Borderlands 3 Interview — Lead Writers on Expanding the Series' Universe, Embracing Its Humor, DLC, and the Future
With Borderlands 3 a month out from release, we spoke to co-writers Danny Homan and Sam Winkler to learn about where the series heads next.
While it’s been quite some time since we last saw the series–especially since the last “main” installment with 2012’s Borderlands 2–it’s safe to say that Borderlands 3 is easily one of the most anticipated titles to arrive later this year. With the third core installment of the series tying together all of the series’ storylines and characters, from the first two games, to The Pre-Sequel!, to Tales from the Borderlands, Borderlands 3 has a lot of narrative heavy-lifting to do. But from speaking to its lead writers, it seems like they are more than up to the task of not only delivering a satisfying story that is worth the wait, but seemingly to set up the Borderlands series in the years to come.
Ahead of its release next month (and after getting some hands-on time with the game itself), DualShockers had the opportunity to speak with Borderlands 3 co-writers Danny Homan and Sam Winkler to talk all things Borderlands. Specifically, we touched on what fans can expect from the third core installment of the series, how the duo expanded on its trademark humor and storytelling style, and what lies ahead for Borderlands in the future.
Ryan: One of the main aspects that fans love about the Borderlands series has been its humor and world/characters. What can we expect from the comedy of Borderlands 3, and how has that evolved over the course of the previous games?
Sam Winkler, co-writer: I think the best thing about Borderlands 3‘s humor is that it is more varied than ever. We have a wider writing team and very different styles of humor (in terms of output and intake), but basically we just try to make each other laugh as much as possible, and that really, really paid off for us.
Danny Homan, co-writer: There’s some amazingly dark side missions, and some very light-hearted side missions, and often even some kind of poignant side missions. The variety of types of humor and the types of characters that you meet is one of the strongest aspects of the game.
SW: I think there’s an understood idea of what “Borderlands humor” is, and I think Borderlands 3 actually challenges that. I mean, I’m less interested in referential humor myself, and I think what is strongest in Borderlands 3 is the characters, and that just comes out of having strong characters in strong situations. You can give them very a distinct sense of humor because they’re all just trying to cope and deal with the crazy s*** that’s happened to them. So they’re always so flippant and dry, and I love it.
R: On that note, in the past we’ve tended to see a lot of pop culture references from the series. Were there any specific pieces of pop culture that influenced you while writing and working on the game?
DH: There’s definitely certain types of comedy that we gravitate to. I can’t say any one particular show or franchise, but I think the one thing is that we work alongside the mission designers and yeah, there are times when a mission designer really loves this thing and just wants to include something on it. There are some side missions in the game that kind of poke at pop culture. Like Sam said, that’s a part of Borderlands, but there’s also just this focus on interesting characters.
SW: Personally, I watch a lot of standup comedy and I’m a huge fun of just the tone of “Weird Twitter.” I think that’s definitely injected some of the stuff that I’ve worked on; I’m a fan of the McElroys and the stuff they do. And things get stuck in my head weirdly enough of just like “normal words said weirdly.” It’s very humorous to me and that’s something that I’ll do to annoy Danny sometimes, and then after three months he’s like “FINE: it’s going in the game.” I’ve been doing sort of a lot of introspection of “what am I intaking while I’m writing this stuff,” and how is that changing what I find funny at that time.
R: In the past games, we’ve spent so much time on Pandora: basically for the entire series. What was it like to expand the storytelling and the Borderlands universe on a larger scale?
DH: It’s an awesome opportunity. I mean, take Promethea – this is this planet that we’ve heard of in previous Borderlands titles as this place where Atlas got its start and they found this iridium tech, and that kind of jumpstarted the gold rush on Pandora. Now we actually get to go there and it’s got this wonderfully comedically tragic situation because Rhys, who is the head of Atlas Corporation, has finally fulfilled his dream. He’s got this corporation, and his corporation is actually doing something good for people: it’s gonna help rebuild the city. And just at that moment, in classic Rhys fashion, there’s a war that kicks off, there’s riots, and then Maliwan gets involved, and now this beautiful, amazingly teched-out city is in a civil war.
SW: I would say a running theme in Borderlands 3 is “Rhys can’t have nice things.” But going a little wider, a lot of the comedy and storytelling in Borderlands comes from this shared trauma of living in this world in which everyone has tried to kill each other.
“There’s an understood idea of what ‘Borderlands humor’ is, and I think Borderlands 3 actually challenges that.”
If you meet a living person, they probably had to kill someone very recently just to stay alive. And on Pandora, that’s kind of the status quo: people kind of expect it and there’s this world-weariness to it. On Promethea, you get the sense that it was a nice place very recently, and the war just came here. And so for a lot of the people that you meet there, that drama is fresh; they’re a little more biting in their humor.
