Putting the Hurt on: How Telltale broke Batman

Telltale games are no more.

Telltale was originally formed in 2004 by former disgruntled LucasArts employees to revive the flagging adventure genre. Over the next few years Telltale earned a reputation as the gold standard for excellent writing in computer games (excellence in how they treated their employees, not so much). But I don’t want to talk about how Telltale made great games or how they ground their employees into a fine snortable powder.  I want to talk about Batman, because I will never not find a way to talk about Batman, which you should keep in mind if you ever ask me to give a eulogy.

Telltale’s modus operandi was to take licenced properties (which is very common in the computer games industry) and to do genuinely interesting and original things with them (which, in the computer game industry, is as rare as catching a unicorn using a swear word). So when it was announced that Telltale were doing a Batman game? People. Were. Pumped.

Having been gifted a Nintendo Switch by my family last birthday I’ve finally played through both Batman games and I have feelings people. I have feelings that need to be expressed. So from here on in, spoilers abound.

So let me say this upfront; these games aren’t bad. I’ve genuinely enjoyed them (the second one, The Enemy Within, much more than the first admittedly) while still having to stop and splutter indignantly at frequent intervals like a dowager Countess. And to an extent, that’s fine. See, Telltale were pretty upfront about doing some fairly radical re-imagining of this franchise. Batman himself is more or less much untouched but virtually every other major character has some radical departure from their comic book counterparts. Some of these I find really interesting and cool, and some I simply cannot countenance.

Image result for telltale alfred

Alfred? You call him “Bruce” one more time and I swear to God …it’s “Master Bruce”, you impertinent churl.

Some of these changes are honestly great. This series has one of my favourite Catwomen in any version of Batman. Selina susses out that Bruce Wayne is Batman literally the first time she meets him out of the mask and it’s a great way of establishing her as a worthy foil. She’s smart and tough and brave and manages to be sexy without it coming off as fanservice (always such a tricky line to walk with that character). And I actually think what they’ve done with the Joker and Harley is so crazy that it ends up working brilliantly. They reversed the relationship, Harley now being the scary deranged supervillain and Joker being the hopelessly in love minion who’s in way over his head. I mean it’s heresy and but then heh heh I think of all those HA HA HA MRA Joker fanboys LOSING THEIR SHIT AND HAAAAAA HAAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Image result for JOKER LAUGHING

See? He gets it.

But if you’re in any way interested in writing I’d recommend playing these games. Not because of the quality of the writing (it’s decent, but nowhere near Telltale’s best) but because it’s a perfect example of how even good writers can fundamentally break a character. And they did.

They took Batman and snapped him over their knee like a twiglet Bane-style.

Now, I said earlier that Telltale didn’t radically alter Batman’s character, and they didn’t. But they did alter his past.

Here’s what happens: A new villain named Lady Arkham shows up in Gotham and reveals that Bruce Wayne’s father, Thomas Wayne, was not the crusading philanthropist the city knew him as, but was actually part of a corrupt cartel of politicians and mob bosses who were secretly running the city and that he was committing innocent people to Arkham to get rid of them. Now, when it comes to good twists, I have three rules:

1)      The twist must be genuinely shocking and surprising.

2)      The twist must be fair, in that the clues were there for the viewer to figure out if they were smart enough and that the twist does not contradict what we already knows for a fact.

3)      The status quo after the reveal should be more compelling than the status quo was before.

Based on these criteria, this reveal comes very close to being a good twist, but “close” is no exploding cigar. It clears (1), easy. It meets (2) as well in that there are clues early on that Thomas Wayne might not have been as good a guy as Bruce thought. And you might think that it meets (3). I mean, doesn’t Batman’s father actually having been a criminal open up all kinds of new story possibilities? And it does. Short term.

If Batman was a car, Telltale tried to jump a ravine with him. At first it was thrilling and exciting and like nothing we’d experienced…but gravity is a thing and now Batman is lying in a burning wreck at the bottom of the canyon.  To switch metaphors, Telltale’s Batman flew too close to the sun.

Image result for you let him go in the sun gif

Why do I say that?

