Now that we’re more than a month into this series, let’s finally get around to talking about Arkham City. Which means it’s time to start spoiling stuff in detail. I know the story isn’t terribly important in these games but – as I’ve done in the past – I’m mostly going to be using it as a jumping-off point for a lot of different topics regarding gameplay, characters, and Bat-lore.
It’s good that the story isn’t very important in these games, because the story structure of Arkham City is goofy pants. The B-story is a plot about Catwoman pulling a heist. It’s shallow, but serviceable. We’ll talk more about it much later in the series. The main story is actually two very different and almost totally unrelated stories that have been crudely stapled together. The two main plots don’t support each other in terms of themes, tone, or lore. In fact, the two stories barely interact. When Batman is working on one story, the other story is paused.
Hugo Strange is established as our supposedly main adversary during the introduction. Then as soon as Bruce Wayne gets his Bat-suit on, he gets sidetracked into a Joker plot that takes up 90% of the game. Near the end, Batman stops working on the Joker thing to finish off Hugo Strange. Then he returns to the Joker. So the game opens with the Hugo plot but ends with the Joker one, so you can’t even think of one plot acting as bookends for the other.
What I’m going to try and show is that these two plots are not created equal. The Hugo Strange plot is underdeveloped but functional. Meanwhile the Joker plot is exhaustively developed and yet falls apart in almost every sceneAside from the dialog, which is fantastic. Then again, it’s Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy reading the lines, and they can make almost anything sound fantastic.. Just about everything wrong with the story of Arkham City radiates from the Joker stuff. This isn’t one of those cases where the writer didn’t know what they were doing. Several parts of the story are smart, interesting, and well-paced. Some character relationships are developed and yet other relationships are perplexingly neglected. It’s not that the the writer didn’t know how to do their job properly, it’s that some other obligation seems to have prevented them from doing so.
Batman repeatedly gets distracted by things that aren’t central to his goals, and by getting distracted he ends up tripping into new problems from which he can be further distracted by stumbling into even more villainous tomfoolery. The whole thing makes for a bizarre story structure. In Arkham Asylum, the story established Batman as proactive and forward-thinking. But here in Arkham City – and particularly in the Joker plot – he’s reactionary. The bad guys drive his behavior. Maybe it’s supposed to feel like Batman is up against a more serious challenge this time, but it ends up feeling like he’s less competent. The bad guys haven’t gotten smarter, he’s become more gullible and easily sidetracked.
In the long run, this doesn’t really hurt Arkham City. This is not a game that depends on its story. But it does create a couple of frustrating or unsatisfying moments that compel me to analyze the whole.
Welcome to Arkham City
The game opens with Bruce Wayne being arrested. Actually, the game opens with a Catwoman tutorial and then cuts to some action in medias res and then flashes between the current action and some “here is how we got here” flashbacks while the opening credits haunt the corners of the screen, but for the purposes of this analysis we’re going to smooth all of that out and tell the story chronologically.
Bruce Wayne is giving a speech decrying the fact that the mayor has just walled off a partly-destroyed section of the city and thrown hundreds of violent criminals into it, creating a sprawling open-air prison where inmates must fend for themselves. This is the titular Arkham City.
Tyger Guards – the a private military force in charge of the prison – roll in during Bruce Wayne’s speech. They jump in front of the LIVE news cameras, tear gas the crowd, knock Bruce unconscious with a rifle butt to the head, and toss him into Arkham without even bothering to charge him with a crime.
Times Batman has been knocked unconscious so far this evening: 1
The guards also arrest and imprison a news reporter covering the speech. Or maybe we should say they kidnap him? It’s hard to tell. In any case, it’s clear these guys aren’t really concerned with things like due process and collateral damage.
Is this opening preposterous? Obviously yes. But it works because this game is still loosely connected to Batman: The Animated series in terms of tone, presentation, and subject matter. This is the kind of wild setup that works fine in a cartoon or comic book, but would cause something like the Christian Bale Batman movies to fly apart instantly.
This is another area where the latter two Arkham games shot themselves in the foot. Visuals are part of the storytelling, because they let us know what kind of things can and can’t happen in this world. The World of Willy Wonka is different from the world of Se7en, which is different from Sin City, which is different from Final Fantasy. The more unreal the visuals, the less the audience is going to demand an explanation for fantastical elements.
The latter Arkham games moved to a more realistic style of character design and darker subject matter, and those things clash with the established tone of the series. The first two games weren’t stylized and cartoonish because nobody on the team had the skill to make the visuals “good”. They were stylized and cartoonish because that’s what works best for this particular version of the Batman universe.