Lorelei, the character that we showed off in our gameplay reveal: she was a barista very recently and now she’s a guerrilla fighter and she hasn’t slept in 72 hours. She doesn’t give a s*** about the Vaults because of that: she’s like “I’m just trying to stay alive, I’m just trying to win this war and go back to a normal life.” So, [the player] ends up making a deal with her and saying like “Okay, we’re still here for the Vaults, to be honest, but we’ll also help you in your endeavors.”
Going to new planets and meeting new people who are totally apart from the Pandora situation opened up a lot of storytelling opportunities.
R: Since you mentioned Tales from the Borderlands — will Borderlands 3 tie up any loose story ends from Tales or are the characters included from it more like cameo appearances?
SW: It’s definitely more than a cameo, I’ll say that. Absolutely. We paid a lot of attention to the previous titles, like all of them. There’s a lot of balls that are thrown up by previous games that we catch in Borderlands 3: I’m not gonna say that we answer everything, but you can see a very logical arc of where Rhys ended from Tales to where he ends up in Borderlands 3.
Frankly, a lot more people played Borderlands 2 than were able to play Tales, so there were certain things that we wanted to canonize and re-familiarize players with: Helios crashing, etc. We didn’t want people to start Borderlands 3 and be like “where’s the H???”
You know, reintroducing Vaughn to a lot of people, and that sort of thing: that was a lot of fun to do with the Commander Lilith DLC for Borderlands 2.
DH: Paying homage to Scooter, as well.
SW: Yeah, that was a huge moment for us.
R: I think especially with Tales having so many different permutations of how that story could go, is there a sort of “canon” storyline for that game that you went with for Borderlands 3?
SW: We didn’t want to answer too many questions for people like “did you destroy digital Jack or not?,” that kind of thing. We didn’t want to do too many firm answers: for the most part, we stuck to things that happened [in Tales] no matter what. But there’s also some questions that we raise in Borderlands 3: there’s some Rhys-related questions that you might go, “Oh, what has he been up to since then?”
R: In the trailers for Borderlands 3, we’ve seen a lot of the Calypso Twins, who are the new villains in this game. What was the inspiration behind these characters, and what will they bring that is new to the series compared to previous villains?
DH: I mean, they’re murder streamers: they have livestreams and Let’s Plays. They take the most violent aspects of the bandits of Pandora and they hold it up and make them content creators. It’s just this wonderful, fun interplay.
One of the things about streamers that we find so fascinating is that to be a successful streamer, you have to have something really engaging about your personality: you have to have that sense of “Oh, I know exactly what’s around the corner” or “I can hold people’s attention for hours on end.” You already are like halfway there in the makings of a really cool set of villains.
The other side of it that’s really interesting is that if you’re a streamer, you’re creating content all the time for these fans, and how do you keep their attention? How do you keep them engaged? Well, you kind of have to start escalating things, and villains who escalate: it’s a nice chemistry there.
“Going to new planets and meeting new people who are totally apart from the Pandora situation opened up a lot of storytelling opportunities.”
SW: Previous Borderlands games focused on sort of a single monumental villain or a faceless corporation and that kind of thing. Handsome Jack is this mountain of charisma that you want to just insult you for 30 hours. Like, that’s a lot of fun.
But, one of the really cool opportunities with the Calypso Twins is that they’re siblings: they play against each other, there’s friction there. They know each other better than anyone else could, and with that comes trust and this intense butting of heads that happens. So when we first meet them, Tyreen is the big diva, the center of the stage, and she’s commanding the masses. Troy is a little more behind-the-scenes: he’s kind of the Tyrion Lannister there, of like statecraft and stuff like that.
I don’t want to go into too much detail there, but over the course of the game their dynamic fluctuates and changes. The way they play off each other is a lot of fun, and that felt really, really fresh when we were trying to make the most distinctive villains that we could get.
R: Since you brought up Handsome Jack: is there any possibility we might see him or have references to him?
SW: I’ll say Jack’s dead. Jack got phased pretty bad. But it’s the same universe: it’s seven years later, a lot of the universe has moved on. But, some scars don’t heal entirely.
R: You mentioned before how Borderlands 3 (and the series in general) puts story and characters first. Since Borderlands 2 especially, we’ve seen a lot of games like Destiny and The Division that have built on the “looter shooter” concept but been criticized for not being able to tell compelling stories. What were your thoughts when seeing those types of games balance storytelling and gameplay in this genre, and what you’re trying to do with Borderlands 3?
SW: What I love about Borderlands 3 is that it tells a very cohesive story that is engaging even while your main verb is “gun.” The loop of Borderlands is so pure: it’s kill enemy, get good weapon, kill enemy, get better weapon. Maybe that’s sounding reductive, but it is very pure and very fun, and I think that once people find that groove, they find themselves looking for a little more justification there.