Okay, that basic plot of a villain showing up and unmasking Thomas Wayne as being a bit of a bollocks might sound familiar, and if it does then you’ve probably read Grant Morrison’s 2008 story Batman RIP. In that story, Batman’s enemy Doctor Hurt reveals himself to be Thomas Wayne, a depraved sociopath who actually faked his death to escape from his (also awful) wife and son who he hated. Now Morrison is all about meta-textuality and what he’s done here is created a villain who’s not trying to kill Batman as he is trying to destroy what makes Batman work as a story.

Bruce Wayne becomes Batman because his innocent parents were gunned down by a random criminal and so he created a persona to help him wage a war on crime. Batman was born from that tragedy.

But if the Waynes were not good people, but monsters, then their death is not a tragedy but an act of (admittedly Old Testament) cosmic justice.

Without that tragedy, Batman just doesn’t work. There’s no reason for him to do what he does. The mechanism breaks. Why does he do this? To avenge his parents. Who were violent criminals. And got what was coming to them. Kinda hard to root for him, right?

The difference is that in the comics, Batman doesn’t buy it and proves that Doctor Hurt is not actually his father but is really his devil-worshipping ancestor Thomas Wayne. Or the devil. Or a construct created by Darkseid. Or…look, Grant Morrison’s nuts okay? if I understand 35% of what’s happening in one of his stories it’s a good day. But the point is, at the end of the story they toys are back in the box. Thomas Wayne was a good man who inspired his son to become a great one.

But Telltale…they don’t do that. They stick to their guns. Thomas Wayne really was a monster. Telltale basically became Doctor Hurt in real life. And Batman just…keeps going.

And like I say, I’ve enjoyed these games a lot.

But this Batman feels like Wile E. Coyote running out onto thin air.

And I’m just waiting for him to look down and realise there’s nothing holding him up.

Image result for alfred telltale

Also, Alfred was lying to Bruce’s about his father literally every day of his life and that is almost as unforgivable as calling him “Bruce”.

36 comments

  1. Hoooooooo boy.

    I’ve never played these myself. Half my friends won’t shut up about ’em, but I never found the time to go into ’em myself and in any case these kinds of branching-path stories aren’t very good for my ADHD do-everything-the-first-go-round hellbrain. I know a few of the plot twists from stumbling onto various TV Tropes articles, but *this* one I didn’t learn ’til today.

    And I… don’t know how to feel about it, honestly.

    It’s not the first time someone’s tried to “darken” the elder Waynes (Jim Starlin, in the issue right after “A Death in the Family”, established that Thomas hit Bruce in a fit of temper and took him to the movies in an attempt to make up for that; and I understand Geoff Johns’ Earth One books have tried to tie Martha’s side of the family to various Arkham shenanigans) but this *does* sound a little too try-hard. Almost like what (modern-day) Frank Miller or Garth Ennis would do if given carte blanche with the franchise.

    On the other hand… I’ll admit that I don’t think about Batman himself a hundredth as much as I think about his villains, but am I the only one who feels that “[without the Wayne legacy] Batman has no reason to do what he does” is kind of limiting? Batman began his crusade as a means of avenging his parents, sure, but in my opinion that should start getting supplemented the moment he saves his first innocent. Shouldn’t Good feel good, regardless of why (you think) you’re doing it?

    On a third hand, the New 52’s whole “oh, everyone on Themyscira is a bloodthirsty man-hater/slaver except Wonder Woman, the Token Good Amazon who had vital male role-models!” still makes me see red even though it was retconned out years ago, so maybe the real problem is that I don’t care enough about Batman’s pathos specifically.

    (On a vaguely related note – I believe that Chuck Dixon once contended Batman would probably retire the day he found his parents’ killer. I suppose this was the impetus behind the Zero Hour retcon that Bruce *never* found Joe Chill after That Night in the Alley. Never did quite know what to feel about that…)

  2. …Cool? I admit, I haven’t played a TTG since Sam and Max. I loved Sam and Max, though. 😉

    …and I just realized the abbreviation of Sam and Max is “S&M.” Really explains a lot. 🤯

    1. They actually made a joke about that. In Season 2, Episode 1, one of the newspaper boxes shows the phrase “New S&M Season!” And, if you click on it, Max notes that Sam should get a new collar, because, apparently, they’re in style.

