How Telltale's Batman reveals the dark side of the Dark Knight
Welcome to Road Less Traveled, a feature series in which we examine what happens when you make the unpopular choices in popular narrative adventure games.
What kind of hero does Gotham need? That is the question that you answer when you play Batman: The Telltale Series. Batman will always save Gotham, but your choices shape what kind of Batman does the saving.
This article contains enormous spoilers for the first season of Batman: The Telltale Series.
Rich enough to fight
The general arc of revelations and character development remain the same regardless of what you pick in Telltale’s reinvention of the Batman universe. Vicki Vale is still Lady Arkham, Carmine Falcone still gets shot in the head, the Waynes are still disgraced, and Batman still saves the day. That doesn’t mean that your choices don’t matter.
Batman, as a hero, is a force of nature. Through brawn, force of will or arms, and investigative skill, he gets his way regardless of what choices he makes. The unpopular choices in the game (determined by Telltale's own public stats about player choices) create a violent, erratic Batman who answers to no one: not Alfred, not Jim Gordon, and not the people of Gotham.
Your choices do not change the plot, but they do change who Batman is. The plot of the game revolves around the revelation that the Wayne family was violent and corrupt, and its wealth was a product of that. Batman’s entire campaign of crime fighting is predicated upon that wealth - the car, the suit, the cave, the computer, the weapons, and even the training. A guy who is working a 9-5 job has a lot harder time reaching the apex of human achievement in kung fu the way Bruce Wayne has.
The game gives you a myriad of opportunities to respond to the revelation of your father’s criminal past. If you choose the more aggressive responses, Bruce Wayne becomes a rich man who is above it all. He’s not a “common criminal” and thus should not have his house searched as a result of the revelation that his father was a white-collar criminal who destroyed lives. While the game makes it clear that this search is politically motivated, it’s also not wholly out of order for mob connections of this sort. Bruce Wayne believes that he is special and important and shouldn’t be beholden to normal investigative procedure.
Above the Law
One of the most telling moments was when you brutalize a critically injured Carmine Falcone. You have a choice between giving him morphine to relieve his pain or choking him - a stark difference indeed. If you choose to threaten him in order to obtain the truth about your father, Falcone says that you remind him of Thomas Wayne. You both have “a switch” that, once flipped, makes you shockingly violent.
Two of the unpopular choices put that “switch” front and center. In the first episode, after you corner Carmine Falcone, you have the opportunity to either safely arrest him or impale his body on a piece of protruding concrete rebar. The latter, unpopular choice leads Gotham to fear you and deem you a monster. There is something monstrous about a man who decides he is above the law and doles out punishment as he sees fit, isn’t there?
Breaking more than the rules
Another unpopular choice occurs when you catch a sniper responsible for multiple murders in a warehouse. You hang him up by his ankles, and you can scare him by smashing some barrels near his head with a pipe or smashing his ribs with the pipe. Then, you can choose to threaten him or break his arm during an interrogation. Breaking his arm was the unpopular choice, and choosing it churns the stomach. Afterward, over the sniper’s screams of pain, Batman says, “You’ll never hold a gun steady again.” It becomes clear that you’re not hurting him in a desperate search for answers to protect the innocent. Instead, you are doling out the punishment you see fit.
Immediately afterward, the police, including Lieutenant Gordon, show up and you can choose to either reveal yourself or escape. Escape is the unpopular choice. This Batman’s sense of justice leads him to hurt others. This Batman does not answer to anyone, including the police. This Batman punishes whomever he wants and hides in the shadows. This Batman has a switch, and it has been flipped.
You also have two revealing conversations with Selina Kyle, Catwoman. Most of the time, when you’re Batman, you’re not answering questions regarding your motivations; you’re either beating someone’s face in or threatening to do so. Kyle is the only person who seems interested in your reasoning behind becoming a costumed vigilante. While there are no statistics on which of these choices were popular and which weren’t, it's very possible to answer the questions in a way that feels aligned with the extreme vigilante Batman the more central choices are creating. Why does he do what he does? There is no higher purpose. It’s not to inspire others. He does it because he can. Hard to think of anything more terrifying than a rich man who takes it upon himself to mete out his own off-brand of justice.
