Home Op-ed ‘Batman: The Telltale Series’ & Breaking Formulas

‘Batman: The Telltale Series’ & Breaking Formulas

by Yousif K.

Batman has existed for over 80 years – created in May of 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, the character has prevailed and evolved over the span of decades upon decades. With endless interpretations across literature, television, and film, the story of Batman is one of the most memorable in mass media and for good reason. By day, he’s Bruce Wayne, playboy billionaire, and by night, he’s a detective-vigilante. Sprinkle in his no-kill rule, a Gothic aesthetic, an extremely strong supporting cast, and you have a formula for success. Since around the 70’s, the character has remained generally consistent when it comes to how he’s portrayed: Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered by a common crook and since that incident, he’s dedicated his life to fighting crime – traveling the world to acquire the skills he would need in order to accomplish that mission. This consistency, however, has led to stagnation.

Generally speaking, most interpretations will follow that strict formula, and even despite adjustments made over the years, he’s very much still the same Batman we were all originally introduced to. Even when adaptations introduce shocking new elements, they hardly ever get the chance to stick because the classic interpretation is believed to be what resonates most with the fans. Obviously, sticking to his more well-known traits isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Tim Burton’s Batman films, Batman: The Animated Series, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, the Arkham video game series – they’re all iconic, character-defining pieces of media and justifiably so, they’re very well-written stories within the world we’re familiar with. Though, due to the success of those franchises, many creators are left uncomfortable with deviating from the status quo, with even the slightest alteration aggravating some long-time fans. With all that said, there have been adaptations that significantly challenge the legacy and mythos of the character, and Batman: The Telltale Series is a notable entry in this category.

Batman and Catwoman inBatman: The Telltale Series’ courtesy of Telltale games

Batman: The Telltale Series was developed by Telltale Games, who are responsible for other notable hits such as The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. Their particular brand of video games are more focused on narrative. The Telltale gimmick is players making their own story based on the choices they make when prompted, with things such as dialogue options and character decisions leading to an overall different range of outcomes.

Batman: The Telltale Series boasts a great cast featuring Troy Baker as Bruce Wayne, Enn Reitel as Alfred Pennyworth, Laura Bailey as Selina Kyle, Jason Spisak as Oswald Cobblepot, and many, many others who are all fantastic in their respective roles. Baker’s Bruce Wayne is a standout, bringing warmth and humanity to the role that is quite lacking in other adaptations that favor the deep, “badass” voice. Another standout aspect is the game’s general aesthetic. Batman: The Telltale Series keeps itself grounded but stylized, taking obvious influences from the Arkham games and Dark Knight Trilogy. The shape-shifting Batmobile, voice modulator, and gadgetry – it’s all unique enough to make this version of Batman stand out among the others, while remaining faithful enough that it doesn’t fade into standard “high-tech and gritty” design work. An underappreciated aspect is the soundtrack by Jared Emerson-Johnson, which totally heightens the experience. The main theme itself is a notable highlight, which combines the sounds we’re all accustomed to and molds it into a track that feels totally unique.

The game is less a story about Batman, favoring focus on Bruce Wayne… and just who is Bruce Wayne? He’s a man who seeks to prevent the same injustice that happened to him from happening to others. On this quest, he forged a new identity, Batman, the protector of Gotham City. In forging his guardian persona, he had little regard for what that meant to Bruce Wayne, the Wayne legacy, and his closest friends and allies. As Bruce, he can shake the hand of a notorious crime boss with the world watching, and it wouldn’t matter to him because Bruce Wayne feels like a mask. All that matters to him is his crusade as Batman, something he’s been thinking about since the traumatic death of his parents. This disregard for the persona of Bruce Wayne won’t last long though, the defining trauma he experienced as a child is not all that it seemed. What Bruce thought was a simple mugging gone wrong was in reality an assassination. Thomas Wayne was actually part of a crime syndicate. The Wayne family legacy, a beacon of hope at the center of Gotham, was built on a lie. How does a man move forward when everything he had based his life’s work on was a lie?

