Hello and welcome to a new series called HNNNGH, in which I talk about games that made me wince slightly and produce a sound that can only be contained within a phonetic translation of ‘hnnngh’. Today’s contender is Batman: A Telltale Games Series, a game I was much looking forward to as both a fan of Telltale’s take on Fables and as an avid Batman reader.
With Rocksteady’s trifecta ending with a squelch rather than a bang, a narrative-oriented title released from a developer too technically limited to produce anything other than an introspective tale could not have sounded better to me. Soon after its release I attempted a review of Rocksteady’s final fart and I cited its lacklustre plot as the main reason for my dismay, especially given its nature as a successor to two of Paul Dini’s best works.
I should have known that Paul Dini was much the reason for Asylum and City‘s narrative- and therefore general- success. You only need look at the roster of entirely anus DC films released in recent years to figure out that it takes a tested comics writer to write comics. Paul Dini is one such writer. As an author he is fascinating. This year Dini released Dark Night: A True Batman Story, a semi-autobiographical account detailing an event which happened in Dini’s real life during 1993, where he was subjected to an unprovoked viscous attack on the street. For Dini, Batman the character is more than a task or a concept but a reality which perpetually provides Dini fragments of the hope and shame that came about from his unfortunate event in 1993 whilst he was developing Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Perhaps for as long as I live I will never see a writer who has such an intimate connection with his characters as Dini, and this transcends the pale of comic books.
It was always going to be a hard task following Dini’s double act with Rocksteady, for both Knight and the new Telltale series. What interested me most about the prospect of a Telltale Batman game was the inevitable stripping away of combat. Telltale have not altered their formula for years now (hey, if it ain’t broke…), and generally speaking, outside of QTEs the spectacular action sequences so familiar with Batman fans would not be possible inside of Telltale’s digital framework. We all know a Telltale episode upon release is going to be jank, we know as consumers that there will be inexplicable gameplay freezes and audiovisual lags that would be otherwise inexcusable, but we suspend irritation and criticism to make way for the stories they want to tell and we want to hear. It’s an interesting thing, suspension of disillusion, in his review of Fallout 4 George Weidman notes a similar dynamic between Bethesda and that company’s fans.
I wonder how long I can keep playing these Telltale games and turn a blind eye to obvious mechanical blunders. Good intentions cannot prevent me from seeing what is happening on the screen, especially if I do not have extremely good written material to distract me from this.
HNNNGH #1- The Penguin
Look, I get that authors of Bob Kane’s apparently nacreous universe are constantly having to recreate characters in order to offer something new to familiar audiences. With ‘the New 52’ having ended in May of this year now, we can see the plethora of creative adaptations and reinventions that DC have given us since August of 2011. It was inevitable that Telltale would have to re-imagine our heroes and villains so as to avoid that tinge of fanfiction that we sometimes receive with DCs less inspired material.
They really took a gamble with this reinvention of penguin as a slim, dashing Brit who has known our hero since childhood. With that description, ostensibly there is much ground to cover here, and I invite these radical reinventions with open arms usually. However, Telltale couldn’t prevent me from ‘hnnngh’-ing with this one. I don’t know which facet of lurid cack turned me off this reinvention the most, perhaps it was the audibly askew London accent as a Brit myself, or perhaps it was the paralysingly awkward obviousness of his antagonising elements. I know that it seems rich to criticise a comic book character for their hyperbolic characterisation, but come on, there is a threshold of disbelief that this character absolutely shafts. This game was not made for younger audiences as the PEGI certificate asserts so we should not be treated as infants who need to be flaunted a character’s unlikeable qualities every time they open their out-of-sync mouths.
This version of Penguin is meant to have been Bruce’s childhood friend, supposedly to raise emotional stakes and establish some nuance in his character but this is revealed almost only through jarring impromptu exposition during exchanges between the two. The backstory feels extremely forced and a brief flashback to childhood in episode four or five comes too little too late, leaving this aspect of Penguin’s revision rather unjustified.
