Let's talk about the story from a writers perspective (BFA in creative writing)

Hello everyone, I went to school for a BFA in creative writing. I also went to grad school at Seton Hill University for an MFA, but it didn’t work out. I have worked under editors and with deadlines, so I know the struggle.

First, before we get into things, I know that many of us were disappointed in the story, but let’s not be too harsh on the writers. Once you create a masterpiece like Borderlands 2, it’s hard to outdo it. It is even harder when story direction rests in the hands of a company, with multiple people and a revolving door.

In order to begin to understand what went wrong we have to look at the types of character development; flat and round characters, or two-dimensional characters and three-dimensional characters, they are called, depending on who you talk to.

Flat characters are characters who exist to serve a function, such as a uniformed officer in a crime show, or the clerk at a gas station. They are meant to perform a function to the story and plot and then disappear.

In Borderlands 3, what we have is a bunch of flat characters, who happen to have leading roles. They don’t have any motivations or agency other than generic ones. In fact, I can describe each of these characters with very few words. Ava, orphan, traumatic past. Tyreen wants to be a goddess, and destroy everything else. Troy, also wants to be a god, has an inferiority complex.

Let’s start with Ava and compare her, a flat character with a more rounded character Simba, from Disney’s Lion King.

What do they have in common? Both are rebellious, both have a strong birthright, both get someone they care about killed. (It was mostly Scar, though.) That’s where the similarity ends.

Why does Simba work and Ava doesn’t? The first part is sympathy. Simba comes off as a “take the world by the teeth,” kid who just wants to explore his domain. Ava comes off as an entitled brat.

Now, if you watched the Lion King, do you believe that statement to be true? Simba also comes off as an entitled brat, more so than Ava, but the difference here is that Simba internalizes his failures to point that he almost dies from them.

In Ava’s case, she did none of that. Instead of statements like, “I killed her, I killed Maya,” which would have given this character a little bit more sympathy, or even better, “I killed her, just like my parents,” we get “She’s dead. Maya’s dead. Another telling statement is “Maya’s dead because you wanted to open the vaults!”

What we have is a character who doesn’t seem to blame herself for her failures but instead blames others.

In the case of Simba, he has an entire character arc where he develops as a character. Ava doesn’t really have that. If I were to do damage control for this project, I would have dedicated at least two missions to Ava where she develops a character (not those stupid ghost crime missions, I have not played those so if she did, disregard this statement.)

Let’s talk about Tyreen and Troy next. If I was a story editor for this project, I would have told Gearbox. “A homicidal streamer? Sorry, this isn’t working. Look, if you don’t have anything, then don’t try to reinvent the wheel, stick with the formula that made this franchise successful.”

What made Borderlands 2 successful? The audience was invested in the villain. The audience hated him and loved him. The absolute nuggets of that game were the missions “Where Angels Fear to Tread” and the last one when Jack was defeated, and he explained his whole worldview.

In the case of “Where Angels Fear to Tread,” raw emotion courses through my body every time I play that mission. I know what I am doing is right, but that mission always leaves a seed of doubt in my heart. I would have used that. “Don’t you get what you’re doing? You’re going to end the life of an innocent girl!”gets me every time.

Instead of the annoying self-absorbed brat, we get in Tyreen, imagine Borderlands 3 with a story like this. It took me a few hours to come up with something like this.

Echo 1: (Tyreen) “Troy and I landed on Pandora today. Mostly dust and dried skag turds blowing in the wind. This planet is a keeper. We made our way to a Crimson Raider town. I knew that there would be action when we came here, but I didn’t expect this. There was so much blood, I didn’t know what to do, Troy had to pull me away.

Echo 2: (Troy) I had to pull Ty away. She would have leeched the whole town. We don’t need a planet-sized target on our backs. There was a riot of some kind. I heard some in the crowd talking about not getting enough to eat. A boom when off. Sounded like a Torgue cannon, but it didn’t matter. These Raiders, they just started firing. There was a child in the crowd, it didn’t matter. So much blood.

