Storytelling and the Thrall Rebellion (a long review)

I considered posting this in the mega-thread, but it’s pretty long and specific, so I’ve made my own topic here. Hope that’s okay.

After a long night playing the DLC, I think I’ve experienced most of the narrative permutations for Attikus and the Thrall Rebellion. I don’t want to review it here purely as a gameplay experience, though, but as a piece of storytelling (keeping in mind that, in a video game, gameplay mechanics still play a key role in storytelling.)

The creative team took a gamble on this one, and I for one appreciate it. The cultural touchstones - from Attikus as Philip Marlowe, to that fleeting and cheeky Blade Runner reference - aren’t going to strike a chord for everyone. So kudos for being unconventional. That’s why I play Battleborn: they take the playbook and turn it into a flipbook, and Shayne has drawn moustaches on all the illustrations.

Some of the elements in the noir pastiche work perfectly. Ambra’s turn as a flapper is a masterstroke. Attikus makes a convincing gumshoe. Deande plays it straight. I think Aria is a weak link (which I’ll talk about more soon), simply because she alone doesn’t fit the conventions - discounting Mike, because that’s the joke. Aria isn’t quite the right foil for a private dick working a case for a smoldering dame; in a classic hardboiled detective novel, she’d be the gangster’s moll (not that I like this about the genre, mind), but not the villain. She’s simply too insane to be a noir nemesis. They’re meant to be calculating, charming, impossible to pin down.

The noir elements here are strictly a veneer, however. We don’t actually crack a case; gameplay-wise, this is a typical “kill and loot” mission with noir dialogue in the intervals. My biggest issues with the mission stem from this disjointed narrative, and I’ll dive right into why.

This mission is framed, narratively, as two things: a thrall uprising led by Attikus (that’s the serious side), and a pastiche of film noir and the detective novel (that’s the humor and the literary twist.) @Jythri gave a very persuasive explanation of why the team made this choice: Attikus is an unlikely savior, and in his existential wrestling with what it means to have heroism thrust upon him, he turns to a set of fictional conventions that allow him to explore what it means to be a hero. (Which is why he scolds Mike, at one point, for ruining a classic storytelling device.)

I loved this idea when I heard it. I still love the idea. But I think the limitations of the Battleborn engine really hobbled the execution.

I’ll be blunt: this mission does not feel anything like a Thrall uprising. We are walking through a Tempest map smashing objectives and opening chests on our way to a boss. Thrall are still nothing but mindless enemies, and there’s no dialogue given to a single Thrall besides Attikus. (This was a serious omission, in my mind.) I wanted to see friendly Thrall NPCs fighting against hostile ones; I wanted objectives that required us to help Thralls, to siege locations with them; I wanted to see Attikus actually engage with his people, rather than just banter with Aria and his cast of femme fatales.

But if this mission isn’t a convincing Thrall uprising, it’s not a playable gumshoe mystery, either. Stylish though the fades to gray and the brooding jazz riffs are, they just emphasize how divorced the mission is from the storytelling device. The mission objectives (kill Ronin, hit pylons, kill bots with skills) are vanilla Battleborn - yet it didn’t need to be this way. For example, instead of planting Deadeyes on the roof and having us kill them as per usual, the mission could ask us to help Attikus survive a “hit” from some tough-talking gangster Deadeye robots. We could have been asked to gather “clues” (from the smoking remains of robots) rather than simply to smash pylons.

Instead, what we have is a mission that is doing three things and struggling against the constraints of its length and its form. It’s trying to show us a Thrall rebellion: I don’t think it succeeds here. It’s trying to tell a humorous noir pastiche that gives us deeper insight into Attikus, Ambra, Deande, and Mike: it’s very entertaining on this front, but it’s undercut by the mission, which resembles neither a chaotic rebellion nor a gritty detective mystery.

