(Rocksteady / Warner, 2009)
Arkham Asylum, a four-year old superhero game, takes place in what is nominally an open world but actually an excuse to constantly backtrack through the same environments in linear missions. There’s lots of items to collect, upgrades to buy, challenges in single- and multi-player flavours and character biographies to read to get you up to speed with Batman continuity. You’ll have to forgive me for stifling a yawn, I’m just so incredibly worldly and jaded. I don’t really want to be playing a perfectly serviceable big-budget videogame from 2009, I’d rather be crossing the Kalahari desert on a sailboat with wheels, accompanied by Zooey Deschanel on piano and Prince on the banjo. I’m just too cool and interesting for this game.
The part I’m especially too cool for is not the stealth bit, in which you must incapacitate armed guards one at a time without being seen. Neither is it the side-scrolling platform segments set in Bruce Wayne’s subconscious. I am not He Who Is Too Cool To Play A Side-Scrolling Platform Game, that person is to come after me and I am not fit to wash the socks in his sandals. No, the troublesome ingredient is the unsophisticated, Golden Axe-esque button mashing beat-em-up part. The sprite of a burly white plutocrat so rich he has a spare Batcave pirouettes about the screen, smashing his fist into the skulls of undereducated, economically disadvantaged mentally ill people who are disproportionately likely to be members of ethnic minorities. The animation is lavish, at the cost of the game practically playing itself during these sequences, giving you plenty of time to wonder at the horrible irony that is the popularity of Batman as a character. This guy spends a fortune on Kevlar bodysuits, souped up cars and all the rest of the paraphernalia necessary for the fulfilment of his juvenile fantasy of beating people up, while his home city sinks further into the spiral of poverty, crime, drug abuse and incarceration. Look at him, standing on a building trying to look cool as his trademark is projected onto the sky.
Batman is not like other super heroes. His position in Western culture is so assured he doesn’t even need an origin story. Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider; Superman comes from another planet and the Hulk got the way he is from standing too close to an atom bomb when it went off. Batman draws his super powers from the class system. In every incarnation in every medium, Batman beats seven shades of shit out of the poor because it is what we expect him to do. Because it is what we would do.
The Batman that we used to know and love was a figure of light entertainment, rescuing local councillers from muggers on the streets of Peckham with his sidekick Rodney. Nowadays, of course, he’s all poorly lit and growly. I reflexively find the concept of a dark, gritty Batman too offputting to have ever bothered reading any of the relevant comics, but it is my understanding that the more influential ones were written by alleged racist misogynist homophobic wizard-bothering gun-nut Frank Miller, who remains desperately popular with the same comic fans who have latterly been organising a letter-writing campaign against the comparatively moderate and personable Orson Scott Card. (I come here not to praise Card, also a homophobe, but merely to point out that there are no reports of him losing a PA over a faeces-smearing incident.)
The other interesting thing about a character who’s basically Patrick Bateman in a pair of comedy ears is – and this is by no means an original observation – just how extraordinarily gay he is. (Batman, not Miller). Here we have a man who lives alone with only his butler for company, except when he’s house-sharing with a young “ward”. He prowls the streets under a false identity at night looking for his natural arch-enemy, the very incarnation of open deviance.
The Joker is Batman’s dark mirror, the person he could be, if only he gave in to his innermost desires. Here, as played by Mark Hamill, he’s pitched perfectly. The macabre delight with which he taunts his own thugs as Batman takes them out one by one in the Human Revolution-esque stealth sequences is a gift that keeps on giving. Regrettably, his inevitable bulking up for the finale strikes a bum note.
Did I bring up the Human Revolution comparison already? This game, which predates it, refuses to be eclipsed in the crappiness of its boss fights. One day I’m going to write a blog post about why boss fights are and always have been a grotesque blight on game design, with examples including, but not limited to, R-Type, Rainbow Islands (which might not be the first game many would pick as an example of horrible bosses; those people wouldn’t have had hours of work undone on multiple occasions by the appearance of a vampire who spits out other, smaller, vampires), Joseph Campbell and Shadow Of The Sodding Colossus. That blog post will go viral and have Comment Is Free, the New Statesman and the Huffington Post banging on my door. Today is not that day, but suffice it to say that the ones in Arkham Asylum are about the usual standard. There’s Bane, who is apparently some sort of Mexican wrestler guy. There’s Poison Ivy, the plant-related villianess who carries out plant-related crimes and sits, with crushing inevitability, in a big killer plant. There are a number of other big lads, each of whom insists on halting the narrative until you beat the crap out of them. None are remotely interesting.
Would it be quite fair to describe Arkham Asylum as a distillation of everything that’s wrong with this dying console generation? Well, no, because I’ve been playing the PC version, and there’s a splendid fourth-wall breaking moment about two thirds of the way through that wouldn’t have worked as well on console, assuming it remains unchanged. It relates to Scarecrow, a super-villian of the insane genius persuasion, who demonstrates the fact that he’s more concerned about being evil than he is about being able to scratch his nose by having syringes strapped to each of his fingers. His schtick is to inject our hero with psychoactive drugs that are actually capable of breaking the fourth wall, by making you think your graphics card is overheating and the game has crashed. But it’s OK. Batman fixes your computer, then you help repair Batman’s fragile psyche. Making Batman apparently the first person to be able to resist Scarecrow’s drugs. “What are you?” asks Scarecrow, in horror. He suspects, you see, that Batman’s indestructability comes from the fact he’s a character in a game.
He’s wrong. Batman is more than that. He’s already left the pages of the comics and become part of our everyday lives. The reason he doesn’t need an origin story is because he’s already emblematic of the contemporary relationship between criminal and victim, plutocrat and plebeian. That’s why he’s open to such varying degrees of light and shade in his portrayals, and so tormented. He’s the hero we deserve, and the one we absolutely don’t need right now.