At some point I’ll have a column discussing the Riddler quests, but in the meantime I want to pick apart the story at a few points. I realize you can’t really hold a seventy-year-old comic book hero to quite the same standard that you might use for, say, a taut political thriller. Batman doesn’t kill people. Joker is crazy in a very specific sort of way. The world is filled with hundreds of meatheads who are still willing to face Batman in a brawl and take orders from treacherous supervillains who would kill them for giggles. And so on. We accept a long list of ideas without question when we sign on for an adventure with this guy, and if it were otherwise then this wouldn’t be a Batman story.
So, given that we are in a Batman world, there are still a few points I want to haggle over. These aren’t really plot holes, but more like quibbles over a few thematic elements or character behaviors. The story stumbled at these points for me, and I wanted to go over those for no particular reason.
Actually, I CAN’T STOP MYSELF. I MUST NITPICK. SOMEONE HELP ME.
I realize that comics have their share of ridiculous techno-babble, but the conversation with Dr. Freeze was still pretty painful. He says (roughly) that he has a cure for the toxin, but it breaks down in the host’s bloodstream too fast. It needs a restorative element, but the enzyme needs time to bond to human DNA. This will take decades. Gah. Just typing that out scorched a few neurons. I know I’m sort of railing against problems that are endemic to comic books, but I can’t help it. I guess this is why I can’t read comics, despite the fact that I love superhero myths.
This would have been a lot better if they’d said less. Freeze had a image of a molecule there. He just needed to say, “This is what I need, but I don’t know how to synthesize it.” Then Batman could say he’s seen it before, and off we go. The techno-babble here sounds like, “Your car’s exhaust manifold has ruptured. I’ll need special gasoline to repair it, but that gas evaporates instantly at room temperature so we need to use a clock radio to synthesize a new kind of windshield wiper fluid.” Sometimes leaving it unexplained is better, particularly when the answer ends up being, “use an unexplained magical healing fluid” anyway.
I thought the moment where Batman was pinned under debris and had to be rescued by Catwoman was a bit lame. Oh, I’m okay with the idea of her coming to save him, but it felt a bit forced and contrived to me. After winning the fight, Batman gets pinned under random falling rubble? And then Joker – who has just been beaten up twice and is still feeling jaunty – attempts to kill him, even though the Joker never really wants to KILL Batman. (And yes, it’s actually you-know-who, but still. I don’t think this fits the motivations of either party.) Then Talia saunters in like she’s been off-stage, waiting for her cue. She offers the Joker the Lazarus pit (why?) instead of trying to kick his ass. It’s obvious she’s not really offering him the pit, so why did she bring it up and what is she trying to accomplish? Then she walks off with Joker without stopping to help Batman. It’s obvious she expects Batman to follow her, but it should be obvious to her that he can’t. What is this woman thinking?
Batman is hit with a slab of concrete. It’s light enough that it doesn’t kill (or even injure!) him on impact, yet it’s too heavy to be lifted with his free arm. He never makes any effort to employ any of his tools to free himself until Catwoman shows up. So the rubble was exactly heavy enough to pin Batman without killing him, it was too heavy for his arm / bat-hook, but was light enough that the two of them could lift it together. To paraphrase a famous nitpicker, that is a very specific amount of heavy.
I dislike this sequence because it robs the player of their victory with an act of randomness, and makes Joker seem sort of bungling in the process. I think a better approach would be this:
Before the fight, Joker has three doors, in the style of Let’s Make a Deal. Joker tries to get Batman to pick a door. Batman, always the straight man, wants nothing to do with it and refuses to play. So Joker picks for him, complaining how Batman is never any fun. He opens door #1 to reveal: The bad guys that you fight in this set-piece.
Once Batman beats those guys down, he picks up the Joker and beats on him a bit more. Joker seems to acquiesce, and says, “You win Batman. Door number 2 it is.” Door #2 opens to reveal the vial of cure on a pedestal. Batman tosses him aside and goes for the vial, only to have a comical metal cage dropped over him. Batman does the predictable bravado thing, promising that this cage won’t stop him.
The Joker plays his final card:
Joker: “Do you want to see what was behind door number three? I’ll show you if you say please.”
Batman: “Give up Joker. I’m done playing your games.”