Echo 3: (Captain Thomas, Crimson Raider): We chased some bandit agitators out. I guess some of them could have been civs, but what the Commander doesn’t know won’t hurt her. They will all die out there, bandits will get them, psychos love chasing down fresh meat.

Echo 4: The sound of the engines can be heard.
Troy: Bandits! Ty, play it cool.
Tyreen: They are going to kill them!
Psycho One: What do we have here! More meat to feed my stomach eyeball?
Psycho Two: No no you idiot. Bad meat gets made into bicycles. Good meat goes to me! I wanted a meat doll to poop on.
Shiv: Enough, can’t you what’s in front of you? More finger cannons.

Echo 5: Tyreen: I don’t believe it, these bandits took us in. Shiv says all meat has a part to play. He’s the leader, I guess. Troy and I have been with them for about a week now. They’re like a family. Everyone has a part to play even the little bandits that get run over by outrunners or chewed up by skags. The meat is not so bad, a little gummy. Troy was horrified, but we have to fit in. We’re on Pandora baby!

Echo 6: Tyreen: I uh, well I uh, leeched a tink today. His head just popped right off. I was upset at first, but Shiv told me not to be ashamed of who I was I guess? I don’t know, it’s hard to tell with all the meat metaphors. They accepted me even though I’m not a bandit. They’ve done more for me than my Dad ever did. This is my family now.

Echo 7: Troy: I’m worried about Ty. She has always had homicidal ups, then ‘I am going to save everyone’ lows. Shiv keeps giving her more people to leech. She shares some of this power with me. Before with Dad, Ty would just leech animals. This is different. I feel weird like somehow a part of me is lost, no that isn’t right… replaced, maybe?

Echo 8: Tyreen: Shiv introduced us to some of the other war chiefs. We have a new objective now. We are going to build our family. We are going to find the vaults, become gods, and take apart these corporations and this universe that caused so much suffering and build a new system from the ashes. They helped to make me whole again, so now I will return the favor. We are all the Children of the Vault.

I would have also had a pre-match-up with base Tyreen and you the vault hunter. Earlier in the game.

Tyreen: Do you even know what you are fighting for, Vault Hunter?

Tyreen: How much do you know about your allies? Do you think Marcus cares about anything other than the weapons he puts into the hands of bandits?

Tyreen: He arms your enemies, Vault Hunter. He arms us and profits off of it.

Troy: It’s all about that commission baby.

Tyreen: Do you think Lil or Marcus would lose sleep if you died?

Tyreen: Do the Crimson Raiders do anything other than to partake in a system that has ruined so many lives?

Tyreen: I know your teeny tiny brain is probably going into overdrive, so I explain this once. I am going to do what Jack failed to do. I am going to become a god and bring peace to the system. Because it’s my birthright. And a gun slut could never understand.

After absorbing the Destroyer:

Tyreen: I am a GOD! (In the voice of Maya, now overlapping) Now you will fall… (In my version Ava doesn’t get Maya’s power after Troy’s death. We move that to later.)

Tyreen: What? Something… is… arrrgh!

Tyreen: (in the voice of Troy) Where am I?

Tyreen: Troy? No, no, no. shut up! SHUT UP!


Tyreen: (in the voice of a psycho) Up the meaty sausage rainbow, we go!

Tyreen: This isn’t what I- Help me, Daddy. Make it stop!

(Tyreen also cycles through some of the dialogue from bandits you fight like bruisers who get set on fire)

At the end of the Destroyer fight, she lays there and pleads with the vault hunter to kill her, to which they reply: “gladly,” and then shoots her in the head to finish her off.

So what I have done here is given Tyreen a better motive, than that nonsense we get in the game, make her somewhat likable, and just make her a better character. In creative writing, this is a rough draft. I wrote this up within a few hours.

