Gearbox’s Danny Homan and Sam Winkler on writing Borderlands 3
Full disclosure, I really, really liked Borderlands 3.
The campaign is dense, exceedingly kind and often very smart. It has moments of crudeness, sure, but it exceeds expectations on almost every level and is a proper ass-kicker of a sequel.
But I was understandably nervous to find that staff reshuffles at Gearbox meant writing duties were handed over to Co-Lead Writers Danny Homan and Sam Winkler. When I heard this, I balked pretty hard.
Taking over writing duties on a beloved franchise is a terrifying prospect. When Aaron Sorkin fled the hallowed halls of The West Wing, showrunners and writers were forced into something of an unwinnable scenario. Sorkin exerted complete creative control, writing all but a single script himself, meaning that the show had an unprecedented level of creative coherence.
Ostensibly, those left behind were basically trying to fly a plane with no manual, because only the man who built the plane knew how the damn thing worked.
What followed was a season of the new writers performing a Sorkin cover band of sorts.
The West Wing became a pastiche of Sorkinisms. Aping the voice they’d spent so long listening to from the outside-in the writers weren’t able to capture the same tone of voice.
It wasn’t until the showrunners decided to do something of their own, something new, that they managed to right the ship. Even then, up until The West Wing concluded, the tone was wildly inconsistent. Characters we knew and loved did things wildly, illogically out of character and made choices that made little to no sense. The logic swung wildly out of sync with the internal workings of the West Wing universe.
Was this going to be The West Wing all over again?
Were Homan and Winkler going to have to do a Sorkin cover band schtick, mimicking the style and tone of Borderlands 2? Hell, even the now-defunct 2K Australia’s Pre-Sequel managed to stick the landing writing-wise. But could this blockbuster-level sequel do the unthinkable?
Could it get the writing right?
Writing Borderlands 3
I’m a Borderlands fan.
A big one.
500-odd hours of Borderlands 2 should signal my obsession, but I’ve played all of the series ad nauseam too. What sets Borderlands 2 apart from other games of its ilk — I’m looking at you, Rage — is the writing.
Beneath the juvenile spraypaint and often contrived lingo (please stop saying “sup” as if that’s the height of cool) is a deeply woke, magically progressive universe full of characters who care deeply about one another.
Sure, it’s a shooter, and a very good one. But it’s the writing, the characters, and the plot that keep people coming back. It’s why Borderlands 3 had people so excited.
I went straight to the source and chatted with Danny Homan and Sam Winkler about what it was like to take over writing duties on this juggernaut of a game.
PAUL: How do you maintain the voice of a game when you’re taking over from someone else?
SAM: The easy and honest answer is that you don’t. Every Borderlands game has been led by different writers! So for us, Borderlands 3 was an opportunity to inject our own voices into the mix while bringing back as much as possible that worked in previous entries.
DANNY: When you’re the fifth entry in a franchise, the question “What is Borderlands’ tone” is a big one! Each Borderlands game has established its own tone within the larger universe. A lot of the overall tone of the game comes down to two things: what the team wants to make, and what fans want.
In Borderlands 3, we wanted to make the tone a love-letter to all of the Borderlands games. Outside the main game is where the tone really branches out into a range of characters, stories, and experiences. We’ve got incredibly dark missions, silly missions, and even some poignant missions.
PAUL: Look, comedy in games is a hard thing. And comedy evolves over the years. Is there pressure having to follow a comedic “tone” and how do you keep the borderlands joke flavour fresh after all these years?
DANNY: Most of the comedy comes from the characters themselves, doing unexpected things that put your audience slightly off-kilter. That’s where you get insane missions in previous titles like “Shoot this guy in the Face” or “To Grandmother’s house we go.”
In Borderlands 3, we’ve got serious characters, absolutely insane characters, aspiring witches, serial killer/mob bosses, and a mixed-tape rapping doctor. It runs the gamut.
SAM: A lot of comedy comes from the rest of the team as well. Mission designers, artists, animators, weapon designers – they all inject their own humour within their disciplines.
And our narrative team office door is always open to any dev who wants to come in and pitch a joke or a character. It’s that menagerie of styles that I think makes Borderlands a strong platform for comedic storytelling.
That’s how you get a huge audience laughing, because obviously what’s hilarious to one person can be stale for another. But look around for a minute and you’ll find something in a completely different flavour.
PAUL: That’s awesome. What’s it like writing for established characters with huge fan bases, VS writing completely new ones who have to stand shoulder to shoulder with these fan favourites?
SAM: Only mildly terrifying! Getting to write for iconic characters like Tina or Moxxi is such a huge honour, and one thing that helps is that we talked to the actors that helped define who those characters grew to be.
