Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Darker Knight

Warning: This post contains spoilers for 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum.

When Batman: Arkham Asylum launched last year, despite its very positive reception, it never quite caught my eye. To be honest, I have just never been that big a fan of Batman. Call me crazy, but I find it hard to relate to a rich white playboy who secretly buys expensive toys and uses them to beat people up. Now before you pull your own Wayne-pile-driver, I should say I’m actually adore a certain type of Batman. After finally giving Arkham Asylum a try, I can safely say the game captures many of the comic book elements introduced by DC’s great writers, which help make both a great game and a great protagonist. Now I am ready and eager to get my hands on Arkham City.

Like Superman, I never found Batman interesting growing up. I was busy engulfing the X-men and could not be bothered with the caped crusader. Then, in college, I read Arkham Asylum: The Serious House on Serious Earth by legendary Grant Morrison. You cannot read this comic book and look at Batman the same way ever again. Although Rocksteady only loosely based their game on this comic, the power of the source material is powerful enough to shine through. The heroes and villains Morrison presents are not glamorous or cliches, despite their ludicrous personas. The inmates of Arkham Asylum are deranged murderers living in a maddening and terribly dark world. The world they inhabit only mirrors the insanities of the outside world as well, which Batman inhabits tenuously. Some of these same adult undertones work marvelously in the game version of Arkham Island. Not only is the game genuinely dark, but the protective wards for inmates, the audio tapes dotting the island, and the disturbingly sadistic characterization of Killer Croc and Victor Zsaz are quite unsettling.

Arkham Asylum also upholds some of the more nuanced elements of Batman established in comic book form. Frank Miller’s run of The Dark Night Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again portrays Bruce Wayne as a far more human and fallible hero than the norm. Although Rocksteady stayed clear of some of the most interesting ethical and political dimensions of the Dark Knight’s actions, Batman still comes off as vulnerable, albeit quite capable. The jitter of the controller and the dazed camera effects make each punch Batman takes dramatic and punishing. Even the locked off areas of the island express how reliant Batman is on his tools of the trade. The build-up of wounds and damages to his suit over the game also add-up to a character who is forcing himself to suffer to achieve his ends. He is tenacious, not magically imbued with mutant powers. All of which make his decision to use the antidote on himself, to stop from becoming super-human, far more powerful.

Even the elements of the Arkham Asylum comic and Alan Moore’s run of The Killing Joke that characterize Batman as partially insane himself appear in Rocksteady’s efforts. The Scarecrow hallucinations vividly exploring just how disturbed Bruce Wayne still is. After all, he dresses up like a bat because he couldn’t handle the death of his parents. The villains play as much a part in his pysche as he does in theirs. “You need us as much as we need you,” Scarecrow calls out to Batman while tormenting him with nightmares, some of which incorporate a hidden recognition of his own insanity. How cool is that? And some people call Nathan Drake a complex hero?

Ok , I see now why you all put Arkham Asylumon on your game-of-the-year lists of 2009, and why undoubtedly so many of you are playing through Arkham City right now. No spoilers, but does it live up to the hype? Do the downtrodden cops of Ed Brubaker’s amazing Gotham Central make an appearance, those unfortunate detectives forced to live in a hero’s shadow while watching their city crumble? Have they made the Bat even more interesting? I am certainly eager to find out. While I wait though, I might write a letter to Rocksteady telling them to read Kingdom Come and All-Star Superman and plead for them bring our red-caped protector back into the modern age of videogames.


  1. Well, I'm enjoying it - except for the appalling save/checkpoint system. If you're going to have checkpoints (and I don't see why, in 2011, you should), then at least make them frequent and notify us when they're being saved. Sick of coming back after exiting to find I've got to refight a big fight.

  2. @ Jeremy

    Yes! And it's not even certain to save after major events/cut scenes. I've had to replay more than a few rooms full of armed guards because I thought the game had saved.

  3. What exactly do you mean when you say, "I don't see why, in 2011, you should [have checkpoints]"? Why don't we want to have points from which the player can re-start if he dies or fails? What exactly is the alternative?

  4. I mean you should be able to save wherever you are. No problem with autosaving at checkpoints, but the idea that I might have to keep playing (or leave the console on!) when I need to leave/go to bed/whatever is absurd in 2011.

  5. With all of the recent hype over Arkham City, I finally got around to playing Arkham Asylum for the first time this week. I really like its save/checkpoint system. I absolutely agree that the player should be able to quit playing whenever he wants, and pick it right up again from where he left off. Arkham Asylum does this, but with the added bonus of not making the player worry about remembering to save the game. The game saves itself automatically and frequently. So far, I've never had to re-play any portion of the game after quitting. It sounds like maybe Arkham City is worse than its predecessor in this regard, specifically, by auto-saving less frequently? Or have I just been lucky with my saves in Arkham Asylum so far?