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We Need to Talk About the Brilliance of Telltale Games’ Catwoman

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Batman: The Telltale Series is already up to its fourth and penultimate episode, and has firmly established itself as a unique take on the Batman universe. Whether it’s rewriting the Wayne family history, redefining classic relationships, or giving an infamous villain a much-needed modern redesign, Telltale are breathing new life into the franchise by offering a decidedly personal look at the inhabitants of Gotham.

But one character, more than any other, has benefited from Telltale’s reimagining—the original kitten with a whip: Catwoman.

Based on the first episode alone, you’d be forgiven for thinking Telltale’s take on Selina Kyle was anything but revolutionary. There’s no radical visual makeover like Telltale’s interpretation of Oswald Cobblepot or nuanced characterization such as their depiction of Harvey Dent’s origin story. Instead, she seemingly inhabits all the stereotypical traits and features that have plagued the character since her creation. She’s leather-clad, in that signature catsuit and whip combo, sports impractical wedge-heeled boots, and walks with a hip-sway so exaggerated that she seems altogether inhuman. Selina is a sex object—just as she’s always been.

Her dialogue in that first episode isn’t much better—which isn’t to say that the writing is poor, just not particularly inventive. The majority of lines involve some sort of animal pun, and half of the dialogue choices feel like you’re setting up pins for her to knock down with quippy one-liners. Still, Laura Bailey captures that seductive purr perfectly, and her genuine chemistry with Troy Baker elevates the conventional characterization and makes the player feel invested in the cultivation of their relationship.

Unfortunately, the Batman/Catwoman fight scene in the first episode takes on an uncomfortable edge, with the character’s breathy whimpering as the player brutally strikes her and pins her underneath them skirting the fine line between gritty realism and sexualized violence. And while she’s seen as a worthy adversary during their fight, ultimately the game suggests that the only way she can beat Batman is via the intervention of others.

But that isn’t to say that Selina is powerless. Even in the less nuanced opening episode, the game makes it clear the power the character has over Bruce. She leaves her mark on him, in more ways than one. No matter how you choose to deal with Catwoman, Bruce seems to be haunted by their interaction, and in the game’s more reflective moments he silently raises his hand to the deep scratch she left on his face. It serves as a reminder of the inflicted injury for when their inevitable unmasked meeting occurs, but it also hints at Bruce’s burgeoning feelings towards her—an unshakable curiosity—emphasized by wistfully delivered lines such as “I wish I knew more about her.”

Of course, he gets his wish, and Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle meet face-to-face, their matching injuries leaving no doubt as to their alter egos’ entanglement. The game cuts right to the chase and doesn’t insult the player’s intelligence; from the moment they lay eyes on each other there’s a mutual understanding that they’ve both been unmasked. And this is where the character gains her power: not as Catwoman, but as Selina. Despite them knowing each other’s secret, they are not on equal footing and Selina’s revealed relationship with Harvey Dent only exacerbates this dynamic. Selina knows this, and she uses it to her advantage, turning Bruce into her errand boy while batting his emotions around like a cat with a ball of yarn (hey, I can do animal puns, too).

This dynamic follows through to the second episode, and once again the character is seen to wield more power as Selina than as Catwoman. This culminates in a fight that is the antithesis of the first episode’s scene, which sees an unmasked Selina and Bruce join forces in a brutal bar brawl. In contrast to the first fight, they are presented as equals, and there is no needless sexualization of either character. And yet, there’s an intimacy to the fight; something oddly satisfying about perfecting those finicky QTE prompts and racking up the old-school combo attacks that unleash devastating finishing moves featuring both characters working together. The game does something ingenious: it builds rapport with punches instead of words.

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And it’s precisely that rapport that’s needed going into the next scene, where the game presents us with our first opportunity at romancing Selina. Following on from the positive momentum of the fight scene, the prospective kiss seems like a natural extension of the intimacy just established. It’s difficult not to get caught up in the moment, especially when combined with Telltale’s uncanny knack for making even the dreariest of locations seem like some kind of neon-hued, noir dreamscape.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to make my Bruce make the first move (through no fault of Telltale’s own, I’m just clearly a heartless person), but even if I had, the outcome would be the same; there’d be no BatCat kiss, at least, not in this episode. I admired the game’s decision to forgo the kiss, after all, giving one of the most sexualized characters of all time the agency to turn down the player felt like a pretty positive thing. However, I was disappointed to see that the reasons for this refusal played into some pretty lousy tropes. Selina didn’t turn down Bruce because she wasn’t interested in him or was still figuring out her feelings, she turned him down because he is “good” and she is “bad.” It’s a pervasive and damaging trope, and one that sees women as nothing more than weapons of corruption, only there to sully the good nature of man (think Adam and Eve). Frankly, I expected more from Telltale, particularly when they were already presenting such amazingly original and complex interpretations of all the other Batman characters.

Which was why I was so surprised (and thrilled) after playing through episode three.