The idea that someone could kidnap a famous billionaire and a reporter on live television and brazenly toss them into an anarchic free-range prison without any due process is absurd, but it falls within the levels of absurdity that cartoons and comic books can handle. I’m sure it’s far from the most ridiculous thing that’s ever happened to Animated Batman. Moreover, it solves some major problems the developers faced when designing this game:
- We want Batman to fight several members of his rogues gallery, but we don’t want to have to contrive yet another mass prison escape.
- We don’t want to set this game in the same asylum as the first.
- We want to have an open world, but not TOO open. The player should have room to move around, explore, do side content, and look for secrets, but we don’t want the content to be so spread out that most of the map becomes empty flyover scenery. (Arkham Knight and Arkham Origins both suffered from this.)
- We want Batman to be able to glide around and punch people out, which means we need an excuse for there to be goons sprinkled all over the place.
Sure, Arkham City is a pretty silly idea from in-world logic, but from a game design standpoint it solves a ton of problems.
Once he’s arrested, Bruce finds himself confronted by Hugo Strange.
I’ve watched every Batman movie. I’ve watched a bit of the Animated Series. I collected Batman comics for a couple of years back in the 90s. And yet, I’d somehow never heard of this guy before this game. I have no idea how that happened. Strange has been a recurring Batman villain since 1940. Sure, he’s not as famous as Riddler or Joker, but he’s more famous than friggin’ Calendar Man, and I’d heard of that guy.
EDIT: Hang on, I haven’t seen EVERY Batman movie. I still haven’t gotten around to watching Dark Knight Rises. I actually forgot about that movie until someone brought it up in the comments.
Dr. Strange reveals that he’s figured out that Bruce Wayne is Batman. He also teases that he’s got some big plan called Protocol 10, and that it will humiliate Batman and make Strange a hero.
Strange is an interesting villain. He’s a nice change from most of the rest of Batman’s Rogue’s gallery. In this story he’s not a costumed freak robbing banks. He’s a scientist with an agonizing case of Bat-envy. He thinks that Batman is undeserving of the trust and respect that people give him and he wants to supplant Batman as the hero of Gotham. It’s also really important to him that he beats Batman and that Batman knows it, which is why he’s telegraphing his plans before they’re ripe and then allowing Batman to run free in Arkham City. He wants to watch Batman struggle and fail.
After their chat, Bruce is thrown into Arkham City proper. I have to say, Bruce is terrible at concealing his secret identity. When he and other civilian prisoners are released into the city, there’s a gang of violent psychos just waiting to beat them up for giggles. Bruce tries to reassure the other civvies, and he’s not shy about using his ninja moves (this is basically the counter-punch tutorial) in front of everyone. Once the game is sure you know to press the counter button at the right time, Bruce gets knocked out while trying to help one of the other prisoners to safety.
Times Batman has been knocked unconscious so far this evening: 2
Batman is dragged to an alley where Penguin is waiting for him. The Wayne family wronged the Cobblepot family in generations past, and so Penguin has this grudge against Bruce Wayne. He’s looking to amuse himself with some revenge beating now that the two of them are stuck in this lawless madhouse together.
Once again, Bruce seems to know that other people are incapable of realizing he’s Batman, regardless of his behavior. He doesn’t pretend to be afraid, or attempt to disguise his voice (which ought to be pretty familiar to Penguin by now) or do anything else to pretend to be a soft, spoiled playboy. Instead he breaks out of the shackles he’s wearing, beats up half a dozen dudes with Bat-fu, and then (optionally) knocks Penguin out.
How does Penguin watch Bruce spin-kick all of his goons unconscious and not instantly make the connection? I realize this is a universe where Superman can hide behind a pair of eyeglasses, but at least Clark Kent doesn’t go around bending steel beams in front of people.
“It’s a comic book!”
Yeah, yeah. I know.
 Aside from the dialog, which is fantastic. Then again, it’s Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy reading the lines, and they can make almost anything sound fantastic.
The Opportunity Crunch
No, brutal, soul-sucking, marriage-destroying crunch mode in game development isn't a privilege or an opportunity. It's idiocy.
Secret of Good Secrets
Sometimes in-game secrets are fun and sometimes they're lame. Here's why.
A Lack of Vision and Leadership
People fault EA for being greedy, but their real sin is just how terrible they are at it.
The Middle Ages
Would you have survived in the middle ages?
Skyrim Thieves Guild
The Thieves Guild quest in Skyrim is a vortex of disjointed plot-holes, contrivances, and nonsense.