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Warner Bros. and Rocksteady tell us we can “Be The Batman” by playing Batman: Arkham Knight. Apparently we can also be the Batman by dipping into Asylum, City and Origins, too. Ignoring for a moment that this is an exceptionally trite tagline for a game, I’d suggest that no sane individual would want to be the caped crusader at all.

Batman is a broken, mentally unstable man with a death wish. He’s lost many friends and loved ones, yet rarely managed to defeat his foes in any meaningful way. He lurks on the peripheries of society, but pretends to be a charming socialite, the type of person he holds in contempt.

He is interesting and infinitely complex, but he should not be an ideal. He’s an unfortunate necessity. This tagline that is bandied around so nonchalantly is utterly hollow, because the Batman of the Arkham series is not The Batman. He’s an imposter, and an increasingly boring one. He’s like you or I, pretending to be the Dark Knight.

That the Arkham series stands as the best example of Bat-antics in the video game medium is not a thing to be celebrated. It most definitely is the best example, but that is rather tragic. It has this position because time and time again Batman games have been mere cheap cash-ins for various films of mixed quality. Only the Lego series has been able to lift itself out of the mire of its peers, but it’s a light hearted alternate much like the original TV show or the wonderful Brave and the Bold cartoon.

So we’re left with Arkham.

It’s far from the worst thing we could be offered. The tight, counter-based combo system, well-realised aesthetic vision of Gotham and Arkham Asylum and the extremely talented voice actors make even the weakest of the series, Arkham Origins, fairly entertaining. And both Asylum and City are good games. Something Superman would be delighted to have given how terrible the boy scout’s video game outings have been in comparison. But they just aren’t especially good Batman games.

Arkham Asylum was a solid beginning, though. Loosely based on one of the best Batman yarns, it brought the horror show of Gotham’s iconic asylum to life and it seemed like Rocksteady understood Batman. The terrible boss battles, meaningless collectables and many lazily chucked in villains were problematic, to be sure, but these issues were punctuated with moments where it felt like, with a bit more work, Rocksteady really could create a game where you felt like you were Batman.

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Of greatest note were the encounters with Scarecrow. Instead of just punching him at lot, Batman had to face the loss of his parents once again and then jump through Scarecrow’s hoops, making his way through an obstacle course of hallucinations with a gargantuan Scarecrow at its heart.

Arkham City threw all of this out the window. No longer confined and vulnerable, Batman became a trite power fantasy, with a gadget for every occasion and not a single obstacle he couldn’t overcome.

There was no nuance, it was just big, loud and stupid, like Batman through the eyes of Michael Bay. And worst of all, it pandered to the fanboyish desire to see every iconic villain in one place. While it made sense in Arkham Asylum for Batman to tackle so many members of his rogues gallery in one night, repeating the formula in Arkham City merely served to reveal how little confidence Rocksteady has in its ability to spin a Batman tale without the crutches of The Joker or Two-Face or Penguin.

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The open world environment was at odds with Batman himself as well as the game more generally. Batman had a short space of time to deal with The Joker and Hugo Strange, so why in the world was he gallivanting around this sectioned-off part of the city solving puzzles left by The Riddler and fighting thousands of random thugs. Allowing players to explore this small part of Gotham neutered any sense of impending doom. Strange and The Joker’s machinations couldn’t have been all that troublesome if the Dark Knight had time to go on a tour of Gotham, punching all the faces and collecting all the inane collectibles.

In City and, to an even greater extent, Warner Bros. Games Montreal’s Origins, Gotham becomes a theme park plagued with diversions. Trials, challenges, side-missions, light puzzles and collectibles plague the game world, few of which are ever even remotely connected to the main narrative or the looming threat of Batman’s assassins. It hardly presents Batman as the focused, driven individual who goes to extreme lengths to put a dent in crime and super-villainy.

Extending the feeling this the Arkham series has more in common with a theme park than the source material is the dearth of life in Gotham itself. It’s a city rife with crime, so Rocksteady and Warner Bros. Games removed almost all evidence that anyone other than criminals walk the streets. Reasons are given, of course, but they are excuses. In City, it’s because that slice of Gotham has become a prison, and in Origins, it’s because nobody leaves their home on Christmas Eve. So Gotham is dead. Lifeless.

