After finishing the first episode of last year’s Telltale Batman game I was just gushing with observations, criticisms and other related thoughts. Instead of trying to pound them into a coherent essay (any one of these points could make an essay unto itself), I figured it would be more accurate and honest to leave them as the grab bag of thoughts they were. Oh and uh, some spoilers ahead. Not for anything big or important, but they’re there.
1. Batman – The Telltale Series has the best opening episode of any Telltale game since the first Walking Dead. That’s more than just saying it’s a great video game. Telltale has changed their games structurally after season one of The Walking Dead. It was mostly episodic. There were thematic through lines, but each episode had a self-contained beginning, middle and end.
Every game after was a whole broken up into parts, including The Walking Dead sequels. The opening episodes for The Wolf Among Us, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead Season Two had inherent weaknesses when looked as a standalone. They didn’t work as discrete parts, in the case of The Wolf Among Us, offered mostly introductory set up to various plot threads without anything substantial happening in them or, in the case of The Walking Dead Season Two, spent most of its time getting its actors into their places so the real story could begin next time or, in the case of Game of Thrones, both.
These opening episodes are there to introduce the larger story. They’re a promise of what could be done or way to hook the player with the moving goal posts of a cliffhanger. (I’m not a fan of the structure to either Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead S2 if you hadn’t noticed.) They don’t offer a complete story by themselves. Were you to only play these first episodes you wouldn’t come away with any closure to its events.
Batman‘s first episode pulls double duty. It does spend its time building the world, the mystery and the important players for what is coming down the line. However, it also makes sure to work on its own. Part of that mystery build up is a discrete case of its own. The episode introduces a problem, build up towards a climax and then grants the player a resolution to it, while leaving an opening hook for the next episode.1
2. The episode opens with a long action sequence of Batman taking down some mercenaries trying to rob city hall before Catwoman enters the picture and Batman has to deal with her. How you begin a story dictates how it’s going to be viewed, so opening the episode with what has historically been Telltale’s games’ weakest aspect was a gamble to be generous.
The QTEs of other Telltale games are all largely the same to one another. An action sequence in The Walking Dead feels pretty much the exact same to one in The Wolf Among Us or Game of Thrones. It wasn’t until Tales from the Borderlands did they begin to change things up and that’s only in the back half of that game. The first half likewise feels largely the same.
The quick time events in Batman worked, because they reflect Batman. These QTEs have a different pacing and balance regarding their input and their effects. First off, they are much faster and flow into each other. They reflect the hand to hand combat Batman is known for. Second, the QTEs have harder to read feedback, which sounds like a negative, but the game uses this to its advantage. Where The Walking Dead will mark the QTE as accomplished by marking the button with a bloodstain, Batman marks their buttons with a smaller shape inside the button expanding to the rim. If you happen to miss, you wont really notice one way or another. Third, the QTEs have a health bar. ( I have no idea what else to call it.) I’m not entirely sure what it represent, but a bat symbol in the bottom left will fill or empty as per your performance. You don’t fail if you miss a single button prompt, as I missed quite a few in the new frenetic pace of combat, the action continues as always. Overall the new system better reflects the power Batman wields instead of being a development standard.
3. They take some risks with the established Batman cannon and I like it. The day after your fight with Catwoman you meet Selina Kyle. She notices your scratch marks and you notice her black eye. You know each other’s secret identities and this is early in both of their careers. I don’t think Catwoman knows Bruce Wayne is Batman in the comics, so this is a big thing.
And Telltale runs with it. The ensuing scene turn this into an opportunity for a verbal game of cat and mouse. Innuendo and sly comments regarding each other in front of Harvey Dent and a few tense moments before both put their cards on the table as to what the heist was all about.
4. Interesting thought experiment: compare the Arkham Batman games with this single episode.
I think there is more interesting characterization for Batman in this one episode than all 4 of those games combined. They’re also presenting two very different Batmans.
The Arkham series is presented an established Batman nearing the end of his career. He’s a figure that has been accepted by Gotham at large as a normal presence in the city. Telltale’s Batman is just starting out. Not quite Year One’s level of beginning, but still just recently attracting the public spotlight. He’s still mostly rumor and the cops are on the look out for the outlaw vigilante.