HNNNGH #2- Combat
It eventually becomes impossible to ignore the fact that over a console generation and a gaining of over 200 employees, Telltale have not done anything to improve technical performance on consoles since 2011. A Parisian Dontnod, a company with a third of Telltale’s staff, showed us a high-performance episodic narrative with an arguably higher graphical fidelity that ran perfectly across all platforms on release. The fact that Telltale titles are still being released with 5-year-old performance issues from previous I.Ps is nothing short of embarrassing. It begs the question of what they are doing with their staff, and what are they doing to the Telltale Tool game engine, the same engine they were using for titles back in 2005. Have they even touched it since Vanaman and Rodkin’s departure?
The familiar lag of the Telltale Tool engine has never been appropriate for high-performance QTEs but as consumers we conceded this for titles such as The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, as these QTEs never took precedence over narrative. They were endurable for the sake of progression. With this title, however, an importance is placed on QTE combat with a particular emphasis on perfect-streak combos giving players a payoff of a special move. The choreographed combat is wasted on an engine that can barely support the ideas superimposed onto it. On top of this, and I’m not kidding, there are entire audio clips missing from combat sequences. Impacts have no sounds in certain cases, and when this occurs it is of the worst examples of makeshift development I have ever seen with Telltale. You never quite know the chronological distance between development and release with Telltale due to the episodic nature of their content, but missing audio assets would be a glaring indication of developing to schedule rather than to completion.
I honestly don’t know why, on top of unquestionable technical limitation, Telltale even attempted to place such an emphasis on combat here. You cannot reasonably follow Rocksteady’s trilogy with combat that comes close to their standard. Why even attempt another Batman game with combat emphasis, especially as a company who are renowned for capturing the true essence of the graphic novel? This doesn’t feel comics, it doesn’t feel Batman, it feels incredibly forced.
HNNNGH #3- Vicki Vale?
Vicki Vale? Vicki fffffffff… Vicki Vale???
In another attempt to reinvent a character already established in DC’s roster of supporting cast, Telltale have decided to reveal that the leader of the ‘Children of Arkham’, a villain plainly iterative of Snyder’s ‘The Architect’ from his book Gates of Gotham, is Gotham Gazette reporter Vicki Vale.
The villain who has the malevolent conviction to concoct their own scarecrow-toxin-like drug, the money to fund their own illicit organisations and the vendetta to call for the head of Bruce Wayne… is ffffff… is ffffffffffffffff… is VICKI VALE???
If that sounds stupid, it’s because it really, deeply is. They provide convenient exposition as to Vale’s motivation and past only at the beginning of the penultimate bloody episode, which admittedly is interesting but simply comes far too late. In Jeph Loeb’s seminal work Hush, the reveal of Hush’s identity was such a satisfying one because of the maintenance of multiple possible identities throughout the novel, but here we see a flop similar to Dontnod’s Life is Strange’s reveal. The inconsiderable option revealed as the reality fails to quench the intrigue goaded out of the player and only succeeds in infuriating them.
HNNNGH #4- Catwoman
Finally, in a Telltale game, a contender in a line of games about forming and testing the strength of relationships, there is some actual romance. I mean, I get it, in The Walking Dead our protagonist Lee would obviously have had reservations about a budding new romance because he was married, and in The Wolf Among Us the writing team wanted to leave the romance of Snow and Bigby to the actual Fables canon due to the game’s nature as a prequel. But like… FINALLY. I feel like I’ve felt the elements of fantasy, tragedy, horror and comedy in Telltale titles, but never romance. This was refreshing, if not a little awkward due to sets of lips no-clipping into each other. But it was welcome, as Catwoman has always been a symbol of forbidden romance to many writers, notably Loeb. I was interested to see Telltale’s take on the character after Nolan’s iteration, arguably the character’s most popular exhibition in its history, which was kind of underwhelming not in a sense of romance but of general characterisation. I quite liked Catwoman in this series. I think she was clearly the most thought out character in the entire feature. There is something endearing in her mischievousness and pride in remaining a mystery to Bruce. Granting Catwoman knowledge of Batman’s identity early on in the game was also an interesting angle, giving her more power and capability than even the worst villains in the DC canon.
