Why Batman Works

Ignore for a minute all of the issues that Warner Brother and Rocksteady are having with the launch of Arkham City. Try and put aside your rage or ambivalence (these seem to be the two options) about the Catwoman DLC and just focus on the actual game itself. That’s what you have to remember, there’s still a game somewhere inside that unfortunate package of PR woe.

Now, I haven’t really played Batman since I wrote this hands on, so this isn’t going to be another preview or a variation of one of our First Level articles that we write every now and then. In fact this is only partially about Batman: Arkham City, and more based on my experience of the first game. I know that may seem peculiar but hear me out. See, I want to look at exactly why Batman works.

[drop]Remember Thor? I do, I had to slog through that for our review. It was, to put it politely, an unpleasant experience. The thing is, it’s hardly atypical of the super-hero game experience, just look at Iron Man 2. Things are getting better, Captain America and Wolverine being prime examples, but in general we don’t really seem to get a lot from the super-hero games out there. Even the good ones are only good in comparison to other titles sharing the same, worrisome category.

This just simply isn’t true of Batman. It’s not good in the context of super-hero games, it’s just good. It rises above qualifiers and ascends, deservingly, into most game of the year discussions. Will Arkham City do the same? I couldn’t say without having played it but the general consensus seems to be that it’s almost staggeringly good. So what is it that takes Batman and propels him past his super powered brethren?

I think there’s probably a couple of factors all coming into play here, and I want to try and get the smaller ones out of the way first; otherwise I’ll never get to them. Firstly there’s the lack of a film tie in. Of course, you can’t deny that both of the Arkham titles have been released alongside the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Many comic fans have always held the big bad bat in their hearts, I certainly have, but in a world where two hundred thousand is considered an incredibly good release for a comic (I think two titles have managed this number in the last five years) comic fandom alone isn’t enough to launch a Batman game. However, Nolan’s films have propelled Batman back to the heights of fame and cemented him firmly in the public consciousness.

However, cleverly, Rocksteady avoided tying their game into The Dark Knight. In fact, I don’t believe there actually was a game to link up with the film’s release, probably a wise move on Warner Brothers and DC’s part. I don’t want to say that it’s impossible to make a bad move tie-in game, I still remember Spider-Man 2, but forcing a shortened development cycle on a typically under resourced developer isn’t exactly the recipe for a great game.

The other advantage of not tying into a film release may seem like it allows freedom from the film’s story, but that didn’t help Thor. In fact Thor was written by Matt Fraction, one of my favourite comic writers, and still felt rushed and incoherent. It’s not even that comic writers can’t write games, which would be perfectly understandable. Both Arkham games have been written by Paul Dini, a comic writer with a pretty significant wealth of Batman work behind him. Of course Dini has a lot more experience working in other mediums than Fraction, having written for Batman cartoons a lot, which may have helped him in crafting the stories of Arkham Asylum and its sequel.

[drop2]However, while the lack of film to tie into and the writing explain some of Rocksteady’s games’ success I think there’s two crucial aspects it really boils down, and the first is what some consider a criticism. I’ve seen quite a few people, saying that Arkham Asylum could easily have not been a Batman game. They’re certainly right, you could easily strip away Batman and the setting and the game would work as a fairly generic spy game.

However, I don’t see that as a bad thing. Rocksteady has crafted a fantastic underlying game and then integrated Batman and the universe he inhabits into it. How can that possibly be seen as a bad thing? Batman is certainly different from a superspy in his motives but his methods aren’t all that different from a Sam Fisher or a Solid Snake. Why not build a set of core mechanics that work well and then build your world on top of that? In fact if other super hero games did things this way they might actually succeed.

The biggest reason, by a mile, though is that this is Batman. This isn’t an alien with abilities that far surpass any human, an inter-galactic police officer who can make his thoughts reality or a man who can move faster than the speed of light. To quote the recently released Justice League #1 Batman is “just a guy in a bat suit.” In terms of storytelling, this important for a whole raft of reasons, not least that writers don’t need to contrive reasons for him to be in peril; a well placed sniper could take him out.

However, this has far bigger gameplay implications. If I’m playing as Thor it seems unlikely that a couple of small demons could take out a god, in Marvel’s recent Fear Itself event it took the combined powers of The Thing and The Hulk after they’d been hypercharged by dark magic to take him out, and even then he held his own; anything less than that just seems silly. The same holds true for a whole host of other heroes.

The same isn’t true for Batman. He may have trained for basically his entire life to be pretty much as good as any human can be, but he’s ultimately still human. Unlike characters such as Superman, a couple of thugs really could get the drop on Batman. No, it’s not very likely but it’s still a possibility. One lucky strike and Batman could be down and out; you don’t need anything more special than a knife or a gun to be successful.

The other side of the coin to this is you don’t need to make The Dark Knight feel under-powered for gameplay reason, the lack of any real powers are built into the character. You don’t need to worry about players wanting to fly halfway across the world or trying to punch through a wall, he simply isn’t capable of it. He’s got his gadgets, his mind and his training to make him dangerous but these are flexible enough to squeeze them into gameplay while still holding true to the character.

There’s probably even more than this that makes Batman really work but for me the final reason is what makes Batman not just in videogames, but as a character in general. We know we can’t be Superman, The Hulk or Wonder Woman, they’ve all got qualities that pushes them way beyond humanity’s limits. On some level we can wonder if we could become like Batman though.

