Episode One of Batman: The Telltale Series Episode 1: A Realm of Shadows colon movie film released today, and I have some thoughts on it.
On paper, the combination of the California-based developer Telltale Games and the Batman mythos is a bit awkward. The recent history of Batman in video games is one based primarily on action, on forward momentum and propulsive alpha-male grappling. These are all well and good for a video game, but they aren’t at all what Telltale is best at.
Famous mostly for their adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead (still the only good thing to bear that name), Telltale has almost singlehandedly revived the adventure game genre in the last handful of years. They’ve done very well adapting Game of Thrones, Borderlands, and Bill Willingham’s Fables (as the excellent The Wolf Among Us) in their signature style: heavy on story, choice, conversation and theme while light on exploration, button mashing action or “emergent gameplay.” These are guided tours of a chosen world — excellently voiced, illuminatingly written, oftentimes downright poignant ones. To put it another way, Telltale might be the only developer making actual role-playing games anymore. In this game, I’m in the role of Batman and Bruce Wayne, and how I choose to have him react to outside stimuli says as much about my interpretation of the character as it does Telltale’s.
To that effect, Telltale makes perfect sense to pair with a Batman game. Just as long as it’s a Batman game that isn’t at all about Batman. Bruce Wayne (the omnipresent and always excellent Troy Baker), has always gotten the short end of the stick in film or game adaptations. Even Kevin Conroy’s definitive take often painted the Son of Gotham as a mannequin for Batman to hang on. The truth is, Bruce Wayne is his own character as much as the Caped Crusader is. He existed before the Dark Knight did, and walking the line between painting them as split personalities and different aspects of the same complicated person is a difficult one, one Telltale manages to do with startling skill in this first episode.
To wit, a mid-episode scene features Bruce meeting with District Attorney Harvey Dent (the always affable Travis Willingham) about a series of rumors in the press targeting the Wayne family. Bruce, the single biggest donor to Harvey’s mayoral campaign, is upset that his alleged friend did nothing to warn him about it. Harvey is apologetic but slightly distracted by the arrival of his girlfriend, Selina Kyle (Laura Bailey). This game starts with an extended Batman/Catwoman encounter, one that leaves both participants with facial wounds. A lot of Batman media would tease out these two characters who work best knowing one another’s true identities from knowing one another’s true identities, but this game doesn’t have time for that. They recognize each other almost immediately, and once Harvey steps away, Bruce shifts from concerned patron to coy spy almost immediately. He toys with Catwoman, almost relishing the chance to be Batman in public. This shift feels less like a change in personalities and more like a change in audience, which is true of a lot of the game. Bruce Wayne is many different things to many different people: a golden savior to Gotham, a bleeding wound to Alfred, a spoiled brat to his enemies. The one thing he isn’t is a vain prettyboy. That’s always been reductive at best and lazy at worst. He’s a businessman and a patron. He’s Gotham’s Greatest Citizen, so actually getting to play to that side of him in a game that has more grand speeches than fistfights is great fun.
That’s not to say there aren’t some great fistfights here. The episode’s opening chapter consists of one, as does an extremely fun sequence near the end where the player has to plan out an entire encounter with a room of guards, something that emphasizes Batman’s tactical side. In between, we get an extended party scene, several iterations of speeches, press conferences and personal meetings that shape both Bruce Wayne’s character and those of the characters around him (the episode notably sets up some…animosity(?) between Bruce and another prodigal son, Oswald Cobblepot, here imagined as something of a post-punk revolutionary hellbent on toppling the existing order in Gotham).
The focus of this first episode is on Carmine Falcone (Richard McGonagle), Gotham’s greatest gangster and the primary political backer of incumbent mayor Hamilton Hill. Falcone first arrives at a Harvey Dent fundraiser trying to forge an unholy union between his empire and the Wayne empire. Throughout the rest of the episode, both Batman and Bruce Wayne do their part to uncover enough evidence to finally allow Jim Gordon (Murphy Guyer) and the GCPD to take him down.*
*The episode’s most notable choice is whether to turn said evidence over to Gordon or to intrepid reporter Vicki Vale (Erin Yvette). I chose Gordon, as any true Batman fan should, but I’m very interested in seeing what the consequences might be.
After a better-than-the-average Batman detective bit, the episode climaxes with a raid on Falcone’s base of operations in a Gotham nightclub, and ends with a starting denouement: according to Falcone, Bruce’s parents were “the biggest gangsters in Gotham.” Despite Alfred’s protests to the contrary, Bruce is furious even at the suggestion and demands answers. Revealing that the Waynes weren’t the saintly figures most would have you think is about the most shocking thing a Batman game could do at this point. If this leads to the Court of Owls somehow, I’ll be ecstatic. Hopefully, I won’t have to wait long to find out.