I've played through all the episodes so far of Batman: The Telltale Series video game and thought I'd figured out who the game's big bad was. I was wrong, and the scene that revealed it threw me for a loop.
The villain using chemicals to manipulate people into acting out their repressed impulses? Had to be Scarecrow, right? Wrong. An all-new character is pulling the strings.
"New World Order", the third instalment of Telltale's Batman episodic video game, opens with Bruce Wayne paying a visit to Harvey Dent after a mayoral debate where incumbent opponent Hamilton Hill was killed by Oswald Cobblepot/the Penguin and the terrorist Children of Arkham. This game has played fast and loose with established pillars of Batman lore but, early on in this episode, we get the first signs of the buried psychological issues that will likely turn Harvey into Two-Face. Harvey's become mayor by default and his awkward conversation with Bruce shows the stress of recent events has brought him to the brink. It's a poignant scene that makes Harvey feel desperate and alone.
I've enjoyed how this Batman game has been sketching out its cast of characters. Even the nastiest bad guys, like crime boss Carmine Falcone and Hamilton Hill, have felt multidimensional and semi-sympathetic. They appeal for Bruce to follow in his father's criminal footsteps alongside them as a sort of surrogate parenting. They feel more human, as does not-quite-nemesis Catwoman. In her civilian identity, Selina Kyle is dating Harvey Dent but also winds up hitting it off with Bruce Wayne, too. She's learned about his double life and the two have an unexpected team up that foils the Children of Arkham's plot to poison thousands of Gothamites. Bruce gets critically wounded in the scuffle and Selina brings him back to her apartment so he can recuperate. In the talk that follows, Selina demonstrates poignant self-awareness of her own behaviours and the attraction between her and Bruce flares up.
When Harvey shows up unannounced, his suspicion and feelings of betrayal bring out a more volatile side of him.
Harvey's desperation is akin to what Bruce felt after learning the truth about his father. The major revelation in episode two showed Thomas Wayne to have been a manipulative alpha-criminal who drugged people to get what he wanted. While it's a big break from mainline Bat-canon, it's still a relatively safe one. Thomas Wayne is dead and his sins are in the past; players won't get a chance to see Batman's daddy be a twisted puppy using power and influence to his own ends. The subversion is fixed to a point in times past that limits its power to shock.
Not so for the reveal of the identity of the leader of the Children of Arkham. The moment happens suddenly. The episode ends with a press conference where Bruce announces under duress that his childhood-friend-now-masked-enemy Oswald Cobblepot is taking over Wayne Enterprises…
...followed by a terse chat with Vicki Vale, who's been doggedly covering all the upheaval rocking Gotham to its core. Upheaval that she's the source of.
I love this bit of subversion, because it makes Vicki Vale worth a damn. Traditionally in the Batman mythos, Vicki Vale has been the most basic sort of supporting character. She's been a girlfriend to keep at arm's length or a reporter whose suspicions were defused by ethically sketchy misdirection. An earlier scene where she talks to Batman is tense and combative, seemingly because of her refusal to give up sources...
...but it also works as clever foreshadowing once you know where things are headed. Thomas Wayne re-imagining aside, I'd wondered how far away from generally accepted canon Telltale would stray. This take has re-aligned relationships and tweaked personalities but, up until this episode, most of the characters still felt familiar. That familiarity got exploded even further this week and I'm looking forward to more radical reconfiguration in the episodes yet to come.