Game Pile: Batman: Arkham Asylum

Time to time, checking out this passive set of screeds while I work my way through my game pile, I find myself wondering if I’m just the closed captioning for Yahtzee’s Zero Punctuation videos. Then along comes a game he quite enjoyed, enjoyed enough to put in his top 5 for that year, and I find myself sighing with relief as I get to disagree with him about how good the game is. It’s a Batman game for fuck’s sake, a game that deliberately chooses to focus on the very avatar of all of the worst memefication and fan-addiction that DC comics has ever had, the man that Frank Miller bottoms to in his most shameful of moist dreams. My existence is hard-wired to begin every reference to Batman with ‘Unlike Batman, a good character-‘

Batman’s universe is one of wildly incongruous components; on the one hand, from back in his dawning days, you have a man in a grey jumpsuit wearing his blue underpants on the outside running, jumping and climbing around the city with some expensive toys all snappily named like ‘Bat Shark Repellent,’ and ‘Bat Lockpick.’ On the other hand, even back then, this detective was spurred into action by, as a young boy, witnessing the shooting death of his billionaire parents by a random stranger in a back alleyway. He’s the iconic example of a hero who refuses to kill, yet he’s the poster boy for the grim, gritty film-noire characterisation that Watchmen gave to comics.

Then he has this idealistic, bright, refusal-to-kill, nobody-ever-dies outlook, and yet the most legitimately executable pack of lunatics around him in the world. Joker has killed more people than the Spanish Flu. Killer Croc eats people. The attrition rate on these guys in the grim-and-gritty insane asylum of Arkham is bad enough that they’re still killing and destroying people even in containment. They’re creating more supervillains and never responding to treatment in the thirty six years that Arkham has been in continuity. Hell, the origin of Arkham indicates that it makes people more insane, and this game does nothing to diminish that.

What this does for my experience is make every single exchange where Batman speaks unutterably hilarious. There is no way that this character can’t be completely absurd; we’re playing the grimmest and grittiest take on the Batman character outside of the filthy self-insert fanfiction Frank Miller has hidden under his bed, and yet every single time Batman opens his mouth and gives a growly, well-constructed line, it flicks in to shoot us his face and you’re reminded that we’re talking about a billionaire who runs around punching poor people in his underpants. The body count in this game approaches a hundred or more dead, some of whom are killed after you rescue them, all of whom are killed when you can’t save them, and yet Batman’s solution at the end of everything is to lock everyone up in the facility they just commanded. It’s so ludicrous as to lose all meaning – there is no way that a Batman like this can carry this game. This game wants you to feel like you’re Batman – it kept reminding me of just how unutterably silly Batman is.

You could do an interesting story about these warring opposites, about the ideal vs the reality, about the unfair world vs the purity of Batman’s convictions, and that’d be interesting, except it’d be The Killing Joke, and the punchline would be the reminder that Batman is exactly as crackers as Joker is, and then twist it back the other direction with a final change to the character and the removal of Joker from future stories!

Playing through this mess of characterisation, though, something happened. I noticed that my raging at the controls and the awkward combat because it was slowing me down. I was wanting to advance to the next step, advance the story, continue to see not what was happening, but the next take on the major bosses and characters. I wanted to hear more from Oracle, I wanted to grapple more, swing more, and have more moments climbing clock towers to batarang things from the top.

The game had picked me up, pulled me onwards, and it was doing what I mocked DX:HR for. It was dragging me onwards in periods of tension and exploration, peaks and valleys, compression and decompression, and it was making me want to take the next step in this Poor Underclass Abuse Simulator For The 1%, in the feet of one of the worst narrative memes I’ve ever tried to humiliate my friends for indulging. There is a lot to criticise this game for, but there’s no way to escape this admission: Batman: Arkham Asyulm is paced more excellently than can be mockingly simile’d. It’s just defiantly good, with a level of anticipation that evokes the phrase ‘balls tightening’ in some kind of non-torturous non-sexual context. I’m not kidding, this is a ten-hour long game that can reasonably be compared in its pacing and direction to Portal.

With that sweet, sweet moment of admission set aside, and the knowledge that I can delve into the topic of B:AA‘s exceptional pacing more at a later point, hopefully after I’ve got a pile of fail to shit all over in comparison, I was able to comprise this short list of things that made me unhappy about the game:

  • The controls for the PC are clunky and uncoordinated. An example is that if you try to counter a moment before or a moment after the attack, the interface swings the camera around to your shoulder so it can focus on your explosive gel, or your batarang interface or whatever. This is really, really annoying. What makes it worse is that when the game takes control from the camera away from you, so suddenly Batman will break the flow of the game and you won’t know why.
  • There are a number of mechanisms where you’re meant to press a button a lot to represent effort, but the presses show no effort; it makes the pressing feel unconnected from the action.
  • The face animation they have works great for exaggerated faces like Scarecrow’s and Killer Croc’s, or for aggressively stoic unexpressives like Batman and Gordon, but it’s really bad at representing a normal human face. Cage looks like he’s made out of leather, and Harley doesn’t fit the look very well – she needs something where she can be both expressive, and look like an attractive human being, two things she can’t do in this.
  • Oracle provides a lot of exposition, but from what I can remember in hindsight, she offers basically no impact on the game. Not a dealbreaker, because she also doesn’t get punched in the face or anything, but it’s a little wasted opportunity to further the third full female character. I noted three major moments where Batman did on his own something that Oracle could have done for him instead, meaning she just Watson’d Batman.
  • Continuing this, there’s a lot of dismissal of women, too. Harley Quinn is irritating but her influence is always subservient and undirect – and when you fight her it’s two hits in a cutscene. Similarly, before Joker makes her powerful, you just bully Poison Ivy in a way that really makes me feel uncomfortable; Batman is a dick to her in her prison cell, then is a dick to her in her garden. I understand she’s a loon and all, but the image still clearly depicts an empowered man shoving around an woman who very much is not.

If it sounds like I don’t have a lot to say specifically about the game, it’s because there really isn’t much of anything wrong with the game. Sexism, blah blah blah, totally awful PC control scheme, blah blah blah, and the rest is just me foaming at the mouth against the kind of video gamers and comic book fans who just happen to like something I don’t. It makes me glad that the game does have the bugbears of sexism, mediocre boss fights and arseball PC controls. It’s comforting to know that I didn’t have to stand up and support or defend this game more than I already will.

That’s not to say it’s a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination, but that I have to pick nits to come up with a decent list of complaints about what’s bad about the game is a testament to how well-polished and developed Arkham City is. It’s available on Steam, it’s relatively cheap, and whenever there’s a sale it dips down into the hamburger-range level of cost. Really, if you have any interest in this game, there’s a reason it’s a Game of the Year.

I will recommend using a controller of some variety, because whoever did the porting was a chimpanzee with strategically shaved patches designed to mimic a neckbeard, and make sure you don’t know enough about Batman to care that The Killing Joke and Frozen Hearts were four years apart and then it was eighteen before this got made.

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