Episode three is all about subversion, and never more so than in the scenes featuring Catwoman. If the first two episodes were crafted to set up audience expectations, episode three is all about knocking them back down. It’s undoubtedly the best episode of the series thus far and stands its ground against even the strongest episodes of Telltale’s other titles. Its pacing, character development, and dialogue are all phenomenal, and it includes one of the most genuinely surprising and compelling closing scenes of any Telltale game. It also signaled a few firsts for Telltale, namely their first interactive sex scene and their first episode to feature women in the roles of both lead designer (Emily Garrison) and lead writer (Nicole Martinez).

From the moment Catwoman enters the main fight scene and makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to the impracticality of her shoes, it’s immediately obvious that this isn’t going to be the kind of brawl we’re used to. Not only does Catwoman call you out for damseling her if you make “heroic” choices, she is also able to effortlessly escape the villain’s clutches without your input. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Batman, and poor Bruce ends up getting his ass handed to him no matter how well the player masters those QTE prompts. In an inversion of the first episode’s Bat vs. Cat fight, Catwoman leaps to Batman’s side, managing to save him from a perilous fall. In the aftermath, while carrying him to safety, Selina even rolls her eyes at one of Bruce’s quintessential acts of heroic machismo.

The game subsequently subverts all previous notions of the “corrupting woman” trope by using it to further develop both Selina’s characterization and her relationship with Bruce. Episode three takes the time to explore the shades of gray that Catwoman inhabits. She begins to realize that she may not be as bad as she once thought, and Bruce may not be as good. It is only after this realization dawns on her that she begins feeling closer to Bruce. In fact, it seems that she snuggles up to him not because she’s attempting to recapture the same sort of high she searches for in her thievery, but rather because Bruce understands the emptiness that comes from chasing that high and living a double life.

This, of course, (potentially) leads to the aforementioned interactive sex scene, which, on paper, had all the hallmarks for disaster. It was going to be a risky move for Telltale whenever they bit the bullet, but to introduce the option via one of the most overly sexualized characters ever created was undoubtedly playing with fire.

Yet it works—and it works well. Through carefully controlled actions, dialogue choices and camera angles, the scene manages to somehow skirt the fine line between sexiness and sleaziness, no doubt owing to the fact that we see far more of Bruce’s flesh than we ever do of Selina’s. And while the player appears to be in control, the game ultimately decides when things are becoming too voyeuristic, tastefully fading to black as the two fall into bed together. At no point does the game feel exploitative. Similarly, the aftermath of the scene is handled well, ultimately presenting a realistic depiction of the morning after. Depending on the player’s previous choices Selina may make it clear to Bruce that she only views him as a one-night stand. But even in the scenes where the two are closer, there’s no sugarcoating the relationship: they’re just two consenting adults who had sex—oh, and there’s bagels in the fridge.

My own innate awkwardness also led to the discovery of what Garrison refers to as her proudest design moment, which subverted Telltale’s own adage that “silence is a valid option” by ensuring the game didn’t proceed with the sex scene until informed consent was granted by the player. It’s a moment that’s potentially easy to miss (particularly if you’re an avid BatCat shipper), but came as both a surprise and delight during my first playthrough when I froze after Selina tried to kiss Bruce after misconstruing one of my comments. When I missed the prompt (still trying to decide the best way to let her down without damaging the relationship), instead of proceeding, Selina stopped and said she needed to know Bruce wanted this. I was then presented with a yes or no option. There was no countdown timer—instead, the only way to proceed was by choosing one of the options.

As an aromantic/asexual person who typically roleplays game characters as the same (and who, unfortunately, has been in that position in real life), it was tremendously refreshing to see. Similarly, Selina’s reaction to my rejection was handled brilliantly, and instead of punishing the player or making things awkward, I was presented with an insightful and well-written scene that realistically furthered Selina and Bruce’s friendship. In fact, one of the most surprising things about replaying the scene is the fact that there are five different potential outcomes, including one where Selina never cozies up to Bruce in the first place. But no matter the content, all of these scenes serve to paint a vastly different picture of the Catwoman we thought we knew, adding depth and nuance to the character not only via the dialogue but also through the setting.

While a more cynical viewpoint would be that the only reason we see Selina’s apartment in the first place is to provide a location for the player to potentially have sex with her, even if that is the case there’s no denying the meticulous attention to detail in the crafting of her world. I’d even go so far as to say that out of all the locations in the game, Selina’s apartment features the most effective use of environmental storytelling. Because unlike Wayne Manor, the Batcave, or any of the secondary locations we are given the opportunity to explore, Selina’s apartment is presented without artifice and is deeply personal. It grounds the character and makes her feel real, revealing more about her than the entirety of the two preceding episodes.

That you can explore it as methodically as the game’s solvable crime scenes says a lot about the apartment’s importance, as do Bruce’s thoughtful (and often amusing) interjections when interacting with the different objects. We learn just as much about the way Bruce feels about Selina as we do the woman herself. But unlike the crime scenes designed to be fastidiously scrutinized and pieced together, the surroundings are so intimate that every click on a highlighted object feels like an intrusion. Whether you slept on her couch, alone, or next to Selina in her bed, a feeling of unease punctuates each discovery. These relics of her personal life were never meant to see the light of day. And yet, the things that they reveal are so tantalizingly compelling, that you can’t help but continue to search.

