Tell­tale Bat­man

The Click­ing Joke


... it’s pos­si­ble to through the en­tire fourth chap­ter with­out ever donning Bat­man’s cowl.


For all its faults, the first sea­son of Tell­tale Games’ take on Bat­man es­tab­lished that the writ­ers weren’t afraid to mess around with canon. Ma­jor char­ac­ters died with­out much fan­fare, oth­ers had their roles changed sub­stan­tially (Pen­guin and Two-Face were rein­vented while still be­ing recog­nis­able), and – in the game’s most ob­vi­ous sea­son 2 ta­ble set­ting – the Joker wasn’t re­ally the Joker yet. In­stead we had John Doe, an Arkham Asy­lum in­mate with that dis­tinc­tive green hair, pale face, and ter­ri­fy­ing grin. The En­emy Within is as much about John’s jour­ney as it is about Bat­man and Bruce Wayne, and Tell­tale’s will­ing­ness to bend these char­ac­ters into new shapes, to hurt and kill their dar­lings, pays div­i­dends.

If you’ve played a Tell­tale game since the first sea­son of The Walk­ing Dead, you know what their cur­rent deal is. This is an ad­ven­ture game with very few real puz­zles, one in which most of the game­play boils down to mak­ing de­ci­sions and choos­ing con­ver­sa­tion re­sponses, bro­ken up by the oc­ca­sional un­chal­leng­ing quick-time event. The ‘so-and-so will re­mem­ber that’ no­ti­fi­ca­tions are abun­dant, and Al­fred can barely ask what you want for break­fast with­out re­mind­ing you that the choices you make now will have se­ri­ous ram­i­fi­ca­tions in the fu­ture.

It’s a for­mat that, in some of Tell­tale’s later sea­sons, has started to feel a bit old, with low stakes and path­ways that al­ways tend to con­verge back to the same points harm­ing their sto­ry­telling. But The En­emy Within’s fram­ing of Bat­man and Bruce as sep­a­rate fig­ures, and the fo­cus on the re­la­tion­ships that both of them form with the other char­ac­ters, al­lows for a deeper char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion than we’ve had in any of these games since the first Walk­ing Dead. The plot – which in­volves un­cov­er­ing shad­owy se­cret or­gan­i­sa­tions and re­triev­ing viruses that are in the wrong hands – is mostly just an ex­cuse to get a heap of Bat­man char­ac­ters all in one place, so that Bats and Bruce can bounce off Amanda Waller, Harley Quinn, Bane, and other recog­nis­able favourites.

Your re­la­tion­ships with these char­ac­ters shift and change, and at the end of each of the five episodes you’re given a run­down of how your stand­ings with them have changed. Tell­tale has taken some smart lib­er­ties to keep things in­ter­est­ing here. For in­stance, you get to know Harley Quinn – who has turned to vil­lainy with­out a Joker to lure her in – mainly as an un­der­cover Bruce Wayne, and de­pend­ing on de­ci­sions you make it’s pos­si­ble to go through the en­tire fourth chap­ter (and most of the last one) with­out ever donning Bat­man’s cowl. De­spite oc­ca­sional bouts of silli­ness – and the stan­dard al­lergy ev­ery Bat­man vil­lain has to­wards lin­ing up a clear shot and shoot­ing him dead – this is a cracker of a Bat­man tale.

The high­light of the game is its take on the Joker. Turn­ing the Joker into John Doe, a blank-slate ma­niac who seems like he could be ‘fixed’ by just the right Bat­man, is a ge­nius twist on the char­ac­ter mythol­ogy, tak­ing the abu­sive re­la­tion­ship that the two share and find­ing a new an­gle to ex­plore its tox­i­c­ity from. It’s not un­usual to com­pare Bat­man and the Joker’s dy­namic to a love story, but it’s rare for a writer to take their love as se­ri­ously

as The En­emy Within does. This is a Joker who talks about love and friend­ship a lot, and it’s up to you how Bat­man and Bruce Wayne take that, and what they feel back to­wards him. It’s do­ing some­thing sim­i­lar with these well-known fig­ures to what Han­ni­bal did on TV a few years ago, and of­fers a good take on the now req­ui­site ‘Bat­man cre­ates as many prob­lems as he solves’ dis­course.

The big ‘sell­ing point’ of The En­emy Within is the fi­nal chap­ter’s split – de­pend­ing on how you’ve played you’ll get one of two very dif­fer­ent ver­sions of Joker, and the chap­ter will play out dif­fer­ently de­pend­ing on which one you’ve brought about. Hav­ing played both it­er­a­tions of this fi­nal episode, they’re hon­estly very dif­fer­ent, in terms of both con­tent and tone. Other episodes also fea­ture en­tire scenes that you might miss de­pend­ing on your de­ci­sions.

This all speaks to how good a job The En­emy Within does of mak­ing your de­ci­sions feel like they mat­ter, some­thing Tell­tale has strug­gled with in the past. With­out spoil­ing any­thing, I can say that my Bruce Wayne ended up in a very spe­cific place by the end, hav­ing made de­ci­sions that guided him down a path that felt per­sonal to my playthrough. When the fi­nal choice of the sea­son is of­fered up, I didn’t make the healthy one, or the one that might of­fer some re­demp­tion – I made the one that made the most nar­ra­tive sense. I didn’t go in look­ing for a dark end­ing, but I leaned into it as the right nar­ra­tive de­ci­sion. When they’re on form, Tell­tale’s writ­ers are ex­perts at mak­ing you feel like you’ve crafted a smart nar­ra­tive rather than sim­ply made the choices that will most ben­e­fit you.

While the first sea­son of Tell­tale’s Bat­man was a lit­tle shaky in its es­tab­lish­ment of a new sta­tus quo, The En­emy Within feels far more firm in its in­tent. It tells a damn fine Bat­man story, in­volv­ing a solid chunk of the clas­sic rogues’ gallery, and em­pow­ers the player to craft their Bat­man (and their Bruce) as they see fit. The Arkham games are won­der­ful power fan­tasies, but Tell­tale’s take on the Dark Knight is a great re­minder that the char­ac­ter’s real ap­peal lies not just in his strengths, but also in his many vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties.

Is that the guy from Death Note?

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