Batman: The Telltale Series Was An Intriguing and Ambitious Take On Gotham City
With Matt Reeves’s new Batman film on the horizon (starring Robert Pattinson), it is a perfect time to revisit previous versions of Bruce Wayne and Gotham City. While many versions of the characters are revered, like Christopher Nolan’s Trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises), the version of Bruce Wayne and Gotham City seen in Batman: The Telltale Series has gone completely under the radar of many fans and critics. Batman: The Telltale Series is an episodic video game series with its root in point and click adventures. The series was released in episodic form from 2016-2018, with 2 seasons that consisted of 5 episodes each season.
Unlike the combat heavy action Batman: Arkham video games, Batman: The Telltale Series involves simple input movements and quick time events for detective work and combat sequences. Additionally, Telltale’s series is firmly based in dialogue options and choice systems, where players have the ability to make decisions about what Bruce Wayne says and how he acts as Batman. Both seasons of the Telltale series allow the player to create their own version of Batman, complete with their own distinct moral code. The choices made by the player can alter the narrative, changing the relationships between key characters.
Perhaps due to the controversies surrounding Telltale Studios including “nonstop crunch culture, toxic management, and frustration from developers” which helped lead to the studio’s closure in 2018, the two seasons of Telltale’s game have generally been overlooked by many Batman fans (Farokhmanesh). This is disappointing as this distinct take on Batman is extremely intriguing and holds many qualities that future films and television shows could look to as an inspiration. While Telltale’s series included many classic characters like Commissioner Gordan, Harvey Dent, Harley Quinn, The Riddler and The Joker, the writers at Telltale made ambitious changes to the Batman mythology that helps the series stand out. These are four reasons that Batman: The Telltale Series was an intriguing and ambitious version of Gotham City.
This article contains spoilers for Batman: The Telltale Series.
The Telltale Series Made Bruce Wayne and Batman Equally Important
One way that Batman: The Telltale Series distinguishes itself from many other Batman films and video games is the developer’s effort to put equal focus on Bruce Wayne and Batman (voiced in both seasons by the excellent Troy Baker). The duality between Bruce Wayne and Batman is something that many films and video games struggle to balance. In particular, the Batman: Arkham games have very little focus on Bruce Wayne’s civilian identity, opting to focus almost exclusively on Bruce’s exploits within the Batsuit. In a review for Polygon, Susana Polo asserted that the balance between Bruce and Batman present a “tantalizing potential of a very different, story-first experience”. Both seasons of Telltale’s series give the player time to inhabit Bruce’s role as a business leader and public figure, along with his role as the caped crusader.
In the first season, Telltale focuses the story on the legacies of Thomas Wayne and Wayne Enterprise within Gotham City. Because of this, Bruce Wayne’s public identity is a critical part of the narrative. The relationship that Bruce has with key characters are also shaped by Bruce’s public and private life. Telltale made the decision to make Oswald Cobblepot a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne, which puts Bruce firmly in the cross hairs of a conspiracy to take Wayne Enterprises and leads to shocking revelations that force Bruce to question his own mission. Additionally, the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent is a key element of the narrative. As a key financial backer of Harvey Dent’s mayoral campaign, Bruce must navigate his support for Harvey amidst ugly PR scandals and shifting public opinion.
Furthermore, the first seasons gives the player several situations where they can choose to appeal to individuals as either Bruce Wayne or Batman. For example, the player can meet the corrupt Mayor Henry Hill as Batman or Bruce Wayne. While Batman can physically intimidate Mayor Hill into giving him information, it will hurt his standing with Gordon and the police department, who frown on the crude intimidation tactics. In contrast, Bruce Wayne can appeal to Hill with his wealth and influence, but Mayor Hills wants Bruce to stop funding Harvey Dent’s mayoral campaign in return for the information. Though it is not always perfectly executed, Telltale works had to demonstrate that both identities have upsides and downsides, which must be weighed and balanced thoughtfully.
The second season of Batman: The Telltale Series, known as “The Enemy Within” takes this concept a step further by forcing Bruce Wayne to go undercover in the criminal underworld, without the protection and anonymity of the Batsuit. In the final moments of the first episode, dubious government agent Amanda Waller reveals she is aware of Batman’s secret identity. and uses it to blackmail him. Waller forces Bruce to go undercover as a corrupt version of himself, working to gain the trust of enemies like Harley Quinn, Bane, and Mr. Freeze. This change to the usual Batman mythology disrupts the comfortable protection that the Batman persona usually provides Bruce. By forcing Bruce Wayne into the action, Telltale made Bruce’s gameplay segments incredibly tense, as Bruce has to balance maintaining his dangerous cover while also working to minimize casualties of the villains’ destructive urges.
The Telltale Series Demonstrates That A Fallible Batman Is More Engaging Than An Invincible One
Throughout Batman’s eighty year history, portrayals of the character have often moved back and forth on a sliding scale of vulnerability and infallible. Some version of Batman are known for planning dozen contingencies and back up plans and for displays of almost super human level of preparation. In contrast, other comics and films depict a more fallible protagonist, one who struggles with morally nuanced decisions and complex detective work. Telltale’s Batman falls firmly into the second camp; a decision that helps define the complicated identity of its hero and its darker, more mature narrative.
