The first Battleborn character to become completely realized was Oscar Mike, the seemingly straightforward gun-toting clone soldier. It was also the inception of Oscar Mike that would set the stage for the rest of Battleborn's over two-dozen strong character roster.
"The voice over for Oscar Mike, when [writer] Aaron Linde wrote it out, set the bar for the tone of the game," says Gearbox creative director Randy Varnell. "Oscar Mike is a character you look at, and you know you really understand that guy. Linde was able to bring out some subtleties of character through this awesome set of VO lines. He starts reading as an earnest soldier, but he has this really unusual sense of self and humor. The first time we recorded lines for him, we had half the team come and listen and we were in tears laughing at some of the things he said. He was the first character the team fell in love with."
"The tone in those early stages of development was done on the fly," Linde adds. "His VO was pretty earnest and then there was a moment of sudden consensus where everyone knew it felt right. People responded strongly to the tone set with Oscar Mike. It helped determine our ESRB rating. But a big moment of realization for us was what the Battleborn interpretation of those archetypes would be."
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In Battleborn, players will trot out a massive cast on a quest to save the last burning star in the universe. It's a hero shooter with a large multiplayer focus, but as with all Gearbox fare, there is still a meaty campaign to sink your time into. Here, elves, animated AI, and anthropomorphic mushroom people duke it out for personal reasons, but all have one thing in common: they all face down the impending universe-wide darkness.
Of the whole cast, Linde cites his favorite character as Isic, a battle tank with holographic skull for a face. To prepare for writing Isic and his comrades, as well as flesh out their struggle, Linde spent the better part of a year reading literature about the inevitable heat death of the universe. In this way, Linde began to build what would eventually be the tonal identity of Battleborn: a Gearbox-y shooter with Gearbox-y humor and a weighty undercurrent grounded in real science and the nature of futility.
"I'm a giant dork," Linde explains. "One of the greatest challenges of the IP was how to reconcile the visual styles of the game with the utterly soul-crushing heavy consequences of the subject matter. I don't know any other game that starts with the universe teetering on the brink of eternal darkness, the stakes can't possibly be higher than they are. But the visual styles seems to imply that no matter what the stakes are, these are people that see the highest stakes.
"I'm a huge Carl Sagan devotee, I love Neil Degrasse Tyson," he continues. "When it comes to astrophysics and cosmology there's always an edge of dread associated with all of it. The first thing you learn about our sun is that it won't last forever, there's a time limit on earth in terms of how long it will be capable of sustaining life. It's so far removed from us in terms of time--we can scarcely imagine time beyond our own lifetimes, let alone a billion years forward, or a trillion years in the future. It's conceptually difficult to grasp. What I think is fascinating and compelling about it is that it's a real deal thing that will befall our universe at some point. We had really lofty ambitions of being hard sci-fi at the onset of development, but through a number of discussions we had a roster of characters that seemed to scream 'Saturday morning cartoon' instead of 'Sunday night PBS documentary.'
"As for Isic: all the tropes I have ever wanted to explore are there---mad AIs are my favorite things, there's something about a mad computer I find absurdly compelling. When I was writing Isaac I thought he would push Battleborn to an M rating because I would never say the things he says to anyone under the age of 15--I don't want them to have an existential crisis before high school."
According to Varnell, Battleborn's story has been a long time coming. Years ago, before Linde joined Gearbox and Borderlands 2 was just wrapping up development, Varnell sat down with studio head Randy Pitchford, art director Scott Kester, and a handful of other designers to sketch out something like a space opera, something that would be pure sci-fi. The team wanted an impossibly large cast of characters, each with their own identity, background and story. Initially Gearbox wanted Battleborn to have a more realistic look, but as Kester began sketching more and more colorful individuals, adding mushroom heads and gentleman robots and larger-than-life beefcakes, the team fell in love with the look.
Realizing the project was "dead in the water without a real writer on staff," as Varnell says, the team brought in Linde, who spent the next four months locked in a room with the narrative team building Battleborn's universe--and researching all that cosmological heat death. The team came away with a story about heroes fighting to save the last star still aflame, and decided that the best way to accommodate so many vying personalities was to create a TV-show-like template for unraveling the tale, something more akin to an episodic game than a full campaign.
"That word [episodic] is so loaded when we talk about it in our industry," Varnell adds. "There's a couple practical reasons that it put us down the path: it's the easiest way to convey a deep linear narrative, and create any number of challenges in trying to tell the story. That rapid RPG loop is a big part of the game. When you do that, you really have to think about the story and time chunks that made that work well, and looking at that 30 minute point is about a good point for you to grow and have that growth and experience that. We also knew we wanted to bring the game to consoles in a strong way."
"When you think of couch co-op, you have a whole demographic of players that don't want to play for 8-10 hours [on console], they want to sit down and have a 30-minute bite," he says. "So we started thinking of Battleborn's gaming in 30-minute increments. We really wanted to do this on dedicated servers and give co-ops players a way to matchmake in without spoiling story elements."
"We were pulling from our collective intelligence of television," adds Linde. "When you look at Firefly or X-Files, a lot of TV nowadays is serialized. We found ourselves in a position where we were thinking, 'OK, we have this massive tableau of characters and stories and backgrounds and an embarrassment in riches in term of where we could take it.'"
"The Gearbox hallmark is humor, the willingness to pursue an idea to incredible lengths." -- Aaron Linde
Internally, at conception, Gearbox staffers referred to Battleborn's tone as Ender's Game meets [board game] Heroscape, two properties that leave very little rumor for humor or any kind of lightheartedness. The team wanted genuine moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity--something both Varnell and Linde think are a rarity in games--but they also didn't want to lean too heavily on the kind of comedy used in the Borderlands franchise. They wanted something different, something still funny and relatable but with its DNA rooted in serious science fiction.
"That was one of the earliest decisions we made: we had to throw in and say yes, the comedic aspects are working, so we have to reconcile this [with the subject matter] in a way that is meaningful from a world-building perspective," Linde explains. "There's something about an episode of Mystery Science Theory 3000 where the content displayed on screen is earnest and the stakes are real and there's a tension there, but the dialogue [of the commenters] cannot help but draw attention to the sheer lunacy of it. There's something absurd about the plight of these people, and it's hard to approach that and not come away thinking, 'well how could you possibly go on laboring under the weight of that kind of existential dread?' And comedy is the way you reconcile that."
On top of this, the writers hope that players understand their cast is not a band of superheroes: they are not indestructible, and they certainly aren't perfect. They make mistakes and know it, and yet they soldier on. But through "gallows humor on top of gallows humor," Gearbox hopes players will still feel the gravitas of the situation, and identify with some of the characters' motivations for fighting on--as well as recognize their signature humor at work.
"The Gearbox hallmark is humor, the willingness to pursue an idea to incredible lengths," Linde says. "We have an incredible team willing to do incredible things to see a joke through. Even the smallest gag, if it catches fire among our team, we'll go to great lengths to see it happen in the game. Battleborn is pastiche. Layers upon layers upon layers of sometimes competing, sometimes elaborating influences."