Selina’s apartment is a place of stark contrast and juxtaposition. While band posters from the local dive bar are hung with care, priceless artworks are haphazardly tacked to exposed brick walls or contained in crooked picture frames. Similarly, precious stones and jewelry are strung carelessly over old take-out boxes (“she can afford to eat anywhere, and she chooses Chinese takeout,” Bruce muses, adding “That isn’t even the good place”), while the oven-less kitchen contains more cat food than human food. The furnishings are also mismatched and in disrepair, presumably picked up on the fly when she acquired the apartment, and yet, her extensive collection of books are both well kept and well read, seemingly deemed important enough to follow her with each move. Even the soundscape is one of conflict: a haunting instrumental piece punctuated by Gotham’s sirens and chaos.

But more than anything, the apartment feels real, lived in, and safe.

This attention to detail informs the proceeding scene, in which a disgruntled Harvey “catches” Selina and Bruce’s presumed tryst and flies off the handle. The scene eloquently raises a lot of interesting points about the notions of fidelity and male entitlement, but more than anything it offers a chilling insight into the frightening reality of domestic violence. Selina’s apartment is her sanctuary—her safe place—and to have that feeling of safety breached is tremendously troubling for her. Quickly and pragmatically, she begins making plans to move on from the apartment, and while you can attempt to alleviate her concerns it doesn’t change the fact that she will never feel safe there again.

It’s a line of thought that’s carried into the fourth episode and one that seems to have caused some controversy amongst fans of the game, while simultaneously revealing people’s own sense of entitlement over the character. The scene plays out significantly differently based on whether you told her to leave Gotham or invited her to stay at Wayne Manor (a short text-message conversation for the former and a quick face-to-face meeting in the latter), but the outcome is the same: Selina leaves town. The face-to-face scene was fairly straightforward for me, and I was glad that the game gave me the opportunity to respond in a compassionate and supportive manner. However, this was not the case with everyone, with a large number of people choosing an option that I would struggle to pick even during my douchiest of douchebag playthroughs: they invalidated her fears.

In the scene, Selina explains to Bruce that she’s leaving because she fears for her life after Harvey’s attempted attack. “He’s dangerous,” she tells Bruce, “Don’t you understand?”

Clearly, with this particular dialogue choice, Bruce doesn’t: “Okay,” he replies, condescendingly, “Don’t you think you’re being just a little overdramatic? Harvey wouldn’t kill you…”

Thankfully, Selina calls Bruce (and the player) out for their problematic response, explaining that if Harvey has tried to kill one of the most well-known residents of Gotham (Mr. Wayne himself) that he wouldn’t hesitate to kill someone like her. “He could have me killed and no one would ever know.”

I hasten to add that I’m not chastising Telltale for including this option in the game; after all, one of the things that make their games so enjoyable is the moral ambiguity that comes from offering a broad range of dialogue choices. I am, however, genuinely surprised by how many people chose that response (as demonstrated in the post-episode graphic recap). But even a cursory glance at the Telltale forums after the episode was released revealed an inherent sense of entitlement. Players were frustrated that they had spent so much time and effort romancing Selina only for it to supposedly be rendered worthless by Telltale’s narrative. Selina’s decision to leave Gotham was taken as a form of betrayal and was no doubt compounded by the fact that she wasn’t just rejecting Bruce; she was rejecting the player, too. Her reasons, no matter how valid, were completely disregarded.

I, for one, was impressed with the direction Telltale took the character. It would have been so easy to include her in the ensuing story (can you imagine how different the ending of episode four would have been if she had stayed at Wayne Manor?). Instead, Telltale refused to damsel Selina and gave her the agency to be able to walk away. It doesn’t matter how much she cared about Bruce, her own self-preservation should have always been her first priority. Not only is it good for her characterization, but it also doesn’t romanticize or trivialize her fear.

If this is the last we see of Catwoman in this game, then it is a fitting end to her arc. Unlike Telltale’s interpretation of the other classic Batman characters, the thing that made their Catwoman so different wasn’t an innovative design, compelling new backstory, or twisted take on a long-established relationship dynamic. It was that she, more than any other character, was shown to exist beyond her ties to Bruce.

In a determinant scene in episode four, Harvey tells Batman “there would be no me without you,” a statement which would be equally accurate if he were saying it to Bruce. In fact, the same could be said for the vast majority of the supporting cast—except Selina. She wasn’t Bruce’s best friend since childhood, he didn’t fund her mayoral campaign, and she didn’t have a decades-long vendetta against his family. She was her own character, with her own rich life. We saw it in the deeply personal world building of her apartment, in her handling of her ties to The Children of Arkham, and ultimately, in her ability to walk away from Bruce and Gotham.

From the beginning of the game, it was made clear that Catwoman/Selina’s arc was all about power. But, in the end, the power she wielded wasn’t her sexuality or knowing Bruce’s secret—it wasn’t even her clear-cut ability to kick ass. Instead, it was her agency. And, despite having my doubts at early stages of the game, that is precisely why Telltale’s take on Selina Kyle is so commendable.

Now, how can we get a Catwoman solo game?

images via Telltale Games

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