Batman is a beloved hero, but he’s also relatively well-trod ground. The Lego Movie summed up most modern takes on him in three words. But as Telltale Games’ take on the Dark Knight has unfolded, we’ve gotten a very different look at the man behind the mask.
Telltale Games is notable for their dialogue-driven, object-hunting games, which has tended to push this game more towards the “World’s Greatest Detective” end of the Bat-spectrum. But what’s most notable is that Telltale has rewritten Batman’s origin and brought, unexpectedly, Bruce Wayne to the fore. The game’s third episode in a five episode series — out this week — is largely about the revelation that Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father, committed dozens of people to Arkham unjustly as part of a grander scheme to control Gotham behind-the-scenes. The murder of the Waynes wasn’t a random act of a decaying city: It was an assassination, one that may have even been deserved, depending on your perspective.
Overall, the game hits some of the conventional story beats at first: No points for guessing what happens to District Attorney Harvey Dent. What’s different is how the game approaches characters we’ve seen before. Harvey, for example, is a less white knight than a savvy politician. After his brutal injury, he manages to keep his sanity. He even wins the mayoral election and takes office, admittedly by default. Harvey Dent’s fall usually starts the second acid strikes his skin in Batman stories, and watching Harvey struggle to keep it together with everything he wants in his grasp is a fresh take and an oddly affecting one.
But the biggest change is in Bruce Wayne himself. Most of the game involves Batman out of his mask, at his company or among his friends, teasing out information and reacting to what he discovers. To some extent, you decide how the game unfolds by choosing what you say, although the plot does have an overall path you go down. This is a more conflicted, vulnerable Batman, one that fights criminals with a sure footing but finds himself adrift in his personal life as his view of his parents collapses. He discovers the man who raised him was tormented by the secrets he had to keep, and Bruce finds himself conflicted between what’s right to the wider world and doing the right thing for the people he loves. Most importantly, depending on how you play, this Batman makes mistakes, on a personal level, that can haunt him.
The result is a Batman that’s more human, more fascinatingly flawed than we’ve seen elsewhere. The grim crusader of justice is all well and good, but Batman contains multitudes, and seeing the same take over and over again is boring. The series’ arc bends towards the idea that Batman isn’t punching crooks every night because of one injustice he suffered as a kid, but because he wants justice, and struggles with the moral and emotional costs it can demand. It’s a more interesting Batman, and one hopefully Telltale offers us more of.