So why did a let out a little ‘hnnngh’? Well, it’s less a complaint about the writing, which in this particular instance I think was good, but it’s about how Catwoman is perceived. In Episode 3, before a combat sequence, when Catwoman is in an ostensibly trapped situation being taken as hostage, you can opt to surrender yourself to save her. If you take this option, which I did, Catwoman escapes the situation, turns to you and says ‘I’m not that sort of damsel’. I took this as a line which appropriately enriched Catwoman’s character as the anti-heroine who constantly beguiles Batman and subverts his expectations. It wasn’t until the evening where I thought of the words ‘I’m not that sort of damsel’ again, and I wondered, perhaps presumptuously, if this wasn’t something more… metafictional given that we live in a digital climate where Anita Sarkeesian is so unfortunately divisive.
I found a Mary Sue article praising Telltale for their apparently revolutionary representation of Catwoman, about how she owns her sexuality completely and how Telltale ‘refused’ to damsel her.
I don’t know… I mean… maybe? She’s not a damsel… I guess? But she’s still kind of… I mean… I get it… kind of… not really, though… hnnngh. I’m not sure how to explain why I feel this way. I guess I’ll start with the fact that Telltale didn’t really write Catwoman. In the loading screen of the game, artworks by Neal Adams and Jim Lee amongst others combine in order to form a batman logo.
This is the Catwoman that Lee and Adams knew. Telltale, in writing and designing any character here, are contributing and not purely creating. They take and add to the mounds of canon already existing in the DC universe. And, I mean… is Telltale’s edition really that innovative? If we ignore the external narrative and focus on the story here, Catwoman intrigues Bruce based on her sense of justice and vice versa, and this manifests also in sexual intrigue for both characters. Is this really so different than how it always has been? Again, I’m not criticising Telltale’s take on Catwoman, in fact I think it’s the best part of the story, but championing the character as a kind of clandestine feminist interpretation I feel is just kind of… incorrect. Hnnngh.
Way back in 2011 when Judd Winnick was tasked with writing the first Catwoman volume for DC’s ‘The New 52’ initiative, he began his storyline with Catwoman having a creepy mask-on bash with our caped crusader. I read a Comics Alliance article on how awkward and fanfiction-esque the scene felt and I had to agree. I mean, how different is Telltale’s iteration to Winnick’s divisive issue? Two superheroes who are bound to have sexual chemistry actually do something about it. It’s important only in the sense that it’s a powerfully awkward moment, it doesn’t make any of them a champion or trope of either masculinity or femininity because the moment is a culmination of emotion and instinct for these two characters who are so removed from being typical men or women.
It just reminds me of when Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises came out, and articles everywhere were inferring commentary on capitalist ideals, and how Bane was a metaphor for Occupy Wall Street. Christ, Rush Limbaugh even came out saying the film was biased against Mitt Romney because Bane, a character created by Chuck Dixon in 1993, was a homophone for Bain Capital (I can’t believe I’m not kidding).
Are we incapable of reading something without also writing our own little story of who is writing and who is reading the material?
The fact I even have to talk about this makes me hnnngh. A well written Catwoman by Telltale now has to be affiliated, in my mind, with that external narrative that I always see surrounding masculinity and femininity and pretty much anything else in modern comic storylines. I just don’t think it’s necessary.
I’ve read what I’ve just written over a few times now, and I’m not advocating for authors or critics to leave their politics at the door. I’m just saying inferring anything about masculine or feminine commentary onto a videogame about Batman is a bit of a stretch.
HNNNGH #5- What Are Telltale Doing?
This isn’t a rhetorical question. Telltale have not been advancing technically or narratively. Besides Telltale’s take on Catwoman it does not really feel as if Telltale had a proper idea with this series’ characters or its faithfulness to the canon, especially with their cringey take on Joker. Almost every single one of Telltale’s new series over the past few years has been a corporate acquisition. I’m worried Telltale are beginning to make these titles like Minecraft: Story Mode and The Walking Dead: Michonne because they’re being told to and not because they have an idea. Innovative ideas are what drove Telltale to success with their earlier titles, and with Telltale series being released to increasingly middling reviews, this is just another contender that truly does not bode well for the company.