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December 16, 2009

I Need the Cape and the Cowl

Caveat lector: Spoilers ahead!

Over the last week or so I have plunged myself into Batman: Arkham Asylum with alarming fervor; last night I pushed on through until about two in the morning until I had found all of the Riddler's secrets, ending with the final "Chronicle of Arkham". Nothing negative I have to say here should in the least detract from the immense achievement of Rocksteady Studios in this title. This game is far more than I could ever have hoped for in a Batman game, and as someone who has worked with a license before, I am quite honestly humbled by the degree of fan service in this game, from the amazing art (a dark vision brimming with its own artistic logic and vitality), to the gadgetry (everything I could think to want is here), to the voice performances (all the right voices from the animated shows over the years, headlined by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill), the villains, the heroes, the setting. Amazing, amazing work.

Much ink has been spilled about the boss encounters and various mechanics of the game. Most of the mechanics I found thrilling and few things troubled me, although the Killer Croc encounter left me more appreciative of just how nimbly and quickly we're able to navigate Batman through these terrific environments, when I was forced to creep along a lot more slowly. What didn't work for me, though, was stepping into the cowl myself, from either a physical or a psychological perspective.

There are a few different ways in the game to inhabit the cloak and mask, increasing in the severity of disconnecting me from the experience.

The first way in which I felt a little strange was in moving to a first person view to take "zoomed-in photographs". When Batman is wandering about, he can solve various riddles by the Riddler by photographing the answer to the question posed¹. Often it's enough to simply take a picture by standing Batman in the right place and snapping the button, but at times, you need to view the subject more closely (to be able to read words, for example), and at those times, the interface changes to seem to be from the perspective of Batman.

It's a little disconcerting -- not unusual for games, though, but in this one I've spent most of my time in the game with Batman filling up a quarter of the screen or so. Switching to a viewpoint from behind his mask seemed strange to some degree, though as I recall my introduction to this mechanic was fairly early in the game and I got used to it quickly.

More disconcerting was switches to Batman's perspective in a couple of the cutscenes; I particularly remember being grabbed by Bane and shaken like a ragdoll, and viewing that from Batman's perspective (a view that was later repeated when Titan-ified Joker pulled off basically the same maneuver). I wanted to see Batman picked up and thrown, though perhaps the developers didn't. I'm wondering if they were going for a more visceral tie to Batman, but for me, I found it disorienting and a bit off-putting. My expectation in the game was to control Batman doing Batman-like things -- not really to become Batman, which I'll address last.

The one area where the game completely fell flat for me was when the game attempted to shock me in ways that Bruce Wayne or Batman might find shocking. Specifically, these were the Scarecrow encounters, particularly the first one. Having discovered Commissioner Gordon's lifeless body, I continued on to the morgue where ultimately the point was to frighten Batman, in this case by presenting him with a vision of the bodies of his parents. This was the flattest moment of a game filled with peaks for me -- up until then (and for the rest of the game), my goals and beliefs were Batman's goals and beliefs, as they were the goals and internal logic of the game's world, the actions I could take, the information the environment would contain. But when presented with a psychological situation that required me to have Batman's own experiences, it didn't work for me, because I found myself not really wanting to be Batman, the tortured soul who is strong enough to bear everything he does.

I really like driving him around, and sharing the same goals, but being Batman? Not for me. Let me watch him, making all my fumbling inputs look deliberate and correct. It is more than enough, and Rocksteady Studios justly deserves very very high praise. I'll be there opening day for the sequel...

¹These are themselves usually nice little set-pieces that are appropriate for the characters at hand, such as Harleen Quinzel's office (complete with posters of the Joker with little hearts on them), Victor Zsasz' handiwork, and the like. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at December 16, 2009 05:36 PM


I think it was Chris Soares I heard first throw out the idea "Someone should really make a game based on Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum comic" - and although the game ended up quite different from that, it has the same theme, that maybe Batman belongs in there with the supervillains, and that theme came through the most in those scarecrow sequences you didn't like. So - what would you do? Drop that theme altogether, or is there another way you would approach it?

Posted by: Jamie at December 16, 2009 05:05 PM

It is actually not the theme in the least that bothers me -- I think it's a few things. One, I want to watch Batman go through all that torture (but I don't want to watch from behind his eyes); two, that I'm very used to seeing Batman in the 3rd person always, in this game mostly and in all other media in which he appears, though I guess occasionally he speaks in the first person in comics and what-have-you; three, I felt some discomfort on a couple of levels to psychologically identify myself with him... I hope I'm not nearly so pathological and while I can understand a certain amount of persistent bitter grief, I'm also not likely to go off and start beating the crap out of people as a result. My karate training is purely for my own edification, not the fun of beating people up! Hmmm.. I think I am undermining my argument...

Posted by: Brett Douville at December 16, 2009 08:22 PM