Interview with Anthony Burch – Borderlands 2 Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep DLC Lead Writer

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When news leaked at the beginning of this month that Borderlands 2 would be getting one final piece of story DLC, all based around Tiny Tina hosting a game of Dungeons and Dragons (known in their world as Bunkers and Badasses), lots of people got very excited about the possibilities that a D&D module could present for the world of Borderlands. Along with playing the game’s opening hours, I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with Anthony Burch, lead writer for both Borderlands 2 and all of its DLC. We discussed character cameos, whether Lilith prefers the Game of Thrones books or TV show and if Brick is secretly a Fake Geek Guy. Read on and learn where the idea for the DLC came from, how magic was added to the game’s combat mechanics and which character will be making an unexpected return for the DLC in a way we’ve not seen them before.

Laura: Okay, could you start by introducing yourself?

Anthony: Yep, I’m Anthony Burch and I’m the lead writer on Borderlands 2 and all its DLC.

Laura: And what’s your elevator pitch for the story of Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep?

Anthony: Basically you’re playing through a D&D type module that Tiny Tina is the DM of. While you’re in the module trying to destroy the handsome sorcerer and save the queen and do all these cliché fantasy things, the top level is that Brick, Mordecai, Lilith and Tina are sat discussing what happened during the events of the main game and Tina’s trying to deal with the fact that all of her friends are dead, but she’s in denial about it. This is the rest of the group trying to help her understand what happened, but it’s not this super bummer of a Les Misérables story the whole way, mostly it’s to do with the module just having this bit of darkness to it.

Laura: I think that’s one of the most interesting things I saw of the game, the way she incorporates those events that she’s in denial about into the story, this element of “we can’t continue the story until we find Roland” that permeated the story’s early hours. How does this effect the ongoing story within the DLC?

Anthony: It gets to a point further in where, the more she mentions “Oh, we gotta wait for Roland” the more the other characters have to insist to her that “No, Roland’s not coming.” The more this happens, the more she retreats into her fantasy world and pushes the importance of Roland in the story further forward. You get to a point where Roland shows up in the fantasy world and you interact with Roland and she basically starts doing whatever she can to not acknowledge the reality of the situation. As that happens, her fantasy world becomes a little more directly paralleled with stuff that happened in the main game.

You’ll start to see a lot more characters that showed up in the main game in kinda these cool contexts where you’ll recognise what she’s referencing, like… oh f**k it… there’s a bit where you meet Angel and you’ll see Angel in the way that Tina sees her, which is a much more monstrous and much more evil form as she blames her for what happened to Roland. So you get to go along as her psyche starts to, I don’t want to say it breaks down because she’s already kinda crazy, but as she’s going further and further into her denial, the world definitely changes around that.

Laura: In the early hours of the game we see several examples of ways that Tina changes physical attributes of the world on the fly after she’s decided on them already, changing the world around you if she becomes bored of it or changes her mind of how things should play out for you as the player. Does that continue in the same way throughout the rest of the game, with her making changes to the physical world around you?

Anthony: Yeah I would say so. Yeah, there’s a bunch of side-quests that really go whole hog into that. Really the whole fun thing about this premise was that, because Tina’s the Dungeon Master and Tina can really do whatever she wants as a character, you as the player can just respond with, “Oh she’s just Tina, she can do that, she’s crazy or she was bored or whatever.” We take every opportunity we can to break the forth wall. There was a section in the Forest (The Forest of Being Eaten Alive by Trees) where if you go off the beaten path then the creatures are all really badly over-levelled at things like level 91, which isn’t a real enemy level and she panics and goes, “OH F**K, I’ll fix it, I’ll fix it.” It’s just playing with the idea that she’s got a lot of enthusiasm for DM’ing but she’s really not the best DM, so we can play around with that kind of stuff.

Laura: Where did the idea for the DLC originally come from?

Anthony: It actually started when we had the idea of, “Oh yeah, well what if Handsome Jack had a nephew and what if that nephew ran his base like a giant D&D module?” The reason we thought that idea was cool is the same reason that we’re doing a lot of the stuff in this DLC, in that it’s fun to have a character that changes your environment on the fly or can change how combat encounters play out. As we thought through it more we thought, “Urgh, we’ve fought robots for the whole game and three DLC’s and that’s a bit of a bummer.” Then somebody suggested maybe Tina would be a good fit for that role, that we should just go whole hog with the fantasy D&D thing and honestly at first we didn’t really believe that we could do it, but we just kinda did somehow. I think we were meant to do a very brief amount of work on art, levels and stuff like that to find out, “Can we even do this?” Instead of coming to the answer we just said “F**k it” and we just jumped right in and did it. In the end now we have far more new enemies and more new art than all the other DLC’s combined in just this one piece of DLC.

Laura: Were there any particularly tough challenges you came across trying to go in such a different direction with this DLC?

BL2 (Magic use)Anthony: Yeah, there’s that thing where there’s always this question of what things do you pay homage to for it to feel like fantasy and which things can we just be ourselves with. We knew we weren’t going to add swords or bows and arrows, we still wanted it to be Borderlands gameplay, but at the same time, you want to give people enough that it feels like, “Hey, this is different and fantasy.” So we came up with several weird ways of conflating the two. We have a gun now that shoots swords that explode or we have “magic spells” that are basically just grenade mods that change the way grenades behave. Normally grenades are supposed to land, wait and explode, but these magic spell grenade mods go straight out in front of you and as your character “casts” it they yell “lightning bolt” or “magic missile” or whatever. It goes straight out in front of you and the first guy it hits it explodes on and then you regenerate grenade ammo over time the way Mana in a traditional RPG would work, where you generally get back your Mana with time.

Laura: Roughly how long is the DLC?

Anthony: If you do all of the side-quests and go through all of the content it runs at about ten hours.

Laura: In the first village in the DLC we see the game’s gatekeeper replaced temporarily with Torgue who sets you some more off the wall quests like punching someone so hard they explode, before being restored to the original gatekeeper and the story continues. Are there any more in and out cameo roles you can tell us about throughout the story? Will we see more characters dropping into the D&D game’s cast in that way?

Anthony: Well firstly he’s not really out. We introduce him briefly there just so we can make him a quest giver later. I believe we have more character cameos like that dropping into the game, I did spoil one of them for you already, but yeah generally anyone we introduce, we introduce them for a story reason down the line beyond them just having one-off jokes. Torgue has a bunch more quests later. He has one about Lilith accusing Torgue of not really liking D&D because he’s a muscley guy who takes care of his appearance and the name of the quest is Fake Geek Guy, and it’s all about that, him trying to prove he’s not being a geek just for attention.

Laura: Are there any other examples of things like that that break the forth wall you can give us? Times where we pull back and have quests about the fact this is a table of people sat playing D&D?

Anthony: Pretty much all the time. Almost all of the side-quests are about stuff like that. One of the things that was appealing about the basic premise is that if you have four characters just sat around a table playing D&D then you get to see a different side of them than you normally do, because when you meet them in the main game it’s all, “Ah, we have to stop Jack and save the world blah, blah, blah,” and they don’t get a chance to just be casual. We have a lot of quests that are just based around the idea that when you’re hanging around with your friends playing D&D you can just shoot the s**t about whatever. We have one quest about how Lilith and Brick really like the Game of Thrones books more than the show and one about how Tina doesn’t like certain kinds of foods. Really just the kinds of things that would seem banal in Borderlands otherwise, but because they’ve never happened in this world before they’re interesting and different ways to see the characters.  

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