In Christopher Booker’s book (nice) The Seven Basic Plots he lays out that across all stories we tell as the collective humanity, there are really only seven fundamental plots.
Overcoming the Monster, in which the protagonist sets out to defeat a force of evil threatening their homeland. See; The Dark Knight.
Rags to Riches, in which the poor protagonist acquires wealth, power, and/or a mate, loses it all, then regains it as a more grown person. See; The Dark Knight Rises.
The Quest, in which the protagonist and their companions seek an important object or location, facing obstacles and temptations along the way. See; Batman: Arkham City.
Voyage and Return, in which the protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming its threats, returns a changed person. See: Batman Begins.
Comedy, in which the light and humorous character is faced with more and more confusing conflicts but has a cheerful ending. See; Batman ’66.
Tragedy, in which the protagonist has one major character flaw that proves to be their undoing. A fundamentally “good” hero falls. See; Justice League: Tower of Babel or Justice League: Doom.
Rebirth, in which an important event forces the protagonist to change their ways and become a better person. See; (technically) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
If you’re picking up what I’m putting down, you’ll notice Batman has a story that fits into each of these plots. Hell, considering just how many Batman stories there are he has multitudes for each of those. Batman has had at least four modern animated series, three different film franchises, and has been consistently been in comics for decades. Batman fatigue is a real thing, and for people like myself it has already set in. It’s not that he’s a bad character, it’s just that every Batman story there is to tell has been told already. There are no new stories left, only variations on what we’ve all seen before.
Enter Telltale Games.
Telltale has been one of the most consistently good video game companies out there for a couple years now. They specialize in episodic licensed brand adventure games that almost always turn out far better than expected. Their The Walking Dead: The Telltale Series is still the best thing called The Walking Dead, their Tales From the Borderlands is a masterpiece, and even their weakest series, Game of Thrones: The Telltale Series, is still an excellent send up of Game of Thrones proper. When they announced a Batman game I was skeptical, especially since Batman fatigue has already long since set in me. Still, I play for the story, and I was willing to try anything Telltale took a crack at so I gave their series a shot.
Plus it’s, like, $5 per episode of the game. That’s a good deal.
The Telltale Series starts in the early days of Batman’s career, still more of a myth than a hero, so that you as a player can craft whatever version of Batman you want the public to see. Heroic or fearsome, the choice is yours. More than that, for once in a video game you get to play as Bruce Wayne, carefully guarding your secret and choosing your actions around familiar characters like Harvey Dent, Carmine Falcone, Ozwald Cobblepot, and Selena Kyle. But it’s at the end of that first episode when Batman: The Telltale Series reveals its hand and cements itself in the Batman canon.
Spoiler alert. Even though spoilers are scientifically proven not to diminish you enjoyment of a story. Spoiler alert.
It turns out that Thomas Wayne was a criminal. He drugged people, drove them insane, and then committed them to Arkham Asylum. He made his fortune working with Carmine Falcone. He was one of the worst Gotham had ever seen. His and Martha’s death was a coordinated hit by a rival crime lord.
I cannot overstate how good of a twist this is and one that, to my knowledge, has never been done before. It fundamentally changes the narrative of Batman. In this, the protagonist learns their call to action was a lie all along, and they must choose if and how they continue from there. That’s something wholly new.
The twists don’t stop there, but that is the main one I want to talk about. See, in my mission to make Batman the hero I’ve always seen him as I have allowed Bruce Wayne to fall from grace. In theory, I could have a violent Batman and a criminal Bruce Wayne, or altruistic sides of both of them, but for me the symbol of Batman as a force for good is so much greater than Bruce’s standing with the public.
The first episode of season 2 of this series just dropped and, along with a vastly improved Bat Suit, this follows the same trajectory the first season started. The Riddler is loose in the city and to find him I had to choose between questioning a criminal as Batman or visiting a crime lord as Bruce. I chose the crime lord and, to get what I needed, O facilitated his escape from the city.
Then the Riddler forced me into the best trap I’ve seen in a Batman story. He locks Batman and a goverment agent in a cell with sonic emitters around them, meanwhile two other agents are caught in “death chambers”. The Riddler asks a question and, if Batman gets it wrong, one of the agents in a death chamber dies, but if he gets it right he and his agent are blasted with deadly sonic waves. You have to choose to take on the pain for yourself and an innocent or give up the lives of two other innocents. A no win scenario.
Basically, they made The Riddler scary for the first time.
That’s what makes this story so original. They take elements from the mythology and fit them into a different puzzle. The Penguin was a childhood friend of Bruce’s, Bruce is helping Harvey Dent with a mayoral campaign, Batman must choose between the police and Gordon or the press and Vicky Vale. It uses your knowledge of where things should be affect how you interact with them.
For the first time in a long time, I’m excited about a Batman story.
PS, by the same token Telltale has a Guardians of the Galaxy series that is so closely riffing on the movies, but doesn’t quite capture the same spirit, that I don’t like it so far.