Telltale and Choice

Telltale and Choice

Last month out of seemingly nowhere, Telltale games announced that they were shutting down. Like many gamers I was stunned. While far from its height of relevance after releasing the amazing Walking Dead Season 1, the studio was still working with some of the biggest properties out there: Game of Thrones, Guardians of the Galaxy, Batman. They had also inked a deal with Netflix to make a Stranger Things game. They seemed to have carved out their own niche in the industry, a bridge between TV and video games.

The internet has been a buzz of blame and think pieces on the closure. Polygon’s Ben Kuchera has a well-researched, scathing take-down where he levels the blame at the company’s technology, stale game design and poor working conditions. The working conditions argument is Kuchera’s strongest. It’s depressing to see that Telltale suffered crunches and poor management. But some of Kuchera points, while well argued, feel overly harsh.

Telltale’s engine did feel wobbly, creating stiff character animations and bugs, but Bethesda has been using a version of the same janky engine since Morrowood and people still eat up their games. And I’ve yet to bump into a video game where character animations make it all the way through the uncanny valley. Even the Witcher 3, a god damn masterpiece and my favorite game of all time, has some awkward animations and character model. Any game that’s going to be as story focused as Telltales is going to have issues.

Kuchera’s game design argument is even harsher and I feel like it ignores a depressing truth. Telling stories in video games is hard, making storytelling the sole focus of your game is even harder. And to be fair to Telltale they did try. I played three Telltale games, The Walking Dead Season 1, Tales of Borderlands, and Batman Seasons 1 and 2. And did all three games have a similar vibe? Sure. Where they as Kuchera claims, cookie cutter knocks of the Walking Dead Season 1 with choices and twists I saw coming miles away, no, not at all.

The Walking Dead Season 1 was bleak, shocking and touching. Tales of Borderlands was far better than it had any right to be, hilarious and surprisingly emotional. I would have been happy if the Borderlands series dropped the main games and continued as a Telltale series. Telltale’s Batman did some of the best reinterpretation and deconstruction on comics most reinterpreted and deconstructed character (even wrote a post about the first season). To say the games were all boring, retreads is just unfair.

If Kuchera’s argument is less that the games themselves were all cookie cutter and more that Telltale’s choice system often felt the same regardless of the game you were playing, that I can see. Looking back, I only remember a handful of choices I made in any of the series and very few of the choices changed the outcome to a season. But choice in Telltale game wasn’t about changing the story.

In the moment, while playing a Telltale game, choices felt important. They spiked the drama, gave weight to the scene and helped immerse me in the story. Deciding whether or not to cut Clementine’s hair didn’t save anyone, but it helped establish a bond between Clementine and Lee. Choice was a mechanic, an action to help tell the story rather than a means to change it.

The more impact a studio gives to particular choice means the more work they have to do. A big enough divergence would mean creating two or more wholly different stories, different games even, that might sound exciting, but that means that most players will only experience half of the work a studio puts in. And the more changes you have and the more radical you let those changes be, the less control you have over your story and characters. You might easily end up with some very unsatisfying narratives.

From Mass Effect on, we’ve debated the naked ‘choices’ we bump into in narrative heavy games. Players try to weigh the value of them, becoming upset if they realize their ‘choices don’t matter’. But in truth these choices, never matter. Sure, they might mean that one character lives while another dies, or that you get a good ending as opposed to a bad. At best they are divergent points in the narrative, giving a slightly different journey, but one that will eventually lead to the same end. The player is like a switch operator at a station deciding which ‘track’ the train will go down, but there’s only ever so many tracks.

What Telltale understood best was that choice isn’t about how the story reacts to the player, so much as how the player reacts to the story. Choices often effected dialogue and a particular scene rather than the aggregated season. You choose to be cruel or kind, serious or brooding and other reacted. Your choice was the emotion, not the outcome. You were engaging with the narrative and not deciding it. Telltale was far from perfect, but I’ll miss them and their use of choice.