Joker: Close enough! (Pushes a button.)
Door #3 opens, and we see Talia is chained up. There’s a throwaway line to explain that she came here to stop Joker herself. Batman becomes enraged at this. He reaches down to lift his cage away, and electricity shoots through it. A sign on top lights up: JOY BUZZER.
The Joker laughs and makes a few awful, obvious electricity puns. Batman collapses. The gameplay mechanics have already established that Batman can’t destroy or use his tools on electrified iron bars, so this trap shouldn’t feel like a cheat to the player.
My version gets rid of the messy event that steals victory from the player through random chance, and supports the notion of a clever, scheming Joker. It puts Talia where the plot needs her without the contrived entrance. It keeps the vial of cure in play in the player’s mind and shows that the vial is still full, thus acting as another subtle hint as to what’s REALLY going on. This gets rid of the incongruous image of the Joker preparing to stab Batman once he’s down, and instead shows Joker is still coming up with new ways to grief Batman. And finally, this puts Batman into a position where he will need to be rescued by Catwoman, but will plausibly be able to continue on once she frees him.
The ending is the part where it all felt wrong for me. First, one small issue: I felt like we needed some kind of justification for why Joker didn’t take the cure the moment he acquired it. The dude is crazy, but he always has a goal. Just throwing a “I didn’t trust Dr. Popsicle, so I wanted to see you try the cure first” would have smoothed this right out. Again, small point, and you can get away with this sort of thing when it come to the Joker, who probably would be willing to die of blood toxins if he thought he could turn it into a good prank.
But the biggest problem I had with the game was how they handled the death of the Joker. Or rather, how Batman responded to it. Now, I understand that Mark Hamill was done with the part. Maybe some will argue that you can’t kill off the Joker like this, and instead the part should have passed to another voice actor. Let us set that debate aside for the moment. Let’s talk about how Batman behaved.
At the start of the game, Batman was comfortable with the idea that both he and Joker would die of the toxin. He wasn’t willing to take action until Joker told him that the toxin was also in the blood supply of the Gotham city hospital. If Batman didn’t act, then “hundreds” would die. This motivated him to seek the cure.
Later, Batman was willing to let hundreds of prisoners die in order to save his girlfriend. So, his girlfriend is worth more than hundreds of prisoners. And hundreds of innocents are worth more than the Joker. So far so good. But then at the end when Joker dies, Batman scoops up his body and carries him out of Arkham City with apparent dignity and reverence – thus leaving his dead girlfriend on the ground back at the theater. Batman doesn’t scoop up any of the cure off the floor in hopes of making more, or just to try and save one or two people. In fact, he chugged half of the available cure himself, and was apparently saving the other half for Joker. The infected people in Gotham? I guess they died. Batman never gave them a second thought. Neither did anyone else.
Heck, Batman didn’t even need the cure yet. He was still in pretty good shape and probably had a few hours left. He had no idea how much of the blue potion he needed to heal him. Maybe it would last longer if administered intravenously? Maybe you only needed a drop or two? Maybe we should experiment a bit and see if we can save a few of the people who (according to Robin at the halfway point of the game) should be dropping dead when morning comes? Nah. Just chug half of this impossible-to-replicate formula.
Instead of giving Joker a proper send-off, it felt like they undermined Batman as a character. All along these games have been building this driven, noble, incorruptible version of the Batman, a guy who just wants to save lives. All lives. All the time. At any cost. Now at the end he’s suddenly just a crazy person that cares more for a mass murderer than for the love of his life, and cares more about saving his own skin than the lives of innocents. This is messed up even by the standards of a Frank Miller grim & gritty, ultra-dark Knight, and runs really counter to the Batman we’ve come to know in these Arkham games. This doesn’t feel like a character twist – it feels like the writers forgot.
The plot of this game isn't just dumb, it's actively hostile to the player. This game hates you and thinks you are stupid.
Could Have Been Great
Here are four games that could have been much better with just a little more work.
The Best of 2012
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2012.
Let's ruin everyone's fun by listing all the ways in which zombies can't work, couldn't happen, and don't make sense.
Joker's Last Laugh
Did you anticipate the big plot twist of Batman: Arkham City? Here's all the ways the game hid that secret from you while also rubbing your nose in it.