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As authentic as it looks, the city is nothing more than window dressing. Scrape the surface and the paint is chipped away to reveal cardboard and wood. It’s a stage for people to pretend they are Batman, for wish fulfillment. But without the desperate people who need the Dark Knight’s help, without the psychological torment that comes from the mountain of loss, absent the hopelessness that pervades a vast number of Batman yarns, it’s basically just digital cosplay.

When developing games in an existing IP, especially one as old and venerable as Batman, then there has to be more than polish and solid design. The Arkham series, at least Asylum and City, have that in spades, but they lack the soul of the hero they portray.

Rocksteady and Warner Bros. have tamed Batman, making him simple and shallow. His weaknesses have been almost entirely removed, his utility belt is a Pandora’s box that can tackle anything and his foes pose primarily physical threats. The Dark Knight and his realm have been boiled down into easily digestible trope-filled experiences that are easy to dip in and out of. Systems replace meaningful exploration of what it really means to be Batman. The counter system, detective mode, experience points — these things make Batman just another video game action hero. Stripped of his vulnerability and complexity, all that makes him stand out is his kinky black costume.

Fraser Brown

About Fraser Brown

  • http://www.awesomeoutof10.com/ Darik Kirschman

    I always felt that the Arkham games were great for people who don’t exactly care about Batman in depth. It does a lot of things similarly to Batman: The Animated Series (which still stands, in my mind, as the premiere example of adapting the Dark Knight to another medium), taking the mythos and the ideas surrounding Gotham City and Bruce Wayne and distilling them into a more simple, easily-digestible form. But what TAS did, that the Arkham games don’t, was to keep their core form very much alive — especially Batman. The Animated Series never shied away from showing him as a man who troubled. I never really got the sense in any of the Rocksteady games, that Bruce Wayne even really existed in any meaningful way; Batman was the be-all-end-all.

    That said, I really enjoy gliding off of a building and dive-kicking a Juggalo wannabe in the face, and then proceeding to beat the shit outta all his friends. The moments of stalking criminals, watching them slowly freak out and begin acting irrationally was pure Batman, and it still feels satisfying. Just, all the other things in between those tiny sections (especially in Arkham Asylum, where clearing a room full of goons without alerting them to your location, felt almost like a puzzle to be solved) were sort of at odds with the true nature of DC’s character and you sorta nailed it on why. Good stuff.

  • David Chandler

    I love the Arkham games, specifically Asylum for the reasons you list here. As much a fan of Batman as I am, though, I’m not convinced he’s all that interesting of a character. Morrison’s ‘Arkham Asylum’ which you allude to is probably the best comic to take a crack at a psychological close-reading of the Batman, and even then, most of it is told through weird symbols and visual cues rather than giving the character something to do. But Morrison uses this fractured visual metaphor for Batman’s own inherent brokenness in a wonderful way (most noticeably for me in his weird sexual hangups).

    I think what Batman ‘does’ is far more interesting than who he ‘is’, which is why I think the Arkham games work so well. I can get of Batman’s self-loathing through his brutal beatdowns of Gotham’s criminals than from something like the sloppy exposition of Arkham City or Origins–which I totally agree with you on. And the games kind of nail what Batman does, towing the line between hero and predator, even if it does glorify that teenage boy love of brutality that really helped sell the comics in the first place.

    But I can’t help but think that, with the Asylum space explored, moving Batman to the city was inevitable and a smarter idea. Maybe we can’t get an in-depth picture of the Batman, but can we really divorce him from the city he wants to save? The way he can expertly navigate the city, the organic movement of diving and swooping show some kind of intimate connection with that space, as if it were built for him (and it is) in a way that shows some type of co-dependency. Or as you more eloquently put it: “He’s an unfortunate necessity”, a kind of antibody moving through the city’s system. He’s not a great character, but a fascinating function. It’s just a bit of a shame that City and Origins are wide without depth, so there’s no room for something so operatic and indulgent as the Scarecrow sections of Asylum that give glimpses of character in the midst of the action.

    • Fraser Brown

      I don’t think it’s really possible to separate what he does from who he is. They inform each other. He’s more a symbol than a man, and a perfect one for somewhere as broken and brutal as Gotham. I think that’s what makes him interesting: the way that by donning the cowl, he gives up being a person, making himself a masochistic martyr.

      But even if what he does was more interesting than who he is, I don’t think Rocksteady or Warner Bros. have done a particularly good job of showing that. The violence, action and predatory stalking is all spot on, at least in City, but that’s only a tiny aspect of what he does.