Batman in the Age of Trump

Batman in the Age of Trump

I’ve been on a recent Batman kick re-watching the old Michael Keaton movies, replaying Arkham Knight and Telltale’s excellent ‘Batman’ video game series. As I revisited Batman and his origins in 2016, new, troubling themes started to emerge. This was the story of billionaire reshaping the world to match his own imagine of justice. I couldn’t help asking, what does Batman mean in the age of Donald Trump?

The internet is about 90% ‘What does Donald Trump mean?’ think pieces right now, so I can understand if you groaned a little at that question, but super heroes aren’t as trivial as we like to think. They are modern-day myths and like all myths they tell us about who we are, what we think is heroic or villainous and what values are worth fighting for.

There are many themes within Batman’s mythos that help explain Trump’s appeal. But the one that I think is the most important is their shared super power. Both Batman and Donald Trump are billionaires (maybe). On the campaign trial, there were plenty of interviews with Trump supporters who were decent, rational people who when asked why they were supporting Donald Trump said ‘He’s a successful businessman, he’ll be good for the economy, he’ll fix things.’

We tend to think that billionaires are not like us. How can they be? They have billions, they must be the smartest, most dedicated people alive to earn that type of money. They know things that we don’t, because if we knew the things they did or were capable of the feats of will, self-discipline and risk taking that they are, then we’d be billionaires too. They’re just something ‘special’ about them, like super heroes.

In comics billionaires are super heroes. Next to scientists, and maybe reporters, billionaires are the most common alter ego for super heroes (side note, I also can’t think of a single super hero billionaire who is ‘self-made’, they all inherit their fortune). But no comic book billionaire is quite like Bruce Wayne.

Tony Stark might be a brilliant engineer, but he’s also cocky alcoholic. His vices are so bad that he’s had to give up being iron man because of them and has lost his company through his hubris on multiple occasions. Also in the comics, and now in the movies, whenever Tony is given anything close to federal power he royally messes up. He’s locked up his friends or put them on lists and accidentally given military power over to super villains. Tony Stark would not make a good President.

Bruce Wayne on the other hand is perfect. He’s a genius with super human will which allows him to become the best at everything he does: the world’s greatest detective, master martial artist; a guy that’s able to beat up superman repeatedly as well as outsmart and defeat the likes of Darkseid, an intergalactic tyrant and space god. He’s got a tool for every job, knows everything, and is prepared for any possible outcome.

Can you think of better poster child for ideal of meritocracy than Batman? He’s the most American superhero out there that doesn’t start his name with ‘Captain’, because say what you will about other rich people, Bruce Wayne deserves his money. Deserves it, because like Trump, he didn’t earn it, he inherited it. And as Trump supporters felt America desperately needed a man like Donald, Gotham desperately needs Batman.

In Batman comics Gotham is a city overrun by criminals, has a dismal economy and a corrupt political climate that can only be described as ‘swampish’. In every origin when Batman arrives all that changes. Wayne industries comes in and creates jobs fixing the economy. Batman takes out the mob leaders and exposes politicians, wiping away corruption and decreasing crime (at least initially; there always must be crime or there would be no Batman). Gotham is safer, richer and better with Batman in charge.

And make no mistake, Batman is in charge. Super hero comics by no means represent realistic politics. Shield, for instance, is an international police agency which has authority everywhere and yet it’s never clear who they answer to or how they get their funding. But even by comic’s standards Gotham is some bizarre libertarian city-state, with Batman/Bruce Wayne as it’s Soldier-CEO.

In the comics, games, and movies Wayne Enterprises controls just about every major function in Gotham. All utilities are run through Wayne tower. The Wayne’s built the public monorail system for the city. Wayne tech acts as the communication providers for the police, the banks, and city hall. As CEO Bruce Wayne has access to every communication and record that goes through that system. I can’t imagine that would be legal anywhere else in the U.S.