Arkham‘s Batman is a gruff, stoic figure. He is competency porn made manifest. He is exactly what you’d think of if told to imagine a tough video game main character. This Batman knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t make mistakes. He is perfect. He is boring.
Telltale’s Batman is malleable to a degree according to the player’s whims in dialogue, but he is an emotional figure. He has buttons and they can be pushed. He can screw up. His greatest weapon is his mystery, not because it makes him more badass, but because he uses it to hide his mistakes.
5. Something happens to stakes the longer a story goes on, they begin to lose their potency. You can keep ramping them up, but that only works for so long. However, if the story must still continue you can always turn to novelty.
It’s what the seasoned Batman of the Arkham games have to contend with. Batman is a confident individual who has settled into a routine. Even his doubts under Scarecrow’s gas are routine at this point. He knows his enemies and they know him. They’ve played this game so many times that the battles are no longer conflicts of ideas or methods, but a metagame regarding their tactics. Joker brought scissors last time, should I be prepared for rock or paper this go around.
The post-modernism air of the Joker giving up on his normal modus operandi to gain the one edge Batman has over him (brawn) is silly and a letdown, but not out of context for the rest of the game’s challenges. As such, Batman isn’t faced with a challenge to who he is, but what he can overcome. He’s a vessel for the player to feel like the Dark Knight hunting their prey and nothing more.
Though Batman remains the powerful domineering figure in Telltale’s version, some of the tension is him feeling his opponent out and them trying to figure him out in return. Hanging Carmine Falcone like a piece of meat over at 50 story drop isn’t as scary if you know Batman wont kill you. It’s scary because you don’t know what “the Bat Man” is and is not capable of. Ditto for the mercenary you interrogate.
6. Telltale’s update on the adventure game formula has Batman embracing his other nickname, The World’s Greatest Detective. It’s a clever reskin of the old adventure puzzle formula.
You’re looking around the warehouse crime scene not for items, but for clues. Instead of picking them up from the hotspots, you connect them to other hotspots to make a logical connection. Each correct connection displays a hologram that plays out the deduced fact. Make all the logical connections and the holographic scene plays out in full. It’s simple and other adventure games have tried similar techniques before.
Best of all is how it solves the story/puzzle problem. The hardest part of adventure games has always been how to make the puzzles integrate as part of the narrative. I.E. how do you make what the character does part of the story and not completely arbitrary? Or How do you integrate scenes where the character is walking from one point to another as the player feels clueless how to proceed?
It’s not a rhetorical question, it’s the great challenge of the genre.
Telltale’s answer has been either to super simplify the item puzzle so confusion isn’t an option or change the nature of the action to where there are no wrong answers, just different responses. Distributing the food in the second episode of The Walking Dead is a good example of the latter. Later games pretty much excised them all together.
This investigation puzzle is similar to a simplified item puzzle, but gives a clearer narrative framework for it to fall into. The puzzle’s solution is the next plot point in the story instead of being a narrative gate to the real content.
7. I like the fight at Falcone’s club. Instead of just bursting in, you scout ahead of time with the aid of a drone. You observe the layout, mark the mobsters and find the goal. Then you go back across the club and plan how to take out each of the armed gunmen ahead of time. You’re planning out your own quick time event. It’s an addition that matches the character and livens up the formula.
8. Choices are interesting again. Batman’s main choices focus on Telltale’s ultimate strength: social perception. Beyond the first season of The Walking Dead, where it was fresh and new, the most interesting choices are not those that determine who lives and dies.
As we’ve been able to observe over the course of Telltale’s oeuvre, such choices tend to make the game less interesting not more. Because doing so means the game now has to account for the fact a character may not be in future scenes. Therefore said Schrödinger’s character cannot advance or develop any meaningful relationships with other characters because it causes too much extra work.