The other thing I did was make Tyreen into a metaphor. She becomes the Destroyer and takes upon herself all the pain and suffering of many of the characters you fought in the series. You end the series where the vault hunter shows no remorse and puts Tyreen out of her misery. You, the audience is left wondering, am I a hero, which is a huge part of the second game.

Gearbox, if you want help with some of the writing within your projects let me know. I will gladly help, and I will do it for free.


Purely out of interest, how much did you study the differences in the medium between film and something like a video game (particularly one that doesn’t wholly rely on scripted cutscenes; BL3 mixes them with ingame events, like the return to the bridge of Sanctuary after Maya’s death)?

I don’t mean to be harsh, but we have a lot of educated takes on why individuals don’t like the story as it is. The problem is this is generally motivated by opinion at its core, as yours is here. What you get out of “Where Angels Fear to Tread” isn’t what I get out of it, for example.

Is it a better rewrite? Sure, I guess. It’s mostly different from the existing ECHOs we have. But then you add compounding changes that you allude to (Ava not getting Maya’s powers, which will have further knock-on effects) . . . at which point you’re basically writing your own story.

Which is fine! Nothing wrong with that! But we’re no longer talking about the story from any perspective anymore.

To go back to your original analysis of “flat” characters, I don’t think this is accurate at all. I think you’re being reductive. By definition of being named antagonists, Troy and Tyreen aren’t “flat” in the way a uniformed officer in a single episode of a crime show. They appear and immediately have tangible impact on the plot as well as the VH’s motivations for continuing with it (by draining Lilith). Not only does this alter the dynamics of the Crimson Raiders, necessitating the VH helping them out, but it drives the plot forwards for getting even with the Calypsos (on a personal level).

Are Troy and Tyreen badly written? Sure, maybe. We already know there’s content we never got to hear, or see. This is unfortunate, and a common problem in games development. I don’t know if this makes them badly-written in of themselves; rather, I’d say they’re compromised by executive vision (for the game). I don’t think that’s on the writers, myself. But I can see why people would think that.

tl;dr: good writing and strong alternative dialogue, but I think you have bias against the concept of what Gearbox were attempting with Tyreen and Troy (and Ava) that weakens the analysis overall.

The most common problem with analysis of Ava is people wanting to blame her for Maya’s death. Troy killed her (technically, accidentally). Folks can argue causation all you want, but Ava did not kill her. If Ava didn’t do X, Maya might not have had to do Y. But likewise, if Troy and Tyreen magically weren’t in the Vault, then Maya might not have died. If Troy’s powers hadn’t activated, Maya might not have died. If the twins hadn’t taken Ava hostage, Maya might not have died. People just like fixing on Ava because they find her unlikable. Until people accept that very basic point, no progress can be made with the eternal discussion around Ava’s characterisation (in my opinion).


Ava gets her powers later. As for your second point about this being my own story. This is a revision, a heavy revision. (If I was in the project.) Right now it’s more so of an example of better writing. (Some would argue it’s a fan-fic, which, yes it probably is.) I have had mentors, professors, etc, throw entire manuscripts because they thought they were bad. Now, I don’t believe in that, but in the industry, a revision can be anything from line editing, all the way down to, making a secondary character to the main character, changing major plot points, (Harry Potter’s parents didn’t die, Voldemort was a headmaster at Hogwarts, etc).

Those were examples. Let me ask you this: Did Tyreen change in any way from beginning to end? Does she have character development? Do we know anything about her, her hopes, fears, etc? No? Then she is flat. Just because she affects the world around her doesn’t mean she is suddenly a round character. Now with Troy, he is actually more developed than Tyreen. If you were to argue he isn’t a flat character, then I would agree on that. Did you notice that when I wrote up that little skit, I hardly included any changes to Troy? He works as-is. When he says, “I’m done getting table scraps,” that’s a bullseye right there.

