Game - Tales from the Borderlands
Developed by TellTale Games; Published by TellTale Games
IGN’s Wiki Team - Max Roberts (Me!)
My contributions - Entire written and video walkthrough
Pay - $250 per episode, totaling $1250 before taxes
I have been waiting to dig in to this letter. My wiki writing career entered the big leagues with my first paid gig for Tales from the Borderlands. Like I mentioned in last week’s letter about Captain Toad, my first guide was nearly Dragon Age: Inquisition. I had not (and still have not) played a Dragon Age game. Honestly, at that point in my life, I had never played a massive open-world RPG. Sure, I had played Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry 3, but I never delved into the open-world fantasy game or a BioWare title. I’d enter that sort of world later in 2015 with The Witcher 3.
This week isn’t about how I lucked out of not playing Dragon Age though. Like each guide I had worked on up to this point, Tales was unique. I could not have asked for a better (and easier) first paid gig. There was a safety net in the episodic release structure that provided consistency and a manageable scope. It also marks the first time I seemed to make a file and write the guide offline first. Finally, some common sense.
It took a while to get rolling. The first episode was released on November 25. I reached out to Sam Claiborn about being a freelancer nearly two weeks post release on December 3, 2014. Major guides don’t start production two weeks after the game releases. This new TellTale game was on the back burner, surrounded by the boiling kettles of Dragon Age, Far Cry 4, Pokémon, and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. While a major IP, Borderlands wasn’t demanding attention.
This was further extended by another two weeks. My new hire got lost in the holiday rush. Sam said that he’d get me a code. At the time, I was naïve about how game codes were acquired and distributed. Nearly a month post-release, there was no code coming in from TellTale. After my second follow-up email to Sam, he brought in Jon Ryan to wrap up my onboarding process. 1 Paper work—the essential bit to being paid—would not end up rolling in until January 2015. On December 19, 2014, Jon did tell me to go ahead and buy the season pass for the series and that they’d reimburse me. This would be pretty standard practice, albeit not one month after a game’s release.
Between December 19 and January 5, it looks like I was in full swing. I was asking questions and troubleshooting uploading videos to IGN’s video content management system (video CMS) up through Christmas Eve. I can’t speak for that CMS today, but uploading could be brutal. If my MacBook Air went to sleep or the connection to the Internet cut out, you could kiss that upload goodbye. I would disable the sleep function and leave my laptop on all night to upload massive video files praying there would be no errors when I woke up. It seems I was learning this lesson right off the bat when discussing possible reuploading videos to fix a fade.
“They are taking me forever to upload. I’m nearly done writing the guide. I was thinking about putting the written portion up tonight or tomorrow morning…”
The other half of this guide is mentioned in this particular quote—the written guide. Based off this alone, it sounds like I was writing the guide in its entirety before publishing any sections. If the team hadn’t been so busy with the winter rush of wikis, I’m sure they would have asked me what the heck was taking so long and never even sent me the contract.
To defend my 20-year-old self, I know what was going through my head. This was my first “big boy” writing gig. I wanted to nail it. Each episode is two or so hours total. I had two play each episode at least twice to see how the story played out when making each major decision. I wasn’t going to put up a guide with half the decisions. At the time, I couldn’t comprehend publishing “half” a guide.
Today, you write, publish, and expand upon later. You establish a foundation and build. Thankfully, there was almost zero external pressure to crank this first episode out promptly. This scenario worked out in favor of my ignorance. Future episodes throughout 2015 had urgency, but the systems were in place to start work right at launch. Plus, I would work on other guides during the year, which was hopefully making me better as Tales progressed.
All in all, it looks like I wrote just shy of 3,000 words for that first episode. The total word count across all five episodes is over 15,000, which is scary in a formulaic way. I was nothing if not consistent.
Looking at my project file in Scrivener, my layout is straight forward. Each episode is a folder and each chapter is a document file. I’d write out the chapter’s walkthrough with no traditional style: I’d just change the font size or weight manually to delineate structure. While I’d eventually learn how to stylize a guide during the writing process, I did stick with Scrivener for every guide I worked on from then on. It wouldn’t be until launching Max Frequency that’d I’d start to ween off the sweet literature latte for other writing apps like MarsEdit and, nowadays, Craft. 2 If I was working on wiki guides today, I’d consider sticking with Scrivener out of a sense of familiarity. In reality, switching to something like Craft, BBEdit, or Obsidian would likely be even more powerful.
