In Which Telltale Finally Makes Me Give a Shit About Batman

WTF is Telltale’s Batman game?

Telltale’s Batman game is an episodic choice-based story in which players take on the role of cosplay vigilante Bruce Wayne, a billionaire who dresses like a giant bat and beats people up because – you decide why.

The A-plot sees Bruce Wayne attempt to solve a layered mystery that threatens to disgrace his father’s memory and to unleash havoc on the city of Gotham through delivery of poorly-explained mind-altering drugs. Along the way, he crosses paths with Selina Kyle, Harvey Dent, Oswald Cobblepot, and a criminally insane, green-haired, not-yet-fully-clownified John Doe.

Gameplay largely consists of making time-pressured decisions and navigating tricky conversations, but there is a substantial quicktime combat component. There’s also a mechanic where players occasionally have to piece clues together to figure out what happened at a crime scene.

YOU DECIDE WHY!!

I don’t mean to keep picking on Game of Thrones, but the reason that was so much worse than the other Telltale games I’ve played is largely because the game was less about deciding who the characters were or why they made the choices they did than it was about trying to reach a goal you were always prevented from reaching. When Telltale stays focussed on letting the player explore a character’s identity and decide what kind of grim-faced hero they want to be – like, on the inside, and stuff – it works really well.

Batman is a character who occupies a huge space in American culture and has already been reinvented and reinterpreted over and over again as people see new things in the character. Who better to be the main focus of a Telltale game, where the central question is always “Why does he do all this stuff?”

Telltale Batman offers a few different explanations, ranging from “I’m a tank and I like to smash” to “I’m hero and I do it for the greater good” to my personal favourite, “I just want to be somebody else,” but the fact that you can choose the options you like best means that, even though Batman generically smashes the same people’s skulls no matter what, you can get what you want from the adventure.

Also, this game is about a person who continues to exist when he is not dressed like a bat

Which, for me, is the smartest thing about it. Like, you do play as Batman for a certain percentage of the game (adjustable based on how often you choose dress-up as a means to solve your life problems), and you do meet Catwoman, and Two-Face, and Penguin – but, what really makes it come alive is the continuity between those larger-than-life personas and the regular people inside.

This is the very first telling of Batman I’ve seen where I actually remembered in a meaningful way that, stupid hat or not, that’s still Bruce Wayne under there. All the same memories and needs and fears and feelings are wearing that costume.

Telltale sets this up as early as the opening sequence, when they brilliantly cut between Batman having a sexy, exciting rooftop fight with Catwoman and Bruce Wayne having a normal conversation with Alfred about how he had a sexy, exciting rooftop fight with Catwoman. That was the first time I saw a Batman who made sense to me – not as a dark, tragic hero or a bruiser, but a guy who has a secret identity because he likes himself better that way. Because the call to adventure on those rooftops, even if it almost gets him killed, means a lot more than the boring, normal things he does at home. It was, if you will, a Batman who is Batman for the same reason I am being Batman in front of my PC.

During the rest of the game, the other characters spend at least as much time in their normal, everyday forms as they do in their super!outfits – which leads to great things like a sequence where Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle take down a bar full of hitmen using all the same moves they’d use as Batman and Catwoman because they are actually still the same people.

I know it sounds obvious to say that Bruce Wayne and Batman are the same person, and that any superhero is the same person as his or her alter-ego, but there is unusually little separation between those two identities in this game, and I appreciate that.

Batman means family

Continuing the list of things that are obvious but that I didn’t understand until Telltale pointed them out – Alfred is Bruce Wayne’s father. Like, not his biological father – that’s not the big twist in the dad story – but the person who raised him and served as a surrogate parent for him after his own parents were killed.

I feel like the Batman franchise often makes it out like Alfred’s an unusually dedicated butler, which is how I tend to think of him, but the extra focus on family and the dialogue options I had for talking to Alfred suddenly made me realize that their relationship is so much more.

Also: Imagine if this was your son. If you, like, did your best to raise him and keep him out of trouble, and then he put a cave under the house and started dressing like a bat. And you were just like, “Okay, how can I support you?” because you were the best dad ever. And also somehow his employee.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty good

There are some things that bugged me a little bit as I played. The main one was that there were a handful of instances where I made choices that didn’t seem to be reflected in the game (I avoided telling a reporter someone’s name, and then later scenes made it seem like I had given her the info) or where the choices I made were misinterpreted (Catwoman stole my Bat Tech, so I let her keep it and stole her Cat Tech in what I thought was a cute gesture she’d appreciate, but the game acted like I basically just ransacked her apartment).

I actually enjoyed the quicktime sequences a lot, and I appreciated that Telltale gave a nod to the Arkham series (in more than one way) while still developing a combat system that felt organic and not like a lesser version of the best Batman combat system ever. And, while I understand that not everyone probably enjoyed that a lot, and that Telltale likely didn’t want players to get stuck and frustrated… I would have liked to have had a harder difficulty setting. There are times when I straight-up didn’t know my X from my B and mashed the wrong button, and it didn’t have any negative effect on me at all.

All together, though, I found the story reasonably satisfying, and it made me think about the Batman franchise in a new way, which is something I really didn’t expect at this point.

Image: Batman: The Telltale Series; Telltale Games | April 15, 2017