Batman: The Telltale Series: Class, choice, and what makes a hero a hero
As a long time Telltale enthusiast, I was excited to hear about new seasons of my three favorite TT franchises - Batman, The Walking Dead, and The Wolf Among Us.
To get ready for what's next from the Telltale Batman fanchise, let's take a look back at what the first game delivered. There were successes and stumbles, and some interesting dramatic themes at play. How did the game work, and what could the next game do better?
There will be giant piles of spoilers below. I am going to ruin all the narrative twists and turns here, so if you care about that, stop reading now.
Batman: The Enemy Within
Telltale’s first season of their Batman franchise was a brilliant re-imagining of the Batman mythos. The most significant change was turning Thomas Wayne, Bruce Wayne’s father, into a gangster scumbag. Rather than being portrayed as a shining beacon of goodness snuffed out by out-of-control crime, his ruthlessness caused the gangland hit that killed him and Martha Wayne. Even worse, he collaborated with Carmine Falcone, the very gang boss that Batman is now fighting to take down. Bruce Wayne discovers this halfway through the first season and it rocks him to his core. The player is left to pick up the pieces and figure out who Batman and Bruce Wayne are in the wake of this revelation.
I separate those two personas very intentionally. Many Batman stories and fans contend that Bruce Wayne is just a costume that Batman wears, and that when Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed, Batman became the primary persona. Batman games tend to agree. From the old NES Batman all the way to Arkham Knight, you spend 99.9% of your time in costume.
But Telltale wisely realized that in a game where conversations and relationships are centralized, Bruce Wayne is just as compelling as Batman. Through its mechanics, the game makes the contention that Bruce Wayne and Batman are intimately connected and equally important, and builds the narrative thusly. Some of your most critical moments involve the choice to approach major NPC like Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent as either Batman or as Bruce Wayne.
And during those interactions, you get to decide exactly what kind of Bruce and what kind of Batman you are. For example, early in the season, you are throwing a fundraiser for Harvey Dent’s mayoral run at Wayne Manor when Carmine Falcone shows up, looking for favors in return for his political support. Harvey has promised Bruce an end to corruption in Gotham, but asks you to play along. Carmine offers a handshake.
Do you shake this gangster’s hand in front of the entire city? You aren’t Batman right now. You can’t grab Falcone and hang him off of the roof of the manor, demanding confessions and information. And when the truth about your father starts to get out, the media starts to destroy your family’s reputation. You can’t punch or batarang those problems away. How does a costumed vigilante deal with an ungrateful city and a suddenly checkered past? These are the sorts of problems that the Telltale Batman series demand that you address, and I loved every second of it.
Two Characters in One
The dichotomy between Batman and Bruce Wayne led me to play each persona very differently. My Batman maintained a moral code similar to the comic book Batman we all know and love. Given an opportunity to brutalize Falcone, I didn’t. I was often scary, but rarely cruel. Batman, to me, is at his core a cop, and cops that bend the rules because it’s easier are bad cops. Batman is the best cop and, in his own way, as much of a Boy Scout as Superman.
My Bruce Wayne had a more flexible moral compass, however. Bruce is Harvey Dent’s best friend, and Selina Kyle (Catwoman) is Harvey’s girlfriend. But as we all know, Batman and Catwoman are meant to be together, so I eagerly took the opportunity to sleep with her. Of course Harvey caught us, pushing him over the edge and precipitating a mentally unbalanced rampage of revenge. Whoops. I caught myself thinking, “Well, I’m doing a lot of good as Batman - don’t I deserve some happiness, like Selina Kyle as my girlfriend?” Which is an awesome justification for being a total jerk. Telltale games are one hell of a moral Rorschach test.
To me, Batman is an icon. He represents an incorruptible symbol of justice that others look to for inspiration. You cannot bend. You cannot break. Too much depends on you. But Bruce Wayne? He’s just a man. He falls in love, makes mistakes, is hurt by people he cares about, and hurts them in turn. He is human and vulnerable in ways I can never be in the Batsuit. To DC fans, that might have a thematically disloyal whiff of Marvel to it. While Bruce Wayne’s struggles may be personal, they are writ large on Gotham, and remain epic all the way through.
Sins of the Father
Telltale also radically reimagined key figures in Batman’s rogues gallery, and this reinvention is intimately connected to their version of Thomas Wayne and the theme of class. Rather than being an odd, deformed crime lord with a mob of weapon-wielding penguins and a set of trick umbrellas, Oswald Cobblepot is Bruce Wayne’s childhood friend. When you first meet him, he talks about revolution and uprisings in a way that is uncomfortably justified in the face of Gotham’s grim poverty. Later, you find out that Thomas Wayne desired Cobblepot’s family estate, and was willing to go so far as to drug Cobblepot’s mother and have her committed to Arkham Asylum, which destroyed his family.
Batman’s millionaire status was always the 800 pound gorilla in the Bat-canon, and Telltale puts this issue front and center. In the comic, Thomas Wayne is an inheritor of great wealth who becomes a doctor because he believes in helping people. In the Telltale Batman series, Thomas Wayne is a monster who enriched himself by killing and exploiting others. Batman’s culpability for the woeful state of Gotham is not a new idea; Jeph Loeb’s The Long Halloween and Dark Victory comics subtly contend that Batman’s rogues gallery exists because Batman employs such extreme measures to fight crime. In short, Batman is a freak who creates other freaks.
Telltale takes this one step further - Thomas Wayne’s evil actions create both Batman and his rogues gallery. The wealth that makes Batman’s vigilantism possible was created through Thomas Wayne’s exploitation and violence. The sins of the father are visited upon the son, and the line between hero and villain blurs. The game asks if there’s a way to balance the scales. Can Batman do enough good to balance out his father’s evil? What does it mean to try to use blood money for justice?