  3. I agree. Don’t try and make the Waynes darker. Bruce Wayne was The Happiest Kid On Earth, with amazing parents. The fact that all that could be destroyed by one lone punk with a gun is the very chaos he fights against. He is Justice, in a world far too often lacking in it.

  4. I didn’t mind this twist, honestly. I mean obviously it’s going to shock and hurt him but I don’t see why Bats can’t keep going even in the face of the pedestal crumbling under his father. Like he might quit for a while but Batman is who he is. To the extent he can call himself “Batman” while under a truth spell. And even if Thomas Wayne did turn out to be a total wangburger, that doesn’t change the fact that lots of good people probably do get gunned down in Gotham’s alleys every night. One bad apple and all that. He’s still doing good and helping people so why can’t he just decide to be greater than Thomas was and keep making Gotham better? Hell, it could even give him MORE motivation in a “I must put right what my blood did wrong” kinda way.

    1. Agreed. And they could also do a character arc story with Bruce mourning his parents all over again because his idea of them, the people he thought they were, is dead.

  5. RIP Telltale. I have some pretty good memories of playing Walking Dead, Strong Bad’s game, and Tales from the Borderlands back when I had a boyfriend with a PlayStation. They’re good fun. And I was really looking forward to another Wolf Among Us. Here’s hoping the creators get a second chance to make great stuff with a better company.

  6. I only played the first Batman telltale game so far. I liked the twist, but I do understand your point though. I’ll think it over.

    Your spoiler made me want to play the second season more though. The reverse dynamic seems amazing.

  7. But isn’t it obvious, Mouse? Dr. Hurt was Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s devil worshiping ancestor who (along with Thomas Jefferson) summoned a demon named Barbatos who was hijacked by Darkseid’s hyper-adapter (which was sent back in time by Batman and the Justice League using a time machine from the end of time after emerging from an Ancestor Box that was opened after Dan Turpin/Darkseid was short by Batman with a New God bullet that Darkseid later used to shoot Orion back in time but before Darkseid sent Batman back in time so he could return to the present and kill reality) that gave him eternal life in exchange for human sacrifices coinciding with solar eclipses. Throw in some vague references to Thomas Wayne Jr. from World’s Finest 223 and a dash of weapons grade crystal meth and you’ve got yourself Thomas Wayne aka Dr. Hurt aka The Black Glove aka Mangrove Pierce aka El Penitente.

  8. I played the first few episodes of the first game which is when the game caused me to have a realization. I don’t actually like Batman. I was playing and I noticed someone was threatening to kill people, torture people, blowing up people’s home with no consequence and saying keeping bagels in the fridge is ok, and it wasn’t the people I was fighting. It was very much a SS Trooper David Mitchel moment.

    It made me realize that, as I’ve gotten older, I don’t enjoy the vigilante who gets results by not following the rules thing as much as I used to. Not a knock on Batman fans at all. He still dresses up in a cool costume and does cool stuff.

    1. But that’s just if you keep looking for that kind of Batman.

      DC Time Warner, boneheads as they can be at times, still offer enough options, so if you don’t like that Batman, you always can go and buy the complete Batman the Brave and the Bold series on DVD, or Batman ’66 comics (he’s having an Archie crossover right now!)

      1. Yeah, I highly recommend Brave & The Bold if you’re looking for a more lighthearted Batman (B&TB also serves as a great reference to figure out why Aquaman is actually awesome and how those who have made those easy potshots over the years just don’t get it XD).

  9. I played episode 1 of season 1, enjoyed it but didn’t really get hugely into it. I started up episode 2, almost immediately crashed, not touched it since.

  10. I liked the twist. Where you see Wile standing over a cliff, I see Telltale pushing Batman off and seeing if he’s going to learn to fly before he is squashed. It encourages him rethink himself and why he’s doing what he does, and it keeps it fresh enough to feel like it’s not rehashing one of the other eight billion retellings Batman’s had over the last little while.

    That last part is especially important. I think Batman’s had better luck than most comic characters in that he’s been passed around between pretty successful creators in all media for the last 30-odd years, minus a few hiccups. But even the best of them are starting to repeat themselves.

