The third part of the Batman home video game retrospective brings us to the modern, and arguably best, Batman video game and its sequels (except for Origins, I’ve heard). Shamus mentioned the Arkham series frequently in his writing, wrote up Arkham City and Arkham Origins, played Arkham Asylum on Spoiler Warning, and made many comparisons to the Arkham games on the Diecast. I’m pretty sure it was Shamus’ raving support of Arkham City that led me to finally purchase Arkham Asylum for PC.
As previously mentioned, I never made it past that opening slow walk down the main corridor, and the simple fight at the end. Pretty sure it was the weird (to me) camera placement, off-center to Batman’s right-rear. But I knew, as part of my craving to play Batman games, this was where it would end.
It’s 2009. Batman: The Dark Knight, the sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins had been released the previous year, but will not receive a video game adaptation like Batman Begins. The title, being developed for the 7th Console generation and PC/Mac, has already been cancelled. And yet, just before Batman: The Dark Knight the video game was cancelled, a different Batman property was announced: Eidos had obtained rights to make a Batman video game (in conjunction with Warner Bros. Interactive) that didn’t connect to Nolan’s Batman universe. Per rumor, the title had Paul Dini, best known as a writer for Batman: The Animated Series attached.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman has been characterized many ways: early on people loved saying Nolan’s work was based on Frank Miller’s comics (true, to an extent), but mostly the Nolan movies just tried to present a “real” version of Batman. I think you can make a valid argument that the reason we never saw the video game version of Dark Knight was that the movie was a little *too* real, and too associated over the next few years with too many real-world events. And if that was true of The Dark Knight, then The Dark Knight Rises was cursed from the beginning; receiving protests from various political groups over what they had been *told* was in the movie. (Cards on the table: I think The Dark Knight Rises is a better movie than The Dark Knight, even allowing that Heath Ledger’s Joker is an all-time classic performance while Tom Hardy’s Bane is…best forgotten about. And it would have been even better if they hadn’t tried to tie it all back to Ra’s al Ghul).
The idea behind Eidos’ game was to create a Batman adventure that fit into the “darker and grittier” mold currently popular, but while keeping it grounded firmly in the most-popular aspects of the Batman zeitgeist (as expressed primarily by Batman: The Animated Series). Thus, the Dini story and dialogue and the voice talents of Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arleen Sorkin. Art and setting is drawn from the 90’s and 2000’s comics, which some touches of TAS coloring and design. The look of BioShock was a major influence as well. You can see all this in the menus and the saturated colors of the game:
This is, by percentage anyway, about halfway through the game, yet because I *did* review the Spoiler Warning playthrough of the game, I know I’m actually just starting the final sequences of the game. I’m still not used to the odd camera placement, and nothing I have to offer HERE really showcases the one major flaw: how the camera deals with Batman against a wall or in a confined space. But speaking strictly of movement, the player’s ability as Batman to almost always move vertically at a moment’s notice is one thing that really stands out. Almost all Batman games have featured situational use of Bat Lanyards, Batcables, Bat Zip Lines, Batgrapples, and Batropes to swing or climb. The previous generation of Batman video games tried very hard to make it a core mechanic of the game. Arkham Asylum; however, is the first game to integrate such vertical movement seamlessly into the core mechanics. Batman can almost ALWAYS go vertical. It becomes such a fundamental part of the game that when they take the ability away from you (and they do) you feel like the game is cheating.
Rocksteady has made less of this as a development than the other core mechanic that was, in my opinion, largely perfected in this game: fighting.
Three complete fighting systems were tried in the game before finding a design Rocksteady was happy with. The goal was to create mechanics that were easy to use in order to synthesize the feeling that Batman could do complex, acrobatic fighting easily. You can perform well-enough in the early game without really mastering anything other than your standard three-button-press combo, but even then you will notice that button-mashing is detrimental. Unnecessary button presses break Batman’s flow and put him out of position, facing the wrong way. Entering the mid-game you will begin to face enemies that can defend against Batman’s basic attacks…and enemies who are armed that will fire if they see you, no matter who else is in the way. To deal with this, Arkham Asylum has “Predator Moves”, that is; stealth fighting:
You could argue this is the true meat & potatoes of Arkham Asylum. As I mentioned last week, what I want out of a Batman game is to swoop down from the shadows, silently take out a henchman, then disappear into the rafters while Joker screams and frustration and baddies scream in fear about “the Batman.” The Predator Moves are LITERALLY that. There are others that I don’t showcase here…mostly because I don’t have them yet. You gain the Predator Moves by purchasing them when you level up, and I focused on the toy and armor upgrades first. But while we’re talking about toys, here’s my favorite:
The Sonic Scrambler is my favorite because it is LITERALLY a game controller, and you use it by twiddling the two analogue sticks until both are in a position to produce the right signal to override an electronic lock. This is symbolized by the screen of the scrambler getting greener and greener. It’s something that is ALMOST too meta. Almost.
Unfortunately, that brings me to the few negative things I have to say about Arkham Asylum, at least at the moment. This first is my love/hate relationship with the character design. From the normal operating distance, there aren’t really any problems. And different characters have different pluses and minuses. Joker is pretty accurate to his comic depiction in the 90’s and 2000’s, and Batman can look so many different ways it’s really hard to ever say one design is “wrong” in any way. The characters that stand out the most for absurd design are Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn. Here’s Batman’s second encounter, and first full scene, with Poison Ivy:
This is not an issue that Ivy is highly sexualized. This is a comic book property. The audience is primarily heterosexual cis men, and female-presenting characters have always been designed and written as objects of sexual desire or sexual fear. On top of that, Ivy has always been written with a triple of dose of said sexual desirability and fear. The problem is that she looks…silly. She looks like an unfinished doll; like Hextian was making Poison Ivy from a shrunken-headed Bratz doll and gave up halfway. The hair looks unnatural. Unlike Batman and Joker, so much of her skin is exposed and subsequently unsupported that movement you would expect to see clearly is notable now by its absence. In a game that has done a good job of making you feel like you WERE Batman in a Batman comic story, this is a hard kick back into reality, because Ivy seems less real than the other characters we have encountered.
