A question I have been asking myself lately: What if, of all the experiences video games make theoretically available to us, a simulated superhero experience turns out to be what, at the end of the day, video games do best? Forget the young game designer toiling away on her surgery simulation game, the ambitious triple-A game designer trying to figure out how to bring depth and moral probity to the shooter, the indie game designer trying to capture Super Mario lightning in a more contemporary bottle. Forget all that, because nothing these intelligent, hardworking designers will come up can ever be better than being Batman.
Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham Asylum was a superb and enjoyable game in almost every way — and yet, when I finished it, I felt strangely demoralized. Even though I had no particular longing to feel like Batman, there I was, every step of the way, loving the feeling of being Batman. Then again, what's not to love about being Batman? After all, he is the only superhero who can make an introduction ("I'm Batman") sound like a riveting existential crisis. Batman may have come to us through the comic book, but he belongs to American mythology now, and it is as hard to imagine him having been created by Bob Kane as it is to imagine Jesus having been created by Mark.
The skeptical reader is probably wondering: Why, if video games are the perfect medium for superhero simulation, are most superhero games so terrible? Well, why has LucasArts never managed to make an Indiana Jones game as good as Uncharted or a Star Wars game as good as Halo? When it comes to good video games, intellectual property would appear to be considerably less than half the battle. Superman games, for instance, are legendarily bad. (What comprises interesting gameplay for a character that is essentially immortal?) The only competition Rocksteady's Batman games have in terms of generally accepted video-game excellence is Treyarch's Spider-Man 2,1 so it might be useful to figure out what Batman and Spidey have in common.
Both are mortal. Both have clowning, grinning psychopath archenemies. Both derive their powers, whether literal or assumed, from creatures of notable ickiness. None of this suggests a mother lode of compelling video-game material, so why have Batman and Spidey proven to be such successful video-game characters? I suspect it has something to do with both characters' proclivity for gadgets, acrobatics, and urban environments. Green Lantern remains Green Lantern whether in Times Square or a wheat field. Superman remains Superman whether in Metropolis or cruising the rings of Saturn. But if you remove Batman from Gotham City or Spider-Man from Manhattan, you are basically left with two guys in funny suits. Only with the city in play do both characters become fun to control.
With Batman and Spider-Man, video games allowed us to vicariously experience what in the comics was only approximated and what in the movies was only spectacle. For the first time you actually got to feel what being Batman and Spider-Man was like. You attached your Batclaw to an Art Deco gargoyle and lurked up there in the shadows. You webslinged from one building to another through the canyons of Midtown. That was good, but what was even better was landing smack in the middle of half a dozen thugs and pounding the life insurance out of them. Was it really that simple? Create some interesting environments, incorporate a few cool villains, and wrap an interesting — or even competent — story around the thrilling core game loop of urban acrobatics and fistfights, and poof! — the perfect Batman and Spider-Man video game appears.
Probably, no, it was not that simple. Whereas Spider-Man 2 was a goofy, goodhearted exercise in webhead wish fulfillment, Batman: Arkham Asylum was brooding, scary, and occasionally even sort of moving, as during the game's now-famous Scarecrow sequences, when you moved a Batman badly dosed with fear gas through some wonderfully trippy terrorscapes dredged up from the depths of Batman's addled mind. There were a couple of small problems with Arkham Asylum, one being its ending — which resorted to a boss fight involving the Joker with a bad case of 'roid rage — and the other having to do with its preponderance of Batgadgetry, which by the end made the game feel like you were controlling a top-heavy Swiss Army knife with legs.