What is more interesting has been managing how other characters see you and react to what you do. Characters that get to live and participate are going to have more an effect on how your behave and how you feel. Harvey Dent can make you feel like an asshole for leaving him out of the Falcone meeting or tossing him under the bus at the press conference. The choices in Telltale’s Batman are a mix of managing social relationships and extending your trust alongside defining oneself in the world.
I think it also helps that we are playing Batman/Bruce Wayne. I know who this character is and what they stand for. They may be uncertain, but I never felt the pain of the choice that comes from being pulled in two different directions. Almost every choice felt more like a test on how to behave.
Of course now that I think about it, that’s not completely accurate. Whether you scare the mercenary or beat him senseless, whether you leave Falcone to be arrested or hospitalized are not out of character for Batman. It just a matter of which Batman you wish to portray. Is it the honorable crime fighter of the Animated Series or the hulking fascist brute of Frank Miller. Even something as simple of how to greet Falcone, a situation rife with social tension, never seemed difficult. Whatever the consequences, I knew who I was and I played the part.
9. Most of the episode is played as Bruce Wayne, not Batman. Despite me talking about Batman this whole time, it’s Bruce Wayne that does the emotional heavy lifting. He feels vulnerable. Telltale went to the effort of animating the pain his parents’ death puts him through on his face. He has an emotional core and that means we can have a story and not just a series of plot events.
He also super uncomfortable is nearly every scene Bruce Wayne is in. Were there ever a perfect presentation of the metaphor that Batman is shield Bruce uses to hide is pain, we can see it over the course of this episode. Hell in one or two cases, it happens in the same scene.
10. Some of Batman’s rogues gallery has been introduced. But they’re a rogues gallery. They’re not enemies on a checklist. They’re people and more importantly, rational actors with their own lives and webs of connection to the wider world. They haven’t become a cadre of insular looking chess pieces of the tiny universe that revolves around Batman. They haven’t been drained of any importance outside their meta-level in the mythos yet.
Catwoman isn’t there when the plot needs Batman to have sexy, criminal, flirty times. She’s doing a job because she needs the money and is in a place in her life where she can’t afford to ask questions. She isn’t playing coy because she’s reacting a primal urge to flirt with Batman, she’s coy because she could die if she fails her job and from her point of view this guy is being a dick.
The Penguin is a old friend that lost his way and has been driven down a dark path. My god, this game makes The Penguin interesting. He has a past that effects the present and his potential future. He is a potential revolutionary, once apart of the upper crust of society, hates it and yet still clings to symbols of his family’s golden days. He cares for Bruce and dear god I want him to get a happy ending.
Harvey Dent hasn’t become Two-Face yet. He’s still the golden boy DA, actually doing his job and is now running for mayor. Though, people keep saying he’s a good guy, but I also get why the old money folks trust Bruce Wayne over him. He comes off as a little bit slimy.2 Ambition will do that to you, even when you’re right.
11. I got to make jokes as Bruce Wayne. I was at a cocktail party and pulled a dad joke as I made my entrance. I also got to have a nice friendly back and forth with Harvey Dent about his campaign slogan. I chose “Put a Dent in crime.”
12. The voice acting bothered me throughout the games. It wasn’t bad, it was actually quite amazing in places. No, it’s that I recognized all the main cast’s voices and couldn’t remember the names that go with them. The entire episode kept me in a perpetual state of déjà vu and I didn’t quite understand why.
I looked it up the next day. The main cast of Batman was also the main cast of Tales from the Borderlands. Rhys is Bruce Wayne/Batman, Fiona is Selina Kyle/Catwoman and Sasha is Vicki Vale. There’s the déjà vu I had when Bruce and Ms. Vale were lightly flirting and when Batman and Catwoman were antagonizing one another.
13. I find that the best superhero comics are the ones that mostly excise the comic book bullshit. Not comic book styles or techniques, the bullshit. The referential storytelling, the oppressive interconnected universes, the deus ex oh it works now machinations where they can’t do the thing until they suddenly can, the disconnection from human reality etc. These aren’t problems with superhero stories or comic books themselves, but the present economics of the business. The fact that stories can’t have ends or take risks or grow as characters holds back what they can do.