Batman: The Telltale Series illustrates that Batman is often at his most engaging when he is forced to confront difficult, morally gray choices. In different segments of gameplay, the player may make choices that have unforeseen consequences later in the story. As Eric Kain points out in a Forbes.com review, many of the choice that the player makes as Batman relate to deciding “how violent your actions will be”. This fits perfectly into Telltale’s decision to create a more fallible hero. The series, which was rated Mature, is unafraid to depict more realistic blood and violence, something that many Batman films and video games have struggled with in the past. The player can decide to craft a grim Batman, one who brutalizes his enemies and rebuff the support of characters like Jim Gordan, Harvey Dent, and Catwoman. In contrast, the player can choose to tempered Batman’s violence to become a symbol of hope in Gotham, one that receives the benefit of doubt from the police and other allies.
Season 2 continued to present difficult moral choices for Bruce Wayne/Batman. In Episode 1, The Riddler forces into a no win situation where Batman must make choices about safety of two groups of hostages. In this case, Batman is forced to choose between killing three government agents trapped in death traps against the slow torture of another agent by sonic blasts. It’s a harrowing sequence with no clear right answer, with both groups of agents pleading for the caped crusader to sacrifice them so their colleague will be safe. Riddler’s cruel conundrum is a dark crisis that demonstrate how difficult it can be to don the mantle of Batman.
Another key instance of Telltale depicting a fallible Bruce Wayne involves the undercover sequences with The Pact (Harley Quinn, Bane, and Mr, Freeze) in season 2. In certain situations, Bruce can defect attention about his suspicious activities to other characters, but these actions will often have consequences for those characters. The most significant example involves Bruce and Selena Kyle/Catwoman. In a tense moment that precedes a key assault on a secret medical lab, Bruce can admit to being the mole within Harley’s organization or he can stand silent as The Pact accuses Catwoman of treachery. If Bruce admits his role, he will jeopardize his role the larger mission to protect Gotham. In contrast, many players choose to have Bruce engage in a romantic relationship with Catwoman, so jeopardizing her safety is something many players are unwilling to do. If Bruce admits to being the mole, an entire section of gameplay will be skipped, with Bruce being incapacitated during the first part of Harley Quinn’s violent heist of a virus. If he is part of the team, he can minimize casualties and leave less of a bloodbath.
The Series Had Refreshing Takes On Classic Characters And Introduced An Ambitious New Villain
Batman: The Telltale Series includes several iconic villain across its two seasons. Despite the familiar nature of these villains, the writers and designers at Telltale often shake up the established mythology around these villains. In Season 1, the pudgy crime lord Oswald Cobblepot (Penguin) is re-imagined as a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne who returns to Gotham looking for restitution and revenge. Mob boss Carmine Falcone maintained a fairly traditional role, until the revelation that he controlled the city’s crime underworld with Thomas Wayne’s support. Harvey Dent/Two Face plays key role as a longtime friend and ally for Bruce Wayne and then as an enemy. Despite, the traditional implementation of Harvey Dent, Susana Polo of Polygon asserts that conclusion of Bruce and Harvey’s story is as “moving as some of the best versions of Two-Face’s origin story out there”.
Season 1’s brand new villain, Lady Arkham (a character created for Batman: The Telltale Series) is a huge highlight of season 1. The character, whose identity is revealed in a stunning plot twist, serves as a clear foil to both Bruce Wayne and Batman. Lady Arkham was also praised for her character traits and design because she is a female character whose “sexual and romantic appeal to Batman (or one of his top rogues) is not her primary character attribute” (Polo). Twisted by her childhood traumas and Gotham’s corruption, Lady Arkham believes she is doing what is necessary to purge Gotham of corruption. She serves as a complete and nuanced antagonist for Bruce Wayne, engaging with both forms of his identity.
Season 2 includes a large rogues gallery of familiar foes with unfamiliar attributes. The Telltale version of Harley Quinn is one of the notable characters to receive changes to her origins story and identity. While some versions of Harley Quinn are slavishly obsessed with The Joker, The Telltale Harley Quinn spends much of the second season manipulating John Doe/the Joker and other villain like Bane and Mr. Freeze. Additionally, in this version of Gotham City, Harley Quinn is a fully formed character prior to the birth of the Joker, which grants her more autonomy and a clearer identity than some comics versions.
The Riddler was another character who Telltale made ambitious changes to. The brilliant villain was given a savage redesign that represented one of the cruelest versions of the character ever seen. Tortured and experimented on by “The Agency”, a black ops government agency, Telltale’s Riddler is a savage foe who is accustomed to violence and cruelty. Armed with clever death machines, Riddler returns to Gotham to destroy his enemies and punish the Agency. His conflicts with Batman involves tests of morality, culminating with a trial that forces Batman to balance the lives of three caged agents against the life of their colleague Iman Avesta (which was previously discussed in Section 2 of this article).