Already Batman: Arkham City is on everyone's shortlist for the best game of the year. There is virtually nothing about the game that has not been praised: the world, the voice acting, the story, the boss fights, the gameplay, the packaging, load screen, the collectibles, the music, the combat. So before I write another word let me add to the hosannas. Arkham City is something special, something spectacular — the superhero simulation to end all superhero simulations. The combat system in particular should win every prize in video-game land. When the New York Times' video-game critic, Seth Schiesel, writes that Arkham City's "basic" combat system is "just that, basic, meaning you can essentially tap the attack and counterattack buttons most of the time against normal thugs," I am reminded why I have learned not to trust a single thing Seth Schiesel has to say about video games. Rocksteady has basically found the Rosetta Stone for a certain kind of video-game combat system — one that is simple, supple, entertaining, variable, and still hair-raisingly intense. Rocksteady's Batman combat system moves away from more common video-game combat systems, which necessitate memorizing complicated button combos or, failing that, mashing the controller like a frenzied ape, and instead makes combat about the subtleties of timing and direction. Although you wind up using only a few buttons for most encounters, the fighting never feels stale or uninteresting. I have probably beaten up more than a thousand people playing Rocksteady's Batman games by now, and my last fight remained as gripping as my first. More than that, the fighting feels thunderously brutal. Batman breaks legs, snaps arms, head-butts, throws elbows, and generally just kicks people's asses. So it is a little strange that the game, staying true to Batman's comic book ideation, makes so much of its hero's refusal to take human life. Batman, punching someone in the spine as hard as you are capable of punching someone does not strike me as the modus operandi of a man with any particular interest in preserving human life. Goddamnit, you ever hear of tetraplegia? Arkham City's Batman also thinks nothing of knocking the teeth out of someone who refuses to tell him what he knows about the Riddler. It is an unpleasant thought, and a thought I do not relish, but when it comes to the treatment of unlawful combatants, Batman clearly votes Republican.
The other aspect of Arkham City that is resplendently good is its world, which is as majestic as Fritz Lang's Metropolis and as industrially drear as a 23rd-century Detroit. Arkham City has dark, satanic mills, imposing skyscrapers, blocks of squat brownstones, some gorgeously corrupted civic architecture, and a number of show-stoppingly weird buildings that are as pleasing to climb as they are to look at. Not many video-game worlds have been this fun to explore, and I can only imagine the amount of play-testing required to make the exploration feel so seamless. You get around Arkham City by Batclaw-grappling to rooftop ledges or using Batman's cape as a kind of hang glider. Of course, you can also get around more prosaically by running through the streets. I wound up running through the streets quite a bit, largely because they contained more asses to kick, but also because I liked wandering into buildings and seeing what was inside. Creating a game world of 360 navigable degrees, a game world whose rooftops are as absorbing as its alleys, is neither easy nor cheap, and the amount of care and imagination shown by Rocksteady's level designers is nothing less than inspiring. At no time while playing Arkham City did its environs seem to me — in architectural terms, at least — like anything less than a real place.
In human terms, Arkham City seems considerably less than a real place. There are no civilians on the streets of Arkham City's Arkham City. According to the game's plot, the fathers of Gotham have decided to transform a few square miles of prime real estate into a large, urban prison surrounded by high walls. OK. I understand that Gotham has a crime problem — also a supervillain problem — but why on earth would anyone want to corral all its most dangerous criminals into one open-air location? And why would this location contain a virtually intact Gotham City Police Department and what seems to be a still-functioning museum? The reason for this, I am told, gets explained via the Batman: Arkham City transmedia experience, but since I prefer my stories to be intramedia experiences, I am afraid this explanation is going to be lost on me. (If you need transmedia storytelling to account for something as basic as Why?, I suggest you might be doing it wrong.) Now, the real reason Rocksteady conceived of Arkham City, I suspect, is that they wanted to make an open-world game but not worry about gameplay- and story-complicating factors such as civilians and traffic, and that is certainly pardonable. But in doing something wrong for the right reason, the game's story immediately goes off the rails.
Arkham City opens with Bruce Wayne speaking at a rally; his stated campaign is "to close Arkham City." I am moderately well versed in Batman lore, but Bruce Wayne-as-public-crusader fits with no image of him I know. (Batmanologists, feel free to enlighten me.) If Bruce Wayne really wants to shut down Arkham City, I can think of at least one more valuable use of his time than speaking at rallies. Bruce Wayne, it turns out, is also kind of a dick. On his way to the rally, he happens to walk past a reporter who identifies him as a "millionaire." Bruce Wayne overhears this and interjects, "It's billionaire. Millionaires are so last year." For Christ's sake, Batman, we're in a recession — and I hope for your sake the forces of Occupy Gotham City don't get wind of that comment. On top of that, Alfred — trusted, kind Alfred! — is repeatedly dickish to Batman, as when Batman asks how to get inside some building and Alfred suggests he use the front door. Excuse me, Alfred? Are you fighting crime? Have you been kicking asses? Do you really have to answer every call as though I just interrupted your episode of Murder, She Wrote? Batman gets really dickish when Robin shows up, but, you know, OK. Then Oracle gets dickish with Batman. Catwoman to Batman: "I think I chipped a nail back there." Batman, dickishly: "Funny." Me, also dickishly because by now I am implicated: "Not really."
