M.I.A, Doctor Strange and Borderlands 3: the inspiration behind the loot shooter

Borderlands 3 art
Image Credit: Gearbox / 2K Games

Remember when the ‘grim dark’ look was everywhere? Whether you were at the cinema watching a superhero movie, or playing your favourite shooter franchise on your games console, it wasn’t too long ago when the prevalent colour palette of entertainment was sandy yellows and muted greys. 

Games were trying hard to be ‘A Serious Thing™’, and the original Mad Max inspired Borderlands game was more or less the same back in 2009. But as the franchise has evolved, it’s become increasingly kaleidoscopic, to the point where the forthcoming Borderlands 3 is swimming in neon-kissed paint bombs of colour.

It’s a virtue of the series’ instantly-recognisable comic-book cel shaded style  – one that’s able to simultaneously paper over the limitations of the hardware of its day through its caricatured nature, but also bring out the best in modern gaming tech, malleable enough to be taken in any direction the imaginations of its creators see fit.

“We pull influences from everywhere, and it really comes down to the individual artist pursuing a vision within this contained artstyle,” explains Amanda Christensen, concept artist at Gearbox and key character designer on Borderlands 3. 

“You get a lot of variety that way. Every artist champions something, and has a different focus. I’m a character designer, I worked on a lot of the female characters. If I talk about Amara specifically, her Pinterest board would have M.I.A, mixed martial arts, really awesome Hindu art and iconography and cool effects from Doctor Strange.”

New hardware, new possibilities

With more ambitious, busy and large environments and ever-more outlandish enemies, Borderlands 3 (now five years in development) is benefiting from new technologies that its predecessors did not have access to. At an LA gameplay reveal in May, TechRadar was able to get hands on with the game running on AMD’s latest, impressive Ryzen and Radeon PC systems.

“The most obvious jump is in terms of our level of detail. The models have more polygons, more texture space,” reveals Christensen. 

The elemental guns which rainbow coloured explosions happen all over the screen, blowing stuff up constantly. That’s possible because of the newer technology.

Amanda Christensen, Gearbox

“Every character just has a bunch of cool little details – it’s definitely been part of the franchise in the past, but now because we can make the art so much more detailed tech-wise, players will have a lot of fun looking at the models and highlighting the details. ‘What’s Ellie’s tattoo say?’, or ‘What’s Tina wearing on her wrist?’. We can use the improved tech to bring out the personality. 

“There are some little details too like cloth movement, hair moves better, you’ve got some better looking physics.”

With the PS5 set to sport similar internals, it’s looking a safe bet that Borderlands 3 could eventually make the jump to the console. But Gearbox at present declines to comment. That’s not to say the team aren’t already thinking about future possibilities.

“From an art point of view, just the sheer amount of details that we’re able to put on individual characters or the environment [will grow with new hardware],” says Christensen.

“The way the characters move, and are presented, just the physics. When I’m playing the demo I play as Amara and I like to use the elemental guns which make rainbow coloured explosions happen all over the screen, blowing stuff up constantly. That’s possible because of the newer technology.”

From Mad Max to the moon

With such a distinctive look, Borderlands 3’s faithful continuation of the series comic-book style could run the risk at first glance of being no huge leap from its predecessors. But Christensen believes that the game’s new spacefaring storyline gives the game a much greater opportunity to flex its creative muscles. 

“We’re always going to have that Mad Max vibe, and that’s what [Borderlands’ first planet] Pandora’s all about,” says Christensen. 

The bright colours and the angst, it pulls things together and really gives us an opportunity to start exploring.

Amanda Christensen, Gearbox

“But we’re bringing in new characters that aren’t always from Pandora, and it’s been super fun exploring different looks and deciding what still looks good in this art style. 

“For example we’ve got Amara, our new Siren, and one of the things we wanted to do with her was ask ‘can we get more of an Eastern vibe into Borderlands, and is it still Borderlands?’ I think it was actually pretty successful.

“You’ll kinda see throughout the game [that we’re experimenting]. Lorelei is a new character and she’s got a cyberpunk look – I think the great thing about the art style is that when you’ve got the bright colours and the angst, it pulls things together and really gives us an opportunity to start exploring.”

New planets and bosses have brought out the best from the Gearbox concept team. As we noted in our hands-on preview of the game, it appears nothing was off limits to the creative team this time out.

“We’re doing some really cool stuff with some of the other planets. Promethea has this dark cyberpunk vibe to it, and there are some environments you’ll have seen in the trailers that have some different aesthetics to it,” says Christensen.

“I think the monsters, the creatures this time around, there’s a lot of variety this time around in terms of their attachments and attack styles. Even just with something like the bandit, that someone’s really familiar with, they have different moves, different ways of responding to people. One of my favourite things is a type of bandit called a ‘Slugger’ – you throw a grenade at him and he’ll hit it back at you with a baseball bat. It’s a lot of what people expect and love, but we want to surprise people. Bigger and better.”

As ever though, not every idea can be crammed into a game, and even one as liberally minded as Borderlands 3 had to drop some creations.

“There are always some things that get left on the cutting room floor, but the things that made the cut, that made it into the game, they earned that spot. They were the ideas that people were most excited about and really believed in,” says Christensen.

Building the bosses

Bosses are among the most challenging characters to develop. Not only do they need to be distinctive from the grunts that surround them in terms of design, but they also need to serve up a challenge in terms of gameplay, one that weaves in with the visual characteristics the teams decide upon.

“Bosses are daunting,” admits Christensen, “but it starts the same way everything in the game does, with a concept artist doing a bajillion drawings, coming up with a ton of ideas, and going back and forth with the designers. 

“Bosses, typically if they’re human, have to be obnoxious and over the top in terms of their personality and movement. But also we have big monsters and stuff like that too, so there’s a lot of collaboration involved between departments to make sure things have a lot of spectacle this time around.”

Borderlands, with its irreverent humour, has always commented on the real-world in which it was developed, and Borderlands 3 is no different. This time it’s taking a shot at streamers and YouTubers with its villainous Calypso Twins, who build a cult of personality around their audacious behaviour. It’s reflected in the large amount of religious imagery dotted around the game.

“[The religious iconography] is mostly a reference to the Children of the Vault, which is the cult run by our two villains,” explains Christensen. “They’re like cult leaders mixed with crazy YouTubers to be honest! A lot of their signage and environments has a pseudo-religious feel to it, and that’s definitely part of the tone of the game, as they’re the main antagonists.”

Cults? Twins? Religious iconography? You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s sounding thematically similar to Ubisoft’s recent Far Cry games, Far Cry 5 and Far Cry New Dawn. But Christensen stresses the Gearbox team were as surprised as everyone else by Ubisoft’s reveal.

“Pure coincidence I guess!” she laughs. “I wasn’t aware of the Far Cry stuff. We’re doing it with a very distinct Borderlands humour and flavour, I think people are going to be really excited about it.”

With a rabid fanbase that stretches beyond the hardcore gamer to the creative cosplayer, the Borderlands art team has it’s work cut out for it. But just as the ‘anything-goes’ nature of the series inspires the creative concept team, so too does Christensen believe it’ll keep drawing back in the fans.

“There’s a sense of charm and personality that Borderlands has,” concludes Christensen. 

“It was one of the reasons I wanted to work on the franchise. The variety of personality in our characters, it draws people in. Just the sheer amount of fan art I’ve seen for this game already, it’s like, ‘wow’. They want to see them, they want to see what happens to their stories, that’s something cool that the series has, it gets people coming back.”