The Dark Knight rises in the exceptional Batman: The Telltale Series, a serialized game that highlights how much its developer has matured.
Telltale Games began life by creating G or PG-like adventure games such as Sam & Max and Tales from Monkey Island. The company’s business model is unique: instead of releasing complete games all at once, Telltale creates and publishes its games episodically (usually 5 episodes per title), over several months’ time.
I’ve always found this intriguing, because until Telltale came along, the video game industry never touched episodic content; Telltale pioneered the format. Others, like Square Enix’s Hitman, are following in its footsteps. In its early years, no one quite knew what to do with Telltale. It was viewed as an eccentric indie — a small studio building quirky games that were never interested in conforming to the standards of game creation and publication.
WHO’S WHO IN BATMAN: THE TELLTALE SERIES
Bruce WayneBatmanSelina KyleCatwomanAlfred PennyworthHarvey DentOzJim GordonVicki ValeCarmine FalconeJack Ryder
Orphan, billionaire playboy, and possessor of one honking big secret. The Wayne family is deeply connected to Gotham’s history.
Bruce’s costumed counterpart. A self-made vigilante who seeks to bring peace to Gotham and criminals to justice.
A mysterious, beautiful woman who seems to have a lot of accidents that leave her bruised.
Selina Kyle’s alter ego. A cat burglar for hire. A consummate professional.
Bruce’s faithful butler and surrogate father, who raised him after Bruce’s parents were murdered.
Gotham’s handsome, powerful district attorney. Currently running for mayor, and leaning on Bruce Wayne’s help and influence. There’s no indication yet if he’ll be transforming into Two-Face during this story.
Oswald “Oz” Cobblepot is an old childhood friend of Bruce’s, whose life has taken him in a very different direction. Still values his friendship with Bruce, though.
Lieutenant at GCPD, and the only member of the force who tries to work with
Batman instead of arrest him.
Ambitious investigative reporter who takes a special interest in (and liking to) Bruce.
Gotham’s reigning crime boss. Make no mistake: Gotham is Falcone’s world, and everyone else merely lives in it.
TV reporter who supplies wrap-up information over the closing credits.
That changed with the arrival of The Walking Dead. Thanks to the serialized nature of the comic books the TWD game was based on, suddenly Telltale’s format made perfect sense. Here was a franchise tailor-made for episodic storytelling, and Telltale wisely made the decision to create its own cast of characters and storylines for the game; they existed in the same world as the comics (and by extension, the TV show), but weren’t required to follow any established arcs.
The Walking Dead drew tremendous critical acclaim, won numerous Game of the Year awards, and catapulted Telltale into an A-list studio. It made the studio a home for not only great games filled with dramatic (sometimes agonizing) choices, but smart, powerful storytelling as well. Telltale capitalized on its newfound success by publishing games based on other licensed properties, such as The Wolf Among Us (based on the comic Fables), Tales from the Borderlands, and Game of Thrones. The Walking Dead got sequels, as well.
With this new creative freedom and higher profile, Telltale has stepped away from those early, family-friendly games, and turned to grownup storytelling that’s the gaming equivalent of PG-13 and R-rated material.
Had the studio gained the rights to as popular a character as Batman back in the day, I wonder if it might have told a softer, gentler Batman story. Because this ain’t that.
Batman stories have come in all varieties over the years, from the squeaky-clean G stuff of the 1960s TV show, to Frank Miller’s nearly-R, hard-edged noir tales; from Christopher Nolan’s PG-13 blockbusters to Scott Snyder’s celebrated PG-ish run in Batman comics. Where does Batman: The Telltale Series fall on that spectrum?
First, it’s important to know that DC Comics gave Telltale the freedom to create its own take on the Dark Knight. Meaning: this Batman is not beholden to any continuity from comics, movies, TV, or anything else. Telltale chose to create a Batman in the early years of his career, before he’s met any of his biggest, baddest foes, and long before he takes on a bird-branded sidekick.
Telltale could have taken Batman in any direction it wanted. The one it chose falls decidedly into R-rated territory, or as it’s known in video games, “M for Mature.” This is definitely a post-Walking Dead game.
From the opening visual — a man is shot in the head, the bullet sending comic-book-y blood splattering everywhere — not to mention the liberal use of expletives, it’s immediately clear that this is not your parents’ Batman. There are other scenes peppered throughout that are almost surprisingly gory at times, with blood and guts spilling out of bodies or streaked across the ground.
I’m not a watchdog reporter, so I’m not pointing all of this out to warn you to keep the kiddies away. What interests me is the connotation of what’s right there in the game’s title: Batman: The Telltale Series. Telltale has completely rebranded itself, a ground-up transformation, to the point that the company’s name is now an indicator that you’re likely going to be playing an M-rated title. Sure, they still put out something here or there that’s more family friendly, like Minecraft: Story Mode, but Telltale now wants to be known as edgy, on the front-end of modern entertainment. Think HBO for video games.
Does this branding serve them well? Probably. It’s certainly an accurate descriptor for this game’s content. Fortunately, Telltale hasn’t forgotten what it does best, and that’s compelling, emotional drama. The blood is there, but it’s in service to the narrative. The majority of the action, however, is comprised of social politics at Wayne Manor or thrilling chases across Gotham’s rooftops. The action is fun — and I’ll get back to that in a minute — but it’s in the quieter, character-focused story beats that the game transcends its trappings.
SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT
Case in point: One of the most electrifying moments in the game is a scene a little more than halfway through Chapter 1, that’s merely two characters sitting at a table, talking. After meeting in action for the very first time as Batman and Catwoman, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle have a chance encounter at an outdoor restaurant, where both quickly deduce the other’s secret identity. (What a refreshing rarity: intelligent characters!) The conversation that ensues is never playful or flirty — these two characters take their work very seriously — yet because of the stakes, it’s the most delicious moment in the game. The ballad of Bruce and Selina has been told many times in many ways over the years, but it feels like Telltale has boiled the essence of their relationship down to its basics and started over fresh.
Telltale’s narrative ideas for how its characters are depicted is equally stimulating. While numerous well-known figures from Batman lore show up — Two-Face, Penguin, Vicki Vale, Jack Ryder, etc. — you may not recognize them at first. Penguin in particular has gotten a complete overhaul; he’s now a thin, British, punk anarchist (sort of a cross between the spite-filled cockney from the Arkham games and the hungry young crime lord on Fox’s Gotham), and most intriguing of all, he’s an old childhood friend of Bruce Wayne who calls him “Oz.” Their meeting in a city park is another captivating moment, shifting from warmhearted reunion to just-under-the-surface menace in an instant.
As for Batman, the police and the public have yet to decide what they think of him. Alfred is on his side, of course — and this is an Alfred that leans more toward the “old military man” who’s as much a physical trainer as a father figure. Jim Gordon, who’s not yet achieved the title of Commissioner, wants to trust Batman and for the most part does. But you can see that he’s still got a few reservations.
To tell an involving Batman narrative, you can’t ignore Bruce Wayne.
Batman: The Telltale Series is differentiated from other Batman games by the fact that you’re playing as both Batman and Bruce Wayne. The developer wisely took into account a core tenet of vigilante storytelling, which the movies have always known but comics and video games tend to ignore far too often: to tell an involving Batman narrative, you can’t ignore Bruce Wayne. The comics tend to focus almost exclusively on Batman’s crime-fighting, mostly leaving Bruce’s private life unaddressed. And Bruce rarely shows his face in other video games. But the movies have proven that when done well, Bruce’s tragic drama can be just as fascinating as his alter ego’s thrilling adventures. The duality between them and how the character reconciles these two halves of his personality can be a fertile source of tension.
Due to this, the time spent in the costume versus time spent out of it seemed to me around 40/60. And as I mentioned before, one of the things that fascinates me most about this game is that the scenes starring Bruce Wayne are (at least so far) much more enthralling than the Batman stuff. These are the moments where we see the main character show genuine emotion. And since this is a younger Batman who’s not yet the unflappable pro, his emotions are more raw and visceral.
Combat is handled with button presses prompted on-screen that test the speed of your reflexes but don’t require you to memorize countless combos and finishing moves. (Remember, it’s an adventure game, not an action title.) Another gameplay mechanic is sort of a cross between standard point-and-click adventuring and the Arkham games’ “Detective Vision.” Here, Batman slides into CSI mode, piecing together clues and making smart deductions using his high-tech gear. None of it is really challenging, as the system is designed to ensure that if by nothing more than process of elimination, you’ll arrive at the conclusions the game requires.
That’s not to say that you have no control over the story, though. As in other Telltale games, you periodically make pivotal choices, sending the story or its characters down one path or another. How you treat a mob boss early in the game, for example, will have ramifications in how he responds to you later on. The thing is, there are no right or wrong choices, like those you might find in an RPG where you’re trying to get the “best” ending. There’s simply the choice you make and the consequences of it; neither of those will affect the end of the journey, just the route it takes to get there.
Some argue that the fact that your choices don’t change the ending of the game undermines the emotion and drama of those player decisions. I have to reluctantly agree; gamers need to feel like our actions matter. Otherwise why offer choices at all? But I also understand the developers’ desire to tell a cohesive story with a definitive beginning, middle, and end. There’s a strain between those two notions that I’m not sure can ever be balanced.
One of the features Telltale promised for this game was the ability to choose between playing as Batman or playing as Bruce Wayne in how you resolve a conflict. That does not materialize in Episode 1, so I assume it’s yet to come in future installments.
A nifty little addition comes during the end credits: an overview of every major choice you make in the game, and its percentages among players. Did you choose to let a bad guy die, or did you save his life? The game will tell you if your choice matched the majority of players, or if you were a rebel. You can share these stats on social networks, too. Nothing like adding a little player ego to up their emotional involvement.
Bat-fans may be disappointed that Batman isn’t voiced by Kevin Conroy, from the Batman cartoons and the Arkham games. But the great Troy Baker does a solid job, bringing more emotional shades to the character than Conroy’s monotone delivery may be capable of. Laura Bailey co-stars as a tough, no-nonsense Catwoman.
Visuals are highly stylized, adding a slick, metallic sheen to the 3D engine Telltale has used for years, It works well for Batman’s dark, broody world, though there were a few times when I was looking for stronger emoting from Bruce’s 3D character model, to match the intensity of Baker’s voice work. Telltale employs motion capture for its characters’ physical movements, which goes a very long way in immersing players in the on-screen world. Hopefully the company will be able advance far enough that it can capture facial expressions as well, sometime in the future.
Batman games will always have the specter of Rocksteady’s Arkham series hanging over their heads, since those titles set such an incredibly high bar of quality. Batman: The Telltale Series never tries to match or best Arkham, knowing that it’s not the same kind of experience. People pick up Telltale games to enjoy a well-told, interactive story.
Based on the first chapter, I think this is going to be a good one. I won’t spoil the big reveal, but Telltale has managed to land on a plot twist that has never been done in 75+ years of Batman history. When you watch it unfold, you’ll realize just how remarkable that is.
The story is smart and original, and it tells a grownup story that never panders to players, treating its audience with the same level of intelligence it holds itself to. I can’t wait for more.