I can be a horde of zombies that drive the narrative. If I am a horde of zombies, do I have character development, or am I just “the unknown” a metaphor for death? There is a difference between character-driven narratives and plot-driven narratives. It’s a very fine line.
If I have a story where I have a bomb squad trying to defuse a bomb, what’s the character development going to be? Either they defuse the bomb/it’s a dud, or it blows up. Character development takes a back seat. All the characters in this story can be flat, because there doesn’t need to be character development. Either the bomb blows up or it doesn’t. Either Tyreen leeches the Destroyer or she doesn’t/is killed. No character development needed. (That’s a problem.)
If I write a story about four fast-food workers who come to work amid half the store calling off, what’s the plot? Half the store called off. What’s left? Character development.

I can’t speak about working for a game developer, I have no experience in that area, however, making a good percent of the game about poop jokes, says, “my boss told me it’s my job on the line if I don’t have something by this deadline," or, “I just don’t have anything good.”

[quote] tl;dr: good writing and strong alternative dialogue, but I think you have bias against the concept of what Gearbox were attempting with Tyreen and Troy (and Ava) that weakens the analysis overall.
The most common problem with analysis of Ava is people wanting to blame her for Maya’s death. Troy killed her (technically, accidentally). Folks can argue causation all you want, but Ava did not kill her. If Ava didn’t do X, Maya might not have had to do Y. But likewise, if Troy and Tyreen magically weren’t in the Vault, then Maya might not have died. If Troy’s powers hadn’t activated, Maya might not have died. If the twins hadn’t taken Ava hostage, Maya might not have died. People just like fixing on Ava because they find her unlikable. Until people accept that very basic point, no progress can be made with the eternal discussion around Ava’s characterisation (in my opinion). [/quote]

Vision doesn’t matter in the industry. If this was a novel, it probably wouldn’t even make it past the slush pile. (That is the pile of manuscripts that interns have to read in a traditional publisher.) Because it’s an AAA game, the story doesn’t matter if the gameplay is good. But for the average fan who cares, it does.
I agree here. It’s really not about Maya’s death though, it’s about how Ava reacted to it, i.e. blaming Lilith, when Maya wanted to go down in the first place.

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Lots of things here…
On my modest scale all I can tell is why Handsome Jack works for me and not the Calypsos because for me it got nothing to do with character development. In my mind It’s not about their development it is definitely about the humor.
What makes Handsome Jack works for me is that the humor around him (whether against the player or against Handsome Jack himself) is actually funny. Now the very hard question is to tell why some jokes are funny where others are not, even specialists don’t have definite answers.

In the specific case of Handsome /Calypsos comparison, I d venture that is the distance that make the jokes work, there is always some quirky details in the writing concerning Jack that create distance that in turn allow laugh. Calypsos they are murderous obnoxious streamers, and they are just annoying because nothing in the writing create a distance, no irony, no undertone, no quirky details, just a problematic behavior that s a bit too realistic, in a sense they are acting as similar people would in real life and it’ s not funny just grating.

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There’s at least a few things I’d change about the plot if I was given the opportunity;

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This was my biggest gripe with the ending to BL3’s story. Lilith handing Sanctuary over to Ava’s control makes absolutely no damn sense in any universe, including the Borderlands universe. I didn’t mind Ava as a character (although I thought she should have been further developed as the writers did in the Mysteriouslier quest line), but giving a teenager control of your entire cause is just foolish. Even Tannis would have been a better choice.

Good thread OP, it’s nice to see some actual objective-ish critiques of the story and not just, “Screw Ava!”

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Yeah, to be perfectly frank. That part still sounds kinda nonsense.

Huh. For me at least it’s both. Jack is interesting in part because of he did develop and change. If not as a character in BL2, then just reacting appropriately to your actions. Tyreen, who seems to be more suited as an instigator for events than a character who develops, didn’t do that. Troy at least did that, but it was petulant compared to the rage of “man with nothing left to lose.”

…I didn’t laugh because of how much I see that, but I do think anybody else would.