Gotham City. Night. It’s always night here. I — Batman, a.k.a. Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. the Caped Crusader — have just swooped down out of the rainy gloom, taking a quartet of rioters by surprise. I slam one into the ground, roll him onto his belly, and snap his femur. I put another to sleep with a high-velocity clothesline. I liquefy the third’s internal organs with a flurry of Bat-punches to the torso, each successive strike powering up my combo meter until I have access to a number of brutal finishing moves. I use one, a disarm, on a fourth assailant. Pouncing on him, I push the road flare he’s brandishing against me into his stupid face.
But I’m not done. I need some information on the supervillains running around my city. So I pick one of the rioters up and proceed to strangle him.
“WHERE’S THE PENGUIN,” I bellow. “TELL ME NOW.” The rioter gives up the intel. Then I slam his head into the pavement. The streets are just a bit cleaner now. And I’ve stayed true to my personal code: No killing. Right?
Even in an era when superheroes seem to dominate everything, Batman stands apart. Batman is iconic, culturally pervasive, and wildly lucrative for his corporate overlords. Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Bat-films have taken in more than $2 billion in worldwide box office and Batman is DC Comics’ best-selling comic book. Think of any kind of consumer product — guitar straps, condoms, mugs, freaking ceiling fans — anything, and there exists a Batman-branded version of that product. For 75 years, children have daydreamed about being Batman and they have grown up into adults who have children who daydream about being Batman. He is even the inspiration for young cancer survivors.
And yet this hero is a lonely, damaged man who dresses in form-fitting rubber, hangs out in a cave, and shares his deepest secrets with his elderly manservant and the various pubescent children he’s dragooned into his cause. The murder of his parents is the formative event in his life; even in middle age, it’s a force that totally dominates him and drives him forward into the night. Like William Devane’s character in Rolling Thunder returning to suburbia after years in a Vietnamese prison camp, Bruce Wayne survived his past by internalizing the torment and pain and transmuting it into something else. That something else became home. The only thing separating him from, say, Travis Bickle is a few billion dollars. Wayne’s wealth may allow him to indulge his inner vigilante in a manner befitting a dude who hangs out on a satellite with Superman and Wonder Woman, but all of those gadgets and high-tech suits do not dull the gleaming, jagged edge of his crazy. They just wrap it in black.
Batman: Arkham Knight embraces this about the Dark Knight. It’s the fourth installment in the Arkham series of action-adventure video games, which puts you in control of the fists, feet, gadgetry, and vehicles of the eponymous DC hero. And, despite a few flaws,1 it’s as pure a Batman experience as there is outside of the comics. Equal parts campy, pulpy, and violently disturbing, Arkham Knight does not shrink from depicting Batman as what he is: a lonely weirdo who gets off on beating the shit out of — and getting the shit beat out of him by — criminals. The game is a significant addition to Batman’s lore.
The Batmobile sucks.
The plot of the main mission is your basic comic-book-style, hero-against-impossible-odds tale. The story picks up nine months after the events of 2011’s excellent Batman: Arkham City. The Joker is dead and his body has been cremated. Into the supervillain vacuum charges Scarecrow. He announces his ascendancy by notifying the populace that he plans to release his trademark fear hallucinogen throughout the city. He’s not looking to extort a ransom; this is just what he loves to do. Six million citizens flee, leaving Gotham in the hands of Batman’s various foes.
Complicating matters: As his final earthly prank, the Joker sent an unknown amount of his mutated blood to local hospitals, where it was received by a handful of patients during routine transfusions. Among these patients is Bruce Wayne, so the tainted blood is slowly turning Batman into a Joker clone. Oh, and Scarecrow is being aided and abetted by the mysterious Arkham Knight, who wears a full-face-obscuring digital mask and armor very similar to Batman’s.
