What I Want in Telltale’s Batman
So another Batman game is coming out August 2 and I’m pretty excited about it. That’s an amazing feat since in the past eight years we’ve had four big budget adventures with the Dark Knight, which have ranged from being all-time classics to drab uninspired mediocrity. But even the recent incarnations of the grim and brooding buff rich guy in bat-themed power armor have left me absolutely sick of what he has become in popular culture. Martha… just, Martha.
First of all, the studio behind this latest outing are the masters of meaningful directed interactive drama, Telltale Games. Their signature episodic format has lead to great game adaptations of other comics like The Walking Dead and Fables, so Batman seems like a good fit. Second of all, the game’s teaser trailer advertises a simple return to basics. Bruce Wayne has been Batman for a while. It’s not his first year fighting crime but chances are he’s not on the Justice League yet. His crimefighting and philanthropy are still uprooting Gotham City’s deeply ingrained criminal organizations and corrupt officials, and his wealth seems to be brought back to semi-reasonable (for a comic book superhero at least) amounts as opposed to his last outing when he could easily afford remote-controlled death tanks.
While the Arkham games did a fantastic job delivering a Batman action game, there are things I want Telltale to focus on. Several crucial parts of both Bruce Wayne and Batman that are tailor-made for Telltale’s patented formula: complex moral dilemmas, character relationships, and well-presented narrative. This isn’t to devalue Rocksteady’s work on the Batman Arkham series at all, but when you have a character that’s been around for almost 80 years with so many different interesting facets and stories to tell, there’s only so much you can cover in a single game. So, given Telltale’s work in the past, here are a few things I know they can knock out of the park and help make this adventure another brilliant addition to the caped crusader’s legend.
Let Me Do Actual Detective Work
When written out this seems head-slappingly obvious. Batman is The World’s Greatest Detective, so of course, you’re going to do some sleuthing. Except, even in good outings, Batman doing legwork such as gathering evidence, putting together leads and other basic elements of forensic science are either handled in a cutscene where the player attributes nothing, is paid, simple lip service or is just used as a vehicle to move the plot along.
Someone’s dead and they have a creepy smile on their face? Oh, the Joker is back in town, mystery solved. Where’s the Joker? I’ll just use my elaborate gadgets and technobabble to just know where he is so I can punch him in the face.
It helps keep the pace in a more action-focused narrative but playing a Batman game just to punch people in the face is like buying a new car just to get a radio. Telltale Games have proven they can present an engaging detective story with The Wolf Among Us, which had you solve a winding murder mystery across its entire five episode run while still having good character beats and action scenes. Yet it was also entirely possible to come to the wrong conclusion and end up with dead-ends in that game without it feeling like you irreversibly messed up.
Imagine if Batman doesn’t casually have trillions of dollars in the bank where he has access to Minority Report style crime-scene analysis gadgets or an entire team offscreen to handle all the busy-work. If you can’t imagine, look no further than The Long Halloween and Hush for some of the better examples of this in practice. Presented correctly, this is a part of being Batman that Telltale could easily innovate and improve upon in an interactive format while still fighting criminals and saving the day.
Let Me Be Bruce Wayne and Protect My Secret Identity
For all of the inherent coolness of Batman being a superhero characterized by resourcefulness and intelligence, he is also characterized by trauma and duality. While most of the media about the character has done a great job showing the first two, the last two are just elaborate set dressing at best and a justification for certain unsavory ideas at worst.
To be blunt, Bruce Wayne is damaged goods. He has never been psychologically stable and some of my personal favorite stories of the character come when he has to accept this inherent insanity like in Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. To directly quote the wacko himself, “Sometimes it’s only madness that makes us what we are.” It’s a self-awareness that keeps him from going completely off the deep end but he’s still an admitting that he’s not entirely well.
Yet we never spend any meaningful time as Bruce Wayne. Conventional wisdom states it wouldn’t be engaging at all. You want to get to the good part where you’re running around Gotham partaking in all the face-punching. But this is Telltale Games, engaging and suspenseful character dialogue is one of their greatest strengths. In fact, they’ve stated their game would be focusing more on Bruce Wayne’s psyche than just his nightly activities as a vigilante and that is a step in the right direction.
But I also want to defend his secret identity. Superheroes living regular lives are nothing new, but they always have some ability or power that stops people from catching on. Superman uses everything from body language and super hypnosis to maintain that a pair of glasses is a great disguise, Flash uses super speed to mask his face, the list goes on. With Batman, however, it starts to get blatantly obvious that a guy with so many gadgets and vehicles at his disposal might be connected to a crusading billionaire wanting to make his city a better place. Which means reporters will get involved and will look for any possible slip-up or hint at what’s really going on inside the head of Bruce Wayne. Stretched out over a five episode season, having to maintain Bruce Wayne’s multiple covers and alibis can lead to a greater appreciation for what it means to be Batman other than stopping supervillains and slinging batarangs around.
Have Some Fun For Pete’s Sake
Once again… Martha.
Being a dark and brooding person that sees the world as a horrible place that must be fixed is the popular idea of Batman. Constantly referred to as a more realistic depiction of his adventures, it paints a world of utter bleakness and despair, and I don’t want to spend an entire video game season in such a place. It’s entirely possible to explore such complex themes without making your audience suicidal. My problem comes from the idea of things being inherently horrible and people being inherently evil because Batman has so many allies and friends it makes that mindset seem too broad and childish. To those who only know Telltale’s work from The Walking Dead onwards, they also have plenty of experience in comedy with their work on the Sam and Max series as well as the recent Tales From The Borderlands.
Levity can be a powerful tool. If used right, it can help the darker parts of your narrative shine while helping your audience get a break. An infamous example comes to mind from a scene near the end of The Witcher 3 where after a devastating battle involving the death of several major characters punctuated by an emotionally solemn funeral sequence, Geralt of Rivia lightens up the mood with an improvised snowball fight.
Imagine if something similar was done in the mind of Bruce Wayne. Maybe seeing more positive memories of his parents that don’t just go back to the day they were murdered over and over again. Alfred bringing up memories of the good old days instead of just harping on about the Wayne legacy or more broad statements about the goodness of people. In other words, I’m not asking for gags or jokes, I’m asking for humanizing levity.
The first episode of Telltale’s Batman will be coming out soon and I really hope these ideas are taken into consideration. They’re talented storytellers and the last thing I want to see is them focusing on elements of Batman that have been overdone.