Complementing and contrasting this is the Arkham Asylum version of Harley Quinn, best exemplified in this scene that also introduces the topic of the Scarecrow sequences:
Girl! What is WRONG with your legs? Or is it your hips? Harley walks like she’s in platform high-heels for the first time (possibly true if you primarily know her from The Animated Series, where she primarily wears slippers or flats). But I don’t think the intention was to make her look like she was in unfamiliar footwear. I think what the animators had in mind was the sashaying gun-moll that everything NOT The Animated Series keeps trying to make her be (hello, Suicide Squad). On top of that, the fantasy stripper look once again showcases the bizarre choices in sexualization (OG Harley Quinn was loaded with sexuality and crazy…she didn’t need extra) and the poor ability to draw and animate the things they were trying to show. Harley comes off a bit better purely because she’s wearing more clothes than Ivy, as bizarre as they are, and because the character is blessed by Arleen Sorkin’s voice.
As a counterpoint, I would also like to point out that Batman’s butt shots, hard as they are to notice (look when he jumps over a rail to a lower floor) are phenomenal. Because they are the briefest of glimpses, and because his butt is covered by his tights and therefore you buy into the idea that you can’t quite see everything you would expect from naked skin.
The previous segment also introduces, to this discussion anyway, the Scarecrow sequences. Early in the game, Batman is exposed to Scarecrow’s fear toxin. Every subsequent chapter features a “recurrence” of the effects; i.e. A Scarecrow level. These begin with some kind of altered reality scene such as the one above, mostly oriented around Batman being tormented by wavy vision, ghostly effects, and fears of failing in his duty to rid Gotham of crime, and therefore letting down the memory of his parents. This sequence is a little different. As you can see, this segment is meant to fool with the player directly, not the Batman character the player is controlling. This was a risky choice: depending on where your mind is at the moment, this can either really work or jolt you straight out of the game and possibly make you hate it for being WAY too meta. It can work because THE major design note is to get the player to feel like they are Batman (I’m Batman). If you are deep enough into this feeling, this 4th-wall-breaking gag will likely only enhance things. I suspect it might even work better on subsequent playthroughs…I’ll let you know someday.
However…I strongly suspect that even if the meta-ness of the gag doesn’t offend your sensibilities, the most common experience will be this: Joker shoots you in the face. You’re met with the Retry/Quit, with the advice to “Do X to dodge Joker’s shot.” At first you are surprised…you didn’t even see the prompt! Then you get angry…you KNOW you didn’t see the prompt…this is just more bad video game design! And you were liking this game so much! You contemplate quitting for the night…this is just too much BS to deal with right now. Then some niggling part of your brain tells you to read that advice message again: “Use the middle analogue stick to dodge Joker’s bullet.” Sure, use the analogue stick to…middle analogue stick? WHAT middle analogue stick? What The Hell?
So you hit “X” to retry and BOOM, you’re now in a typical Scarecrow Fear Toxin Sequence, with a little more hallucination nightmare fuel (various versions of Batman acting insane, etc.) and the stealth/platforming level:
For something like this to work as intended, you have to apply the assumption that most players are just going to hit “X” to retry when they get this screen, and only when they realize it was all fake will they think back on what just happened. And then they’ll be like “Oh, you got me! That was brilliant! Ha ha, what fantastic game design and writing!” But I think you and I both know that isn’t what happened, for the most part. Very, very few people playing the game did NOT notice the meta-connection in the moment, and most were either confused or bothered by it. Not angry, although I’m sure a lot of people were, but really, mostly, this doesn’t really work. Sure, I outlined how it COULD work…I just don’t think it did for most people.
Game designers: breaking the 4th wall has its places. They are in parody, satire, and commentary (and probably a few hundred unique caveats that prove the rule); not in drama or horror. Which is what the Scarecrow sequences are trying to be. The designers should have known better than to try this.
My PS3 crashed while doing the Scarecrow level here, but I’ve covered pretty much everything I wanted to say this week. When I originally conceived this article, the intention was to go from 8-bit to Arkham in one go. It became clear QUICKLY that was ill-advised, so we ended up with a three-parter. I’m not entirely sure what to do for next week. I’ve floated the idea of doing an Arkham Asylum long-play, or one of the 6th Gen Batman games. Of course, I could do that purely in video form separate from what I’m writing, as well. I’ve started putting sources together for Alien franchise video games, although I’m a little less enthused about that because those tend to congregate around the First-Person-Shooter genre. Alien Isolation is the only title I’m TRULY looking forward to, although of course some of those 8- and 16-bit beat-em-ups will certainly be worth trying. Also, reader and commenter Martin Andreas Andersen has sent me his unused PSTV, which I intend to firmware-hack to play Vita and PSP roms on my HDTV (revisit past articles to read why this is a desired thing). Finally, one of my original retrogaming intentions was to play complete RPG series, and I’ve got the entire (readily available) Dragon Quest series queued up and ready to go. And A LOT to say about it. If anybody has any comments or ideas, please share. I will also leave you with this video, showing the process of loading a PS3 ISO on a hacked original slim PS3:
See you next week!
The product of fandom run unchecked, this novel began as a short story and grew into something of a cult hit.
WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.
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