For a game whose writing and story have been so highly praised, you would think that Arkham City elevates the superhero game to a place of unimpeachable narrative accomplishment. It does not, and there are far too many dialogue botches in this game, such as when Batman overhears someone say that Catwoman is about to be executed. "That doesn't sound good," Batman says to himself. No, World's Greatest Detective, that most certainly does not. Later, Oracle warns Batman, "Those guys are armed with the latest military weapons." You know: those. The game's overheard chatter is particularly awful. Whenever Batman is closing in on some impregnable location or fortress, nearby criminals can be relied upon to have bizarrely elaborate conversations about what they would do to get inside if they were Batman.
Which brings us to Joker's evil plan. In Arkham City, Joker is in bad shape. He has contracted some awful blood-borne illness that has made half of his face fall off. Early in the game Joker captures Batman and injects him with his tainted blood, forcing Batman to find a cure for both of them. Well and good — compelling, even. But then Joker announces the truly diabolical aspect of his scheme, which is that he has been shipping his tainted blood to Gotham City's emergency rooms for months. Assuming Gotham City's hospitals just happily open up and begin using surprise shipments of emergency blood, how many people does Joker anticipate getting sick here? Maybe, possibly, .00008 percent of Gotham City? Later, when Robin turns up, Batman gives the Boy Wonder a vial of his tainted blood and asks him to run a test on it. Robin gazes at the vial and asks Batman whose blood it is. Batman does not answer right away — at which point the whole scene goes askew in a most problematical way. We are almost waiting for Robin to ask, "Do I have to get tested, Batman?" Then there is the part of the game when Batman gets attacked in a museum by a great white shark2 that lives in an ice rink. In terms of a consistent tone, this game is all over the map, and, viewed dispassionately, the story it tells is dodgy even by the generous standards of a comic book. Since the predation aspect of the game is so interesting and so successful, there is a strong case to be made for a Batman game that doesn't bother with all that much storytelling at all.
My other reservation about Arkham City concerns the game's fondness for gadgets, which was a problem in Arkham Asylum, as well. Rather than attempt to solve that problem, Arkham City opts to grotesquely enlarge it. While I love the Batclaw and the Baterang and the explosive gel (I also love that Batman, when applying explosive gel, adorably sprays it in the shape of a bat), at a certain point you are forced to keep track of so many Batgadgets that the procurement of a new one sends your face into grievingly cupped hands. Halfway through the game you feel like you should be earning college credits in Advanced Batman Studies. The game's gadget interface is unwieldy and oddly counterintuitive. Half the time when I wanted to investigate something, I sprayed it with explosive gel. When I wanted to spray something with explosive gel, I winged a Baterang at it. When I wanted to wing a Baterang at something, I whipped out my decryption device. When I wanted to knock someone unconscious, I dropped a smoke bomb. When you start getting "voice mails" from Joker, you think: So Batman has a Batcell, does he? And Joker has his number? That makes sense. Does Batman use Verizon or Sprint? Does he text? Does he Twitter? What is his hashtag? #iownthenight?
In some ways the Christopher Nolan films were the best and also the worst possible thing to happen to Batman. They were so good that they allowed us to believe that Batman could be taken seriously not as pop mythology but as flesh-and-blood character. When Arkham City's Batman happens by the site of his parents' murder scene, the game allows the player to pause and pay his respects, which would be a nice touch if the moment were not made to seem as momentous as Christ arriving at Golgotha. I came to the end of this excellent game with the sensation of having watched unimaginably talented people take a character more seriously than the character can comfortably withstand. Arkham City's Batman exudes a kind of seriousness that seems less serious the more seriously you consider it. Am I alone in wanting to play a game this good about something other than a dude in a batsuit?
Previously from Bissell:
Catherine: The Sexiest Video Game Ever
Video Games Killed the Video-Game Star
The Art and Design of Gears of War
Death Can Be Funny
Beyond Angry Birds: The many pleasures of iPad games
Press X for Beer Bottle: On L.A. Noire
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