    How many times have we seen the “Batman fights the Joker for the last time” story? Off the top of my head, Dark Knight Returns, Return of The Joker, the last two Arkham games, Snyder’s Endgame. How about “Batman dies but not really?” Dark Knight Returns, Dark Knight Rises, Arkham Knight, both Morrison AND Snyder’s runs. “Batman’s early years where the cops don’t like him?” Year One, Zero Year, Batman Begins, Arkham Origins, the Batman cartoon. Morrison and Snyder, along with Gaiman’s “Whatever Happened to The Caped Crusader”, both end their runs on how Batman is caught in a hellish loop where he can never be happy or be truly effective at stopping crime…Y’see what I’m saying?

    Batman’s great, but he’s been cannibalizing his own canon for a while now. If we’re gonna keep getting back-to-back retellings like we have over the last three decades, I think it’s useful to allow or even encourage a bit of iconoclasm to force creators to think of new ways to handle the character.

    Besides, it could be worse. It could be “Gotham”!

      1. True story: I could barely get through the first episode of Gotham.

        Show: “Enough with the riddles, Nygma!” Me: Ugh.

        Show: “I told you to stop calling me a penguin!” “Me: Ugggh.

        Show: “What’s you’re name, dear?” “…Ivy.” Me: UGGGGGGH.

    1. Whoa whoa whoa. Clearly you guys haven’t seen the end of the fourth season if you think that Gotham is terrible. Scorpio, that’s just the pilot episode, it doesn’t have to be the best one, that comes later. In fact, the show actually gets better in later seasons. Don’t believe me? Check this out: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/gotham/

      There’s a reason for this. In contrast to the early seasons, where it was more of a serious crime drama focusing on the mob, they’ve embraced the wackiness of comic books. One episode, Poison Ivy is born when she’s exposed to a combination of powers from a guy with aging abilities and some random potions from a Chinese apothecary. Another episode, Professor Pyg’s serving pies cooked from human organs while singing a twisted rendition of the Cell Block Tango.

      That being said, the show knows when to be serious too. This version of Ra’s al Ghul slits a boy’s throat onscreen. What was worst thing the Arrow version do, ship Olicity?

      Mark Hamill himself praised Cameron Monaghan’s portrayal of the Joker.

      Oh yeah, they’ve adapted the Killing Joke, and are currently adapting No Man’s Land.

      Watch the entire season, then let’s talk.

      1. Sounds more like it’s So Bad It’s Good Now.

        The question is, it doesn’t have Batman yet, does it? Because otherwise it still fails. If they’re now introducing all things Batman but Batman himself, then it’s not even ‘Gotham before Batman’, which is a sound concept even if the execution was lacking at first. It’s instead ‘Batman But Without Batman’, which is just wrong because the new concept just lacks its foundation spine.

        You put Batman in the sandbox first, then all the costumed villains. It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t really work if you have it the other way around.

      2. Well, OverMaster… several sources say that we will in fact see Bruce take up the cowl in the very last episode of Gotham, which is coming next year.

        But in Season 3’s finale, Bruce is already kind of a vigilante. Season 4 saw him go downhill and become kind of a jerk, but he’s back now.

        Here, if this is of any comfort to you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQl4ZHsABzQ.

  11. I actually like that Bruce keeps being Batman despite his parents being crooked all the time. Batman doesn’t care if someone is a wretched pile of scum or not, for him all lives are sacred. The Joker has just killed a schoolbus full of disabled kids and is now trapped in the burning wreckage himself? Doesn’t matter, Batman will dive in to save him risking his own life regardless. Batman is all about preventing violent death in general because it hurts the victims, the victims’ close ones, and even, often, the perpetrators themselves. For Batman, there is nobody ‘worth’ killing, alternate universe versions and logical moments of doubt aside. I mean, the myth is elastic enough as to allow Tim Burton’s Punisher in a Batsuit and the Golden Age’s callous crusader AND Adam West and Brave and the Bold’s Batman hanging out with Scooby Doo, but overall, the character tends to fall, more often than not, in the ‘No, ALL life is worth saving or avenging by the book’ mindset.

