Monday, January 4, 2016

Game of the Year #10: A Garbage Land of Sand and Sadness

10. Tales from the Borderlands
Telltale Games, 2015 (PC version reviewed)
It’s that time of year again: the time when everyone who writes about games feels compelled to catalogue their experiences into top ten lists and award some lucky contestant the meaningless title of Game of the Year. It’s a fun way to collect our thoughts, reflect on how the medium advanced (or didn’t advance) since the last time around, and, most importantly, argue endlessly about why everyone else’s list is wrong. So without further ado, here’s the #10 title on my personal countdown: Telltale’s Tales from the Borderlands. 
It can seem impossible to talk about a Telltale title without landing yourself in a preliminary debate about What It Means to Be a Video Game. On PC and consoles, anyway, Telltales’ particular brand of Adventure Lite has, rightly or wrongly, come to symbolize the extreme edge of what constitutes a “casual” game or - somewhat absurdly - something not a game at all. Phrases like “interactive television” get thrown around as if they were pejoratives, and self-styled “hardcore” gamers feel seemingly compelled to let you know that, however much they might enjoy the occasional Telltale, they ordinarily only ever play “real” games.

If this all sounds a little ridiculous, that’s possibly because it is, and I promise won’t spend much more time on it. In a medium as fluid and expansive as games, the notion of policing titles for purity feels as absurd as it is restrictive. At the end of day, all I know is that my experience with Tales from the Borderlands was wholly different from any I’ve had in other media - tv, books, or otherwise - or any I can imagine having elsewhere. It’s a game about choice above all else - genuinely moreso than any previous Telltales - and the player’s ability to mould the characters and narrative into a version of the story they’d like to tell. And if that doesn’t get at the heart of what makes games unique, I don’t know what does.

In some ways, Tales from the Borderlands is the most Telltale game out there. We’ve clearly reached some critical point where they’ve ceased to be adventure titles in the oldschool sense, for starters. There are exactly two moments in all of Tales where you’re required to rub an item on something to advance, and if you blink you might miss them. Inventory, consequently, feels almost vestigial, with the exception of a couple key items that will automatically be available to you in relevant story moments. Exploratory free movement sections are few and far between, to the point that it feels almost strange whenever the cinematic camera cuts to the flat, classic adventure perspective. The only major element that still clearly hearkens to the genre of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle is the EchoEye™, a cybernetic eye implant that allows Rhys (protagonist #1 of 2) to scan objects and characters for no reason except to read some of the most hilarious faux-corporate-wiki captions ever written into a game. It’s a cute excuse to get some Hitchhiker’s Guide color commentary layered into the whole thing, and it never fails to amuse.

The vast majority of the game, however, is spent in a cinematic mode that feels closer to the story beats of modern BioWare than anything in the adventure genre, peppered with thousands of dialogue options and quicktime event-like action controls. So, the usual Telltale stuff, but more of it than ever before. Unlike most previous Telltales, however - and unlike BioWare’s recent titles - the choices present a lot more variety than the “Good Guy, Bad Guy, Sarcastic Asshole” selection we’ve all come to roll our eyes at. Perhaps partly because *everyone* in the Borderlands universe is a sarcastic asshole, the choices in Tales typically reflect four or so distinct varieties in approaches to a conversation or decision that could *reasonably be outgrowths of that character’s personality*, allowing the player to decide who Rhys and Fiona will gradually become in the course of their adventure. I don’t know how better to describe the improvements here than to say that this is the first Telltale game I have a strong desire to replay, and that nearly every available option was so interesting, funny, and dynamic that I almost immediately wanted to rewind each chapter to try different routes.

Did I mention this game is funny? Well it’s not. It’s the funniest. No, really, it is. Even in a year boasting Undertale, this may be the most consistently drop-dead hilarious writing in a game since the point-and-click Lucasarts heyday. The vocal performances are spectacular, with voice-over veterans from Troy Baker to Patrick Wharburton to Laura Bailey giving 110% over the most cartoonishly expressive comic book facial animations this side of Venture Bros. The script itself feels like the kind of story that Borderlands was always meant to tell but never had a chance to within the confines of a first-person loot-em-up. The series’ signature ultraviolence serves here not only as a source of clever commentary but as a legitimate key ingredient of the narrative and its broader themes.

And that, more than anywhere else, is where we begin to get at what makes Tales special. Telltale has told rich, mature stories before; A Wolf Among Us took all the most interesting character elements of the Fables comics and actually brought them a layer deeper. But in Tales they’ve managed something even more impressive. Every character is a source not only of their own unique punchlines but of genuine human feeling and conflict, even at their most caricatured. Your average Great Game is lucky if it can give us even one, maybe two lasting, memorable characters who stand out in our thoughts of the game long after we’ve finished it. Not so with Tales from the Borderlands. Like Undertale, there’s not a single damn one of the cast I don’t already want to spend more time with or have the opportunity to see another side of on replay. Even the many antagonists - only one of whom is a genuine villain and murderous psychopath - are either downright likable or at least empathetic personalities in the mad, mad world that is Pandora. I spent most of my time with Tales (literally) laughing out loud, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I shed more than a couple tears at the more somber moments.

So call it a “casual” game, call it interactive tv - I don’t give a damn. Tales is among the best examples of what big budget storytelling has to offer this medium, and I for one love that that medium affords us narrative experiences as diverse in one year as The Witcher 3, Dark Souls II, Her Story, and Tales from the Borderlands. It’s a big tent, and there’s room for everyone who brings something to the show.

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