      Between hunting and punching villains, he’s a diligent, meticulous detective. He’s the world’s greatest detective, a Sherlock Holmes for a city much darker and more fucked up than London. None of that is present in the games.

      The Riddler puzzles are nothing more than pattern recognition, timing and the appropriate use of certain special objects. They are all deeply simple and not at all fulfilling. Likewise, the investigative portions are absent any demands on one’s intellect. Batman is turned into a detective that’s too lazy to even search a crime scene, relying instead on technology to do every single bit of legwork.

      Almost every open world game focuses on violence. Arkham City and Origins had the opportunity to be better than that, with a character who uses intimidation and his intellect before using his fists, but he was turned into yet another brawler.

      • David Chandler

        That I can agree with. That’s what kind of has me less excited about the new Batman trailer. It’s all punch, drive, punch some more. Why there’s not a better a detective aspect in these games, I am sure I don’t know.

  • NoNeedToArgue

    you’re mostly complaining about the structure of open world games here. especially when you mention that as batman you can parade around gotham with no sense of urgency in City and Origins. IN any open world game when you complete a mission and it’s following one is shown to have urgency you can galavant around and the mission is still there. it would be stupid for them to put you on a time limit in an open world game between missions.

    • Fraser Brown

      A time limit isn’t the only way to create a sense of urgency. But I agree that it’s much harder to do with open world games. That’s really why I’m not sold on the Arkham series being traditional open world games. I think it peaked with Asylum, where it was still quite open, but there were limitations that made it a more focused experience.

      • NoNeedToArgue

        I understand where you’re coming from. they need to graft the story around the fact that it’s open world. so that the story isnt running on a time limit whereas the game isnt.

  • jb227

    I don’t think the comics themselves have really touched on any depth or nuance of the character in years really. The more Batman comics I read, the more he just comes off as a silver spoon spoiled brat doing more harm than good, never willing to examine himself or his methods. The Arkham series is almost the only medium I can really connect w/ the character in anyway because it represents a small vertical slice wherein he is completely a reactionary force. One bad night and one man’s fight to right it; stretch it out any further & it becomes readily apparent that this multi-billionaire has the means to make a true change, but would rather run around in fancy suits using cool gadgets to cement his self-righteous crusade. There is plenty to be said about the character, but it has recently always come back around to the same things, rehashes of the same themes and Bruce stuck in an endless loop that should’ve ended years ago. Bruce Wayne is in a perpetual state of arrested development and I’m not sure DC is interested in letting him out of it. Look at Fraction’s handling of Tony Stark, he decided to actually use his position & wealth to at least try to make a true positive impact…I’d love to see Fraction’s take on the character really, he’s good at getting to the core of a character & bringing it out, good & bad. That’s what Batman needs in my opinion, you can only be in a constant state of grief for so long before it becomes unrealistic.

    • Fraser Brown

      I would argue that Morrison’s Batman Inc. is Batman creating real change. He creates a global network of heroes to deal with the problems that the metahumans tend to ignore. He throws all of his money and influence behind it and makes it very public.

      • jb227

        That is the one leg of Morrison’s run I never read actually… I really dug his Batman stuff & even moreso his work w/ Dick as Batman in Batman & Robin, but the disjointed timeline of the Batman Inc series as a result of New 52 threw me off a bit…I’ve been meaning to get back around to it. Was Batman really instrumental & hands on w/ the rest of the Inc crew? I remember from what was in the proper series that a lot of those international heroes really looked up to Bruce & what he’d done, so it was cool seeing him inspire some change in that instance, I just never saw it go much further in the main series. Also, didn’t Bruce create the Inc to clean up some of the Man Bat & Al Ghul messes that could essentially be traced back to him & his Gotham?
        I feel like DC & Batman in particular is in the mode of just rehashing his greatest stories from the 70s & 80s in a less spectacular fashion. These stories were great for the times because they were a pure product of their period & environment, the stories were built from the ground up to reflect the themes & issues of the eras. Now seeing the 1% flying through the sky & beating on the poor & downtrodden is just not cutting it for me much anymore. He needs to be more of a proactive presence instead of a reactionary one, because he has the means to do so. I love that Morrison was willing to breach the subject, but this needs to be the idea for the character at the editorial level to really be followed through with. I mean am I crazy here? If we want to hold our characters to a higher standard, and in the hands of such talented writers we really have to, then shouldn’t we apply at least some of our belief system & real world logic into them?

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