Reader Taliesin was nice enough to get me a copy of Batman: Arkham City. If I’d played it before the new year, it would have made my list of memorable games of 2011. Like Arkham Asylum, this is a balanced, polished experience with tons of content. The difficulty modes run the spectrum from “I’ve just arrived from the Middle Ages and have never seen a computer before” to “OMG this game is so hard I’m bleeding in real life”. It’s got a wonderfully detailed world and buffet-style gameplay.
This game has a plot twist. It’s a good one. This is hard to pull off. I mean, any writer can just execute a sudden “it was a clone / evil twin / time-travel” twist at any point if they want to. That’s not hard, but it’s basically cheating and it’s not satisfying for the audience. A good twist is one where we don’t see it coming but we can plainly see it in retrospect. This means telegraphing your twist and using misdirection to hide these clues.
Playing through the game a second time, I could see they never cheated. Okay, I’m not a hardcore Batfan and maybe there are cues I’m missing, but from my casual familiarity with the lore, it was telegraphed fair and square. Nicely done. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a plot twist like this since Jade Empire or KOTOR. There’s no way around it. If you want to pull this off, you need to be a good writer with a subtle touch, even when dealing with subject matter as loud and frenetic as comic book superheroes. In fact, it might be harder, because comic book fans have seen these sort of twists done again and again over the years, and can usually see them coming before you even start dropping clues. It’s hard to pull off a good con without cheating, and moreso when the guy doing the con is…
Look, there’s no way to discuss it without spoiling it. From here on, we’re going to be spoiling the game in absolute terms. I don’t have space to outline the whole plot, so if you haven’t played then you might have trouble keeping up. Here we go:
LAST CHANCE. SPOILERS FROM HERE ON.
I really liked Joker’s gambit: He had been poisoned by the Titan formula he took at the end of Arkham Asylum, and needed a cure. He couldn’t get it himself, so he hornswoggled Batman and put the poison into him, knowing that if anyone could find a cure, the Batman could.
Throughout the game and unbeknownst to the player, the Joker was running a scam where Clayface was pretending to be the Joker. Sometimes the Joker was the Joker. Sometimes Joker was really Clayface in Joker form. The game gave small clues that this was going on. I’m curious if I missed any, and how well they worked for people more familiar with the material. So let’s go over them:
Clue: When you arrive at the steel mill and Harley Quinn locks you out of the manager’s office, you can stick around and listen in on a bit of conversation. Harley says, “Oh Mister J! You’re all better. Oh wait. That’s not you, is it?” To which Joker replies, “Shh! Don’t ruin the surprise!” (Or however it went.)
How it was concealed: We don’t know what this exchange means at this point in the game. A few minutes later we run into the FIRST fake Joker gag, and if we remember this exchange it’s likely that we’ll say one explains the other and leave it at that.
Clue: The fake Joker gag. This was actually a bunch of clues. That’s Joker in the wheelchair, and Clayface that sneaks up on Batman. When Batman wakes up, Clayface is gone, and we’re talking to Joker. During the conversation Joker even says, “No one’s who you think they are”.
How it was concealed: This clue was actually a concealment for the real plot. Not knowing that Clayface is involved, the player is unlikely to expect that Joker is going to keep doing the “fake Joker gag”.
Clue: Two Jokers. Was spend a lot of hours on the main plot, but eventually we circle back and begin dealing with Joker again. We get the cure, put it in the safe, and then Joker swipes them and leaves two joker cards in the safe. One of them is an actual playing card, the other is a photocopy of one.
How it was concealed: Decks of playing cards always have two Jokers, so I didn’t find this image all that jarring. He just wanted something to write a note on, right? I’m sure this doesn’t mean anything.
Clue: The “Joker looking in a mirror” gag. We see Joker’s reflection in the mirror, and he’s sick. He adjusts his tie, and an observant player might notice that the “reflection” and the “real” Joker don’t quite line up the way they should. Close, but not quite. And then when Joker turns around, his face is clear! He’s not sick at all! Of course, this wasn’t a mirror, but a piece of glass. Clayface had his back to us, with Joker playing the reflection.
How it was concealed: In the previous section, the Joker mentioned the toxin giving you hallucinations. So, it’s easy for the player to assume the sick face / white face bit to be a bit of a mind-screw on the part of the sickness.