DH: I think one of the things that I appreciate about Borderlands as a franchise, and especially Borderlands 3, is that we spend a lot of time with the main content, and it’s a really exciting, really large story with some pretty fun twists and turns. But the side missions: we pour so much love into the side missions and that’s kind of our staging grounds for really crazy, weird characters.
You can experiment with the side missions: you can get a little crazy and take a chance and see what happens. And then even beyond that, in Borderlands 3 there are these crew challenges that are associated with different members of the crew of Sanctuary III, and those have their own charm and arc to them. You could just be wandering around and find an ECHO log in a barren landscape and it will tell this interesting, small story as well.
So we have a lot of avenues for telling different types of stories and introducing characters, and that flexibility is I think part of the chemistry of what makes Borderlands such an engaging world.
“We tie off some threads, have some new threads, and [Borderlands 3] definitely isn’t the end of Borderlands in any way.”
SW: Yeah, he brings up characters: I think it is so important that I shout out our voice cast because all of them, every single one of them, is incredibly talented and are so good at breathing life into these voices so that people identify with them and really glom onto them and want to follow the stories that the game lets us tell. I think we’ve all had a game where someone is just squawking and you’re like “I don’t care why I need to get to the relay: just, okay, I’m at the relay and I’m gonna fight three guys. That’s fine.”
There’s some stuff that happens later – I don’t want to spoil it. But we end up going through a spaceship with a particular character, and their situation is very, very strange, but because of who’s voicing it, you’re actually very engaged with it. You can fill it in a little bit once you know what that is.
R: On the subject of the voice cast: there have been some recent developments about actors from the series like Troy Baker being replaced and a couple other voice cast changes in Borderlands 3. Has that impacted in any way your idea of these characters and how you write them, based on who is voicing them now?
DH: I mean if you take Ray Chase, who’s the voice of Rhys in this game, he is a delightful human being who knows Rhys inside and out. Those VO sessions were incredible: he brought so much to the character, he’s such a wonderful comedic actor, and I think fans of Tales are gonna really appreciate the Rhys in Borderlands 3…saying nothing of the mustache, of course.
SW: The thing is characters change dynamically in the universe already, and we’re very focused on making sure that the story and the world is what changes them. I think that all the characters in Borderlands are definitely going to have the stamp of having been written by us, because it’s about our interpretations of them, but you know: it’s new and I think players will respond to the freshness there.
R: One thing I was curious about was that given that it’s Borderlands 3, I think people tend to think of a lot of games in this sort of “trilogy” aspect. Did you consider at all this being the “end” of the franchise, or are you leaving room for more stories beyond that?
DH: Well there’s always room for more story in Borderlands. But in a lot of ways, this is the story of Lilith: she’s the Vault Hunter that we met in Borderlands 1, and she played a pivotal role in Borderlands 2. In Borderlands 3, she’s the commander of the Crimson Raiders, which is the group that you join that takes on the Calypso Twins, and there’s a lot of wisdom to a Siren that has been on Pandora and survived on Pandora longer than most. She plays pretty heavily in this game.
SW: I’ll say it is definitely a successor to all the games: we tie off some threads, have some new threads, and definitely isn’t the end of Borderlands in any way. But I think in the future when people look at Borderlands 1, 2, and 3, they will see it as a saga together, and whatever stories are beyond that, they’ll be connected, but…I’m really happy with the way that Borderlands 3 ends, I’ll say that.
R: Obviously we know that there is upcoming DLC and expansions for Borderlands 3: have you thought at all about what kind of stories you want to tell with that? My favorite example from the series is the Tiny Tina DLC for Borderlands 2, because it did a completely new sort of theme and storytelling style. Will they be anything similar?
SW: We’re going to have four big, story-based campaign DLCs, and we are already working on them.
DH: They’re all so different.
SW: They’re a lot of fun. You shouted out Assault on Dragon’s Keep: that is one of my favorite stories in any game ever and I adore it. What those DLCs allow us to do is they let us get a little more weird and a little more focused: Borderlands 3 is the biggest Borderlands game that has ever been made, and there’s a lot crammed into it. So you have to have this like huge, galaxy-spanning story arc and still tell micro-stories within that.
In a DLC, you get to kind of hone it down to really the bones of it: focus on a couple different characters and transform them, go with a different aesthetic, go with a different vibe, play with how you do storytelling. We’re really excited about what those DLCs are going to be.
Borderlands 3 will release for PS4, Xbox One, and PC on September 13, 2019, and you can pre-order the game now over on Amazon. The game will also be coming to Google Stadia when it releases later this year.