Standard comic-book fare. A Batman aficionado of any level of seriousness will know right away who the Arkham Knight is. But the presentation of that very basic story is flawless and subtly smart. Despite Nolan’s outsize influence on the character, the authentic Batman aesthetic hews much closer to the camp of the ’60s television series, and even Joel Schumacher’s much-maligned pair of late-’90s Batman “nipples on the suit” films, than comics fans might be comfortable admitting in wider company.2 In the comics, the campiness and bright colors of characters like Robin, the Riddler, and Poison Ivy are balanced by pulp, noir, and horror elements.
I do wonder how much of Nolan’s “gritty” verisimilitude and washed-out aesthetic approach to depicting Gotham and its inhabitants is simply the result of him being red-green colorblind. Earth tones and grays are just naturally gritty-looking.
Arkham Knight stays true to that feel of the comics. Its presentation of the Joker — Batman’s best-known nemesis — is a perfect example of the game’s approach. Lon Chaney once said, “A clown is funny in the circus ring, but what would be the normal reaction to opening a door at midnight and finding the same clown standing there in the moonlight?” There are modern nods, such as the patchy makeup and smeared lipstick, but the bright-green hair and striped purple suit are pure comics. In Arkham Knight, the sun never rises on Gotham City and the streets are full of clowns at midnight. Rain falls incessantly on the city’s Gothic architecture, and gliding over the city as Batman on the wing is like flying over an enormous haunted house.
“I hate it here,” grumbled one of the game’s numerous criminal mercenaries as I crouched on a wire above him. “It’s always raining and it stinks.”
Wrapped in the alternating darkness and neon brightness of Arkham Knight’s graphics is a cutting critique of Batman, his psychology, and his methods. This gives the game an added layer of complexity and a discomfiting emotional punch.
Batman’s defining character trait — the elemental thing that makes him who he is — is that he will stop at nothing to bring criminals to justice, but he absolutely will not kill. He is driven by rage and a hatred of crime, but it’s tempered with incredible self-control; discipline is his superpower. An important aspect of Batman’s relationship with his various sidekicks has been about him teaching them the importance of that restraint.
When you’re a kid just getting into Batman for the first time, this seems noble, textbook hero’s code shit. But the more familiar you become with the various stories throughout the character’s history, the more incongruous — and hypocritical! — Batman’s ban on killing becomes.
For instance: How many countless fictional lives might have been saved over the years if Batman had just snapped the Joker’s neck after, I don’t know, the 20th time the Clown Prince of Crime escaped from his cell at Arkham Asylum to wreak death and destruction across Gotham City? I would imagine that Barbara Gordon, who was notoriously paralyzed and brutally assaulted by the Joker in 1988’s influential one-off story Batman: The Killing Joke (by writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland), probably asks herself that. And, after the umpteenth time that Scarecrow spikes Gotham’s water supply with fear LSD, is there anyone who doubts that his very next act, whenever he busts out of maximum security, will be to make more hallucinogens and try to do it all over again? How many people have died because of Scarecrow’s terror drug, how many will never again be the same? The question you come up against is how can someone be a hero when he, time and again, refuses to even consider using lethal force against Gotham’s numerous psychotic mass murderers? Instead, Batman is consigning them to prisons, jails, and mental hospitals that he knows, by hard experience (1) are not secure enough to hold them, and (2) are part of a corrupt quasi-criminal system anyway.
Then there’s Batman’s crime-fighting methods. Yes, Batman doesn’t kill. But that proscription seems less a personal commandment than a supreme act of self-delusion after he kicks some poor lackey in the head with an armor-clad boot, or throws a dude out of a second-floor window, or whips razor-sharp batarangs at him, or punches him through a brick wall. But, hey, he didn’t use a gun, so.
Arkham Knight takes on these questions in really interesting ways.