Clue: In the fight with Joker, well… we fight Joker. That’s not his style to stoop to fisticuffs, and it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine the lanky freak could take more than one or two punches from Batman. (Eh. Depending on what incarnation of Batman we’re talking about, I suppose. Maybe these guys brawl all the time in the comics, but I’ve never heard about it.) More importantly, if you happen to switch to detective vision during the fight, you’ll see the Joker doesn’t have a skeleton. The previous game showed us Clayface, and observant players may remember his lack of skeleton.
How it was concealed: It wasn’t. We might attribute the brawl to the need for a boss fight at this point, but the missing skeleton is the first real clue as to what was going on. Of course, you had to switch to detective mode to see it, which may or may not be likely, depending on your playstyle. I wonder how many people realized it was Clayface at this point?
Clue: In various parts, the Joker, supposedly cured, still seems to be coughing when he addresses his thugs over the PA system. This isn’t really concealed, although the player might conclude that – unlike all other comic-book ailments – this toxin might have an ongoing period of recovery?
Clue: When you return to the steel mill, Clayface is talking to the troops, explaining that he’s all better. Then he goes on this strange tangent about not wanting to explain everything and ruin the mystery, and he makes a sideways reference to (I think) the show Lost, and how that show was ruined when they tried to explain everything. (Perhaps this is debatable? I don’t know. Never watched the show myself. It might not be wise to argue over the plot points of a canceled show with an imaginary super-villain who is pretending to be a different super-villain. I don’t know. There might be better ways of spending you time.)
How it was concealed: This is only a clue inasmuch as we don’t yet see a need for any further explanation. The Joker was sick, now he’s better. This is only a clue if you’re already in on the joke.
Clue: On our way to the theater, Clayface-Joker is taunting us, and – as with the previous bit – all of his jokes take the form of movie, theater, or television references. Clayface is Basil Karlo, an old-time actor. (I’m not an expert on Bat-lore, and I don’t know much about him beyond that.) It makes sense that he would fall back to what he knows when he has to ad-lib some dialog for the Joker. (I totally missed this one. Taliesin pointed it out to me.) This was a very small clue, just before the big reveal, so it didn’t need to be concealed.
So those are the ones I know about. Did you catch any that I missed? Did you figure it out before the big reveal?
One final note:
My major objection at the end of the game was Clayface’s ability to increase his mass. We’re talking about a sapient putty-man that can sense, think, and communicate despite being a homogeneous lump of chameleon putty. He can make himself appear as any fleshy human wrapped in believable clothing, and somehow my only real problem with the character was the radical increase in his apparent mass. I could accept small changes in volume, allowing for him to modify his density – as long as his overall weight remained the same. This bit at the end where he grew to four meters tall and began smashing the place with wrecking-ball fists just didn’t work for me.
I wanted there to be a nearby source of mud or clay for him to soak up to explain the size increase. I realize it’s silly to worry about stuff like this in a world with so much mystical-magic and science-magic, but there it is. I suppose this explains why I can never get into comic books.
Anyway. Great game. I highly recommend it, and I also recommend getting it before you read any of the spoilers above.
EDIT: Before you run out and buy the game, be warned that Games For Windows LIVE is still a festering heap of aggravation and injustice. Get the console versions if you can, but be very careful before putting down your money for the PC version. GFWL ate my saves at one point. (This is apparently a common occurrence.) Someone else reported that they could not get GFWL to use the DLC they purchased through Steam. GFWL is in all PC versions of the game, even those through Steam.
The developers deserve credit for making a great game, but GFWL is poison. Microsoft has had years to fix this mess and obviously don’t care to do so. Be warned that if you have problems, Steam can blame the publisher, the publisher will blame Microsoft, and Microsoft cares so little they can’t even be bothered to pass the buck.
It’s a sad thing, really. What a stupid waste.
Overused Words in Game Titles
I scoured the Steam database to figure out what words were the most commonly used in game titles.
This is Why We Can’t Have Short Criticism
Here's how this site grew from short essays to novel-length quasi-analytical retrospectives.
The Loot Lottery
What makes the gameplay of Borderlands so addictive for some, and what does that have to do with slot machines?
Shamus Plays WOW
Ever wondered what's in all those quest boxes you've never bothered to read? Get ready: They're more insane than you might expect.
Denuvo and the "Death" of Piracy
Denuvo videogame DRM didn't actually kill piracy, but it did stop it for several months. Here's what we learned from that.