As great a game as the first Borderlands was, it didn’t offer much in the way of story. Developer Gearbox Software realized this and brought in Anthony Burch (best known for the often inappropriately hilarious web series, “Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’?”) to write Borderlands 2. Burch was also a member of the video game press corp whose equally sharp analysis and humor made him a must-read in his time at Destructoid and other places around the Web.
I had the opportunity to talk with Burch about the origins of Handsome Jack, his hope that Borderlands 2 woul be like Firefly — and, of course, about just how dark he can take the game’s humor. Burch is quick to laugh, speaks at a rapid-fire pace and knows exactly what he wants. He’s also the first to question his successes at crafting a narrative for the sequel to a game that didn’t have one in the first place.
Borderlands 2 doesn’t feel like it was built to be a multiplayer game where you can just chat with your buddies and the story won’t get in your way. It seems like there’s a lot more voice this time around, which fleshes out the experience. What was the motivation behind that?
It came from a lot of player feedback, that they wanted the story to be more acceptable. It’s more important that you enjoy yourself and you’re having the experience you want to have than me grabbing you by the throat and screaming Listen to all the words I wrote, they’re so cool aren’t they?! Our feeling about story is you have equal voice updates from objectives and characters but you never have to stop and stare at a cutscene for two or three minutes because especially in a multiplayer situation, it’s just not fun. It breaks the flow and feels wrong. Borderlands isn’t about that. Very early on, we decided we wanted to have more story because that’s what people wanted. But we didn’t want to compromise what made the game really enjoyable, which was being able to do whatever you want uninterrupted.
In the first Borderlands you’d take a mission and there’d be a wall of text, has that changed?
The wall of text is there, but as a back-up. The main stuff you get is through voice and characters speaking. The wall of text is still there in the mission log in case you log off and come back on two weeks later and say "What was I doing again?"
What were the key things you wanted to reach and do within the story? You’re known for “Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’?” which is really funny. Were you brought on to make the story a little more ridiculous?
Thank you. The nice thing about “Hey, Ash” is that it was a representation of what I thought about games; you could see a lot of my mentality of how I thought about story in games and all that. I did come in thinking I would love to double down on the humor because I thought the most successful stuff narratively about Borderlands was the DLC, which is a lot more funny than the main game was. It was sort of finding my voice within the Borderlands universe because as over the top as Borderlands is, it’s not some big clown car stuff. You can’t go absolutely nutball and be zany and not be serious at all. There’s still a lot of seriousness to the game. There’s still a certain amount of harshness and violence, so it’s been a fun challenge to find where the boundaries are. How silly can I go? How dark can I go?
How hard was it to work within that harsh violence and the humor?
It was hard at first, but then something clicked and I realized Oh, this is a dark comedy. This is not a hardcore action game that’s really serious. It’s not a balls-out comedy, it’s not a Lucasarts adventure game. It’s a dark comedy and once we found that out, we needed to find that anytime you do something zany or funny there needed to be a slightly dark counterpoint to it that in some cases makes it even more funny because of that bit of dark humor. I’m a big fan of dark humor.
If you look at the first game, the character [Dr. Patricia] Tannis, her audio logs are all very funny and cool but they’re very much undercut by this disturbing sense of knowing she's doing okay because she smothered her friends that were being killed by the things around her. That counterpoint sort of is where Borderlands lives and it’s where funny stuff can happen, but maybe later on that really funny character you met earlier had a really bad troubled past. Sometimes that makes it funnier, sometimes it acts as a counterpoint.
What were some of the inspirations you took for the dark humor?
Dark humor’s something that’s just always been in my blood so I’m relatively comfortable with it.
I remember the “Hey, Ash” episode [above] about Geometry Wars involving domestic violence [laughs].
The one everyone hates! This game doesn’t really get that dark [laughs]. I’ve always enjoyed dark humor, I really would love it if this game were like Firefly. Youwatch Firefly and it’s always talked about in terms of sci-fi and adventure, drama or action. About 90% of it is people joking and having fun with one another and you really grow to care about those characters and the humor they play off of. So when the shit hits the fan and things start getting dark, you feel it a lot more because you sort of have grown attached through humor. That makes connections stronger, because if you take that away, things get really bad and you can feel it. That’s been my hope [for Borderlands 2].
What are some of the themes you’re trying hit with the story?
