Well thank Christ Telltale got themselves back in their comfort zone after all that Minecraft: Story Mode
'Comfort zone' is a bit of a loaded phrase to use around Telltale in 2017, admittedly; the almost unbroken praise they enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of The Walking Dead: Season One
has now long given way to regular criticism that they're stuck in a rut, essentially making the same game over and over again with a different coat of paint offered by whatever licensed property they're using this time. Even I, as a huge fan, can't deny there's some grain of truth to that - but ultimately, I'd argue that it's a great game they keep making, that their strengths are too crucial to the heart of great storytelling in any medium for their formula to feel tired yet, and that their Minecraft
excursion actually shed a lot of light on those strengths through its failures.
Here's the thing - Telltale's writing thrives on lore, on its ability to dip into a deep well of pre-existing material and pull together the parts that offer the most political intrigue and emotional pull, to put their own spin on characters and situations that we've known for years in various guises. When I think about source material that could potentially make for a great Telltale game, where they would thrive, I think of Star Wars
, of Star Trek
, of Harry Potter
, of Mass Effect
, of X-Men
- sprawling franchises with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to defined lore and scope to expand upon the grey areas within it. Fables
, The Walking Dead
, and especially Game of Thrones
were perfect matches. Minecraft
really, really wasn't, and really, my reaction to hearing that they were making a game based on it was exactly the same as my reaction when I heard that they were making movies based on Angry Birds
and emojis - a defeated grimace and a sigh of 'how?!?
, though? There genuinely may not be a single intellectual property in the world better suited to Telltale.
Literally everything that makes Telltale and their games great - like moral ambiguity, complex characters, cynical political maneuvering, deeply detestable bad guys, lots of death and violence, and widespread potential for backstabbing and betrayal - is a pillar that Batman is defined by. It's often suggested that Batman as a character is essentially defined by the way that all his adversaries reflect a part of himself, and I can imagine the writers at Telltale, immediately after being forced to invent something from nothing in Minecraft: Story Mode
, licking their lips at the prospect of working with the rogues gallery and exploring Batman's psychology, and by extension the player's psychology, through them. If anything, there probably aren't enough of them here - the plot largely revolves around two well-established villains and one that Telltale have invented, with four others making lengthy cameos - but they do a fantastic job with the three they've decided to narrow down on.
The first of them is Harvey Dent. The plot is set before the transition to Two-Face - and that transition, as you'll guess the second you see him if you know anything about Batman lore, becomes an important plot point - and sees him running for mayor, with full financial backing from Bruce Wayne. It's a more human representation of Dent than I can remember seeing elsewhere, although it should be noted that I'm not exactly a Batman obsessive and haven't read any of the comics that feature him; the game takes great care to explore his genuine desire to make Gotham a safe place where families can raise their children without worrying about being mugged or stabbed every time they leave the house, and to undo the damage done by Mayor Hill's corruption. (So that'll be the reflection of Batman in his enemies we spoke about earier, then.) The plot really kicks into life when Dent transitions into Harvey Dent, an event that happens here not at the hands of Sal Maroni, but at the hands of a group named Children of Arkham.
I was genuinely surprised and impressed when I Googled Children of Arkham and found out they were purely an invention of this game, because they slot into the story arc and the overall Batman mythology perfectly. After playing this game and getting to understand them, they feel like such a natural fit and such an obvious idea that I feel like all the Wikis I''ve looked at must have missed something - surely Telltale aren't the first to do this? But then, I also hadn't realized that their motivation, that their parents had all been committed to Arkham Asylum by an organized crime ring despite being perfectly sane
, wasn't strictly canon either. Although he's never explicitly treated as a villain here as such, the man who truly sets the ball rolling for all of the evil that takes place in this game is Thomas Wayne
; evidence is revealed that he threw people into Arkham whenever they crossed him in any way, or when it suited his business to make them disappear. He does this in conspiracy with Mayor Hill and Carmine Falcone, in a criminal triad that caused decades of corruption; and it's heavily implied that both the success of Wayne Enterprises and the decision to build Arkham Asylum in the first place are both a result of this collaboration.
