Batman: The Telltale Series
Until the late 1980s the in-universe origin of Batman was somewhat unique. It only had a very basic outline of how Batman became Batman depicted usually across only a few panels. Obviously the depictions of his parent’s death had be done over and over verbatim for forty odd years by that point, but not the actual details of how Bruce Wayne exactly became Batman, not just emotionally, but literally: how did he got the costume, the gadgets, how he developed a connection with Commissioner Gordon and so on. Then Frank Miller wrote Batman: Year One over the course of four issues of Detective Comics and the basic formula was put in place. Since then we’ve had many ‘year one’ or ‘first year’ interpretations of the Batman mythos. The comics had the expanded retelling with Batman: Zero Year a few years back. There’s the alternative comic book continuity of Batman: Earth One. In other media there was the live action film Batman Begins as well as flashbacks in the Batman: The Animated Series spin-off cinema release Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. A few years ago there was even a DVD animated movie that loyally (mostly) adapted Batman: Year One itself. So obviously Batman’s ‘square one’ is well trod territory. What about his ‘square two’?
What is a Dreaded Backlog?
There’s actually a tonne of ‘year two’ Batman mythos as well. In the post-Year One continuities (post-crisis, post-infinite crisis and so on) the most famous stuff is Batman: The Long Halloween and Batman: Dark Victory, which both are given greater context by Batman and the Monster Men and Batman and the Mad Monk, as well as Batman: The Man Who Laughs. Then the current continuity (at time of writing) year one story Zero Year was recently given the follow up Batman: The War of Jokes and Riddles. There’s even a few stories I’ve not mentioned because they’ve been retconned by the above or just generally forgotten. In cinema arguably The Dark Knight is a year two story and in video games there is the desperately underrated Batman: Arkham Origins. Even alternative continuity comic Batman: Earth One had a sequel called Batman: Earth One – Volume 2. That’s without mentioning other titles like All-Star Batman and Robin, which is one we specifically try not to mention.
So why have I began a piece about a Telltales Batman game with two paragraphs of listing various Batman’s various early years? Because Batman: The Telltales Series makes the very pointed choice to tell a year two story. Year one stories are typically about Bruce Wayne returning home from his ridiculous amounts of training abroad, before facing more criminal resistance than expected and thus having to strike fear into the hearts of criminals to be able to engage them properly. He mostly does this by dressing as a man that’s also a bat. He usually encounters the mob (usually the Falcone crime family) and also a corrupt Gotham PD (usually embodied by Loeb and Flass). Through these struggles he either forges a partnership with honest cop Jim Gordon or the two at least become increasingly aware of each other. A friendship with Harvey Dent is usually a factor too. In year two stories Batman has typically already crippled the mob to some degree and started to get the corrupt cops to at least run for cover like cockroaches. However, then the new criminal element, that Batman’s gimmicky and operatic nature have inspired, begin to burst forth from every crevice. Folks like the Joker and the Riddler and so on. At this point Batman’s war on crime shifts in tone and style and becomes an unending slog against absurdity. It’s also in this era that Harvey Dent usually suffers his downfall and truly becomes Two-Face.
So Batman: The Telltales Series begins in Year Two because it’s the traditional turning point. They don’t have to introduce Batman or try to find a fresh way to present his origin. Whilst there are always consistent elements in year two stories the arrangements is always surprisingly varied. So this is the perfect time to allow a player in a choice orientated game to create their own Batman mythos. Now this was admittedly my first ever Telltales experience. Coming into this arena so late (so late the company has just collapsed) meant that I was aware of the shortcomings in the Telltales formula. I knew that the ‘choices’ were superficial at best and only really affected cosmetic elements. I knew that these games are wonky and a little broken. This was not a hindrance to my experience: if anything it prevented me from being disappointed, whilst the freshness of it being my first time allowed the story to still surprise me. I have heard that the story elements of these games are also repetitive, but they’re also too complex to necessarily reduce with sound bite styled criticisms that I could gather from voice-of-mouth commentary. And I think I started with the perfect first Telltales title for myself, not just because I am a massive Batman comics fan, but because Batman is a character where the superficial and cosmetic details do actually drastically shift the character’s nature.
Batman has been a pulpy noir child’s character. A haunted detective aimed at teenagers. A campy and quippy pun master aimed at the whole family. He’s been a silly joke or a hyper competent martial artist. A broken hero or a neurosis driven murderer. Versatility is Batman’s thing and all of these interpretations have been popular at some point in the public cultural understanding of “Batman”. So Telltales asks the player who is your Batman? Does he kill or just maim or neither? Is he a quipster or a Dirty Harry grumbler? And the game asks you to make these determinations at the turning point of Batman’s early career. Telltales have chosen to do a year two Batman story because they you perfectly understand the ramifications of the choice in how your Batman acts. Then they know what effects you expect your Batman to cause…and then turn those expectations on their head.
