The most compelling moments of Telltale's Batman are not the Batman parts
Telltale's press room is very, very cold.
Part of this is a perception problem, as I've unfortunately discovered all too late I'm seated immediately beneath one of the ceiling fans the studio's brought in to keep its themed E3 presentation room from cooking its attendees alive. But another part of that is atmosphere -- the small developer, best known for its story-rich adventure games, has transformed its conference meeting room into a miniature Batcave, complete with high-tech monitors and a secret entrance. The nerds.
There's another thing I'm left cold by, however, and that's Telltale's Batman demo. It's not hands-on, this one: they've lined about a dozen journalists up in their miniature Batcave/theater and are walking us through the first chunk of the game's premiere episode. It opens with a gory headshot of some innocent Gotham City Hall security guard. Batman is not allowed to kill, so his writers do the job for him, I guess. The action from there is alternatingly funny and sterile. Using quick time events (QTEs) to snap up masked bad guys with a seemingly limitless supply of gadgets and wires: funny. The protracted rooftop fight with Catwoman: tiresome. There is a point at which QTEs just become a minimally interactive way of dazzling the player with setpieces, and Telltale games are usually way too reserved to cross that line -- but this one does.
No, the real jawdropping moment of Telltale's Batman comes after the action sequences resolve, and Batman turns back into Bruce Wayne. Sullen, physically unimposing, wallflower billionaire Bruce Wayne arrives fashionably late to his own fundraiser dinner, where he proceeds to explain that he is bankrolling Harvey Dent's election campaign in order to demolish Arkham Asylum and replace it with a state-of-the-art mental healthcare facility.
When I heard that, my pen froze. Not due to the ceiling fan, either.
Listen: there are some aspects to Batman's lore that, despite decades of gritty reinvention, remain an utter embarrassment. Its treatment of mental illness is chief among those. Bruce Wayne, billionaire philanthropist, could do so much more for Gotham's crime problem by investing in its infrastructure than he could punching sick people while wearing a high-tech fursuit. And yet here he is, for the first time I've ever heard it, proposing a meaningful solution.
Telltale has said that its Batman series will be evenly split between Bats and Bruce, and that it will be taking the prototypical foundations of its first chapter in directions fans have not seen before -- but until this moment in the presentation, I didn't really believe them.
I'm still underwhelmed by the early demo's emphasis on combat, mind. In the sequences we saw, the player can even chain successive QTEs into "finishing moves" to put the action out of its misery faster, that's how protracted the fights are. But I'm at least nominally interested in seeing where Telltale goes with the other half of its Batman rendition, if it plans to follow through on some of its more sedate but ultimately more interesting ideas, rather than just deliver setpieces. My inclination says yes -- Telltale is best known for its character-driven narratives for a reason -- but we'll know in a matter of weeks either way.
Batman: The Telltale Series is out later this summer on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.