That Borderlands 3 is the most ambitious game in the series is no secret - suddenly leaping from Pandora to several other robust planets made that pretty obvious. With that ambition comes a much more complex narrative, however, and characters who get a chance to grow not just on Pandora's brand of insane survival but through other environments as well. Although Pandora's history is rich and leaving it behind for some of the game is a risk, there's actually a lot more behind Borderlands lore than just the one planet, something that will excite players looking to better understand the universe that plays host to the Vaults and those unhinged enough to pursue them.
Fans have already been treated to a lot of insight into the Borderlands 3 gameplay experience. The characters feel like they're the most fleshed out they've ever been, with each offering a unique and distinct playthrough that should have casual fans and min-maxers equally satisfied. Small additions to combat, like sliding during a sprint, have made positioning much more important - unless players want to run in guns blazing anyways, which still works for those who've prepared a build to emphasize that. The sheer amount of options present in the game, not to mention its promise of an actual billion different guns, makes Borderlands 3 variables so mutable they can feel a little dizzying.
Luckily, there's a story that anchors all of the looting and shooting down into some sense of stability. Screen Rant recently had the chance to sit down with Borderlands 3 co-lead writers Danny Homan and Sam Winkler during a Borderlands 3 hands-on preview event and chat more about the universe these characters inhabit, why the Calypso Twins are the way they are, what makes quirky mechs so appealing and which Vault Hunter they'd have help them move in a pinch.
So this is our second or third hands-on with the title so we've already gotten through the basic stuff. I kind of want to dive deeper into a little bit of the nuances of the game, so - we got to get a little bit more of the cutscenes [at this preview event]. It feels like this game has a really good grasp of animating body language. I was wondering what that kind of opens up for you as writers for these characters?
Danny Homan: Yeah, there are some cool cutscenes in the game and we have a mo-cap team that does, like you said, a really good job of actually capturing non-VO. Capturing just the language of how people interact. That's important in this game because the power dynamic of the Calypso Twins is a really important part of the story.
Sam Winkler: Yeah, one of the biggest and most important steps when we were writing these cutscenes and taking them from script to cutscene was the animatic process. We have some really incredible concept artists, Erik Doescher is a genius, he's been at Gearbox for a while, but he whips up these frames that kind of demonstrate what we're going for. We sit down, we read the script with him, sometimes we'll do a live read with actors internally, so we get a sense of the pacing and the vibe of it. Before we actually commit anything to being in the game we have a rough outline of how its spaced out and our mo-cap team is really, really high quality. Also, our custom animation team is really, really good, they've added a lot of character to the way that Tyreen flips her hand sometimes. It's a lot of fun to write stuff on the page and then see what they take with it. That's kind of the story of game development, handing stuff off to other teams and see how they express your original thoughts.
What were some of the challenges with the Calypso Twins specifically? They're very odd characters to write in a video game. They're characters in a game who are kind of emulating other characters in a game. What kind of approach do you take to them and how do you establish them as fresh takes on villains?
Danny Homan: Well, we had the sick, kind of strange puzzle at the beginning of the process which was that we knew we wanted bandits to be front and center as a main army in this game and if you've played past Borderlands, the bandits aren't the most organized people in the world. They're kind of too busy murdering each other to become any kind of cohesive unit. So when we started talking about the Calypso Twins Sam and I were kind of wondering like: 'what kind of characters could actually entertain and bring together such crazy, disparate and very violent groups of people?' And it became two murder streamers who kind of watched what was happening on Pandora and said: 'I like this. I want to make it content. I want to bring it to everyone and grow our family with it.'
Sam Winkler: As our players continue to play through our franchises people are very familiar with the monolithic villain who just talks at you for thirty hours. So one of the most interesting things about the Calypsos to us early on is that there are two of them. We could play them off each other, right? They're brother and sister so they know each other better than anyone in the world and they have to trust each other, but they also butt heads and there's friction. Tyreen is this big, larger than life diva who just commands everyone's attention and Troy has kinda been - you know, whether it's his choice or not - kind of sidelined and he's taking the more strategic route of things. He's the nation builder. Over the course of the game we get to play with that and show that friction happening, show how they're helping each other, and the dynamic starts to shift a little bit. That was the most fun space to play with for them.