Batman: The Telltales Series is railroaded only in terms of who you’ll face off against and in what order as Batman and what associated public crises Bruce Wayne and his company will face. The details matter greatly in how differently all of these encounters actually feel as they unfold. I played Batman as a kinder hero who doesn’t do more violence to criminals than the least that is required of any given situation. I had him joke and share emotions openly with Alfred. I had him be emotionally available to Catwoman also. Whenever a situation needed a strong public influence I sent in Bruce Wayne. I only used Batman when a bigger symbol or a utilitarian need for violence was called for. However conceivably the player could play Batman as cruel with Bruce as kind, or vice versa. You can decide which side of him is “his real face” or play both sides an united whole. Both Bruce and Batman are facing intense scrutiny in the media, so it works whatever ways you choose to go. So whilst Telltales have railroaded all of the series of events, they’re framed completely differently in terms of “character voice” and his capacity for violence, thus feel completely different thus arguably tell a completely different story.
Now obviously as a result of canon being adapted to a new medium (and a different medium within a medium) it means there are changes. However all the changes made are logical. Catwoman is as mercenary as she presents herself and only as kind and honest as the world has allowed her to be at this point: not very kind and honest at all. Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father, is more akin to a real life tech billionaire. His legacy isn’t of decency and public service, but rather he’s a corrupt underworld figure whose decent reputation comes from being able to afford amazing PR services. Even stalwart reporter Vicki Vale is corrupted by the systems of a broken Gotham. My favourite change however is the depiction of Arkham Asylum and its residents. You get to see multiple future Batman villains (including the big one) as residents in Arkham, but before they’ve had their transformative moment that turns them into supervillains. This primarily occurs in a chapter where Bruce himself is forcibly placed inside of Arkham. This allows the Batman rogues gallery to be humanised more than the power fantasy driven (for the most part) Batman stories we usually get given. It also takes the idea from comic book series Arkham Asylum: A serious house on a serious Earth, that Batman belongs in Arkham, and runs with it. So not only does the game let you pick your Batman, but it also surprises you and creates emotional reactions from you you’re not expecting or necessarily trying to achieve. This is not a bad thing.
Generally speaking the game’s presentation is just okay. The quick time events are completely redundant. The cell-shaded visual style suits a Batman story, but there are very few striking images as the scope of the graphics engine doesn’t allow for much imaginative material. The cell shadedness at least reminded me of Mikel Janin’s stellar work on recent Batman issues, including year two story Batman: The War of Jokes and Riddles. On my standard Xbox One the game ran atrociously for something so technically restrained. On the other hand it always ran perfectly on my Xbox One X. The timer on the dialogue options was a new feature to me even if it isn’t for the majority of the gaming community. It did add tension to bigger decisions, especially those when I had to choose which persona to throw under the bus: Batman or Bruce Wayne. The writing is pretty good. There was no dialogue that blew me away or made me gasp, but I was never thrown out of the game’s narrative experience and the voice acting is consistent and appropriate. I’d say the phenomenal understanding of character in the voice casting is actually the most impressive thing about the title.
Batman: The Telltales Series is a year two story in every regard. The mob and corrupt police are on their way out and the gimmick driven “freaks” are surging in number. However the game finds variation within the tropes. Falcone is a slimier threat when you mostly have to deal with him as Bruce Wayne. Inspiring Gotham is trickier when your personas and friends and reputations are all at odds. The ethical and political choices are numerous and difficult. Jim Gordon may end up hating you and it seems Harvey Dent already does. The game doesn’t let you make choices easily or in a clear state of mind. Rather than letting you think “I’m Batman!” whilst feeling awesome, it instead makes you think “Oh God, I have to do something about this, because I’m Batman!” The knowledge of future Batman events makes things even tenser. You want to prevent Harvey becoming Two-Face, but your attempts become misguided and it turns into an unavoidable prophecy. You alternatively try to just do the right thing in the moment and being a hero will cost you progress against your criminal foes that a more pragmatic approach would have afforded you. On the other hand a pragmatic approach will cast Batman as a sadistic menace in the eyes of Gotham. When you rely too much on traditional Batman canon to solve a mystery or react to someone, the game will flip the mythos on its head to shock you: and it’s always done logically and consistently to character! So whilst yes, the game railroads you, the devils of Gotham are in the details. Bring on Batman: The Enemy Within.