I want to talk a bit about Aria, too. I won’t spoil it for anyone, but she essentially behaves as if she’s crazed (and makes Ambra seem cuddly in comparison.) Typically, the Jennerit have been portrayed as brutal but also principled, and it remains a mystery to me why Aria - a genuine sociopath - would rise to such rank. She also has no dialogue in combat, but instead fights entirely mute, which was a real letdown. Even at a key moment when a second Silent Sister joins the fray, there’s no dialogue. All the effectiveness she has a character is entirely on loan from Ambra and Attikus: when she’s not swapping dialogue with the others, she’s just ranting and raving.

Back to brighter notes, though. Oscar Mike is very endearing in this one, and I loved seeing him as a femme fatale. Purely speaking of this as a piece of comedic writing, it’s executed with precision. It has the right cast: Mike for outright absurdity, Deande for the straight edge, Ambra for a little bite, and Attikus as an anchor for the comic riffs that run through the dialogue. I enjoyed the cheesy noir metaphors. Because of the constraints here, potential moments of greatness (like when Oscar Mike brings them all into the room together) aren’t ever really followed through. But it’s a good showing all the same.

Ultimately, the DLC drove home for me the challenge of storytelling and comedic writing in an AAA videogame. For one, you need your voice actors - this must have cut deeply and painfully into the ambitions of Jythri and the other writers. You also need to fit your basic game loop in there. The fact that our own characters don’t react to anything seriously hampers immersion (I’m playing the Teen Detectives! Why am I not helping?) But there’s also a lot to enjoy here, with tempered expectations.

Bring on the Friendship Raid. (And give us Ambra’s flapper costume as a skin!)

9 Likes

Couldn’t agree more about the lack of friendly Thralls. Easily the most disappointing part of it. We’ve had friendly non-Battleborn in the main game! It really could’ve maybe helped make the more out of the way side objectives more immersive too. Because as is many of the side objectives have you ditching Attikus to do something in a completely separate part of the map because Nova said so, who, by the way, had nothing to do with anything. It woulda been sick to have other Thralls help you smash the Rendain propaganda or defacing his statues.

And I know voice work takes cash but c’mon Shayne was DYING to drag Aurox into a role for this! And I KNOW you wanted to because you gave us that title for doing it (and believe you me I will be using that title for a while).

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Yes, I agree with all of this. Especially Aria. She looked so cool… But let me down so hard… GBX, you managed to make one of the most compelling villains in video game history. Why are you slipping so bad with Battleborn?

I really enjoyed the Gameplay and OPS points, and the lines the characters had were hilarious. “YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID!”

But there was no Rebellion in gameplay - Though Attikus’ lines on the subject actually managed to give shivers. Excellent on that part.
And why the Noir theme, when there was no crime mystery to solve?
I too wanted to be a Teen Detective :cry:

The first reaction we had to the DLC Rebellion narrative was basically “Wait, we’re still fighting thralls?” “Why aren’t we fighting Jennerit enemies?” “What?” “Oh now we’re fighting minions…”

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Agreed, really wish there were other thralls on out side that talked and we’re inspired by attikus, really sad they were not there, who knows maybe battleborn will get those big spinoff games for specific characters and attikus getting one of them since let’s face it, he deserves it

I have to agree on all fronts. On one hand, this was one of the most entertaining and compelling missions in the entire game. On the other hand, it’s trying to play two sides of the coin and reaching neither.
I love it, but I’m not in love with it like I wanted to be. The rewards were amazing, and well done to encourage replaying. The map was cool, if short. The dialogue was pretty great. But it didn’t quite fit… Well, most of the game.

No thralls, same enemies, waste of a really cool character (shoulda saved her for aCaldy and Atticus epic battle), and none of the people from her uprising were actually there. Rath and Caldy were both there helping Atticus, if I remember correctly. Why weren’t they even mentioned? Maybe they’re in a play through I haven’t hit, but they should’ve been in match characters. Like if you played solo, you had Rath, Caldy and Atticus nearby. One less for each player, with Atticus remaining regardless for integral storytelling.

And Atticus was not there for the boss. I mean, it is his simulation. In the actual rebellion, who killed Aria? I’d hope for Ambra. But, just like my hopes that in their fight it would be raining and they’re in white t-shirts, I doubt the likelihood.

