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.
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.
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.
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.