Both of you touched on this in your answers, so I'm very curious - family seems to be very important as a theme throughout the Borderlands 3 narrative. Not just for the Calypso Twins, but for the Vault Hunters as well. How is that going to inform the narrative throughout the game? Are there any familial moments to look forward to? Will we see any more of the Calypso family beyond the twins?
Sam Winkler: That's very astute. Family both biological and found is a huge thread. One of the first things we hear from Katagawa on Promethea - he's the head of mergers and acquisitions for Maliwan - and his whole thing is like, 'no, we're going to be a big corporate family and we're going to be happy together' and Rhys is pushing away from it. I mean, I can't really go into this too much but we've announced that both Hammerlock and his sister Aurelia are coming back. Throughout all of our story arcs we've been touching on the good and the bad of family.
Danny Homan: Yeah, the strength you can derive from family and how family can, quite often, tear you apart.
Well, Tyreen describes her brother as a "leech" at a certain point. So there are those moments where you get to see that brother and sister hatred, too, right?
Danny Homan: Absolutely.
So with Jack there was this sense of a villain who was convinced he was a hero. With the twins, I don't really get the sense that they think they're the good guys. They're willing to embrace that moral gray. What were you able to do with them that you weren't able to do with a character who was convinced they were doing the right thing?
Sam Winkler: That's fun. With a character who is convinced they're gods, things like morality become less important, right? I don't think Tyreen really thinks of herself in terms like good and evil. She just is. So whatever she has to do or order other people to do in the service of whatever she wants is totally A-OK. It's kind of hard to look at her and argue that she's not a god in some way. Between her followers and also her mystical powers that aren't quite explained.
They're very frightening, from the first look we get of them.
Danny Homan: There's this moment in the prologue where Tyreen reaches out to you and says 'hey, superfan!', tells you a little bit about the Children of the Vault, and she ends it with 'you're my number one followers, Vault Thief, you just don't know it yet.' There's that kind of sense with the Calypsos that they're building their followers up one person at a time and they'll do whatever it takes to make that as big and powerful as possible.
There was this frustration from the player perspective too, because when you're dealing with the Calypsos during a cutscene with Lilith in the prequel is: "if they do anything heroic we can dub that over." And it's just this frustrating situation for the player.
Danny Homan: Yeah. You have this sense as you play through the game that whatever you do, whatever you say, can be packaged up as content. Without spoiling anything, there's some interesting ways that that plays with the story. The most terrifying villain is a villain that can use anything you do against you.
Sam Winkler: Yeah, a weaponized narrative.
Danny Homan: Who is in control of the narrative is another interesting theme in the game. Who controls how people perceive you and how people perceive everything else in the world.
Sam Winkler: Because that's always been a question in the Borderlands universe. What is a hero and is there any room for them in this kind of place? I wouldn't say we draw any firm lines on that, but it's a question in-universe characters are constantly asking. You have to wonder when you're a Vault Hunter if you're on the side of right. For instance, when we get to Promethea we meet Lorelei. Lorelei was previously a barista and now she's a guerrilla fighter who can't sleep because corporate hit squads are out chasing her. When we meet her, we're like 'hi, we're here for the vault!' and she's like 'who the f**k cares, I'm trying to survive!'. What's right in the Borderlands is not always necessarily what keeps you alive. Right? Everyone you meet in the Borderlands has probably survived an attack on their life in the last day or so, so whatever they did to get out of that, that could be a stain on them or something they're proud of.
With this game you have the ability to explore these different worlds you've been bringing up. Is this a bigger chance to show off the duality of those kinds of morals? In particular, corporations feel like they're going to be major players in this narrative in maybe a way that they haven't been in previous games. They feel a little bit more directly involved with Rhys there and the Maliwan takeover that's happening.
