Longtime Borderlands players will notice something…different about Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands: It’s comparatively tamer than its predecessors. That’s by intent, as it’s the first game in the series to feature a “T” rating, something its creative director called a “pillar” of its design in a recent interview, meant to bring the franchise to, in their words, “a wider audience.”
Released last month for consoles and PC, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is a spin-off of Gearbox’s Borderlands series of loot-shooters. Set between the events of the second and third games, it largely takes place inside an in-game tabletop RPG called Bunkers & Badasses hosted by the divisive character Tiny Tina. (In fact, the only indication Wonderlands exists in the “real” Borderlands world is the occasional brief glimpse of Tina’s cave between key story beats.)
Borderlands games may be known for featuring billions of procedurally generated guns, but they’ve also picked up a (fair, totally earned) reputation for unrelenting raunchiness. Limbs get shot off, spraying fountains of blood. Characters swear with enough frequency to make an entire fleet of sailors blush. There’s enough suggestive material to make those sailors blush even redder. These games are rated “M” / Mature by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB)—basically comparable to an “R” rating in the film industry—for a reason. Moving to a “T” / Teen rating is a notable development shift.
“At first, there might have been a little apprehension,” Matt Cox, creative director for Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands (who previously directed the terrific Bounty of Blood expansion for Borderlands 3) told Kotaku in a recent video chat. “But really, outside of a few words, and then gore pieces from, like, humanoids, we didn’t find it honestly that limiting.”
I’ve played a whole lot of Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands over the past month, and didn’t realize it was rated T until about halfway through the campaign. Part of this is due, simply, to the fact that I didn’t even think to check its rating (see: the entire past Borderlands canon). Part of this is due to what the game gets away with. At the end of an early mission, the villain decapitates a main character out of nowhere. Though it’s an obviously brutal, shocking act, in hindsight, there’s not a drop of blood in sight.
“We pressed the boundaries of that teen rating to quite a degree,” Cox said.
It shows. One side-quest involves you helping a sentient bean find a new place to “germinate,” a line said bean delivers with undertones of vulgarity. The final objective of the quest is, quite literally, to “flick the bean.” The lewd undertones are hard to miss. But it’s all (technically) aboveboard! Or take the famously profane Borderlands character Torgue. In Wonderlands, his curse words are bleeped out with the staccato crunch of a distorted guitar. Typically, bleeping out swear words can be obtrusive or take you out of a moment, but in this case, it actually ends up granting some extra comedic heft to patently ridiculous lines like “Let’s blow up the f****** ocean!!!”
In some moments, though, Gearbox’s intent to avoid an M rating is anything but natural, and even rubs the wrong way. During an early mission, Frette (a robot companion played by Wanda Sykes) refers to a bullshit plot moment as “dragon dookie.” Sykes, arguably one of the funniest stand-up comics of the modern era, is not exactly known for avoiding profanity, so for anyone who’s familiar with her work, the line-read could come off as forced. But ESRB rules are pretty clear to only allow for “mild to moderate use of profanity” in T-rated games.
“We had a pretty good understanding [of] what we could and could not do,” Cox said, though noted there were some surprises. For instance: “We didn’t know that we were going to get a ‘partial nudity’ for mushroom butts.”