Lastly, John Doe, the man who becomes the Joker, plays an intruiging role in both Season 1 and 2. First revealed in Episode of 4 of Season 1 in a mostly standalone arc, the character gained prominence in season 2. The precarious and often twisted relationship between Bruce and John plays a huge role in defining the narrative of Season 2. Bruce can choose to support and encourage John, or rebuff and deny him. There is a precarious balance between helping John and manipulating him to achieve Bruce’s goals. The decisions made by the player with John Doe can lead to the character to being Bruce’s greatest enemy or a confused vigilante who worships Batman. Regardless of who John Doe becomes, the emotional connection between Bruce and John added an intriguing wrinkle to the Batman/Joker dynamic, potentially making Bruce intimately responsible for the creation of his ultimate nemesis.
Both Seasons of Batman Telltale Balance Multiple Enemies Well
Another excellent quality of Batman: The Telltale Series is the way the each season balances multiple villains over the course of its runtime. Telltale’s narrative structure and progression demonstrates the multiple villains can work if they are implemented clearly and carefully. The choice to use multiple villains makes the Telltale series feel more like a comic than a film. Some the best Batman comics deal with multiple villains such as Batman: The Long Halloween and Batman: Hush.
In Season 1, Oswald Cobblepot, Lady Arkham and Two Face all play key roles as villains within the series. The overarching narrative works well because Lady Arkham serves as the puppet master, pulling The Penguins strings throughout the story. These two foes are key villains that Batman must confront throughout the story. In contrast, Two Face serves as a key antagonist that Bruce must confront without his cape and cowl and Harvey serves as a rival to the other villains. The rich cast of characters helps to flesh out world of Gotham and each villain fits into a certain aspect of Bruce’s dual personalities.
While Season 2’s arc is less refined and more messy than season 1’s story line, it still functions fairly well despite its large cast. The Riddler serves as the introductory villain before his sudden death in Episode 1, he is acts as a teaser villain that sets up much of the action in Episode 2. In Episode 2 and 3, Harley Quinn plays the role of puppet master, manipulating Bane, Mr. Freeze, and John Doe as her plan progresses. Only near the end of the season, does John Doe/The Joker become the central and most significant villain.
The mix of villains is a great way to keep the story fresh and exciting as fans of Batman will be eager to see how classic villains are interpreted in this version of Gotham. In a review for IGN.com, Alanah Pearce asserted that the series benefits from having ” a constantly evolving, largely unpredictable story”. Telltale cleverly spaces out the introductions of villains, with the first episode usually only focusing on one key villain, who serves as a kind of introductory foe. As each season’s story progresses into Episode Two and beyond, more villains are added to the mix, complicating the story lines. This approach is a simple way to ground the player in Batman’s world without overwhelming the player with too many characters in the first episode of each season.
Batman: The Telltale Series provides an unique take on the Batman mythology. Telltale’s story focused approach created a game that was distinct from previous iterations of the character. While the game’s pacing, overall game design and gameplay are not perfect, it is well worth the player’s time to experience the excellent narratives that unfold in both seasons.
In terms of a future for Batman: The Telltale Series, it seems that a Season 3 is highly unlikely. While LCG Entertainment purchased Telltale in 2019 including the “studio’s key assets, trademarks, technology, and select intellectual properties”, it is unlikely that a direct follow up will be created (Takahashi). According to Dean Takahashi from Venture Beat, the immediate future of Telltale will likely relate with “rereleasing some of the games from the studio’s back catalog”. This is a disappointment for those who finished Season 2 because it was an excellent ending that proves to be emotional and dramatic, while also leaving room for a follow up. Fans of the series will likely be left wondering what direction a potential season 3 could have taken, without ever receiving a satisfying answer.
Regardless of the future of Telltale, Batman: The Telltale Series stands one of the most intriguing and ambitious versions of Gotham City across films, games, and television. Telltale honors much of the established Batman mythology but also brought its own ideas to the world of Gotham. The gritty, mature design and storytelling create a world full of fascinating character that Batman fans will love to inhabit, ally with, and battle against.
Farokhmanesh, Megan. “The Tragic End of Telltale Games.” The Verge, The Verge, 4 Oct. 2018, www.theverge.com/2018/10/4/17934166/telltale-games-studio-closed-layoffs-end-the-walking-dead.
Kain, Erik. “’Batman’ Review: Telltale Spins A Provocative New Story.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 6 Aug. 2016, www.forbes.com/sites/games/2016/08/06/batman-review-telltale-spins-a-provocative-new-story/#2bb2770d34d5.
Pearce, Alanah. “Batman: The Telltale Series Episode 5: City of Light Review.” IGN, www.ign.com/articles/2016/12/13/batman-the-telltale-series-episode-5-city-of-light-review.
Polo, Susana. “Batman: The Telltale Series Review.” Polygon, 2 Aug. 2016, www.polygon.com/2016/8/2/12347266/batman-the-telltale-series-review-pc-ps4-xbox-one.
Takahashi, Dean. “LCG Entertainment Game Veterans Buy Telltale Games.” VentureBeat, VentureBeat, 28 Aug. 2019, venturebeat.com/2019/08/28/lcg-entertainment-game-veterans-buy-telltale-games/.
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