I’d rather have attikus kill her, vengeance for the thralls

Basically, I agree with most of this.
Doesn’t cover the TR at all, really. I would’ve liked to see that.
The comedy I’ve seen so far (haven’t seen the Oscar Mike one yet) is well written and entertaining.
Aria is a solid enemy, but should’ve been given better or more exposition.
I was REALLY going that Ambra outfit was a new skin, too!
All in all, a decent attempt. Fell short on the original game and universe storytelling, but an entertaining time in and of itself.

For those that have played Borderlands 2, does everyone remember the “A Dam Fine Rescue” mission? The one where you have to go save Roland from the bandits in the dam?

Once you reach Roland, he is taken by a Constructor to the top of the dam. When you get to the top, a massive battle has broken out. Throughout the trek to Roland you come across several skirmishes between bandits and Hyperion bots. There are even several scripted scenes of bots murdering bandits when you approach.

The point is, I was expecting something like that. This is the Thrall Rebellion! I was expecting to see a civil war. I thought I’d be running through the battlefield, fighting my way to the boss and helping as many rebel fighters along the way as I could. Instead the whole place is just…empty. Attikus makes his appearance, fights with you for a bit, then leaves you at the boss. The great rebel leader apparently never fought Aria. It’s made even stranger as all the dialogue indicates that there are indeed battles going on. Attikus keeps screaming as if he’s leading a battalion. During some of OM’s dialogue you can hear gun shots going off while he yells about how awesome this fight is. What fight? Where? It’s just me here.

Heck, they didn’t even make it look like there are battles going on elsewhere. You know how in story modes like, say, the Archive, they have all the fighter jets flying around destroying the place? You see the land sinking and explosions all over. Even though none of it actually affects you, it gives off a sense that you are in the middle of a tragedy. But nothing like that is going on here. It’s so quiet and empty.

I have wondered if the story of the mission was very different at one point. The whole private investigator angle doesn’t fit the theme of a rebellion at all. The way the mission plays out, I wonder if you were supposed to be infiltrating a base to find something, but were caught. Thus, the rest of the mission is you trying to escape. That could fit the private eye style much better. Maybe they decided to change it to the Thrall Rebellion too late to alter any other part of the mission save the dialogue? I don’t know. Either way, it just feels like two completely separate stories are going on, and I’m really not sure how they go together.

All that negativity being said, I actually do enjoy playing the mission, for the most part. I hadn’t played Battleborn in a while, but this mission rekindled some interest. I’ve been playing multiple characters, even ones I don’t normally care for, just to unlock their skins. Since the mission is shorter I don’t mind the multiple play throughs, unlike the longer story missions that just got tiring for me.

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Well written and accurate. My thought line is that we know they stopped mid development to rework the mission, so this is still mostly their original plan, with a few major tweaks. Disjointedness would be expected in that case. I expect Friendship Raid to suffer quite like Thrall Rebellion, and for them to truly have the brand new DLC missions by DLC 4. Ofc, it was still great, but I think that would explain the issues you described

I largely agree, but after a few playthroughs I did come to the conclusion that we the players were entering Attikus’ sim and taking the place as the Thralls that helped him assault Aria’s base.

Could just be me inventing the narrative, but a lot of the Op’s dialogue hints at Attikus being still torn and distraught by everything that went down that he’s stuck in replaying increasingly-muddled mutations of his own fading memories to try and cope. That makes the disjointed quality of the Op’s narrative make in-universe sense, but I think it’s really just lampshading, and we all did want some genuine insight into the Thrall Rebellion since there’s an interesting bit of lore baked in there.

But yeah, I agree that the Op’s narrative was being pulled in a few disparate directions and that had a noticeable impact on the narrative holding together. Gameplay was still solid though, even if it would’ve been more fun to have Noir-twists on the side objectives like you mentioned.

Here’s hoping that the future Ops all grow off of the lessons learned from the previous ones.