The unpopular choices also lead to a complicated relationship with Harvey Dent. As Bruce Wayne, you bar him from entering the meeting with Carmine Falcone. Yet you save him as Batman during the mayoral debates, and again when the Children of Arkham corner him. However, you pull his funding when he says he may have to distance himself from the now-toxic Wayne name. You do not betray him by sleeping with Selina Kyle, but you do beat him down when he attacks you in her apartment.
Your brutal tactics as Batman also inspire Harvey to create his police paramilitary force. Harvey, already unstable and over the edge, believes that he must work outside of the system to save Gotham. When he’s conceiving of this vigilante task force, you can try to dissuade him or agree that it’s a good idea. Either way, it comes to pass. While it only gets a brief bit of screen time, one of the worst acts of violence in the game occurs when Harvey Dent blows up a city block where the Children of Arkham have a hideout. This kills not just the nascent terrorist organization, but police officers and other innocent victims besides.
Some Rules Can't Be Broken
This is where Batman’s code against killing comes into play. While he operates outside of the law, he also refuses to kill. As bad as this Batman can be, the game doesn’t allow him to summarily execute criminals. He’s not the Punisher, and the game does its best to draw bold lines between Batman and his antagonists: Dent, Cobblepot, and Lady Arkham.
However, if you play as a cruel Batman, you can choose not to draw lines between the cause and effect of the Wayne legacy. Thomas Wayne destroyed Vicki Arkham’s family for daring to stand in his way. She was adopted by the vicious Vale family, who beat and tortured her. A great deal of her anger and hatred for the people of Gotham can be traced to how badly she was victimized by Thomas Wayne, and then failed by the system meant to protect her. Batman can refuse to empathize, and insist in their final showdown that her pain doesn’t matter. While it doesn’t justify the violence she enacts on the people of Gotham, it’s a cold, dense Batman indeed that can’t connect his privilege to her suffering. She even calls him out on this, saying, “I understand why you fight to protect the heartless people of this city - you’re one of them!” During a later sequence Lady Arkham goes on to say that Batman wears a mask so he “won’t have to be held accountable.” Given some of the actions he’s undertaken, you can’t say she’s wrong.
The game asks, “What do you do with your trauma?” Penguin wants to rebuild his fortune and get his revenge on the Waynes. Lady Arkham wants to make the city suffer as she’s suffered. Batman becomes a vigilante. But you get to choose whether this vigilante’s empathy allows him to understand his opponents and bring them to justice, or whether his anger and self-importance overtakes all other concerns.
The real question of the game is not “Will Batman save the day?” Regardless of what you do, he does. But the game asks, “Do you transcend your father’s legacy or do you succumb to it?” Thomas Wayne was a violent man that tolerated no resistance. His goal was to enrich himself and he succeeded. His son took that wealth and tried to make Gotham a better place. Was he able to?
How it all ends
In the game's final sequence, after you’ve defeated Lady Arkham and the church you’re in is collapsing, she limps to her death while saying: “This is how it was always meant to be.” To a compassionate Batman, it was an acknowledgement that nothing can change the past, and that violent rage can never triumph over a defender of the innocent. That perhaps, despite your best intentions, she’s too far gone to be saved. She’s letting you off the hook.
To a violent, cruel Batman, this is her concession to business as usual - the powerful on top, the weak destroyed, and those who attempt to challenge the status quo dead and defeated. Gotham is back to normal, insomuch as it has a brutal Wayne in control again.
At the conclusion of the plot, you come to the realization that the only thing you can truly control in this game is yourself. You can’t control the plot or the overarching destiny of the characters, but you can control how you treat people and how you act. When Telltale allows us to choose what kind of Batman the city needs, we control the shape of this need.
Are you beholden to the law or above it? Do you trust the system to make the right call or do you make the call yourself? Are you compassionate or vicious? And as a result, do you inspire Gotham or do you terrorize it? Is Gotham overseen by a violent vigilante who answers to no one? Is this what a better world looks like?
That’s what you get to decide.