We really wanted to have a villain-centric story that has the only goal and the antagonist being one in the same. The beat we really want to hit with Handsome Jack is I hate this guy. I want to put a bullet in his face but he’s kind of funny. The hope is we hit a middpoint between hating the guy and wanting to hear what he’s going to say next. I don’t know if we will hit it, but that’s one of our tasks and it’ll be great to see if it works out.
How did you guys come up with the character of Handsome Jack?
I didn’t really tend to like the villain in Borderlands. It was a really big priority that Handsome Jack not be. . . well, if you’re going to get a villain in a Borderlands game, then the idea of a really powerful, sarcastic, cackling kind of boring villain isn’t interesting to me. I wanted to have a guy who had a lot of fun being a bad guy. One of the original ideas I had for [Handsome Jack] was a gamer who’s played Grand Theft Auto to 99% completion and now he’s just fucking with everybody. He wants to find that last little one percent of the population he hasn’t exterminated and then get rid of them so he can feel like he completed everything. He’s toying with everybody he knows; he’s already won. He just really likes being a bad guy and is constantly thinking about it.
He is watching the world burn.
A little bit, yeah and he’s really enjoying it [laughs].
Were there any decisions made to flesh out the stories of the player-characters?
There was, actually, yeah. Initially, we thought Ehh, we just need a version of this guy. But as we posted more and more about the game [in the Borderlands 2 forums], we found people really wanted to know why Axton and Maya are in the story. So we went back in and started some story stuff for them.
Does the story dictate how the game looks? This time around the game has a lot more saturated colors. Does the story dictate what you’re trying to do emotionally with the colors and things of that nature?
There really isn’t a lot of connection between the two. The levels themselves are specially laid out, specially designed based on what is going to happen in the story.
What were some of the other things that touch the art aspects that came out as a result of your writing?
There are a couple of items, a couple special objects. A character called Tiny Tina [author’s note: played by Burch’s sister, Ashly, who maintains the blog How Games Saved My Life] that has a past relationship with Roland, she’s friends with Roland, so we requested some cool little photos of them on adventures together that he finds at her place.
What were some of the objects, the big cool things you saw, that you wanted to write for?
In Bloodshot Dam, there’s these big Buddha statues of Marcus [Kincaid, weapons dealer from Borderlands]. The art department made something cool so we went back and came up with some cool narrative reasons why they were there and why the bandits worship this guy.
If you think about it, bandits worshipping an arms dealer makes sense.
Yeah, the dynamic inherently made some sense. Okay, I buy into it. So I tried to flesh it out even more.
What were some of the challenges writing the story?
Finding a way to fit in all four original Vault hunters into the story because we knew early on we wanted you to meet them as you went through the game. The biggest fear is time. Whether it’s 20 hours of 40 hours, it seems like you have few opportunities or options in the game to give everybody time to shine. It was pretty tricky to make sure that not only are they the original Vault hunters, but that they had something really cool they do. The last thing you want to do is let your game feel like you are subservient to the characters from the first campaign, right? It was a real challenge to still make it feel like you’re the main character but also have you meet all the Vault hunters and feel like they’re all super bad-asses. I don’t know how well we did that, but it was definitely one of the challenges making the game.
So the Vault hunters are written into the story because you’re going to reach them?
Yeah, you’re basically going around and finding them all and they’re all in different contexts because it’s been five years since the end of the first game when you meet them and you sort of see them in a new light. You get to really figure out who they are as characters because they were just kind of battle-dialogue-spewers in the first game. Now we’ve had the opportunity to give them personality traits, to see what their relationships were like.
There have been other sequels that have done that where they’ve reintroduced old characters, most recently Mass Effect 3. Where did you look to see where the original Vault hunters wound up?
It was a mixture of the battle dialogue and trying to come up with something from nothing. Roland’s battle dialogue is “BOOOOM.” There’s not a lot you can get from that, it was making sure that they all felt distinct and unique. Brick was the easiest to write because his action skill was “I’m a young man, punching you a lot!” That kind of character wasn’t going to be using a lot of multisyllabic words, he’s not going to be talking about Proust [laughs]. Lilith had a lot of battle actions, she had a very clear personality in the first game. She would get angry when people would walk behind and all that kind of stuff, it was a task to try and soften her and make her a little more likable.
What’s the ultimate goal for the story?
I hope that it really entertains people and makes them laugh, and when we hit the moments that are classic and cool, they find them classic and cool [laughs]. It goes back and forth a lot between comedy and drama.
Has there been a lot of support for the story?
Yeah! I wish I could give you a better answer, though [laughs].
Borderlands 2 is out today.