As the story progresses and the influence of the killer clown’s blood grows stronger, Batman begins having Joker hallucinations. The not-so-subtle subtext of the Joker-Batman relationship is that they are yin and yang, the flip side to each other’s deranged coin. Batman won’t kill the Joker and the Joker takes perverse pleasure in constantly upping the ante in an attempt to make Batman break his one and only rule. What if I shoot Barbara Gordon through the stomach, paralyzing her, then take obscene photographs of her as she writhes in pain? What if I torture Robin to death and videotape it? Will you kill me then, Batman? In Arkham Knight, Batman and Joker aren’t just two sides of that coin, they’re two minds sharing a body.
Sometimes the Joker appears as a silent apparition, standing like a merry sentinel on a rooftop as Batman flies by. More often than not, though, he mercilessly needles Batman, trying to erode that legendary self-control from the inside. And throughout the game, the things that the Joker says seem more reasonable than the things Batman does. After a mission to save Catwoman, the Joker, acidly voiced by longtime Joker voice actor Mark Hamill, wonders aloud: Why, when they obviously have so much chemistry, doesn’t Bruce ask Catwoman on a date? As the Joker influence grows stronger inside Wayne’s psyche, I found myself reevaluating Batman’s brutality. Was the Joker coloring Bruce’s actions or did he always act like this? For instance, you can watch Batman interrogating a thug by running over the man’s head with the gigantic back tires of the Batmobile. “Yes, you’ve killed,” cackles the Joker during a particularly lucid hallucination, reminding Bruce that he can’t hide secrets from someone who’s inside his head.
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The Joker isn’t the only character to question Batman’s worldview. After Bruce describes the Riddler as “an ego-driven narcissist who can’t let anyone else win” in a conversation with Catwoman, she quips, “It’s a shame you didn’t meet under different circumstances.” And later, Scarecrow tells Batman, “You tell us you are not like us but you are.” He’s right. In Arkham Knight, Batman lies to his friends and family, and at one point locks Robin in an isolation cell. He tells himself that he’s keeping the people he cares about out of harm’s way even when those people end up hostages — or worse — over and over again.
This critical approach to Batman is not something new. Frank Miller has been deconstructing the Bat-myth for more than 30 years. But video games give a person the opportunity to take part in a story rather than just be a passive spectator. And it’s there, in the mechanics of controlling Batman’s abilities, that Arkham Knight becomes something great.
The way the game designers answered the question of how best to put couch-bound schlubs in control of a highly trained ninja detective with myriad moves at his disposal is ingenious. In the midst of a melee, the player can watch for visual cues that signal that a specific foe is about to attack. The color of the cue lets the player know what kind of attack is coming. The player can respond in several different ways to any attack, but the most straightforward is to use the same color button as the attack cue to trigger a countermove. It’s a bit like the control scheme for Guitar Hero, and I find it incredibly addictive. Fast, action-packed, and strategic all at once.
Over the past week, I’ve wasted hours playing the Challenge Mode mini game, in which Batman takes on wave after wave of enemies. Each time, I tell myself, “OK, only 10 minutes,” as the sky outside my window darkens and settles into night. One of the oldest human fantasies is the myth that any and all problems can be solved with the proper application of carefully calibrated violence. The desire to be able to handle one’s business with one’s hands is central to Batman’s staying power, and Arkham Knight’s combat system unambiguously makes me feel like a badass. What ups the purity of the high for me is the scoring system. The player is scored by how long a string of unbroken punches and counters he or she can put together. The goal is to unleash a torrent of moves — back-flipping over enemies, dropping air conditioners on their heads, parrying strikes — without taking a hit and with no wasted movements. Having a long run of punches and kicks marred by a mistimed or clumsy button mash is deflating. I keep thinking, I can do better, I can score higher, I can do it cleaner this time. No, this time. OK, this time.
So why doesn’t Batman kill his enemies? Why does he let them break out again and again? Probably for the same reason that I can’t stop playing Challenge Mode: He likes fighting them because he’s good at it and he can’t shake the feeling that he can always do it better. And that’s how Arkham Knight, at its best, makes the player feel:
Crazy in the same way that Batman is crazy.