Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel will let players step into the role of Claptrap the robot, as well as several other non-playable characters from the Borderlands series. We talked to the developers about why we love some robots more than others.
The four playable characters in Borderlands: the Pre-Sequel were all NPCs in Borderlands 2, and all of them were henchman of that game's lead villain, Handsome Jack. The title is a bit of a running joke, since the game takes places in between Borderlands and Borderlands 2, exploring how these four characters became who they were in BL2, and how Jack became a villain.
We're focused on just one of those characters at the moment, Claptrap. Claptrap was originally a very minor character that could help the player, but often be a huge pain in the ass as well. Once an entire product line of robots, by Borderlands 2 only a single Claptrap remained. In the Pre-Sequel, players can play as "The Fragtrap," a more combat oriented Claptrap that's still weird and unpredictable. I talked to Jonathan Pelling, creative director at 2K Australia, about Claptrap's role in the upcoming game and the role of robots in sci-fi storytelling.
io9: At first I was going to ask why we tend to find non-humanoid robots endearing and cute while human-looking robots end up as villains, but then I thought of enough exceptions that I wonder if that divide actually exists. ED-209 is certainly non-humanoid and not at all endearing, and I think a lot of people come to identify with the emotional complexity of Roy Batty. So what are the characteristics that turn a robot into a fan favorite?
Jonathan Pelling: Like any character, it comes down to how it makes you feel. It doesn't necessarily matter what the feeling is – but a connection is formed, and the character becomes important and memorable as a result. The stronger the feeling, the stronger the connection. The form the robot character takes is very important to our perception of them, or how its creator wants them to be perceived, and so often physically embody that intent through calculated use of anthropomorphic traits – or a lack of them. We should fear ED-209, as it has no face and its mind and intentions – or those of its masters – are obscure. We should feel sympathy for Wall-E, so it has big, sad puppy-dog eyes and is stuck with awkward and limiting physical traits. The Nexus 6 Replicants are outwardly indistinguishable from us, so we understand that they can inwardly have the same thoughts, dreams and fears as we do.
io9: Robot stories in some form have been with us since long before the term "robot" even existed. Why are we so compelled to tell stories through inanimate objects imbued with some semblance or aspect of life? Is there a particular kind of story, or a particular aspect of the human experience that we can get at best through the robot angle?
Jonathan Pelling: The robot is an extension of its creator's will and embodies his or her values and needs, through how complex the robot is, what its intended function is, how like a human it is, and its capacity to think for itself. That can tell us about its creator, whether that be the author, a particular character in the story, or the society that created the conditions for the robot to exist. It can also tell us about the other characters that cross paths with the robot, through their treatment or utilization of it (or it of them).
Essentially, robots are life created by us. It's fascinating to us that we might animate the inanimate, because the idea is rife with interesting questions and dilemmas. Because they're animate, but not actually human, they can be active participants, yet stripped down to a pure function in order to represent some facet of the world or the people in it. Or, we might make them very similar to us to stimulate paranoia, or questions of ethics. So, we can use them in stories to examine ourselves and to ask questions of our own existence and what it really means to be human.
io9: How has Claptrap changed and developed since the first two games in the Borderlands series?
Jonathan Pelling: The role has definitely expanded – from a general group of NPCs to a singular, franchise-centric character. But Claptrap and his many incarnations has always been a crucial part of the tone of the Borderlands universe. It felt natural that the next step would be making him a playable character.
As far as Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel goes, we wanted to capture the essential traits of Claptrap and expand on them in ways that would be surprising, but also make you think, "well of course he would be like that." Things rarely go right for Claptrap, but he keeps on trying. He's optimistic and loyal but hopelessly deluded. As a Vault Hunter, we knew we had to make him into a badass, but from the very beginning we wanted to make him feel like he was still plagued by the same awful luck and questionable programming that he is known for, as well as being an unavoidable fact of life for everyone around him – for better or worse.
io9: In a storytelling sense, how does your thinking about a character shift when it moves from the periphery to protagonist?
Jonathan Pelling: The audience needs to care about protagonists in a different way to peripheral characters. If you're advancing a character from the periphery to the center of the story, they need to take on motivations, conflict and they need to be capable of growth. Instead of illustrating the world, they need to start changing it.
Claptrap units started out as a kind of resource to the player. You'd find them around the world and they'd lead you to loot. They'd help you out from time to time. But they were essentially a colorful offset to the brutal world of Pandora, a little anomaly that helped set the contrasting tones of the world. In Borderlands 2, it was The Claptrap, not A Claptrap. The original Fyrestone Claptrap from Borderlands, the sole survivor. He took on a powerful motivation (revenge against Handsome Jack for the genocide of his product line) and sought to transfer that motivation to the player.
In Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, we're fortunate in that we're predating that event in the timeline. By making Claptrap playable, we'd lose everything Claptrap-as-NPC brings to the table if he was the only Claptrap left alive. So we're able to use Claptraps in a variety of ways to bring colour and life to the world, as well as pushing the character forward.
io9: In a pure ass-kicking sense, what does Claptrap as a playable character bring to the table?
Jonathan Pelling: Claptrap, the Fragtrap can be one of the most powerful Vault Hunters ever, if you use him right. Claptrap is all about adapting on the fly, to the whims of his crazy programming. His Action Skill VaultHunter.EXE analyses the situation and picks a mode that it thinks will be helpful. Many of the modes are inspired by other Vault Hunters, like Gun-Zerking or a flying Cloudkill minion, but some are bizarre non-sequiturs, like the Rubber Duck or Pirate Ship modes.
If you know how to react, then you're going to be crazy powerful. Rubber Duck mode makes you reflect bullets and the unstoppable bouncing, while challenging to control, is ideal for repeatedly butt-stomping enemies. Pirate Ship mode fires cannons in time with the 1812 Overture, making for a tricky timing challenge, but the cannon balls are absolutely devastating to whatever they hit.
And because the modes can affect everyone on the team in various ways, everyone gets to experience the madness. They're either going to love you or you're going to cop the same exasperated shrieks that Claptrap tends to inspire in some people! Either way, you'll laugh.