Realistically, few of us will ever have Bruce Wayne’s training or motivation but there’s still the possibility that it’s doable. For me that’s the real reason I love Batman and the whole Bat family (Robin, Nightwing, Bat Woman etc…), that they are just human. One of my friends frequently tells me that Superman is meant to be this glowing symbol of what humanity can be, how good we could potentially be. That’s true to some extent but I doubt anyone could ever be that good, that morally clear. Batman may have a deep darkness within him, but for me his drive, motivation and focus are what we should really strive for.

If we could attain that, there’d be no stopping us.

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31 Comments

  1. “Realistically, few of us will ever have Bruce Wayne’s training or motivation but there’s still that hanging question of its doable.”

    Don’t forget staggering wealth! Training, motivation and staggering, staggering wealth.

    • Some of us just need Training & Motivation…

      *polishes diamond tipped cane & monacle with servants cravate*

      Motivation being the real sticking point here… :)

    • See, this is the real point. I could be just as motivated, but my job and family means I can’t spare the time to train that hard. If I didn’t have the job and family I’d be living on the streets and wouldn’t have the resources to train that hard. So give me his money and lack of tie-me-downs and I too could reach such heights. Life just gets in the way, that’s all.

    • His money does seem to be something of an enabler for him :) Though I could fight crime using my Batmalaguna I guess. Hey ladies, you like my wheels? Check my bad self!

      Great article, loved it halb – he’s always been my favourite “super” hero, for a lot of the reasons you mentioned, his mortality being foremost for me.

    • This is what happens to people who don’t have Bruce Wayne’s money but want to make a difference:
      http://aryanism.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/brian.jpg

      • No offence intended mate, but how did you “stumble” over that image?
        I’m a little thrown by the main site…

      • good point. Here is hoping he google imaged it!

      • Hope so too. Aryan batman fail swastika troll image?

      • Thanks kjkg, I can assure people that this was google images.
        Don’t worry, I’m not racist!
        That’ll teach me not to check a source website… :(
        Let’s all just forget about this, shall we?

      • Even scarier then, if that many people are hitting that sort of a site to “boost it” up into the Google stratosphere! I’d always assumed most of these sorts of sites would operate on some form of darknet but I guess not.

  2. I have to say that i recently played through Captain America & it was a pretty enjoyable experience – Borrowed heavily from Arkham Asylum in it’s combat of course, but that’s not a bad thing. It was a good overall package, with me just wishing the game & it’s acrobatic sections were a little longer & slightly more varied. Best movie tie in of the year for me though.

    Batman however is in an entirely different league – Everything works, is exciting & most importantly is fun. Arkham City should be good. Very good.

    • I have been playing it for a few days now and i can say that it is really good amazing even. Everybody who likes Arkham Asylum should really play Arkham City. Everything in it just works and it is very much fun if there is like 5 enemies with guns and you throw a smoke pellet in between them and beat the crap out of them in the smoke they don’t know what hit them you really feel like batman

  3. Excellent article & good conclusion :)

    • Oh, & it makes me proud that this comes from a British studio too :)

  4. Thank you, all the moaning about dlc is really put a downer on a stonking game

    • I’ve played around 57% of the main story and i’ve only played as Catwoman twice so it is more like a DLC

  5. Excellent Article Kris(who thinks he is the goddam batman and has a shrine to Catwoman;).

    In theory, superhero games should be excellent as they have superpowers. I know the Bats has had a bad and good history with gaming and he has finally got the game that he deserves this gen.

    I would like to see a excellent SuperMan game but he is can’t be hurt by nearly everything and wouldn’t be very challenging to play.

    Some superhereos are not meant for gaming due to their powers.

  6. Intriguing article, the last paragraphs really had me thinking. I do think that’s what makes Batman so unique; he isn’t a superhero. He’s just a man fighting for justice, essentially. Arkham City will need to wait, however, as Uncharted, Skyrim and Battlefield eating away the rest of my money till after Christmas, with FIFA and Resistance also new purchases.

  7. Best article of the year and I couldnt agree more. An excellent piece….excellent…

    • Oh um… thank you. I’m not good with praise.

      • He’s being sarcastic ;)

      • Im not being sarky…u know me, your friendly neighbourhood foxhound_solid….really enjoyed that piece.

  8. Super hero games do work, because in gaming the majority of characters over the years have abilities or specials, I think most actual super hero games fail because they’re licensed & therefore developed in about 9 months rather than the standard 2 to 3 years.

    I wasn’t a fan of B:AA so I’ll be adding AC to my rental list but it’s pleasing fans finally have a ‘hero’ game they can enjoy.

  9. Great article.Completely agree with you too. My favourite superhero is Superman and would love a game but it just wouldn’t work.Batman however as said isjust a man in a bat suit which works brilliantly.

  10. Very good article. Since I’ve recently gotten myself a new computer I am now finally able to make use of the steam sales and picked up Arkham Asylum for 10 bucks last week. Just from the beginning the quality of the game is obvious.

    It shows that it also has a lot to do with level design. For example, at the beginning of Arkham, you’re not on top of roofs or anything like that, which means that you don’t get the urge to just float into the city, you really don’t need any more powers than being able to walk and beat people up. Then when you get to a long hallway, sprint is introduced to you and so on. They can give you less powers without you feeling underpowered.

    Oh and this slipped past editing ;)
    “In terms of storytelling, this .. important for a whole raft of reasons”

    • Me too with the new computer. Steam’s bloody great isn’t it.

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