And yet in Batman comics this clearly corrupt system is for the collective good. There is no conflict of interest between Bruce Wayne’s monopoly on every industry in Gotham and Batman’s extra-legal actives in policing the city, because they both serve the same interests, that of Gotham’s. The fact that Gotham’s interests are indeterminable from Bruce Wayne’s, doesn’t matter. Gotham is after all Batman’s city, he says so himself.

And Batman’s city is Batman’s, not the mob’s, not the dangerous ‘others’ that threaten the power of the status quo. While Batman main adversaries don’t come from the minority groups that Trump targeted on the campaign trail, his rouge’s gallery is still full of people labeled as freaks, the insane, and the other. People on the fringes of society not in the mainstream.

Killer Croc has a fatal skin condition not a trust fund. The Joker is dangerous, but he’s anarchist who will burn money rather than horde it. Even the Penguin who dresses like an early twentieth century aristocrat only turns to crime after the elite of Gotham kick him out.

Batman enforces Penguin’s place on the outside by repeatedly beating the crap out of him. And yet there’s no way the pudgy penguin can physically match him. In fact Batman spends most of his time punching down; how exactly are the likes of Scarecrow, Riddler or the Ventriloquist going to fight Batman on equal footing? At times it can seem like he’s bully, a charge also labeled at Trump.

The parallels between Trump and Wayne are there. A billionaire who says he’s the best at everything, bends the law, using fear and violence against the poor to protect the majority. A political force whose best interests are also the best interest of his fellow citizens. They share that collective myth.

But myths are both inherently political and infinitely interpret-able. The best ones can change and shift with the times and find new ways to grow. Batman himself has been everything from a brooding, mostly silent vigilante, to a campy, colorful detective, to an arrogant, silly Lego cartoon. All of those interpretations are equally Batman.

And writes have picked up on Batman’s generally pro-rich and pro-establishment themes before and twisted them. Frank Millar famously has Batman terrorize rich mobsters and business elites of Gotham during a dinner party telling them their time has ended. Scott Synder and Greg Capullo created ‘the Court of Owls’. A network of oligarchs who controlled Gotham from the shadows before Batman showed up. He then works to overthrow them and restore Gotham to the people.

Bruce Wayne himself is presented as being a businessman in name only. He’s never interested in wealth for himself, but rather as a tool to help the disenfranchised. Multiple Batman stories show him either ignoring his family’s business altogether or creating international charities, building orphanages or schools. He’s presented as the type of billionaire we all hope the wealthy really are.

And yet to me the answer to what should be down with Batman post-2016 has already been answered. In nearly every retelling of Batman’s origins there’s always one clear fact: Batman’s parents Maratha and Thomas Wayne are saints. In Batman Begins for example, they are the only good people with power in the whole city. Their charity even goes so far as to thwart Ra’s al Ghul’s plans to destroy the city.

This always struck me as odd. How do the Waynes become so central to Gotham while at the same time keeping themselves clean from the corruption that seeps into every part of the city? In telltale’s retelling they don’t.

In the Telltale’s Batman game, Bruce is forced to revisit his past and realizes that hero worship of his father blinded him to his dad’s connection to organized crime. Thomas Wayne is a ruthless businessman who gains his fortune by working with the mob and corrupt politicians; even going so far as use his medical credentials to get sane people committed to Arkham against their will. He does this to both his enemies and anyone who refuses to sell him their property.

This completely changes Batman’s struggle, rather than avenging his murdered parents he’s now trying to undo the damage that his family inflicted on the city he loves. There is guilt and confusion and the world is full of more greys than simply a fight against crime. This new moral ambiguity puts Batman’s billion dollar super power in the forefront.

As Alfred says of Batman’s parents in Episode Two of Tellatle’s game, “The truth is they were billionaires, Bruce. You don’t amass that kind of wealth without making certain moral compromises. It’s just not possible, that kind of money taints you.” Post 2016 Batman’s super power is as much a curse as it is a gift.