    Batman is there, not so much to punish the guilty and avenge the innocent, but to protect the innocent and the wicked alike, because they all are human beings with their own tragedies and pains anyway. If the Waynes were not innocent themselves, that doesn’t mean there are no innocents out there worth fighting to the death for. The Waynes themselves don’t matter as much as what they meant for him, not as members of the community, but as the father and mother to a child who lost his world to a random act of violence.

    It’s like the final few moments in the Under the Red Hood movie. When Alfred asks if Bruce’s going to take the Robin memorial down now Jason’s revealed to have been, not also alive, but a murderous drug dealer himself. And Batman says he won’t, because this doesn’t change anything. It’s not exactly the same here (Jason was once truly innocent, if perhaps always damaged to a degree), but… close enough?

  12. Now, I say this as someone who has yet to play Telltale’s Batman games, but…I don’t buy it.

    I get what you’re trying to say, and to an extent, I agree. I’m never usually a fan of origin story shake-ups, they almost always come across as hackneyed (Blade’s father being this super-important vampire hunter instead of just some rando is, bizarrely, what immediately springs to mind for me). The thing is though is that I’ve never been a fan of Bruce being the vulnerable rich boy who put on a costume to feel good again in the first place. Sure, that’s certainly a plausible starting point, but he’s a grown-ass man now, the patriarch of his own family, the father of four sons (Albeit most of them adopted) and mentor to even more. You grow up and find out that your parents actually had a lot of faults, perhaps even could be considered bad people? Well…that’s life. Suck it up, Bruce.

    By the same token…I don’t mind Thomas and Martha being written as infallible. Do the Waynes, Hippolyta or Ma and Pa Kent need to be written with noted faults in order to be endearing? Absolutely not, but considering the influx of tragic origin stories that would ensue in the medium (Not even Flash, a guy whom Bruce has said he wished he could have been more like, was not spared of this), it’s certainly refreshing that, for the large part, they stay that way.

  13. Looks like you’re missing an image Mouse.

    Anyway, I rather like their different take on the Batman mythos,by the end of the first story you can tell or rather you can choose the path that that tells that Bruce is keeping up his crusade against crime not because he’s being guilt-tripped by the ghosts of his parents but because he knows it’s the right thing to do.

    Also, I maybe a fan of Batman. But to be honest I 𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦 the oversaturation of the character. And to an extent, the fact that DC needs to put their “Holy Trinity” (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) at the forefront of everything they do. At best it just looks like they’re shilling, at worst it looks like they’re uncomfortable stepping out of their safe zone and 𝘰𝘯𝘭𝘺 want to write about those three.

    1. The best thing that ever happened to Marvel, ironically, was not being allowed to use Spider-Man and the X-Men in their own movies at first. That forced them to think out of the box and concentrate on quality rather than skating on the success of better known names (which is how we ended up with things like Batman & Robin or Superman III).

  14. I will forever be grateful to Telltale for The Walking Dead, specifically Season 1. One of the best videogame experiences I have ever had. I really need to get around to playing Season 3 at some point and hopefully we do eventually get all of Season 4 too.

  15. Never having played a Telltale Game, I still have no inclination to do so – having said that I did follow the chatter r.e. their BATMAN games and found the Big Twist interesting, though not to my taste (having the Waynes be obliged to compromise their principles in the teeth of Gotham’s corruption for the sake of getting a chance to make that City a better place is one thing, making Thomas Wayne an out-and-out gangster is over-egging the pudding).

    One should also admit that I find it infinitely less disturbing to hear Good Old Pennyworth referring to Mister Wayne as “Bruce” (one tends to imagine he uses “Master Bruce” only when the latter is being a little bit of a Man-Child or at moments of particular affection) than it is to have heard Batman referring to his Second Father as … “AL”

    On a less serious note, I must confess to being fond of GOTHAM – it’s too deliciously mental to hate! (Also, may I please ask if you would rather review THE BATMAN VS DRACULA or VAN HELSING – starring Hugh Jackman – as a belated Halloween Special?*).

    *I’m not replacing MOUSEHUNT as my first request, merely lining up a potential sequel.

  16. Oh, before I forget – ARKHAM 4 LIFE! (I’ve never owned any console other than a PLAYSTATION and have no intention to change that any time soon). (-;

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