In Telltale’s Gotham City, before he was gunned down in Crime Alley, Thomas Wayne was a master criminal. Gotham Gazette reporter Vicki Vale led a terrorist group, The Children of Arkham, which had risen from his nefarious activities. In Arkham Asylum, a man known only as John Doe hoped to rehabilitate; he was friendly, helpful, intelligent, but he also had green hair, pale skin, and a wide, chilling grin.
In Telltale’s Gotham City, choices have consequences.
The most striking thing about the first season of Telltale’s foray into the eighty-year tradition of telling Batman stories was how willing they were to break away from comic-book canon. Some long-standing fixtures were left relatively unchanged: Bruce Wayne, aka Batman; James Gordon; and Alfred Pennyworth, even though Bruce insisted on referring to him affectionately as “Al”. But other aspects were radically different, from the sickening schemes of Bruce’s father, the oddly low-key, ordinary take on his most iconic nemesis, and the perversion of established, beloved characters – villains like Oswald Cobblepot, aka Penguin, and incidental fixtures like the aforementioned Ms. Vale – into new, wholly different interpretations.
We’ve seen Telltale work within an established license before – that’s pretty much all they do. But they’re fond of taking their stories in directions that deviate from established continuity. Their Walking Dead games have been original stories with no relation to the plot of the TV series or comic-books, with the exception of The Walking Dead: Michonne, which took an established character, but filled in the blanks of an excursion that removed her from the books for several issues. The Wolf Among Us was a prequel; Tales From the Borderlands told an original story in an established universe; and Game of Thrones followed a family who technically existed in the continuity, but whose story ran adjacently to the main plot of both the books and the TV show. In the past, Telltale has played in many other sandpits, but they’ve always brought their own toys.
Now we’re into the second season of their take on Batman, subtitled The Enemy Within, and it’s becoming increasingly impressive just how bold the developers have been with their storytelling. What they continue to do here is reinvigorate Batman’s mythology by continually contorting it; changing the visual design and backstories of famous villains, inverting iconic relationships, killing off fan-favourite characters, and forcing Bruce Wayne into situations that challenge not only his worldview, but the day-to-day operation of his companies, his public perception, his relationships, and his entire approach to being the World’s Greatest Detective.
Ever since they struck gold with their episodic, quasi-adventure-game version of The Walking Dead, the Telltale Template has remained relatively unchanged. Dialogue options. Moral choices. Quick time events. So-and-so will remember that. Aside from slight changes to the mechanics and licks of paint applied to the old, creaky game engine, this hasn’t changed. But their stories – and the way they tell them – have gotten more and more ambitious. It hasn’t always resulted in complete success, but one can hardly say that Telltale’s games are “the same every time.” Well, one can, but one would be grossly underselling the appeal of these games if they did.
Batman: The Enemy Within contains all these things, including some of the character-specific additions that were present in the first season. The planned fight sequences – in which you could decide from a couple of options how to despatch each goon – are back, technically, but now the same choices are presented as timed, on-the-fly decisions to be made during the fights themselves. Rudimentary crime scene investigation also returns, and is mostly unchanged. Players check a scene for all the reticules, and connect the evidence together into a causal chain to reproduce the event. There seem to be less of these, but when they appear they’re used in a somewhat more interesting context – not to pick up leads, but to escape elaborate death traps.
These are the usual refinements you’d expect to see in a sequel – they’re slight improvements, but nothing game-changing. But The Enemy Within also incorporates a new mechanic that keeps track of Batman’s relationships with his allies – and sometimes his enemies. Telltale’s audience has always cast a wary eye to the top-left of the screen, living in perpetual fear of a pointed reminder that whatever you just did is going to be remembered by someone. Now it’s worse. “Your relationship has changed” is such an ambiguous sentence; it forces you to second-guess the preceding conversation. What did I do? How has the relationship changed? Telltale have been known to mix up their usual “X will remember that” formula in service of an emotional punch or a funny joke, but nothing they’ve done before in that regard has had the same impact as that non-specific reminder that your decisions have weight.
I know what you’re thinking. A popular criticism of Telltale’s games has always been that the choices are largely illusory; that the experiences are almost identical, whatever choices you make. I’m a strong advocate for only playing these games once. You shouldn’t want to see the seams – there’s a reason magicians don’t show off a trick and then explain to everyone how it was done. Magic is just the absence of an explanation. The decisions I make in these games have emotional weight to me because, as far as I’m concerned, they’re permanent. I don’t care about the road not taken. This feels like a mechanic that’s built for someone like me, who pretends these relationships are irreversible, that they’re the organic result of my choices. Why would you play any other way?
It’s an enigma. And a link like that is why I’m considered the finest games writer within a one-mile radius of my house, because The Enemy Within’s first episode is also “The Enigma,” and it sees a particularly bloody introduction to Edward Nigma, aka The Riddler, an old-school Gotham criminal with a fresh backstory and a team of supervillains behind him that the second episode, “The Pact”, shows to include Harley Quinn, Bane, Mr. Freeze and John Doe, who escaped from Arkham at the end of the previous season.
The episodic format suits more villains, as does the new relationship mechanic; all of the big decisions are about Batman’s – and, particularly in the second episode, Bruce Wayne’s – developing relationships with the dastardly organisation he’s attempting to infiltrate. The story still leverages the duality of the character to pull him in separate directions, and it’s taken to a logical extreme here, with Bruce thrust into situations that blur the lines between right and wrong. It’s reinforced elsewhere by an on-going rivalry between Jim Gordon and a newly-arrived Amanda Waller. Batman must decide which of the two to work with more closely – the wide-ranging resources of Waller, or the unquestioning loyalty of old Jim? Whoever he chooses, the other will remember.
Most of these characters aren’t as significantly reimagined as Vicki Vale and Oswald Cobblepot were last season, or even as much as Riddler is here; Bane is largely unchanged, as is Mr. Freeze. But the changes made to Harley and Joker are fascinating. The former has always been infatuated with the Clown Prince of Crime, and has done his bidding despite being considered only as a disposable tool. Telltale’s John Doe is younger, more impressionable, and despite being quite clearly set up to eventually become the Joker, he hasn’t quite descended into the madness that he’s known for. Here, Harley takes advantage of him. She toys with his emotions and relishes how he fawns over her. It’s perhaps the most significant subversion of Batman lore yet seen in either season.
What works about Bruce’s association with this cabal is that Telltale are asking players to violate the principles that they know are central to Bruce’s identity; to stop him, however temporarily, from being Batman. This is only the second episode, so it’s impossible to tell if this will be expanded upon in any kind of gratifying way, but in the first two episodes – the second particularly – it’s a great source of fresh, interesting drama. And that freshness is really what you want – what you need – from a Batman story, especially in 2017. This guy has been around forever. We’ve seen the best of his origins, the highlights of his crime-fighting career, and his most ideal swansong. It’s easy to imagine Telltale’s adjustments to Batman’s mythos as some kind of betrayal, but it’s in service of a story that seems to be worth telling.
We’ll see. Nevertheless, The Enemy Within has started strong, building on a solid season opener with a stake-raising, unconventional approach to characters and scenarios, buoyed by Bruce’s fluctuating morality, Harley’s empowerment, and the snaking, sparking fuse that leads all the way to John Doe – an unnerving powder-keg of potential lunacy. I’m interested to see where it’s all going, and in an episodic series, that’s the best you can say.
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