I don’t have to tell anyone reading this site that we’re living in a world saturated by superhero media. Between the hundreds of movies, TV shows, Netflix originals, video games, and of course comics, how does one stand out from the crowd? Especially when you’re one of many adapting/rebooting something as ridiculously overdone as Batman? Well, you do what Telltale Games does: you acknowledge that media saturation and the fact that your title character is a pop culture icon, and you decide to use that to do something different. You accept that your players will be bringing some knowledge of the superhero franchise—be it Batman or, more recently, Guardians of the Galaxy—you’re adapting to the table. And you use that knowledge as a foundation to play on audience expectations and take the opportunity to toy, fanfiction-style, with some “what if?” scenarios to create innovative and intriguing new takes on the familiar stories. And you do it all while exploring and giving agency to sidelined women characters, too!
Spoilers (mostly minor, but major ones are tagged) for both Batman: The Telltale Series and Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series beyond the jump!
Let’s first look at Batman: The Telltale Series, the video game which defied all odds by getting me legitimately emotionally attached to Batman, something that neither the emotional slog that was the Dark Knight trilogy nor the universally-agreed disaster that is the DC cinematic universe achieved. Batman: The Telltale Series is an all-new continuity not tied into any other films or series, but it knows that you know Batman. It introduces and establishes everything neatly enough so that you know the rules of this new story world, of course, but it also rolls with this presumed knowledge of Batman and his collection of equally-famous supervillains and takes things in a different direction to what you come in expecting.
The biggest part of this is rewriting Bruce Wayne’s backstory. Of course, they keep the quintessential murder of his parents that sparks his vendetta against criminals, but Telltale finds a way to tweak this that turns the familiar dynamic on its head: Telltale asks “what if Bruce Wayne’s parents were criminals too?” Over the course of the game, Bruce is forced to discover that his family has a long history of funding and associating with crime and corruption, and that his father was responsible for some of the nastier stuff going on at Arkham Asylum. As this information is made public, Bruce Wayne becomes the unwilling face of and heir to a corrupt business empire, putting him directly at odds with Batman… despite them being the same person. In fact, more than one character is vocally surprised that Batman hasn’t come and beat up Bruce Wayne yet. Not only is this twist on Bruce’s backstory refreshing and intriguing because it takes the familiar story in a new and unfamiliar direction, it adds new layers of personal conflict to the character and makes for a fascinating symbolic dilemma about his double life.
The twists on player expectations continue by shifting the backstory and relationships of the other characters: Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. The Penguin, is reimagined as one of Bruce’s old school friends, giving Bruce/Batman personal stakes in one of the game’s main villains and providing yet more personal conflict in his fight against crime. Bruce is also currently friends with Harvey Dent and is helping fund his mayoral campaign, again giving him personal stakes when Dent begins to develop into Two-Face and he has to take him down. While there are still small elements of a love triangle a la The Dark Knight, it’s not the crux of the conflict in their relationship, leaving the object of Harvey’s affections with more agency than just a damsel in distress (as I’ll get to in a moment) and leaving the two friends with a deeper and much more interesting dynamic.
These connections make things much, much more complicated than if Batman had simply been fighting random criminals, and is just one more way the game gets you invested in the interactions between these characters and makes you want to be careful as you navigate this increasingly messy world of supervillains and interpersonal relationships… muddled further by the fact these people have different relationships with Bruce than they do with Batman. It all helps to build the consistent themes of ideology and people as figureheads, pitting Bruce Wayne, here a symbol of corruption and old money, against Batman, symbol of take-no-shit vigilante justice, creating a conflicted character study of Bruce himself that we haven’t really seen in any of the recent movie versions.
Telltale also takes the chance to subvert expectations and explore the series’ ladies: Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman, begins as the recognizable sexy, sassy, leather-wearing one-note antagonist she usually is, but she’s soon promoted to main character and given a full life and story outside of her relationship with Bruce (and a role outside of Harvey Dent’s crush on her, and the manpain that induces), imbued with so much agency and personal character development she ends up pursuing her own goals even if the player chooses to romance her. As well as being a step away from the usual sense of entitlement romantic routes in games can come with, this was a refreshing take on Catwoman—a character most people (myself definitely included) know only as a sexy cat burglar who steals stuff and looks hot.
The Telltale series also brings in Bruce Wayne’s Lois Lane equivalent from the comics, Vicki Vale, setting her up in her usual role as journalist and potential love interest before leading into (spoiler warning) the twist that she, thanks to a redo of her backstory, is actually the main villain of the game. Whether or not you already know Vicki from being a comics fan, it makes for a fantastic twist that gives us a whole spectrum of morally ambiguous, powerful, self-motivated women… again, not something we’ve seen a lot of in recent movies, with respected and complicated lady villains being few and far between.
