The lead writer of Borderlands 2 talks to us about everything nerdy.
By Tim Colwill on June 5, 2013 at 6:22 pm
Click here to read the first part of our massive Anthony Burch interview!
GON: I remember one of my old DMs introduced objects like rocket launchers and grenades into a fantasy game, but he described them in such a way as to make sure that our barbaric characters from the middle ages had no idea what was going on. It was rather delightful, I pointed this ‘strange wand’ at one of my friends and blew him up because it turned out to be a rocket launcher. That was exciting!
GON: When you’re making a D&D borderlands game do you have to take into account any of the meta level of play that players will be experiencing? I mean I don’t think Borderlands is a necessarily very serious game to begin with but if you’re going to run a game inside a game you’ve got another meta-level of concern to deal with. Does that mean you’ve got to be really careful with how the DM interacts or are you just balls-out and Tiny Tina changes things on the fly?
Anthony: The exact thing you just said. The balls thing. It wasn’t something we had to worry about, it was an opportunity. Because now when you’re in a world that is completely under the control of a character you suddenly can do things you couldn’t do before because you would have had to explain them. Like “Oh suddenly this boss fight changes from one boss to another one just because Tina got bored halfway through” or “Oh there’s no bar in this little village — well now there is because one just appears”. It’s really freeing to actually just do stuff like that and have it be explained by Tina’s whimsy or whatever the hell.
And not only that but it also allows you to surprise the player in a number of ways, like we have a quest “Oh solve this riddle, roll this insight stat to see if you can solve a riddle” and Brick rolls his dice too hard — and in front of the player the person who asked them the riddle gets crushed by an enormous ten-foot tall D20 that kills him because Brick threw his dice too hard and broke the miniature. Being able to play around with the meta-level influencing the game you’re inside was a real strength and something that I think will hopefully keep players surprised. It’s what I was talking about before with the idea that Tina is dealing with this death so she’s bringing in characters from the meta-level, her real life and her memory, into the game you’re playing as a way of coping with it. I think that’s one of the things that makes the experience kind of really interesting.
I mean we could have just said “Okay you go to an island on Pandora that’s got orcs on it” and that would have been kinda boring. But I think the fact that you’re within a fictional fantasy world that Tina is controlling give us all these crazy options in terms of gameplay scenarios.
GON: When you say ‘roll an Insight check’, do you have any other sort of skills the player can test or influence? Is it all just narrated and the skills are a storytelling concept?
Anthony: The skills are a storytelling concept, yeah. But finding ways to touch on them without changing out mechanics drastically — we had a set of class mods actually that you can find in the game that are alignment class mods. So if you’re a commando you’ll find maybe a Lawful Neutral Ranger class mod. That’ll change your skills and your title, so instead of being a Level 23 Gunner Commando you’ll be a Level 23 Lawful Neutral Ranger, or Lawful Evil, or like… so every one of the modifiers, lawful, neutral, and chaotic and then neutral good and evil, have different stat bonuses associated with them.
So if you’re say an Assassin you might become a Lawful Evil Rogue which means you get increased accuracy and critical hit damage. Or if you’re a Psycho, maybe you’ll get a Chaotic Neutral Berserker mod, which increases your fire rate and your clip size I believe. So we kind of touch on, well not skills as you were talking about, but alignment and other things like that.
GON: How did you decide which alignments got which bonuses?
Anthony: It was just sort of a ‘feel’ thing that Matt Armstrong and I — well actually mainly Matt Armstrong, he’s the guy who did a lot of the general game design — we said “What feels like evil? Shooting someone in the face, kind of critical, evil… maybe evil is critical hit damage? What’s lawful? Well law is accuracy, being correct and precise, so maybe accuracy.” There are some that don’t make as much sense like “Chaotic, fire rate, spraying bullets everywhere, not caring”… I think neutral being magazine size was “Oh yeah… that’s neutral I guess”.
GON: Neutral is definitely what I think I of when I think of ‘more bullets’. Listen did you have any wizard robes around the office?
Anthony: We actually do, yeah. There’s a guy, Jonathan Hemingway… I mean it’s more ‘snuggie’ than it is ‘wizard robe’ and it’s more ‘Hello Kitty’ than ‘Lord of the Rings’ but he gets cold a lot so we brought him a Hello Kitty snuggie that he wears all the time. From a certain angle it looks like a wizard robe. But we do actually have an achievement or possibly a mission, I can’t remember which, that references putting on your robe and wizard hat.
GON: Excellent. Of course, that’s basically mandatory. Now when you said that Tiny Tina is using this to work through her issues and so on, is this something you yourself have experienced at your gaming table? When you were roleplaying? Or was it just something that you felt would be a good time to combine with an idea you had sitting around in your head — it’s not based on an actual play experience, I presume.
Anthony: It’s not based on a specific D&D play experience, but we actually get a lot of fanmail from people who say things like “Hey, my dad was dying of cancer (or something like that) or my parents are going through a breakup”, all these sort of horrible things that can happen in your life, and the story always ends with “but Borderlands helped me get through it”. I played with my dad while he was undergoing therapy and it gave us something to bond over, or I played this when my parents were getting divorced to try and escape what was going on — it goes back to what we were talking about earlier with like, people always say that “nerd stuff” harms people, makes them dumb, makes them do bad things, whatever.
