Two GQ.com writers argue about Telltale Games’ The Enemy Within, a subversive riff on an overexposed superhero.
Scott Meslow, GQ.com culture critic: Josh, it was almost exactly a year ago that you published your review of Batman: The Telltale Series—the first episode in Telltale Games’ choose-your-own-adventure riff on the Dark Knight. Since then, we’ve both played through the game’s entire first season, which wrapped up in December 2016—and on the whole, we were both impressed enough that we’ve been waiting with bated breath for Season Two to arrive ever since. The first episode of Season Two—subtitled The Enemy Within—finally arrived yesterday, and we were both hyped enough to knock the whole thing out on the day of its release. So now that we’ve both binged it: What did you think? Worth the wait?
Joshua Rivera, GQ.com contributor: Mostly, I’m intrigued. Telltale’s first season of Batman played a neat trick, starting with all the most familiar ideas and premises from popular Batman stories—there was a lot of Nolan in the mix—and then cleverly subverting them, leveraging our familiarity for some very fun ironic tension. You can only pull that trick once, though, and now that we’re fully aware of how Telltale is building its own Bat-universe, there’s an increased emphasis on why. What’s the point of the story they’re telling this time, and how they can play with our expectations to support it? For me, there’s one huge thing that works really well, and one that does not work at all.
Scott: What I liked best about Episode One of The Enemy Within: The Riddler. Unfortunately, many people still only know the Riddler via Jim Carrey’s interpretation in Batman Forever, which… well, let’s just say he made some very big and very bold choices. But The Enemy Within seems hellbent on redefining the Riddler as a psychopathic genius in the Jigsaw vein, challenging his victims to solve puzzles or get their fingers sliced off. He’s introduced using a question-mark cane to slash a dude’s throat open. It’s weird, grisly shit for a villain that has long been written off as a goofball.
Joshua: Okay, here’s where I disagree with you: I haaaaate this Riddler. I didn’t at first—the idea of the Riddler-as-Jigsaw has some potential, and the suggestion that he was around causing chaos before Batman is an interesting wrinkle that I’m not quite sure about but wouldn’t mind seeing played out more. Unfortunately, The Enemy Within is strictly using him as an introductory villain, and a harbinger of a gauntlet that Batman will have to run this season. I think that’s unnecessary, and that the Riddler is a great primary antagonist. Granted, I’ve read and watched quite a few Riddler stories, and he’s usually not a campy loon in them. In fact, he’s kind of the perfect Batman villain: a guy who is obsessed with proving that he is smarter than the World’s Greatest Detective. With that in mind, I’m not too hot on this grim and dark take, but it could have been used as a great premise for the entire season. Instead we get a wildly inconsistent antagonist, one who isn’t really interested in proving anything and is mostly just a gangster mad at people who have moved in on his turf while he was away. This is a shame, because I wanted puzzles and riddles! And we don’t get any, really—at least, no real brain-benders.
Scott: Yes, the Riddler’s big “riddle” is essentially just a riff on the trolley problem, and that’s kind of a bummer—but hey, this isn’t a puzzle game. And in a series that has already introduced Elseworlds-style riffs on at least a half-dozen Batman villains, I can accept that some of them will end up having more depth than others. On that note, we need to talk about the Joker (or, as he’s known here, John Doe). We first met him as a supporting character in Season One, when he glommed onto Bruce during a brief visit to Arkham Asylum. He’s set up for a bigger role in Season Two—and while I’m happy Telltale has at least come up with a new riff on a villain who couldn’t be more overexposed, I’m not at all into what the game seems to be doing with him. What do you think?
