Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands tees up a flurry of intriguing narrative ideas, a veritable world of possibility full of fascinating concepts and mind-blowing potential outcomes. And then…it does nothing with them, culminating in an ending that fails to realise its own potential. Let’s chat about it.
Spoilers follow for the ending of Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands.
A spin-off of Gearbox’s Borderlands series of loot-shooters, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is chronologically set between the events of the second and third mainline games, and physically set almost entirely within a fantasy tabletop role-playing game called Bunkers & Badasses (a fun twist on a certain influential tabletop game from IRL). The divisive Tiny Tina plays the role of dungeon master; you’re a “fatemaker,” basically a catch-all term for “player hero.” Your only glimpse of Pandora, the main setting of Borderlands, is via the plot’s framing device: the cave in which you play Bunkers & Badasses.
Wonderlands features a standard “save the realm from the bad guy” story, which is enhanced by some top-flight vocal talent. Wanda Sykes and Andy Samberg play your fatemaker companions (respectively, a fully sentient robot and an utterly hapless bounty hunter). Will Arnett, meanwhile, voices the game’s villain, the Dragon Lord — a role that fits him like a glove.
Early on, the Dragon Lord gives inklings that he, not Tiny Tina, is in control of Bunkers & Badasses. “Psst — newbie. Don’t worry, those jerks at the table can’t hear me. It’s just us down here,” he says in an early mission. Later on, Tiny Tina remarks how, “That’s not supposed to happen,” after the Dragon Lord abruptly beheads Queen Butt Stallion, the ruler of the realm — a deviation from Tiny’s script. Similar moments, wherein the Dragon Lord runs afoul of Tina’s meticulously crafted narrative, and then brags about it, abound through the rest of Wonderlands.
You get the sense that Wonderlands is hurtling toward an inevitable conclusion: The Dragon Lord actually busting free of the game and wreaking havoc on the “real” Borderlands world. Maybe you fight him outside of Bunkers & Badasses as the requisite second-stage final boss fight. Or maybe he well and truly escapes, (Possibly as a villain in the inevitable next mainline Borderlands? Or — screw it, why not — a cameo in this year’s forthcoming big-screen adaptation?) Either way: How freakin’ cool!
But no. In the game’s final few missions, as you’re staging an assault on his fortress, the Dragon Lord starts openly talking about how he’s able to affect the game. It’s a cool concept, though the wind is immediately sucked out of its sails. Even though the Dragon Lord is indeed able to alter what’s “supposed” to happen in Tina’s eyes, summoning in waves of enemies and environmental hazards for you to deal with, she simply wields her powers as dungeon master to snap him back into place. He’s stuck as a pawn, no matter how badly he wants to be a chessmaster.
And then there’s the actual ending. Well, first, the meddlesome Dragon Lord turns out to be a total pushover in the climactic boss fight. Maybe it’s because I specced as the strongest class in the game — and also played with someone rocking an equally powerful build — but we cut through the Dragon Lord like butter. Queen Butt Stallion comes back to life, un-decapitated (de-decapitated?). There’s a brief cinematic moment where it seems like you’re given some choice over the Dragon Lord’s fate; your character, after all, is a fatemaker. But where any other game would allow for an ending with multiple conclusions, you don’t get such agency. You let him live. Queen Butt Stallion orders him to 200 years of imprisonment. His role, then, becomes serving as the steward for the endgame Chaos Chamber mode (which, for what it’s worth, is totally, irrefutably awesome).
He does not, as you’re led to expect through the majority of the game, actually break out of Bunkers & Badasses and leave any impact on the broader Borderlands narrative. He just becomes yet another NPC.
Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands could’ve been bold, it could’ve truly tapped into the “wonder” part of its namesake. Instead, it trades the prospect of imagination for something far more familiar and mundane. Rather than letting Bunkers & Badasses spring to fully imagined life, Wonderlands dispels its own magic, as if saying with a dismissive shrug a phrase I thought we filed behind lock and key years ago: “It’s just a game.”