Bruce idolized his parents and thought them to be good people. He used the resources they left behind to forge a force of justice for the innocent. Batman is called into question by Bruce with this reveal, just as Bruce is called into question by the people of Gotham, he can no longer be callous about his public persona. The world no longer owes Bruce Wayne a debt for taking his parents from him but, rather, the Wayne family owes a debt to the world. Thomas Wayne had built his legacy by losing himself in darkness, building his influence, wealth, and technology empire atop the lives of the underprivileged. It is here where the internal conflict manifests for Bruce, he had spent twenty years avenging the name of his parents, and when the nature of their “goodness” is called into question, his personal identity follows suit. He’s a man with good intentions, but risks losing himself to the same darkness that corrupted his father. The weight of the Wayne family name entraps Bruce; the influence, wealth, connections, and mistakes of the past start to feel claustrophobic.

Oswald Cobblepot inBatman: The Telltale Series’ courtesy of Telltale games

“Which brings me to you, Bruce. You see, you throw a rock in any direction, you break a window that Wayne Enterprises owns. As the ‘rich and powerful’ go, oh, you top Gotham’s list.”

The choices you make in Batman: The Telltale Series are subjective and reliant on subtext. As the player, you create the meta-narrative atop the predetermined, overarching central story, and every choice you make, no matter how subtle, impacts that narrative. As such, a lot of what will be said here is a subjective interpretation of events based on specific outcomes that you can potentially reach. If you so choose, you could forge a totally new meaning of this story through your own choices and analysis. For example, you may choose to neglect Bruce Wayne’s identity and focus more on your role as Batman and it works as a totally separate tale.

As the story unfolds, every event, no matter how minuscule, contributes to Bruce’s internal conflict: brutally beating every nameless criminal, giving Alfred the cold shoulder after he confesses to the true nature of the Waynes, cutting ties with Harvey Dent after he shares his fear of the public judging his close friendship to Bruce. His coping mechanism relies on his ability to suppress his emotions, which causes him to unleash them in ways he never intended to. Take his encounters with Carmine Falcone, a crime boss who was heavily affiliated with Thomas Wayne, the game presents you with numerous routes in how you can choose to act. Upon capturing him for the first time, you’re given the option to brutalize him. Later in the game, even when he’s hospitalized, you can still choose to harm him. The game asks the question of where the line is drawn between what is justice and what is Bruce’s suppressed emotions lashing out.

The story continues to shift Bruce’s entire world, he loses his best friend, his resources, and his company. Worse yet, Gotham faces an adversary made up of its past demons, the Children of Arkham. This group is made up of Thomas Wayne’s victims, people he unjustly committed to Arkham Asylum, where they would be experimented on. At their center is the mysterious Lady Arkham, the alter ego of Vicki Vale.

Batman and Lady Arkham inBatman: The Telltale Series’ courtesy of Telltale games

Vicky is introduced as a reporter for the Gotham Gazette, not unlike her comic counterpart. However, in this game’s universe, she is far more expanded upon. Born as Victoria Arkham, her family were victims of Thomas Wayne, as they were in charge of running the asylum but were killed to prevent them from whistleblowing his illegal experimentation. Thus, she was left as an orphan to be adopted by the abusive Vale family. She survived their abuse through her sheer lust for vengeance upon the Vales, and more importantly, the Waynes.

She’s a dark reflection of what Bruce Wayne could be. Vicki, consumed with darkness for her own family as well as Bruce’s, threw away her life for revenge on everyone who hurt her. Vicki was a well-off reporter with influence and power. Witnessing the Waynes be portrayed as a perfect family while hers was in shambles leads to her perception of reality being scrambled, believing everything that she suffered through was at their hands while simultaneously dehumanizing them. What’s stopping Bruce from doing the same thing as Lady Arkham? How is her version of justice any different from his?