Batman’s villains are usually portrayed as murderous psychopaths, so Penguin’s entirely justified aggression felt like a huge change. In fact, most of the crime that takes place is aimed not at terrorizing the citizens of Gotham, but at Bruce Wayne and his family. What does it mean to fight criminals who have gone too far because your family pushed them past their limits of emotional endurance? Batman’s parents were killed in an alley and he became a hero. Penguin’s mother was destroyed by Thomas Wayne, and he became a revolutionary.
They further develop this idea with the Vicki Vale character. Born Vicki Arkham, she was the daughter of the Arkham family that ran the asylum where Thomas Wayne had his victims committed. When they stood up to him, Wayne had them killed. Vicki Arkham, now an orphan, was adopted by the sadistic and abusive Vale family who beat her and kept her locked in a torture chamber. Her trauma transformed into rage and she became Lady Arkham, leader of the Children of Arkham, a terrorist organization dedicated to destroying Gotham. Thomas Wayne’s ferocious greed helped create a terrorist organization that almost destroyed his son and his legacy. It’s hard not to notice this array of Gotham orphans. Violence, injustice, and neglect created villains, while Alfred’s compassion created Batman.
Unrelated to the theme, Batman fans of a certain age all fondly remember the original Tim Burton film where Vicki Vale was Batman’s love interest. I implicitly trusted her, which was, of course, a total mistake. I’m sure that the Telltale writers knew this, and took advantage of your expectations accordingly.
The game makes its final thematic point during its climax. The difference between a hero and villain, in the end, lies in whether they are acting for self-satisfaction or the greater good. The Penguin wants Wayne Enterprises. Lady Arkham wants the entire world to feel her pain.
Batman, on the other hand, fights for the betterment of all of Gotham. Batman’s solemn vow to purge Gotham of the evil that killed his parents is, in the end, a selfless act. But this time around, his father’s greed helped create that evil. However, rather than undermining Batman’s mission or sense of self, it makes his quest for justice all the more urgent.
Unfortunately, the final episode of this season didn’t live up to the promise of the first few episodes. The last episode is low on meaningful choices and the final battle involves rocket boots and mid-air fistfights that bear more of a resemblance to Dragon Ball Z than Batman. The whole thing felt rushed. Given that The Walking Dead: A New Frontier was scheduled to release a few short weeks after the final episode of Batman, I wonder if Telltale had to get it done just to clear their plate. I hope they manage to avoid this mistake for Season 2.
That being said, the season ends on an exciting sting. John Doe is watching TV reports of Batman’s exploits, claiming he has big plans, an obvious callback to the end of Batman Begins. And since Dark Knight was the best of the three Nolan-verse films, I have high hopes for The Enemy Within.
The SDCC release trailer also promised a collaboration between John-Doe-Joker and the Riddler next season. The Riddler is a goofy, Golden Age, four-color villain that has been reinterpreted as something of a fixer, hacker, and mastermind. In Season 1, Telltale managed to strike a terrific balance between reinterpretation (Two Face / Harvey Dent), reimagination (The Penguin / Oswald Cobblepot), and canon loyalty (Catwoman, The Joker). I can’t wait to see how they handle The Riddler. I hope they stick with the theme of class and further explore crime’s connection to economic desperation. In many ways, Season 1 was the Dark Knight Rises film we deserved, that touched on many of the same issues, but with a lighter hand and far greater nuance.
Brute Force and Detective Work
You encounter many of the most overt game mechanics in Batman’s combat sequences. Most of these consist of Quicktime sequences. Unlike Telltale’s The Walking Dead, there are very few options to vary the amount of force you deploy against your enemy. While Telltale’s Batman story is all about the consequences of violence and corruption, there are surprisingly few options to approach Batman’s combat encounters more or less violently. You get one memorable choice to either brutalize or arrest Carmine Falcone, and it affects how Gotham sees you, but when it comes to beating down nameless mooks, you generally apply the maximum amount of Bat-force trauma. You could also argue that Batman always applies exactly as much force as is necessary, and so there’s no point in varying it - Batman is always doing the best he can.
But I think it would be interesting to see the themes of class, power, and choice reflected in the combat mechanics next season.
The detective mechanics leave something to be desired. The first time you reconstruct a crime scene, it’s interesting, but after the third or fourth time, you realize you’re basically just inserting tab A into slot B to move the plot along. I wish there was a way to accelerate these sequences, or make them more compelling. It might be interesting if you could come to different conclusions, pushing the plot in different directions - the detective work itself could become a choice that affects the story.
For example, in Season 2, Telltale could start from the assumption that Batman’s conclusions are always right, and create multiple outcomes for each detective scene. If you decide that the Joker did it, the Joker did, and the plot moves from there. If you decide that this crime was committed by Two Face, it was, and then the plot changes.
I wouldn’t want to introduce a failure state where Batman accuses the wrong person. Gamers always want the best ending, and creating failure states just means that you encourage people to start over and get it "right" instead of accepting the outcome as the consequence of their actions.
Telltale’s writers also managed to dodge one of my personal bugbears with non-comic superhero media: killing their villains. Harvey Dent, the Penguin, and possibly even Lady Arkham are still kicking, allowing Telltale to develop a rich rogues gallery that can trouble Batman in future installments.
Overall, despite a few stumbles, Telltale’s new Bat-verse has an immense amount of promise. Much like their Walking Dead series, it uses our familiarity with the universe to hook us, but manages to subvert our expectations with rich characters and new information.
What did you think of these changes to Bat-canon? Did you come away from the series thinking about class, power, privilege, and violence? By the end, were you on Team Penguin? Let us know in the comments.