It's heavy stuff, but hey, Tellltale generally get better the heavier they get. The sheer turmoil that these revelations cause in the citizens of Arkham, in Harvey Dent, and in Bruce Wayne himself is one of the driving factors of the story, and it feels like such a natural fit that I genuinely assumed it was all an established part of the mythos, rather than being based on a fragment from one story arc in the comics that turns out to be a red herring there anyway. That's assuming it's even based on that and they didn't just come up with it independently, which is entirely possible, I suppose. Fair play if they did.
The Children of Arkham, then, centers on two particular adversaries, both of whom were directly affected by all this. The first is Oswald Cobblepot, again prior to his transition into The Penguin. This version of the character - in a change that plays so naturally that I again assumed it was canon - was a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne, and it's mentioned that his parents were good friends with the Waynes. That's before Thomas has Cobblepot's mother thrown into Arkham and tortured because she refused to sell him land that she owned - the land that Wayne Enterprises is now built on.
The second is the leader, Lady Arkham; I will say as little as possible on her, because the reveal of her true identity is a stand-out moment in all of Telltale's games. Under the guidance of these two, they function as a terrorist organization trying to start a revolution to uproot the long-standing corruption in Gotham, and end up embroiled in a three-way fight for control with Harvey Dent and Batman. Three power bases in conflict, all pulling in different directions, despite all ultimately claiming to want the same thing; you can see once again the potential for Batman to see reflections of himself in those he's fighting, and how Telltale can exploit that to make the player feel unsure about their actions and who they should attempt to placate or ally themselves with. It's hard not to be reminded of the power struggles in Game of Thrones
at times, even if this game never goes to quite the same lengths about it. (What game does, though?) There's one moment where Cobblepot replaces Bruce Wayne as the CEO of Wayne Enterprises, in a PR move engineered by the company to save face after the evidence of Thomas Wayne's treatment of Cobblepot's mother come to light
that especially captured that same Game of Thrones
feeling that you're powerless to stop something horrific.
The tension shot through this, and the subplots woven under it - a prolonged dallliance with Catwoman, notably - mean that this falls second only to Game of Thrones
among Telltale games, and third to Life Is Strange
in episodic games in general, in terms of how badly I wanted to see how the next episode panned out. As much as I've loved a lot of Batman media down the years, none of them have put me on the edge of my seat quite like this did. It's the characters that really do it, I think; this game has a great habit of dropping in a character, immediately establishing the basics of who they are and what they're about, and then setting about exploring and twisting it. Within a minute or two, you can tell that this version of James Gordon is torn between trusting Batman and treating him as a threat, that Renee Montoya and Vicki Vale are both as hard-working and earnest to do the right thing at all times as any cop or journalist that's ever existed in real life, that Carmine Falcone oozes as much power as sleaze and wants everybody to know it, that Mayor Hill is terrified that his misdeeds have finally caught with him and is desperately looking for a way out, and so on. This is played with toward the conclusion of the game, when The Joker, in a pretty minor role for once, is introduced; nobody in-game actually knows who he is and he's never actually referred to as The Joker, but it's unmissably obvious, and literally within 30 seconds of first showing us his face the game is already playing with our perceptions of the character. All in aid of setting up a sequel, it turns out.
Zsasz appears too, very briefly, and again, we don't even need a name to get it.
If there's a criticism, it's that this game didn't quite suck me in to the story in the same way Game of Thrones
did; but then, I'm not sure that was possible. I never truly despised anybody here, but given how meticulous the game is about making sure every character except the long-dead Thomas Wayne
has motivation for their actions, I feel like it probably would have reflected pretty badly on me if I had hated anybody the way I did Ramsay Bolton and Gryff Whitehill. Other than that, I'm delighted with this; not just as a wonderful, powerful game, but as a sign of Telltale being right back on track. That said....apparently it's Guardians of the Galaxy