As Lady Arkham, she intends on exacting vengeance upon Gotham for all that she’s suffered through, and to do that, she plans on releasing a psychotic serum invented by Thomas Wayne upon the people. Culminating in the midpoint of the story, Vicky Vale, a seemingly good-natured reporter, injects Bruce with the Children of Arkham serum in the midst of a crowd where Oswald Cobblepot is about to be announced CEO of Wayne Enterprises. The serum doesn’t just “make you mad”. As shown earlier in the story during the mayoral debate hijacking with Harvey Dent and Mayor Hill, it only enhances what darkness is present within you. Bruce’s repressed emotions spill out into a violent frenzy against Oswald Cobblepot, as the world watches.

The thing that keeps Batman from crossing the line was something that Vicki was never taught to have, compassion. Bruce cares about the people around him. Not just for Alfred, but for Selina Kyle, a professional cat burglar with a troubled past, and Harvey Dent, his mentally unstable best friend. To Vicki, Alfred is just a butler to Bruce, but in reality, he’s the only real father Bruce has ever had. Even after Bruce’s harsh remarks, Alfred is still there for him when he needs him.

In the end, Vicki is holding Alfred’s life in her hands, demanding vengeance on the one she blames for everything, Bruce Wayne. It’s do or die, and this decision may cost Alfred his life. This is the moment that he realizes that while Thomas may be his father in name, he knows who his real family is. In an act of self sacrifice, Bruce removes his cowl. His identity as Batman is secondary to keeping the one he loves safe. He continues to defeat Vicki not as Batman, but as Bruce, mask off. The ending is what completes Bruce’s arc. Alfred is apologetic and regretful for the decisions of the past, he wishes he could have done more for Bruce’s family and to prevent things from unfolding like they did. In spite of this, Bruce, now more secure than before, reassures Alfred with a hand on his shoulder, “You’re my family.”

The final choice of the game is quite a fitting one. In the closing minutes, Commissioner James Gordon holds a press conference, demanding Gotham’s leaders stand behind him. Will Bruce sacrifice his public identity one last time in order to establish himself as Batman, or will he atone for the sins of the Wayne family and attempt to turn that very legacy around in front of the people of Gotham?

Who will stand with Gordon as Gotham’s bastion of hope, Bruce Wayne or Batman? To me, the more fascinating choice will be to stand as Bruce Wayne. Batman has always been presented in works outside this game as Bruce’s true self, but this story calls that into question, and finally explores a crucial side of Bruce Wayne. Earlier in the story, he can act callously with little to no repercussions to him, but as it progresses, it makes his decisions as Bruce matter because of the damage left behind by his parents. To act callously as Bruce is to spit in the face of the people he wants to protect as Batman. After all, what would be the point in saving people if you lost touch with your humanity?

Alfred Pennyworth and Bruce Wayne inBatman: The Telltale Series’ courtesy of Telltale games

What makes this series fascinating is that it is only one interpretation of the story. Telltale Games get a lot of slack for its lack of true narrative choices, and while it’s true in many cases, it’s not here. Yes, all roads will still lead to key events in the story. Harvey Dent will always go mad. Bruce Wayne will always be drugged and sent to Arkham. You will always face off against Lady Arkham beneath the asylum. Yet, your journey to those destinations will always differ. Narratively, contextually, symbolically, and metaphorically. You can choose the meaning of the story. Your playthrough or my playthrough are not invalidated. 

The game rebuilds the character and lore brick by brick, challenging everything we know about Batman. It takes bold new directions with every aspect, starting with questioning the very nature of his origin. It seeks to challenge the notion of Bruce Wayne being the mask and Batman being his true self by examining what those pieces mean separately and how they can coexist. 

It doesn’t hinder the player from experiencing it in their own way, whether that’s being as accurate to the source material as possible, or just by going off in a wild new direction. By presenting their story in this way, it allows a greater audience of hardcore fans to enjoy a deviation from the formula. That’s what it comes down to, Batman: The Telltale Series adapts the story through a modern lens without betraying all that’s come before. It honors Batman by allowing him to grow beyond the stories and characterization he’s famous for. And with Telltale Games giving us one of our first glimpses into the future of this character, only time will tell what stories await him in the mainstream.

See play options for Batman: The Telltale Series via Telltale’s website!

Follow writer Sif-San on Twitter: @thechaosif

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