The fact that there’s almost no voice ever saying “No! Nerd stuff can be really healing and really great” (apart from that Community episode) kind of made it feel like “Okay we can take this aspect of emails we’ve gotten and try to make a campaign around it”. And really a lot of that was… we didn’t realise that until after the fact. I wrote the thing with feedback from the team and one of the suggestions was “This should be about her going through (redacted)’s death and getting used to that” and only afterward we were like “Oh yeah!” because it ties into all this other crazy stuff that we’ve noticed in our own lives and in all the emails we’ve received.
GON: What’s next for Tiny Tina then if this helps her work out her issues with (redacted)?
Anthony: I don’t know! The easy thing to do that always kind of bugs me a lot is that once a character has been done working through an issue then you immediately have to give them a new problem to work through. I mean can’t you just give them a rest? Let them be happy for fifteen minutes before you pull the rug out from under them again? So I don’t know. Something says I might allow her to be happy for a little while before I give her something horrible to deal with but for now I think she’s earned a rest.
GON: This is the biggest DLC yet — does that mean it’s the last one for some time?
Anthony: This is the last campaign DLC for certain. It’s a big, multi-hour story. It’s the last within the season pass that we promised.
GON: So after this, Anthony — have you ever considered working on some sort of serious actual RPG-style title? Similar to an actual D&D storyline?
Anthony: I’ve been eager to try something other than comedy just to know if I can do it, yeah. There’s certainly an element of that. But that said if it turns out I can’t, I’m very happy to spend the rest of life writing dick and fart jokes. I mean yeah, it’s hard not to do something like this and wonder “What if?” but for now I’m happy to do the comedy version of that rather than actually, you know, making you care about why you’re killing orcs.
GON: I always enjoy playing as orcs because everyone kills them so easily, it gives them a more interesting flavour.
Anthony: Yeah, you want to be the underdog.
GON: Actually I mostly just think orcs are really cool, so, uh…
GON: Look this seems like a good time to ask: you were seeking feedback on Twitter some time ago about whether Tiny Tina was a racist character after some people raised concerns. I didn’t really want to go into that now but look… this DLC is a big deal for Tiny Tina. Have you changed anything as a result of any feedback you got?
Anthony: Uhh… nope, not really. I gave it a tremendous amount of thought, stayed up late many weeks just tearing my hair out, looking in the mirror and going “Are you a monster?!”. Where I sort of ended was feeling like the thing that defines Tina is that she takes inspiration from everything. She’s got the hip-hop lingo but she’s also got fairy tales, and Alice in Wonderland, and sometimes she talks like a British aristocrat for no reason. What this whole thing told me was that “Oh she needs to do that even more!” Now there’s a moment in this DLC as I mentioned earlier where she speaks Japanese, just out of nowhere, because it’s a cool thing that gives more flavour to her line.
And I was like “Oh my god she should have been doing that the whole time!” She’s constantly going into different languages, different modes of speaking and that’s her personality, she’s manic and unpredictable and that’s the main thing. She should do even more stuff like that. She should speak German sometimes. There’s one moment where she speaks in Japanese in this DLC but I didn’t go through and intentionally remove anything because of all that, no.
GON: How did Ash find doing the voices for this new DLC?
Anthony: I think she liked it a lot. She was going through some — bizarrely — going through some stuff in her own life at the time and this kind of forced her/helped her with it because she had to confront it head on in scenes where Tina has to cry and all that kind of stuff. One of the things that is really nice about working with Ash is that we’ve done it for five years already, so we know each other’s sense of humour and what the other person wants out of the line. So I will just have a line and say “Tina turns this into a song” and she’ll just make up her own song and it’ll be exactly what I want and I didn’t even know I wanted it. And she’ll know where the jokes are and what’s supposed to funny. She’s very talented and I am in no way biased.
GON: Did you base any of Tiny Tina on her personality or did they both evolve over time?
Anthony: I think Tiny Tina is an amalgamation of Ash’s Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’ personality (which is really not her as a person, she’s much more sane and normal) and our friend Christina who is actually — Tina is named after Christina, who talks in hip-hop all the time, raps all the time, you never know what she’s going to say next but she’s very manic.
GON: Is it difficult to get authentic Japanese, hip-hop lingo, that sort of thing? Did you have to carefully consult with people to make sure you didn’t get broken sentences?
Anthony: Actually the Japanese thing came about as an ad-lib because Tina had a line where she was just going to say “Yeah sure” and Ash and I just realised like, that was really boring for her to say. And Ash already speaks Japanese so she just volunteered and then just… said something in Japanese.
GON: And the hip-hop lingo?
Anthony: A lot of it is honestly lyrics from songs. She has a part where she says “You da best shorty, you da you da best” and that’s just word for word something from a song which I thought was a funny lyric.
GON: Are you going to be seeing an increase in D&D play around the office as a result of this campaign?
Anthony: Yeah. I mean we already have actually. We have a thing called game time where five o’clock every day you get to play a game of whatever you want, even competitors games, for an hour, to bond with your team and stuff. I’m already seeing a lot of D&D games spring up here and there. It’s pretty cool.
GON: Thankyou Anthony for a lovely interview!
Anthony: Same to you!