How do you build a story into Borderlands 2’s open world? [Interview]

19 Jul 2012  by   John Robertson
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With Borderlands 2 Gearbox is attempting to beef up the narrative elements, but without diminishing the gameplay or forcing story onto players that are not interested in it.

It’s no easy task, and it’s fair to say that the balance wasn’t exactly right with the first Borderlands – although, in fairness, narrative was hardly a priority there.

We recently sat down with Gearbox’s chief creative officer Brian Martel to discuss how the team are looking to address that balance, the risk of alienating players that are only interested in gameplay and how the team get away with celebrating 13 year-old psychopaths.

Enjoy.

IncGamers: I’ve played two different sections of Borderlands 2 now, and it’s a such a crazy. Is it like that for you? Do you not know/worry about what the design team are going to come out with next? Do you need to work to keep them in check?

Brian Martel: Some things will be a little crazy and we’ll have to pull it back. We have a high level idea of what we want to do and when we create a character, like Tiny Tina, we know what Borderlands is supposed to be and we work to that.

Saying that, you can’t always predict where the ideas are going to end up. Between our creative director and writer, you’ve also got the level designer who’s adding a bunch of stuff, so before you know it everyone’s ideas has created this pile of stuff that needs to be rewritten to make it work. That’s how you end up with the crazy stuff – like Tiny Tina, the violent and unpredictable 13 year-old girl.

IG: Any mind paid to the censor issue and if the powers that be will take a hard-line against a 13 year-old psychopath?

BM: So far they’ve found it entertaining as well, so maybe that says something about the ratings board. Y’know, though, Tiny Tina has got a good heart really. She’s coming from a good place. That’s all that really matters [Laughs].

IG: Tiny Tina as an example, there seems to be a focus with Borderlands 2 to make the characters much richer and more interesting. Why try to engage with the player through that element more than you did in the original game?

BM: That was one of the pieces of constructive criticism that we took from the first game, players wanted the world to feel more alive. We found that the best way to achieve that was to prevent the characters feeling like cardboard cut-outs that just stand there and deliver information to you.

In Borderlands 1 we had a system that would allow characters to feel more alive, but it was very rudimentary and nowhere near good enough to achieve the vision we wanted. So, before we shipped we cut it from the game. With the second game we came back to it and put a lot of effort into the animation system, the mission giving system and how the missions link into each other and with the bigger story.

I think that those bits make it a much more interesting experience, and if you’re playing in co-op it’s that bit better.

IG: Story and co-op have traditionally been two elements that are difficult to combine properly. Did you find it was difficult to tell a cohesive and interesting story with four players running around together?

BM: The story in Borderlands 2 is not always about you. You’re a part of it for sure, but you’re also part of other people’s stories. In some ways you’re the catalyst to the events happening on Pandora, but in other ways you’re an observer. That kind of approach works if you’re playing solo or as a group of four.

It does become more of a challenge to deliver co-op when you get a player that cares about the story a lot, because people can be jackasses. People will goof around in co-op and make it hard for the others to pay attention to what’s really going on. I think that’s okay, though, because that’s a part of playing together. If you really want to dig into the story you can do it in single player.

IG: How do the city hubs work?

BM: We have a few smaller ones that are not too dissimilar to Firestone in Borderlands 1. The primary one is Sanctuary, which you’ve seen (see our hands-on preview). Sanctuary is the core hub of the game; it’s where you’re going to see a lot of the NPCs and a big chunk of the story.

We put a lot of effort into making the NPCs feel alive in the way they move around and interact with each other in Sanctuary. It really fleshes out the universe, we think.

IG: I guess the counterpart to the enhanced narrative elements are the players that are only concerned with the gameplay – the weapons, the stats, the enemy skills etc. Was there a concern that the story would get in the way of players that only want to indulge in the gameplay side?

BM: To some small degree we did think about that, but all of those gameplay points are there. This is not the kind of story that forces itself on you, it’s the kind that evolves around you. If you’re someone that wants to ignore the story and just go from mission to mission without caring about what’s happening you can do that.

I think most people will find the story interesting, though, and will want to dig into it. It’s really funny and entertaining.

*Read our most recent hands-on preview of Borderlands 2.

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