There’s no fat on this bone. The comic book bullshit has mostly been left by the wayside or hasn’t factored into the timeline yet. At the moment, Telltale’s Batman is lean political thriller/personal drama. In that regard it’s a lot like Batman Begins. I could easily see this as akin to The Departed or Goodfellas. Yeah, a certain amount of suspension of disbelief has to factor in because it’s a story about Batman, but the point regarding tone and seriousness of purpose stands just the same.
14. Whenever I see a “crime ridden city” in fiction, I always like to try and figure out what the creators are drawing their urban decay references from. Despite the gaming coming out in 2016, I’m pretty sure the answer here is 1970s New York City. Yeah, everyone has smartphones now, but the fire filled barrels, the grimy sidewalks, the prevalence of graffiti on everything are hallmarks meant to signal, 1970s NYC.
Which obviously couldn’t be the reference to Batman stories prior to the 1970s. Actually, I don’t recall Gotham being that much of a character in the 50s/60s stories, decades when New York City wasn’t a shithole. But it’s 2017 and I can attest that it doesn’t look like this. In the current decade when we think urban decay, Detroit is what comes to mind, but that wouldn’t work for a bustling metropolis, given that Detroit has lost most of its population over the past 20 years.
So, Batman writers need a city that has political and police corruption, a lot of crime, but also a lot of people across the economic spectrum still living there. 1970s New York it is.
15. Gotham is a weird place. I don’t mean that super villains attack every other day and people still live there, even the rich ones. I mean how unstuck in time it is. The entire basis of Gotham’s mythos is taken from a 1920s sensibility of what police corruption and organized crime looks like.
Organized crime nowadays are neighborhood kids selling drugs because they have no other opportunities and this is how they make money to survive. They are not white guys with clubs and backdoor saloons. The kingpins aren’t established mythic figures, but a cast of people who’ve survived long enough until they get arrested or killed and then the next guy steps up. They don’t have empires or political muscle. They don’t last long enough or aren’t allowed into those circles. Criminals only run in the highest circles of society if they’re from the right class. This is also why jokes about Batman beating up poor and homeless people are made today and work as opposed to when he was first created. The optics of organized crime have changed.
Likewise with police corruption. Crooked cops back then were the ones paid to look the other way while bootleggers did their work. Crooked cops now are ones who aid and abet the cover up when one of their own assaults/murders a minority. It’s also why Batman asserting that helping the “good cops” will salve the ailing city is kind of squicky nowadays.
As for political corruption, the kind that features in Batman stories has largely been legalized through backdoor loopholes. The real corruption nowadays are hypocrisies and having the memory of a goldfish when it comes to lying to their constituents or blatantly changing the rules so no one else can get into power.
We’re given stories where the labels are still contemporary concerns, but what those labels refer to have changed drastically.
16. There’s an old money rich couple, the Zellerbachs, Bruce talks to at a fundraiser, you also see them in the background at the breaking ground for the hospital ceremony. They and Bruce talk about having a responsibility towards Gotham. It’s a strange philanthropic/paternalistic mindset that I don’t believe exists anymore. They speak as caretakers not fief owners. One of Bruce’s dialogue options is “This is where I live.”
“You’re rich,” I want to yell at the screen, “You can live anywhere you want.” But no, the rich stay in Gotham. This is a preglobalization mindset, one where New York City was the center of the universe and the place to be.
17. One of the main plot reveals is that Bruce’s parents may have been involved with organized crime, but managed to cover it up with their respectability. From a social standpoint, well…duh. Behind every great fortune is a great crime. From a personal one, this is devastating. It rips away the idealization a boy and the city around him created for his parents. It reframes everything he’s done, everything he’s risked and is risking as based on a lie.
Bruce very much is still the boy underneath everything. Batman is what he imagines a decisive, heroic grownup to be. Bruce Wayne is what its actually like to be an adult and he’s uncomfortable in his own skin.
The fact that this revelations fuel the campaign of Harvey Dent’s corrupt mayoral opponent just adds plot icing to the internal struggle cake. Ok, that metaphor got away from me.