That taught us early on to collaborate with our new actors as well. Lorelei, for example, has so much Ciaran Strange in her that I’m not sure where the line between them lies exactly. For me, it’s easier to write for someone when I have their voice in my head, so once we did initial recordings – for the new Vault Hunters in particular – the characters took on a whole new life and writing for them came much easier.
DANNY: The challenge with established characters is that generally, we want to preserve enough of what drew fans to the character in the first place while continuing that character’s growth.
We were big fans of Ellie, for example – but in Borderlands 3, her role is a bit different from previous titles. She sort of becomes the heart of the Crimson Raiders. Likewise, Lilith has a new role. She’s the rock, despite what happens to her.
And then there’s Tannis, awkward, brilliant, totally un-heroic, even selfish in past games. But in Borderlands 3, Lilith needs her to become something more.
PAUL: Well I think that came across! How do you write comedy and violence in an era where these two things are becoming so different, so fraught, especially in America? And how does the famously, gloriously progressive Borderlands universe square off against that?
DANNY: It’s an interesting question we’re always asking and reexamining. On one end, violence and guns in Borderlands are on the absurd end of the spectrum. It fits the tone set by the art, in that the game’s violence isn’t meant to be taken as realism.
That said, the universe of Borderlands is one in which you might have to shoot a bandit before you can have your morning coffee. Governments are non-existent, and corporations have taken their place – and they’re huge tech hubs/arms dealers.
It’s a violent world where you have to defend yourself. Comedy often becomes a way to point out that absurdity of the world, to shed light on the otherwise tragic situation most of our characters find themselves in.
How do you find a moment’s joy when a corporate army is invading your planet? How does someone go on when everything they love is taken from them as part of a never-ending war? We need to laugh because otherwise, we’d realize that there’s a lot of misery in the Borderlands.
PAUL: Agreed. Here’s a question… what are some of your favourite plot beats, jokes, and plot twists that you wrote?
DANNY: Rhys’ moustache!
It began as an office joke and quickly became a new inroad into the character. Rhys calls it his siege moustache and maintains that it’s for troop morale.
That said, he seems to like it – and wants a bit of moral support as well.
SAM: A thread I didn’t realize I was crafting until we looked at a full draft of the Eden-6 plot was that Wainwright Jakobs freaking loves puzzles. I’m really happy with how he ends up bickering with everyone because he sees it as just a normal part of life in a Gothic mansion.
DANNY: One of the first bad guys we wrote was Captain Traunt, who terrorizes the monks of Athenas. He revels in how easy it was to take over the serene, monastic planet, but early on you realize that he’s amazingly insecure.
His old brother is a decorated General in the Maliwan army, and Captain Traunt is eager to prove himself. As you beat back Traunt’s forces, he attempts to rally his troops and screams that after they beat the Vault Hunter, “We’ll all go out for soft serve. Cones on Traunt!”
SAM: Oh, and I got Ice-T to holler about horny monkeys. Top five life moments, easy.
PAUL: I hope this isn’t a spoiler, but talk to me about Hammerlock and Jakobs. And how you’ve somehow made the best most shippable duo in any game, ever.
SAM: I mean, speaking of iconic characters with talented actors, John Michael Tatum is incredible to work with. His voice is a finely tuned instrument, and Hammerlock lives inside him.
I’d pay that man to come to our recording studio and just chat for two hours, he’s delightful.
DANNY: And David Wald, who voices Wainwright Jakobs, is amazing. Let that be known. At the point in the story where we meet Wainwright, we’ve just suffered a major loss in the Crimson Raiders, our ragtag family. Wainwright and Hammerlock have their own family affairs, but they’re both each other’s rocks.
Their love allows them to weather any storm.
While Hammerlock is a gung-ho explorer, Wainwright isn’t a natural fighter, despite being a Jakobs. But when the love of his life is threatened, he does what it takes.
Love can be a powerful motivator, and Wainwright and Hammerlock’s love is stronger than any weapon. It’s a legendary, for sure.
SAM: We went back and forth on where we wanted their relationship to be when the player first meets them. Are they already married, or has a flirtation just begun?
It ended up feeling right to have them already committed to one another, but now finding themselves at the precipice of the galaxy coming undone around them. It’s a testing time for them, but it only brings them closer together. And we haven’t seen the last of those two.
If you’re still on the fence about Borderlands 3, do dive in. If you’re a fan of the series and if you’re invested as much as I am in the Vault Hunters and their ongoing quest to do some good and be good to one another, I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised.
Danny and Sam have done some miraculous work here.