Developer/Publisher: Telltale Games
Distributor: Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment/DC Entertainment
Spoiler Warning: The articles here will almost always contain spoilers as we break down and analyze the stories of the video game industry.
The original villain created for Batman: The Telltale Series is an amalgamation of the Dark Knight’s top rogues and perfectly personifies a story that struggles to be its own.
Playing through Batman: The Telltale Series I couldn’t help but feel a pull between the desire for originality and the pull of a comfortable narrative that has reset, and only somewhat, reshaped itself time and time again.
When Telltale Games burst back onto the adventure game scene in 2012 with The Walking Dead, they revived mass interest in the oldest genre in the industry. By choosing to adapt the original comic work (obviously famous in its own right but overshadowed to a larger audience by the television adaptation) Telltale brought a new story to a familiar world and introduced narrative choice in a way that truly felt substantial to an individual player experience. Four years and a slew of new releases (The Wolf Among Us, Game of Thrones, Borderlands, Minecraft: Story Mode, and two more Walking Dead games) later, the now familiar skeleton of timed button and conversation prompts was introduced to the world of DC’s Batman.
The Batman license was coming off of its own rollercoaster at the time. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice had released only five months prior with mixed success and Batman: Arkham Knight was still trying to keep its footing after its disastrous PC port the year before. The Arkham series also had Batman: Arkham Origins to try and forget. A fatigue for the story of the Bat and his first time meeting his infamous Rogue’s Gallery had started to settle in, but Telltale had the license, and developers to keep employed. Batman: The Telltale Series launched in August of 2016 to resounding average scores of 7/10 (a score generally reserved for “the game is fine, it won’t blow you out of the water, but it also isn’t bugged to hell and back).
The story told in B:TTS is a mix of old and slightly altered interpretations with a new villian that injects hints of originality that sadly don’t quite make up for the rehashes. Episode one, Realm Of Shadows opens with Batman beating up goons and meeting Catwoman for the first time, giving the player their first hint of where they are in the Batman timeline. This is not the Nolanverse or the Arkhamverse, Telltale has reset the story of Batman once again.
We also find Bruce Wayne footing the bill for Harvey Dent’s mayoral run (stop me if you’ve heard this one) and Carmine Falcone pressuring the candidate to take favors from the mob. Oswald Cobblepot, an old friend from prep school, has resurfaced after mysterious years away and is seeking a revolution for his failed family name. Meanwhile Lieutenant Gordon is holding the decent pieces of the GCPD together with twine and chewing gum.
When Falcone hints at possible misdealings with the Wayne family in the past, the original pieces start to come through as the usually perfect and incorruptible Thomas Wayne is recast as the evil mob doctor. And when Lady Arkham and her Children, a terrorist group seeking to destroy the corrupt Gotham elite, steal chemicals to develop a mind altering drug with plans to douse the city, the originality slips away again. Lady Arkham, secretly well known reporter Vicki Vale with her own grudge against the Wayne family and the current mayor Hamilton Hill, sets her vengeful anger on Bruce and throughout the adventure we are introduced, again for the first time, to Penguin, Two-Face, The Joker, and Catwoman.
If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it really is. B:TTS as a story is an amalgamation of the adaptations that came before and Lady Arkham personifies this. On the surface an original rogue to add to the gallery, but once picked apart she is a Frankenstein’s monster made up of Penguin, Joker and Two-Face.
The biggest reveal of the game is that Vicki Vale was actually born Vicki Arkham, hailing from the prominent family that opened Gotham’s home for the “criminally insane.” Recasting Thomas Wayne as a far more evil character, he conspired with Hamilton Hill and Carmine Falcone to remove political opponents and whistleblowers by hiding them in the institution. When the Arkham family discovered this Vale’s parents were killed and the girl was sent into foster care. She is given the Oswald Cobblepot motivation and even uses the classic enemy as a sidekick for her own plans. Penguin has always been the “What if Bruce Wayne broke bad?” character of the Rogues. Wealthy, orphaned, and unsupported so he has to fend for himself, Cobblepot turns to a life of crime and the never ending pursuit to be one of Gotham’s leading bosses. B:TTS wraps this into Vicki’s story as she holds a decades long grudge against the Wayne’s and Gotham’s elite.
Her anger against Gotham is exacerbated with her entry into the foster system where she was regularly abused by the Vale’s, her adoptive family. During Batman’s investigation into Lady Arkham he comes across a cell the young Vicki was held in and subsequently driven mad. Here we have the Joker connection as Vicki’s sanity fractures and Lady Arkham is created in the depths of her mind. Throughout the Arkham series as well as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Joker has represented the insanity of Gotham and crime as a whole, but also the insanity of Batman. Any number of events in Bruce Wayne’s life should have broken him completely and it can be well argued that running around as Batman is itself the result of a damaged mind. With all of the conspiracy and shadowy mob business surrounding the killing of his parents, Bruce could easily be Lady Arkham, taking vengeance without concern for the innocent.
Joker is a dangerous mix of unpredictability and long convoluted planning, and in Tim Burton’s Batman released in 1989, attempts to dose the people of Gotham with Smilex, the chemical that made Jack Napier the Joker. In B:TTS, Lady Arkham has developed a drug that produces anger and paranoia and plans to dose the largest train station in the city to create chaos. This is also similar to the plan from Scarecrow in Nolan’s Batman Begins.
Throughout all of this we see the creation of Two-Face from Harvey Dent. This time it is an attack by Penguin that first damages Harvey’s face and his model is very much based on Aaron Eckhart’s portrayal in The Dark Knight. There is even a choice that harkens back to the film, as Batman must decide to aide either Harvey or Catwoman during the fight that ultimately scars Dent. IN another quick bout of originality, it is actually a later fight in Wayne Manor where the left side of Dent’s body is burned and scarred to match his face. Again, also being a reflection of Batman himself, Two-Face is the embodiment of black and white justice. Cruel, cold logic about punishment for perceived wrongs and the killing of a few to benefit the many. LAdy Arkham has this same twisted sense of justice without heart. She sees the destruction of the elite and the chaos of her drug benefitting the many as corruption is brought to light and the city of Gotham is cleansed.
The reason that Penguin, Two-Face, and Joker are so often adapted, and thus some of the most well known rogues in the Batman canon, is that they are easy to write. They are warped reflections of Bruce Wayne and Batman and their motivations are pretty clear: Penguin wants glory, Two-Face wants justice, Joker wants chaos. By wrapping all of these motivations and even background story elements into Lady Arkham, Telltale cobbled together a 25% original character which results in a 25% original story. I may come back to Season 2, The Enemy Within, to see what they pull, but it won’t be high on my list.