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November 2, 2011

Filed under: gaming»software»arkham

The Bat Mantle

Between our upcoming move and our recent wedding, it's not a great month for deep thoughts. So let's talk about something much, much shallower: Batman: Arkham City.

The going question, since it was raised by Film Crit Hulk, is "how sexist is Arkham City?" And the answer is, as it sadly tends to be in these discussions, "really sexist." But honestly, I think it's as much because the writing is very lazy this time around as it is the misogyny of the developers.

Let's be clear: there is one, and only one, reason that I like Batman, and that's the cartoon series that ran from 1992 to 1995. Striking a balance between Frank Miller's "Dark Knight" and the camp silliness of the Adam West TV show (tilted toward the former as much as a kid's show could be), it presented a version of the characters that was smart and well-shaded. It also introduced the "two voices" gimmick for Batman and Bruce Wayne, retconned several villains to be more interesting, and brought us Mark Hamill as the Joker (not to mention creating Harley Quinn as his codependent partner-in-crime--a relationship, incidentally, that Arkham City also fails to capture). That's impressive work for something that aired between "Tiny Toons" and "Freakazoid."

Arkham Asylum, the previous Batman game, was written by one of the animated series' head writers, Paul Dini, and it borrowed a lot from the show's reinvention of the character. As a fan of the show, even despite the "realistic" art direction, it felt like the animated series tie-in I would have wanted as a kid. But after the first five hours of Arkham City, I had to look it up online to see if the staff from Asylum had even been involved. In comparison, the new game's premise is wildly silly, the dialog is clunky, and Batman's actions veer inconsistently back and forth to meet the demands of the plot (such as it is, being a tedious stream of fetch-quests and scripted blackouts). Where's the humor? The wit? The arresting set-pieces? Why is Batman so grumpy?

A general air of forced macho grittiness is typified by Robin's cameo partway through the game's second act, when he saves Batman during a rooftop ambush. The two immediately get into a petty, ego-driven shouting match for no apparent reason, which comes across as incredibly resentful on Batman's part given that Robin just knocked a ninja off his throat. When the Boy Wonder seems to be the more mature of the Dynamic Duo, you may want to reconsider your script.

Now, I'm not trying to excuse or minimize the sexism that exists in Arkham City. If anything, it's the opposite. In contrast to those who argue that the sexism ruins a good game, I'd say instead that the sexism simply puts the insulting cherry on top of a badly-written sundae. I mean, seriously? It's bad enough that they couldn't write a funny Joker this time around, they've got to stack it high with misogyny to boot?

(The fact that laziness and misogyny go hand in hand also says something about the tolerance for sexism in the game development community. After all, this is an industry where the art director for Deus Ex: Human Revolution felt perfectly comfortable to stand in front of a public audience and describe his philosophy of female character design as people he'd like to have sex with. It's an atmosphere only Michael Bay could love.)

The general critical consensus seems to be that such terrible writing is particularly shameful because it's a great game, but I'm honestly not that impressed with it mechanically. Arkham City is set up as a Metroid-style progression, where new gadgets open up previously-visited portions of the map. Most games of this type start out with the main character de-powered, but City gives Batman most of his gadgets from the first game. As a result, it just feels cluttered and game-y: ice grenades that create floating platforms and a zap-gun for powering doors don't feel like Batman, World's Greatest Detective. They feel like they wandered in from Zelda in order to justify a sequel.

The same thing applies to the combat, which was one of the defining high points of Arkham Asylum. The foundation is still there, but they've crammed in extra enemy types that each require a flow-breaking special combo to counter. The worst of these are the shielded enemies, who take forever to dispatch because you can't land more than a single hit on them at a time, and have a tendency to crowd in during uncancelable animation frames to knock Batman out of his combo. It's an endlessly frustrating design, compounded by the awkward controls and the fact that few (if any) of the bat-gadgets do anything demonstrably helpful during combat (or out of it, really). Meanwhile the new open-world city--which is a genuine evolution--prioritizes these imbalanced brawls over Asylum's tense stalking arenas.

Part of the danger of sequels is that they exist in an entangled state with their predecessors. A great sequel--to pick an on-topic example, Nolan's The Dark Knight--makes previous entries look better, especially if it can weave in and question their themes. Arkham City isn't all bad. I finished it (granted, it's not very long). But it's definitely a disappointment, and one that reflects badly on its inspiration. This isn't the Batman I admired as a kid anymore, because what City tries to fix about him wasn't broken.

