Over the past few years, comic books have made a transition into big blockbuster gaming experiences. To be more accurate, comic book characters have made that leap. Games like the Arkham series took the Batman we know and dropped him in a world of over-the-top fight mechanics wrapped in an incredible story. There’s nothing wrong with it, in fact, those games will often be on lists of best video games ever. However, it took Telltale Games, Batman: The Telltale Series to show us what a comic book brought to gaming actually looks like. Three episodes in and so far the game contending not only for game of the year awards but also for a place on the list of best Batman stories ever.
Batman: The Telltale Series embraces the static crux of comics. For every vibrant Jim Lee drawing that seems to leap off the page, it’s still art done on paper. Sure something to be framed above a fireplace, but it doesn’t interact with you. The aesthetic Telltale developed over the course of games like Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us has evolved into a true hybrid of cell shaded graphics and comic book panel you’ll get in Batman TTS. The similarities to this game and the experience of a comic book are astounding. When you read a well crafted Batman comic, it combines story with illustrated nuances that sell a mood to a reader; like the whites from the Dark Knight’s cowl peering through a blacked out panel. Or Gotham’s bright lights which almost get lost in the gritty fog of the city. Telltale takes those tropes as its starting point then animates what happens in those panels to create a story driven game. Batman comics and this Batman game share the same bait which hooks the audience, a perfect blend of art and narrative.
Where comics put an added pressure on gaming is the quality of story. As avid comic book readers, we know comics have more riding on their narratives than gaming. A video game can be enjoyable while giving players a lackluster story, but if a comic is boring even the art won’t save it. Thus telling a comic book character’s story in gaming becomes an even more daunting task. Batman: The Telltale Series shows how fearless you have to be to do something fresh with a character whose story is over 75 years old.
Harvey Dent runs for mayor of Gotham in an attempt to oust corrupt incumbent Hamilton Hill. While campaigning for his friend, Bruce Wayne learns his family’s legacy may be tainted by criminal activities conducted by his father. Wayne’s alter ego, Batman has to deal with the rising threat of a younger sexier Penguin than readers are accustomed to, and he won’t be alone. A new group calling themselves the “Children of Arkham” is conducting terrorist attacks on Gotham as a means of revenge against the Wayne name and everyone they deem guilty of the horrors that happened to them as kids in Arkham. Three episodes in, players have been treated to some clever plot twists and new uses of major supporting characters in the Batman universe such as Vicki Vale.
While visually, influences such as artists Tony Daniel and Greg Capullo can be seen in the designs of some of these characters. Telltale is committed to crafting their own unique version of Batman. A version that doesn’t utilize well known Batman voices like Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. This Batman/Bruce Wayne is voiced by actor Troy Baker whose credentials include best-selling games like The Last of Us and Uncharted 4. Along with Laura Bailey’s voicing of Selina Kyle; the foundation the two actors build is solid and genuinely bring something new to the table.
Delivering a true comic book experience through a video game means the action is going to be selective and not as interactive as a game that relies on button mashing action. Though like any good story, here, the action feels earned when it happens after using your detective skills to piece together crime scenes and navigate the minefield of dramatic interactions where you as the player choose how the world of characters will react to you. Be a brutal Batman that mercilessly breaks gangsters bones and is generally a d*ck to everyone or an Adam West Batman of unwavering virtue. That’s the trademark of all Telltale Games. Here, it determines if Gotham will fear and despise you or regard you as the city’s savior. Choosing what the characters will say to each other dictates what kind of gameplay experience you’ll have and gives their games replay value by playing again to make opposite choices. Three episodes down and players have already had to make gruelingly impossible choices with the lives of characters like Harvey Dent and Catwoman.
While the game is by no means perfect; most of its flaws are technical hiccups in the playback of cutscenes and transitions. There’re much better writers in gaming who can speak to why that sort of thing happens, we deal in how these games handle the legacies of characters we’ve loved for so many years.
Three episodes in and it’s clear to see Batman: The Telltale Series is a comic book unhindered by the 22-page real-estate challenges faced by writers like Scott Snyder, Tom King or artists such as Jim Lee having to choose only key shots to draw. It brings the frozen moments in time that tell stories in comics to life by seemingly animating and letting gamers play the in-between of comic book panels. While it unapologetically changes major parts of the Batman’s lore, it never loses how these pieces serve the overall anatomy of who the Dark Knight is. With only two episodes left, the wait to uncover the truth behind the experiments of Arkham, the real legacy of the Wayne name, and the fate of Harvey Dent, is just like waiting for the next issue of a comic. You just want it already! This is a Batman video game for fans who know everything about the character while being a fantastic video game for people who don’t read comics.
Personally, what makes me applaud Telltale the most is their regard for pushing comics. If you’re a comics fan, you know how one-sided the relationship between comic books and pop culture can be in terms of creating synergy awareness. Every time a movie or a TV show is set to release there are all sorts of banner ads and interruptions in the pages of comics because they want to bring us readers to support these endeavors. You can probably count on one hand the number of times other forms of media urge you to buy comics. When was the last time you saw Stephen Amell tell viewers to buy Green Arrow comics after an episode of Arrow? I applaud Telltale for putting this at the end of every episode.