The reason I’d pivot today is hindsight. IGN’s wiki guide editor has two flavors: The visual editor and a code editor. Like the video CMS, I can’t speak to the quality today, but during my tenure, the visual editor was fickle. You had to coax it along just so to get a page laid out properly. The code-based editor was not smooth sailing either. You could assemble your dream page and then have the backend actively fight you during the save process.
Always keep a local copy of your work.
I lost countless hours to lost pages and faulty saves. Even with my local non-stylized copy, I would lose time. This is because I did everything in the visual editor. The code editor was, as far as I could tell, a mixture of Markdown and HTML. Nothing too advanced. Back in 2014, I knew the tiniest bit of HTML and had never even heard of Markdown. 3 Over the next four years, I’d come up with my own duct tape assembly line for whipping up wiki pages (or at the very least a code-based local copy in case the publishing process failed). Heck, I spent a chunk of my work day today writing in Markdown. It’s funny to look back how just a few years ago, I wasn’t even properly formatting my writing.
Like I said at the top of this letter, I couldn’t have asked for a better game to start with and be paid for. The pay for $250 per episode made TellTale (or any episodic game) hands down the best paying gigs. When the season was said and done, I’d be paid $1250. That was before taxes though. As a freelancer, I’m self-employed and use one of those fancy 1099 tax forms. This translates to essentially setting aside 33% of my pay for Uncle Sam. I wouldn’t learn that lesson until 2015 taxes. Still, my first paid guide was one of my highest paying efforts, netting $837.50 after taxes. “Regular” guides would pay out $500, scope rarely taken into account in my experience. I’ll shed some (dying) light on that next week.
The game is also perfect for learning the ropes. The point-and-click style with A/B decision making makes the questions players may have clear cut. “What happens if I decide to sell out my best friend Vaughn for oodles of money?” 4 This fork in the road decision making in game made decision making in the real world linear. I would play the game as a good guy and then as a bad one. Before this, I had only played TellTale’s The Walking Dead with Abby. We made decisions together. Turning this style of game into work removed that angst when the critical prompt appeared.
Plus, it let me fully experience the game’s narrative. I saw every side of Rhys, Fiona, and the rest of the colorful cast. It’s only one of two TellTale games I’ve ever played like that. I think that is a factor in why I still tout Tales from the Borderlands as the studio’s most rock-solid season and my personal favorite. Going through the game mechanically let me examine each facet throughly. There was an effortlessness to playing.
Looking back, Tales could be compared to easing into a pool. Step by step, I was easing myself into the icy water and acclimating. What would come next, in roughly three weeks from wrapping up work on episode one, could be compared to body slamming into the deep end.
Like most of the games I worked on, I haven’t touched Tales from the Borderlands since I finished the guide. Narrative games can fade away with only major plot points sticking above the clouds of time. Even thumbing through my walkthrough, I can’t quite make out the details in the peaks and valleys TellTale carved out on Pandora.
I do still stand by my testament that this is TellTale’s best game. I’ve played most of the rest with Abby and only one other for work (looks ahead to week fourteen 👀). I always wished they made a second season. 5
The de facto best element of this season was the musical intros. I still listen to Kiss the Sky by Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra. These intros were wholly unique to TellTale’s gamut of games and they crush ‘em.
The cast was fun and memorable. Troy Baker and Laura Bailey have an undeniable chemistry as the leads. I love that Rhys made it into Borderlands 3. I wish other Tales folks could get some screen time in “real” Borderlands games. Maybe someone will make an appearance in the new Tiny Tina fantasy game.
Having two playable protagonists was also unique to TellTale games. There’s an inherent opportunity to explore a story with dual leads. Arcs and motives take on new appearances when viewed through different pairs of eyes. When done well, switching roles in game leads to switching roles in your play style. Rhys and Fiona should respond differently since they are wildly different people. The A or B nature TellTale games take during critical plot points limits the breath these characters can be explored, but the developers do help players become Rhys and Fiona, which makes for a stellar story telling experience. I may not remember all the details of those valleys and mountains, but I do whole heartedly remember how the proverbial view made me feel. That hasn’t ducked beneath the clouds of my memory yet.
A favorite tidbit from this lengthy email thread was about some guidelines Jon gave me to mull over. “First off, there’s a handy set of production guidelines I’ve included (sorry for the weird formatting - free PDF editors are notoriously awful)…” I love the idea that IGN was using some janky piece for free PDF software. ↩
I did use Scrivener to write and assemble all of Chasing the Stick: The History of Naughty Dog during the PS4 Era. Super great application for building a book. ↩
That’s probably not how someone would phrase a search on Google, but you get the idea. ↩