In terms of playing with expectations left by movie franchises and exploring/empowering women characters, Telltale seem to be taking a similar route with their new Guardians of the Galaxy series. You know Thanos? That big scary purple guy the MCU has been setting up as the supervillain to outshine all supervillains for about ten movies? One of the most iconic and powerful characters in the world of the comics? Yes, of course you know Thanos and what he represents—which is why Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series has its titular heroes defeat and kill him in the first action scene of the game.
This then leaves the Guardians—and the player—with a new and unexpected situation. What happens when you defeat the biggest supervillain in the galaxy and in Marvel’s extended fictional universe? It’s a baffling question for both the player and the characters themselves, who suddenly realize that they’re left afloat in the world now that their one unifying goal—the usually ongoing mission of “defeat the bad guy” that would last a whole movie franchise—is completed. The Guardians have to start asking some hard questions: how will life in the galaxy change now that its tyrant is dead? Has killing Thanos really solved all their problems? And most importantly, for the characters, what does a rag-tag group of mercenaries and thieves turned superheroes do when they have no supervillain to fight?
Luckily, a new antagonist emerges (also a woman, showing Telltale’s ability to write compelling lady villains once again), as well as a mystery about the relic Thanos was hunting down when the Guardians fought and killed him, so these questions can be put off for now. But it doesn’t change the fact that defeating the Big Bad has shifted the dynamic in the crew. No longer being unified against one goal has caused cracks to appear in the relationships throughout the team, to the point where it legitimately seems like the answer to “what do superheroes do when they no longer have a supervillain?” might be “fight each other instead”. It’s only early days yet (at the time of writing, only two of the five episodes of the series are out) but I’d hazard a guess that, from cues and themes in the story so far, we may yet be building up to a climax where the Guardians are all turned against one another.
The Guardians are all very recognizable in their personalities and their relationships to each other, but as with Batman, a few tweaks to the backstory we’re familiar with make all the difference. As though responding directly to my last post about GOTG, Telltale has made Peter Quill’s mother a much more prominent character in this version of the story and given her a lot more agency. Not only is she front and center in Peter’s memories (given enough screentime to have a recognizable personality, and a name!) but it’s revealed that it was her, rather than all-powerful planet-dad Ego, who contacted Yondu and got him to pick Peter up after she died. Apparently Yondu owed Meredith Quill a favor and had promised to take care of her kid if anything happened to her, which suddenly gives her an ocean’s worth of new depth, intrigue, and a backstory and life of her own that doesn’t directly relate to her superhero son.
Was Mama Quill adventuring in space before Peter was born? And if so, what shenanigans was she up to that a rugged space-highwayman like Yondu was a close enough friend for her to assign him custody of her child? Again, it’s still early days and we don’t know the end of the story yet, so Ego might still show up, but it’s exciting nonetheless to see Meredith, a character sidelined in the most widespread version of the story, be given such agency and importance in this adaptation.
As well as shining a spotlight on the otherwise forgotten Mama Quill, Telltale is also laying the groundwork for a deeper exploration and a more emotional portrayal of Gamora than her MCU counterpart. Part of this is, of course, that this ten-hour-ish long game has more space and time to study her than the two movies, but part of it is characterization and writing: even before the focus on her backstory emerges, it’s clear from episode one that Gamora is a complicated, conflicted and layered character in her own right, far from being stranded in the role of Peter’s love interest. In fact, apart from a couple of longing gazes, her relationship with Peter has mostly been framed as a supportive friendship, which, if it does develop into a romance like Batman and Catwoman’s, certainly lays a lot more solid foundation for it than the shallow bickering and tension we get in the movies. Most importantly, it’s clear from episode one that Gamora has motivations and struggles of her own that add to the themes and conflict of the story but are ultimately her own, giving her, as with the Batman ladies, a life, agency, and moral compass outside of the sphere of the main male hero.
Perhaps it’s because they’re a smaller company that isn’t driven by Hollywood executives, perhaps it’s because the writers themselves are fans and these are variations on the stories they love that they’ve always wanted to see… perhaps it’s both. For whatever reason, Telltale Games’s superhero franchises have been consistently surprising and fun in the way they take what we know and twist it, creating engaging new takes on stories and characters we’re already familiar with. They capture what’s cool about the original property while not being afraid to do new things with it, something I think it vital for the success of any adaptation, especially when there are so many of them out there. Telltale has also shown that they’re willing to fill in gaps and shine the spotlight on sidelined women in the fictional worlds they’re dealing with, which is hugely important in and of itself.
Would it be harsh to say I’m more excited for the next episode of Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series than I am for Infinity War? Maybe. But it would also be true.
Read more from Alex at her blog, The Afictionado!