Sam Winkler: Yeah, we've put a lot more faces and voices to a lot more of the corporations than ever before. I think people may have had some preconceptions about what Maliwan looked like, or Jacobs for example, and I think we play with that in interesting ways.
Danny Homan: Yeah, there's a fun thing that happens in this game that sounds totally crazy to say but: not every corporation is out to get you.
That's what I was wondering! If we were going to see if there's a corporation that maybe helps you out a bit instead of kill you.
Danny Homan: Yeah, you'll end up allying with Rhys of Atlas. He's been trying to rebuild both the corporation and by extension Promethea which is this epic city in the Borderlands franchise. This is where Atlas found the Eridian tech so long ago that started the gold rush. He's doing his best and then Maliwan just comes and it's a corporate takeover. A corporate takeover in the Borderlands universe is an all-out war where one side gets totally destroyed.
Sam Winkler: I would say a running theme is Rhys can't have nice things.
Yeah, that does seem to be one of his major issues. I mean, that's a Borderlands problem for basically everybody.
Sam Winkler: Don't get too comfortable.
Within this hands-on we also get to see a couple glimpses of new robot characters. What keeps drawing the team back to these kind of whacky, off-the-wall robot characters because they just keep coming and they're all so different. Why do we keep going back to these robot characters with such larger-than-life personalities?
Sam Winkler: I think when you're in a sci-fi universe that has the concept of self-aware robots and AI it's just another venue. I would hate to only write our robots as single-note Siri-style how can I help you-kind of people. Balex is a really good example of just like - there was a core pitch of wouldn't it be funny if the reason this ship crashed is because the two AIs in charge of it got into a breakup. That was really sticky to us and we were like 'hell yeah, that's ridiculous.' And you know, more extreme factors like Ice T coming in to voice Balex influenced that too. I just view them as another venue for storytelling. FL4K is another good example. We had this wonderful concept art of this robotic murder hobo that we just wanted to justify in the most fun possible way. We didn't necessarily want it to be the same old, 'humanity does not compute, I'm hanging out with animals instead' kind of thing. Making them into this bloodthirsty hunter that's called across the galaxy by an obsession with a personification of death - I don't know if that's the logical result, but it's where we ended up! It creates a more vibrant world for it.
At this time, we're informed we have time for one more question.
Oh no, I had so many fun questions.
Danny Homan: Put 'em all together into one omni-question.
Sam Winkler: Yeah, put 'em together.
Danny Homan: 87 words!
Okay, so, out of the Vault Hunters - I'm going to try and do this the best I can - I want you to give me the one you'd rather have help in a barfight, help you move, and the one you'd rather have do a stand-up comedy act that has to be received well for you to survive the night.
Sam Winkler begins clapping.
Danny Homan: Okay, well, for bar fight I'm definitely going with Zane because that guy has a clone and just can wreak total havoc. Plus I think he can probably hold his liquor, so that's great. To move, I have to go with Moze because that Iron Bear just has to be able to lift sheer tonnage. And what was the last one?
Sam Winkler: The stand-up routine.
Yeah. Who would you choose to do a stand-up routine to have it go over well so that you survive the night?
Sam Winkler: You've really put yourself in a corner there!
Danny Homan: No I have not because I would say Amara, because even if the show totally bombs you can at least get four rounds of applause.
A beat, then laughter from all parties.
Sam Winkler: S**t, that's better than my answers are going to be. Bar fight, Moze and Iron Bear because Iron Bear has these pneumatic fists that would absolutely annihilate everyone. Moving, gotta be Amara, how many U-Haul boxes can you hold with eight arms? Stand-up comedy, Zane, I could listen to Zane, or more specifically the voice actor Cian Barry, I could listen to that guy talk non-stop - I love the dude.
Perfect! Thanks so much.