and tone through which we experience the gameworld. Having a “good” story doesn’t mean having one that’s long, complex, deeply emotional, or philosophically profound. A good story just needs to achieve its goals and remain true to its characters.
Diablo II didn’t have a lot of story. In terms of story-to-gameplay ratio, the player spent many hours clicking on monsters for every minute they spent watching those cutscenes. But even though the vignettes were short and far between, they still accomplished the basic goal of telling you why you were going to these places and clicking on these monsters. They made it clear that this world was dark and desperate, and that even though your character seemed pretty powerful they were still very small in the face of such overwhelming forces. That setup and mood is still there in the back of your mind, even when you’re grinding for rare drops and skipping cutscenes. The Diablo II story accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, and doesn’t get in the way beyond that.
It’s true that there are lots of fun games with terrible stories. But that doesn’t mean the story doesn’t matter. It means the game would have been even better if the story had delivered on whatever it was trying to do.
Borderlands is a strange series. It’s a trilogy where the audience perception of what the series “should” be comes entirely from the second game. The first one was a grimdark adventure that was retrofitted to be action comedy at the last minute, which made it a bit of a patchwork. The third one added a lot of major gameplay improvements but also took itself too seriously and mangled its own lore trying to tell an un-funny story that was ill-suited to the series. We’ve got three different games in three different styles and we’ve all sort of decided that the second one is the “true” Borderlands experience because it’s the one with the memorable jokes.
Is Gearbox even capable of making another “true” Borderlands game? Anthony Burch left Gearbox in January of 2015, and he was responsible for the humor and tone that has come to define the series. (He shared writing credit with two other people on the Pre-Sequel, which probably explains why the third game felt so different from the second.)
Like I said at the end of my Mass Effect series: Writers are not interchangeable. When you change writers, you’re going to end up with a different game with a different feel.
I don’t really blame Gearbox in this case. (Or developer 2K Australia.) Burch left on his own. I’m not bringing this up to dump on the developers, but to point out how important the position of lead writer is.
I began writing this series back in March of 2017. At the time I hoped that we’d get a bit of Borderlands 3 news at some point in the year. Maybe a teaser trailer. Maybe some gameplay at E3. I wanted to end this series with a look forward and maybe comment on where the franchise was headed next. But here we are ten months later and there’s still no real news.
Back in February we got a tech demo where Gearbox showed off the rendering technology they’re working on for Borderlands 3. It was an interesting showcase of rending tricks, but it’s really difficult to judge how far along Borderlands 3 is by the contents of that presentation. They could be in the early stages, or they could be getting close to the final push. The only thing we have to go on is that according to rumors from internet randos, 2K Games has announced a “major flagship title” in fiscal 2019. Fiscal 2019 actually runs from April 2018 to March 2019, so maybe we’ll see Borderlands 3 sometime in that window. However, I have to imagine that if it does appear it’ll be closer to the end of that window to the beginning. If they were aiming for April then we’d be well into the marketing push by now.
Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford talked about Borderlands 3 in an interview last yearI saw it myself, but I can’t find it now. If anyone has a link please share in the comments. I swear I didn’t hallucinate this! and explained that the game is taking a long time because they feel the game should be “really big”. To me, this is not encouraging. I remember when Rocksteady decided they wanted to make Batman: Arkham Knight into a really “big” experience. They wound up with an overproduced mess, a game lacking in both focus and fun. The world was stretched out to Ubisoft scale, giving us a sprawling world of repetitive tasks that dragged the player away from the core gameplay elements that had come to make the series such a success.
Based on what little we know, Borderlands 3 could easily be headed in that same direction. Note the similarities in how the two series have developed:
- Launch with a surprise hit. (Borderlands / Arkham Asylum.)
- Follow that up with a second game that goes on the greater success. (Borderlands 2 / Arkham City.)
- The series is handed off to another studio for an awkward prequel that doesn’t quite fit in terms of tone, character, and story. (Borderlands Pre-Sequel / Arkham Origins.)
- The studio loses the head writer that gave the series its voice. (Gearbox lost lead writer Anthony Burch and Rocksteady lost longtime Batman writer Paul Dini.)
- The fourth game is designed to be bigger and more epic than the previous titles.
It’s not an exact parallel, but the similarities are there.
While I doubt anyone at Borderlands is eager for my input (and it’s too late for that anyway) I’m going to share my wishlist of features for Borderlands 3:
- Get rid of slag damage. (I really should have covered this much earlier in the series, but it slipped my mind. Sorry.) Slag is an elemental attack in Borderlands 2 that makes foes more vulnerable to other damage. So you zap someone with a slag gun, then weapon-switch to some other gun to inflict damage. This constant weapons switching – basically switching twice for every foe – is not fun. The end-game foes are already horrendous bullet sponges and making you constantly switch weapons does not make those protracted battles more fun. Pre-Sequel replaced slag damage with ice weapons, and it was a huge improvement.
- I’d really love for the next game to keep the enhanced mobility of Pre-Sequel: Double-jumps and ground-slams. Giving everyone jump boots or jetpacks would fit perfectly with the tone of the series.
- The grinder was introduced in the Pre-Sequel and was a huge step towards balancing the economy.
- No more Handsome Jack. Yes, he was funny, and yes you could totally bring him back with clones or robots or doppelganger. In fact, there’s precedent for all three in the existing Borderlands timeline. But he’s been at the center of two games now. The joke is over. Move on.
- In Pre-Sequel, Col. Zarpedon and the final vault guardian were both pretty solid boss fights. They had interesting mechanics and forced the player to stay mobile rather than playing peek-a-boo behind one bit of cover. Borderlands 2 had quite a few bosses that were just damage sponges, and those guys get old fast.
- I know Anthony Burch is gone, but I hope the new writer is able to imbue Borderlands game with a similar blend of snark, playfulness, and self-aware humor. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t get too caught up in the lore. Don’t feel the need to make constant callbacks to the same few ideas and characters. Take us new places, tell us new stories, and tell new jokes.
- Like Pre-Sequel, I’d appreciate it if the hub city (assuming there is a hub city) will be compact and convenient so players don’t need to do a lot of hiking when in town.
I’m sure every fan has their own wishlist of features, and I’ll bet very few of them have something like, “MAKE THE GAME REALLY HUGE AND EPIC!!!” We don’t need big, we need good, and those two are often in opposition. I’d rather they give us quality content rather than quantity. Obviously there’s no way to know if Borderlands 3 is destined to be a frustrating misfire like Arkham KnightYes, I know Arkham Knight has its fans. I’m not one of them., but I do worry.
It’s a shame we have to end this series on speculation rather than news, but that’s how things look to me right now in January of 2018. Here’s hoping Borderlands 3 doesn’t suffer from the increase in scale and manages to deliver the giggle-worthy skinner box of murder we’ve come to love.
Thanks for reading.
 I saw it myself, but I can’t find it now. If anyone has a link please share in the comments. I swear I didn’t hallucinate this!
 Yes, I know Arkham Knight has its fans. I’m not one of them.
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