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Video Games Where It’s About Batman’s Psyche, Not Whiz-Bang Action

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Kevin Bruner, right, the chief executive of Telltale Games, and Dan Connors, the former chief, in their television studio at their office in San Rafael, Calif.

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Jason Henry for The New York Times

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — In one scene of the new video game Batman: The Telltale Series, a sharply dressed Bruce Wayne is hosting a party for a friend when an underworld kingpin approaches and extends his hand.

That’s when the game offers players a choice: to publicly shake the hand of the crime lord, or refuse and risk making an enemy of one of Gotham’s most dangerous men.

In a medium known for violence and action, most video games would have Batman primarily punching his way through the city. But that choose-your-own-adventure moment is a hallmark of Telltale Games, the independent developer behind the Batman game and the company that has breathed new life into the industry’s genre of story-focused games that let players decide how a plot unfolds.

Since its founding in 2004, Telltale has focused on storytelling rather than pure action in its games, using emotional plotlines and presenting players with tough choices rooted in moral dilemmas. The strategy has paid off — Telltale has sold more than 85 million copies of its games to date — and other studios, including Dontnod Entertainment and Supermassive Games, have incorporated similar storytelling elements into their titles. The approach has also made Telltale a go-to developer for Hollywood to translate properties like HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and AMC’s “Walking Dead” into story-driven games.

“We make games, but we don’t make games,” said Kevin Bruner, chief executive and co-founder of Telltale. The company makes “playable storybooks,” he said.

Yet Telltale risks boxing itself in creatively by relying too heavily on a single formula. This is an issue confronting all game studios: how to keep what they do fresh year after year. Though the subject matter of Telltale’s games runs the gamut from family-friendly fantasy tales to brutal survival horror, the mechanics of its stories have remained relatively static over time.

“They’re doing the same thing over and over again,” said Michael Pachter, a games industry analyst at Wedbush Securities.

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An image from Batman: The Telltale Series.

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Telltale Games

Telltale said it was open to new things. “We’re super interested in the mobile space and long-form games as well,” Mr. Bruner said, noting that the studio had a pilot program designed to foster new ideas about gameplay and storytelling. “It’s our little R&D program.”

Telltale’s storytelling style is rooted in its founders, Mr. Bruner, Dan Connors and Troy Molander. (Mr. Molander has since left the company.) The trio all worked at one time for LucasArts, the video game arm of Lucasfilm, which was known for story-rich games like Grim Fandango and The Secret of Monkey Island.

Although narrative-focused adventure games, which LucasArts helped pioneer, were popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s, their sales tanked before the turn of the century as 3D graphics and first-person-shooter games became popular. When LucasArts and others began retreating from adventure games, the genre seemed dead.

So when Mr. Bruner and his co-founders left LucasArts in 2004 to set up Telltale, where they wanted to make licensed games driven by characters instead of combat, they faced long odds. For years the small company, now based in San Rafael, Calif., struggled in a small office opposite San Quentin State Prison and a dump.

“Nobody thought there was an opportunity there,” Mr. Connors said.

Still, venture capital firms like Granite Ventures bet on the company, and Telltale raised $6 million in its early years. In 2012, the developer found success with The Walking Dead, a game that was set in the same post-apocalyptic zombie universe as the comic books and the AMC television series, but that focused on an original story about a man trying to protect a young girl as the world fell apart.

Like most of Telltale’s games, it was sold primarily as a digital download and released as a series of episodes that came out over time, rather than as a single experience. The series received critical acclaim, earning dozens of industry awards. The first episode sold more than a million copies in 20 days, an unusually high number for a midsize game publisher.

“They stumbled upon their formula with The Walking Dead: taking a recognizable property, actually making a great game and then releasing it in installments,” Mr. Pachter said.

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An image from Telltale’s Game of Thrones.

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Telltale Games

Telltale has since repeated this strategy with other brands, making its games a comfortable home for narratives that originated in television, film, comics and even other video games. In Minecraft: Story Mode, the studio put a narrative spin on the well-known building game. Telltale also created a zany sci-fi comedy game series called Tales from the Borderlands, based on a shooting game by Gearbox Software.

“They start with characters and they end with characters,” Mikey Neumann, Gearbox’s creative chief, said of Telltale.

Hollywood has been won over. While there have been many Batman video games, Ames Kirshen, vice president for production and creative at the DC Comics franchise at Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, said his company wanted to work with Telltale on the new one because the developer pitched “a very personal Batman story where the focus was going to be on the dichotomy between Bruce Wayne and Batman.”

Last year Lionsgate, which produced the “Hunger Games” movies, said it had made “a significant investment” in Telltale but did not disclose exact figures. In total, Telltale has raised about $54 million. The company, which has about than 350 employees, declined to comment on its revenue and profit.

Other studios have introduced adventure games that innovated in the choose-your-path storytelling style that Telltale popularized. Last year, Supermassive Games released Until Dawn, a survival horror game in which the player’s choices determine who lives and who dies. Life Is Strange, a choice-based game from Dontnod Entertainment, has a similar episodic format, with a protagonist whose supernatural powers allow her to rewind time to test out different story options.

Telltale “continues to use a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Nathan Grayson, a video game critic at the Gawker-owned website Kotaku, who has reviewed many Telltale games, mostly positively. “As a result, I’m not particularly excited to play their games anymore.”

Mr. Bruner said Telltale was not slowing down. Its current slate includes more episodes for Batman and the next “season” of The Walking Dead, as well as a highly anticipated Marvel Entertainment game due out next year. It is also working with Lionsgate to explore creating its first original property, part video game and part television show.

There is still “space for all this great experimental, nontraditional gameplay,” Mr. Bruner said.

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