I’m glad games like Batman: The Telltale Series exist. When converting superhero characters to the medium of video games, it’s rare to see them out-of-costume except in the occasional cutscene. Comic books and films can show Bruce Wayne struggling with relationships and cooking breakfast in between all the tights and capes and ZAP-KAPOWs. Those that show nothing but slugfests don’t have enough narrative pacing to make the fights feel earned. There’s no buildup of tension–it’s all release.
Bringing a known property to another medium offers the chance to do something new with the usual narrative. There’s no fear of back-issue continuity mudding things up, for one, but the change in narrative design from a linear to a nonlinear medium offers a lot of opportunities. Players can be the Batman/Bruce Wayne they wish to be.
This also offers some challenges, as people tend to have a specific idea of who Batman is as a character. The writers and narrative designers must provide enough choices for the player to feel like they’re making decisions that impact the story, but none of Batman’s actions should stray far from what we imagine Batman would do in a given situation. There’s a narrative constraint there that must be tough to balance out.
For example, in Batman: The Telltale Series season one, there’s a scene in which John Doe, a proto-Joker, makes a deal with Bruce to help him escape Arkham Asylum. As it turns out, JD’s idea of “help” involved causing a violent altercation among the inmates to distract the guards. The player can choose to use the opportunity to flee, or to waste the opportunity by jumping in to stop the riot. I chose the latter, thinking it was the “Batman” thing to do. But according to Telltale’s statistics, I was very much in the minority of players on that choice. Just goes to show how interpretations of Batman’s moral compass can vary from player to player.
The Telltale team (and the game’s cast, particularly Troy Baker) did a fantastic job all around. I enjoyed being able to choose to engage with characters as either Batman or Bruce Wayne. Given the option, I always picked Bruce. I’ve played enough Arkham Asylum/City/Knight that I know what it’s like being Batman. So often lately we see Bruce as the actual mask for his “true” persona of Batman. Bruce is a playboy billionaire throwing parties and attending charity balls that inevitably get overrun with villains. He’s little more than a necessary segue into the BIFF-POW-SOCK type action.
But Batman: The Telltale Series has more nuance for the character–and for the role his parents play in his regular life. As it turns out, there’s more to the Wayne family in this game than martyrdom. Bruce actually has to confront the truth of who his parents were before they were killed, and deal with the backlash Gotham sends his way when the city learns it too.
Since, again, the game isn’t bogged down in continuity, they can surprise us with new versions of classic characters. Some character arcs were very familiar, while others caught me completely off-guard. Another thing the series does that I appreciate is shows the tender and romantic side of Bruce and his relationship with Catwoman. To be able to choose how that plays out–if it plays out–is a great addition that I don’t think any Batman game has done before.
All this to say that I dug the first season of the series, and I look forward to picking up the second when it’s finished! It’s my goal this year to play, and write about, at least twenty-five narrative-focused games. This was the first. Twenty-four to go.