September 8, 2009

Filed under: gaming»software»arkham

Intensive Treatment

Some three hours into Batman: Arkham Asylum, we are introduced to the Lunatic after someone opens all the cell doors on the island. The Lunatic is a shambling, almost-skeletal enemy dressed in a straitjacket. His attack entirely consists of leaping onto Batman's back and thrashing wildly until thrown to the ground and knocked out with a blow to the head. Because that's therapy, superhero-style: brutally beating the mentally-ill senseless with your heavy, armored fists.

I'm not the only person who has found this a little unsettling: Justin Keverne calls it "the intellectual and social equivalent of bumfighting," and Travis Megill follows up with a post discussing the stigmatization of mental illness perpetuated by the game, and recommends using it as a consciousness-raising opportunity. Both make some great points.

One of the things that I like about Batman as a character is how plainly ambiguous he has become. Other superheroes may be able to perpetuate the myth of vigilante justice, but after The Dark Knight Returns (a barely-disguised John Bircher fantasy styled after Red Dawn), The Dark Knight (the film, which bears little plot-wise resemblance to the comic but touches on many of the same themes), and (most importantly) Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, it's difficult to imagine an interpretation of the character that isn't a damaged, near-fascist personality locked in a feedback cycle with equally-psychotic "supervillains." Calling the modern Batman a hero is hilarious.

So while his treatment of the "Lunatic" enemy is unsettling, I could almost believe that it's purposefully so. Likewise the depiction of the asylum itself: while the game never explicitly comes out to say so, this is clearly not an enlightened institution (and never was, as the hidden story items make clear). The inmates are locked into tiny, solitary cells and effectively left to rot. The guards are vicious, unpleasant people, and the doctors are using their patients as experimental subjects. In Killer Croc's case, they've just dumped him into the sewers, dropping rotten meat to feed him. The warden is a political animal more concerned for his career than for those under his care. It's like something out of Nellie Bly's undercover reporting on the Blackwell's Island asylum. No doubt anyone sentenced to Arkham would emerge more damaged than when they entered, and many are sent there as much from a desire to remove the undesirables as to rehabilitate them.

Indeed, one thing I found interesting, particularly while listening to the "interview tapes" scattered through out the game, is the degree to which several of the inmates are not insane at all. Killer Croc, for example, is violent and dangerous, but he shows no signs of being disconnected from reality: the outside world really does see him as a monster, and Croc merely reacts accordingly. Poison Ivy has entirely valid reasons to identify more with plants than humans--she's half-plant herself. And the Joker, as voiced by Mark Hamill, has never seemed crazy to me--sociopathic, perhaps, but no more so than many mobsters and criminals. It did not surprise me to find out that Paul Dini, the writer for both The Animated Series and Arkham Asylum, has written a story titled "Case Study" that frames the Joker as an entirely sane criminal using a deranged persona to pursue a vendetta against Batman.

Regardless, I have two reactions to the Lunatic. First, as Megill points out, focusing on the individual inmates (such as the Lunatic) or the institution is to overlook the overarching message of the game's view on mental illness, which is firmly rooted in unsubtle stereotypes. In its universe, disorders aren't a continuum of mental function, but a strict sane/insane dichotomy. This isn't necessarily Arkham Asylum's fault--it's derived directly from the comics themselves, which have always treated insanity as a shortcut directly to wearing tights and planning crimes centered on random concepts. ("Calendar Man?" Really?) As counted among the offenses perpetuated in our pop cultural psyches by Marvel and DC, I rank this relatively low on the list, but it's good to see it noticed when it pops up.

Second, the game's unsympathetic portrayal of the asylum itself doesn't really excuse its dehumanized view of the patients themselves, or Batman's enforcement of the status quo (he beats the inmates, but frees the crooked administrators to return to their jobs). It's one thing to say that Bruce Wayne is an anti-hero at best, but another to watch him blithely ignore the conditions around him. This is where Batman sends people, remember, after he's caught them. And it's not like he doesn't know about Arkham's policies: he's on the island enough to have built a fully-equipped Batcave there. Talk about your bad neighborhoods. If that's not indicative of the unhealthy relationship the "Caped Crusader" has with his foes, I don't know what is.

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