We’re three months into the latest pandemic lockdown, which has been a bad time to do anything creative but a good time to engage with media.
This weekend I finished two such pieces of media – the second season of Ted Lasso and the Telltale Batman video game. And weirdly, I think they have something in common.
I’ll dig into that in a moment, but first, SPOILER WARNING! This post will contain spoilers for a TV show that came out like three days ago, and a video game that came out in 2016. Continue at your own risk – and find out which is better!
(Here’s the first SPOILER – it’s Ted Lasso, that show’s brilliant, the Batman game is pretty ordinary.)
Choose your fighter
Who is the Batman: Batman: The Telltale Series (aka BTTS) is a 2016 video game from, unsurprisingly, Telltale Games, a studio known for their branching-narrative games/visual novels. You get to investigate crime scenes, bang Catwoman, fight Two-Face/sexy Penguin and slowly realise that most of your choices don’t have any effect on the story.
Who is the Ted Lasso: Ted Lasso is – are we doing this? really? ugh fine – a 2020/2021 show on Apple TV+ about an American football coach working with a British soccer team. It’s really fuckin’ good, y’all: a show about hope & positivity that is also about the cost of hope & positivity, and is far smarter than any of us expected in these dark times.
What they have in common
Well, first of all, they’re both stories set in action-oriented genres (sports/superheroics) that preference character interaction scenes over expensive/hard-to-animate action scenes.
That aside, the main thing they have in common is plot. Or, more accurately, how they use plot in relation to character. Both Ted Lasso and BTTS rely largely on external plots, with character scenes triggered by plot beats, and okay let’s unpack these concepts.
There’s an old maxim, ‘plot is character’, which generally means that plot is what emerges from the actions and decisions of characters, and is usually stated by someone tedious in your first-year writing class.
In many stories, though, plot is external and acts upon characters – the story throws up events and characters respond to them. (This is most common in genre fiction, but you see it in other spaces too.) A lot of folks refer to these events and moments as plot or character beats, and while I think that language is overused, ‘beats’ feel appropriate for this approach to plot, like pounding on a drum to mark the next thing happening to the characters, rather than because of the characters.
Meaty beaty big and bouncy (I’m sorry)
In a story primarily based around an external plot, plot beats provide opportunities for character interaction, with two major functions:
- catalysts for character change
- catalysts for character reinforcement.
In a change beat, characters react in ways that, well, change them and redirect their course for the next phase of the story. Reinforcement beats are opportunities for characters (or rather writers) to restate their identity, creating conflicts and causing drama.
Reinforcement beats are particularly common in genre fiction, especially serial fiction (comics, soap operas, cinematic universes etc) where characters need to experience events and overcome conflicts without being so changed by them that they can’t be used in the next instalment/episode/issue.
Tell a Bat-Tale
BTTS is primarily based in reinforcement beats, which is unsurprising for a genre story but nonetheless disappointing. The game sells itself as an interactive story guided by player choices, but ultimately you’re responding to plot events to enforce your own take on how Batman should act and how he should feel.
Does it have character beats? Yes, but they’re badly handled. Characters change, but that change often doesn’t feel earned or genuine. Fail to protect Harvey Dent and he becomes the psychotic, maimed villain Two-Face – but if you do protect him, he becomes a psychotic non-maimed villain that does the exact same thing. Catwoman will always leave you, Alfred will always be saved, and while your choices may mean they say different things, their words don’t change the story.
Also, the action scenes are pretty dull.
The big risk (and big achievement) of Ted Lasso is that the second season is overwhelmingly composed of character beats, with little time spent on reinforcement beats or even on maintaining a continuous plot. Rather than being used as a ‘story engine’ (another term popular in writing classes), events come and go without many situational repercussions, but they kickstart character growth and development.
Take the thread involving the soccer club’s sponsorship. When Sam questions the ethics of the club’s sponsor, they pull out, and this leads to… a new sponsor already in place by the next episode. This show doesn’t care about the drama that might emerge from the search for a new sponsor, or dealing with financial struggles – it cares about Rebecca realising she deserves happiness, Sam finding the confidence to forge his own path, and the two of them shagging like rabbits after hooking up on the dating app that now sponsors the club.
Or consider the Roy-vs-Jamie conflict that powered a lot of Season 1. It would have been easy to draw that conflict into Season 2, but it fades away largely offscreen, replaced by Jamie and Roy learning to show emotional vulnerability and to support others. Wholesome, yes, but also an arc that focuses hard on how and why characters change, rather than the circumstances foregrounding that change.
Also, I got very emotional when they hugged. Ain’t gonna lie.
Who wore it better?
Stories that rely on internal plot, that rise from characters’ action, attract labels like ‘organic’ or ‘authentic’. Stories that rely on external plot, on the other hand, are often criticised as shallow, with beats that just exist to move characters from situation to situation.
Here’s the thing – it doesn’t matter if you do it well. Moving characters into position is just fine in a story, so long as the characters change and grow in interesting and engaging ways in the process. Character conflict helps with that, but it’s not essential.
Both Ted Lasso and BTTS promise character change, but one does it well, in ways that feel genuine, and one only delivers the illusion of change. It’s a shame, ‘cos all of you know how much I like Batman, but the lesson here is to be like the Moustache, not like the Bat.
Plus, only Ted Lasso gave us ‘Beard After Hours’, and that episode was a goddamn cinematic masterpiece.
I can’t wait to see how all of this pans out in Season 3 – and ugh, fine, I guess I’ll play the BTTS sequel, I hear it’s better.
See you folks another time.