Joshua: Wow, Scott, you are really good at being wrong. John Doe is great. I’m totally with you in that I would ultimately, prefer a Batman story without the Joker, and thought he was in Season One just the right amount (the brief opening segment of the fourth episode). But if we need to have the clown in the game, this is how I want to see him. In Telltale’s Bat-verse, the Joker isn’t a mass-murdering terrorist yet. He’s just a formal mental patient with white skin and green hair, a twitchy, shifty presence that isn’t quite there but also always seems to have an ulterior motive and appears to be smarter than he lets on. Putting him in such close proximity to Bruce forces players to interact with him in a profoundly uncomfortable way, as there’s no way he’s not gonna be a big bad, but he’s also pretty much entirely an unknown. We don’t know how bad he’s going to be, or if the Joker we know is a fate that can be avoided—or if, in trying to avert that fate, we give John Doe what he needs to thoroughly destroy Bruce’s life. I’m always on edge during a John Doe scene, and because you don’t really do much in a Telltale game, that counts for a lot.
Scott: Here’s my problem with John Doe: We’re carrying way too much baggage into this story to treat him as anything but the Joker. I’m well aware that Telltale wants me to treat John Doe with less skepticism than I’d treat the Joker, because they keep forcing me to accept him as a temporary ally. And maybe The Enemy Within really plans to futz around with Batman mythology so much that John Doe never actually becomes the Joker. But if my in-game Bruce Wayne is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt—well, I’m not, because Batman has been shoving the chaotic-evil Joker down my throat for as long as I’ve known about Batman. And because I keep resisting John Doe—and the game keeps pairing me up with him anyway—I’m more aware than usual that Telltale games rely on the illusion of choice while nudging the player down a semi-predetermined path.
Joshua: It’s definitely a premise that relies heavily on the payoff, and the odds are higher that said payoff will be disappointing than surprising or satisfying. That said, I love John Doe so far, mostly because I like when stories about iconic characters essentially lure you into a game of chicken over how far they’ll bend things. Even if I’m not sure how this will pan out, Season One really did pull off some great twists, so I’m cool with it all.
Scott: Telltale games live or die by the difficulty of the choices you’re asked to make, and I breezed through most of Episode One without a second thought. I only struggled with one choice, which basically came down to whether I wanted to spend more time as Bruce Wayne or Batman, and I’m pretty sure the end result was essentially the same either way.
Joshua: I agree with you here: At their worst, Telltale games essentially stir up drama for no reason, causing characters to behave in strange and inconsistent ways for the purpose of making choices artificially difficult. At their best, motivations are clear, and stakes are high, and choices are unbearable, or at the very least, tough. The Enemy Within is mostly full of the former, unfortunately, and a lot of the plot of this first episode feels like thumbs are on the scale in a way that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If Season One was about bringing Bruce Wayne under fire, Season Two looks like it’s Batman who will be attacked from all sides. I’m not entirely convinced by how it’s getting us there, but I’m definitely interested to see where it heads.
Scott: The first episode ends on a pair of surprising revelations—one of which redefines your relationship with a major character, and one of which will make many Batman fans very, very happy. All told, I’m still pretty hyped for the rest of this second season. Remember: The first season didn’t really kick into high gear until Episode Three, when a cliffhanger revelation upended traditional Batman mythology in a fascinating and satisfying way. I expect similar twists from The Enemy Within before the season ends.
Joshua: Telltale’s brand of choose-your-own adventure games have, over nearly a decade, barely changed at all. They all play the same, they all share a similar art style, and they all control about as well as an old jalopy your cousin added a spoiler to, as if that was supposed to help. Despite their jankiness and familiarity, Telltale games are still a great place to find good stories, and their take on Batman is distinct and surprising enough to stand out in a sea of Batman-centric pop culture. Given that Batman has been retooled and reinvented countless times over 75 years, that’s no small feat.
Scott: Of all the superheroes, Batman has probably has the best run of video games, and in a surprising number of genres. I’m a fan of the platformer Batman on the original Nintendo, the beat-em-up Batman Returns on the Super Nintendo, and the more recent Arkham Asylum, which offered a solid blend of stealth, combat, and puzzle-solving. And wherever The Enemy Within goes from here, I think Telltale’s Batman series belongs on that list as a standalone success in its own right: A story-driven Batman game that derives much of its power from subverting all the stuff you think you know about Batman.
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