‘Damnit, Batman. You’ve been kidnapped by a mystery figure with a mystery agenda which will climax in ten hours and you’ve been poisoned and don’t have long to live. You need to hurry to find out what the mystery agenda is and to stop it and to find a cure for your disease…. Or you could play minigames. Lots of minigames.’
Batman: Arkham Asylum was a magnificent game. It balanced an action adventure game with a solid story. Seemingly random events were weaved together into a rich tapestry, coherent and engaging. The story made sense, with each part following logically from the part before it. The writing was superb, beautifully acted. Even though you could go hunt down little trophies and solve riddles, you knew where you were in the story and what you were supposed to be doing.
In fact, the game was so good that I wondered if I was misremembering how good it was. Was I forgetting the awful camera? Were the battles more repetitive than I recalled? Had I glossed over my confusion about why Batman wouldn’t come more prepared with more than a Batarang or two at the start of the game?
Nope. I played it again and it was as rich and enjoyable as I remembered.
So what the hell went wrong with Arkham City?
Arkham City is an incoherent mess of a game. The ‘quickly! hurry up! rush! don’t delay!’ aspects of the game are so inconsistent with the sandpit environment that it is difficult to follow the story. I suspect it’s for that reason that you’re treated to a series of panels explaining the game so far each time you load the disc. Even then, the story is confusing. There appear to be two plots in the main story, with throwaway lines to explain inconsistencies. For example, the story says that the characters you encounter in Arkham City are all inmates. So why do so many of the mooks have advanced weaponry? To explain this away, one character, A, phones you up to explain that another character, B, has given them weapons. Unfortunately, this explanation is entirely inconsistent with the plot relating to B, causing even more confusion.
Cameos are shoehorned into the game, resulting in random battles with no clear purpose. One character asks for your help; Batman declines so the two characters fight. When the fight is over, Batman promises to help the character anyway.
The game mechanics, on the other hand, are an addictive pleasure. Despite disliking the game, I’ve spent ages flying around, punching mooks and solving riddles. I’m glad I’m an insomniac; it would be easy to lose days to punching inmates.
Which, it must be said, bothers me a little bit. The game indicates that Arkham City was a place to lock away criminals and psychiatric patients. You don’t know which is which but you creep up behind them and punch them anyway. I had this mental image of one of the mooks spending time with their therapist, noting that they’re really seeing some progress, only to be punched unprovoked in the back of the head by Batman the next week.
‘Why am I punching you? Because you’ve been programmed to punch me. We are both victims, but I will break your face.’
Meanwhile, just about every character is an expat of the Uncanny Valley. Several of the characters note that they can tell how ill Batman is from a cursory look at his face. I, on the other hand, had difficulty distinguishing his facial flaws — the mumpish, plasticy, weirdly-moving flesh — from that of everybody else in the game. It made me wonder if I misheard an earlier exchange and everybody in Arkham City had been infected with the disease. Did the disease make you look mostly undead? Did it make your eyes bulge? Did it make your lips curl back into your mouth? If so, everybody’s showing symptoms…
But my biggest beef with the game is the treatment of women. Every year or so, the comics industry tries to clean itself up and declare it a safe space for women. It hires more women writers and women artists. It writes women-friendly plots and treats the female characters like they’re worthwhile.
Then that all goes to pot because powerful females as soft-core porn is just too tempting and (apparently) sells a few extra copies (for further reference, check out the criticism of the rebooted Starfire by the seven-year old daughter of a fantasy author).
The gender politics in the game are painful. Excruciatingly so. It’s to the point that it is difficult for any person interested in the subject to enjoy the game.
It all starts with Catwoman’s dialogue. There she is, captured by a villain, tied up, forced to endure his monologue. How would an intelligent, crafty, independent woman respond to this situation? If you replied, ‘With half-wit puns!’, help yourself to a biscuit. Catwoman escapes (whoops, spoilers) only to have a lot of dialogue reference what a bitch she is…
At first, I thought that it was just a problem with Catwoman. It’s not long into the game that you realise that something is really wrong with the concept of women in the game.
Batman’s handy navigator is Barbara Gordon (a.k.a. ‘Oracle’), daughter of Jim Gordon. Their interactions are mostly limited to Batman ‘mansplaining’ absolutely everything to Oracle. When Oracle realises something and tries to give him advice, Batman responds: ‘This isn’t my first day on the job.’ Three-quarters of Oracle’s job is explaining the Batcomputer’s screen (reminding me more than a bit of Sigourney Weaver’s character, Gwen, in Galaxy Quest:
Gwen DeMarco: Fred, you had a part people loved. I mean, my TV Guide interview was six paragraphs about my BOOBS and how they fit into my suit. No one bothered to ask me what I do on the show.
Fred Kwan: You were… the umm, wait a minute, I’ll think of it…
Gwen DeMarco: I repeated the computer, Fred. )
And then there’s Harley Quinn. Harley was a highlight of Arkham Asylum. She had amusing lines, she made most of Joker’s scheme work, she was an irritating boss.
This time ’round, Harley has lost all of her redeeming features, reduced to her most vapid aspects. Being mere mortal and liable to fall, when Harley first appeared on the screen, I thought she was kinda hot in an extremely skanky, wrong kind of way (I know, I know. I have a weakness when it comes to villainesses). I was quickly made to regret the existence of my Id when several of the mook characters make reference to how hot she is and how they would like to [insert single entendre here], hurr, hurr, if you know what I mean. The feeling of ‘Awwww, Harley. I’d like to catch Stockholmes from you’ quickly turned to ‘I am a bad person; the mooks have made me feel like a bad person’.
But the low point was yet to come. Later in the game, you’ll come across Harley bound and gagged. Press A to ungag her. Press A to gag her again. I searched Google for an entrance into a room off this one (which, it turns out, was completely sealed off) only to find the discussion threads of guys gloating about how much fun they had pressing A over and over again.
It’s ‘fan service’ like this that makes us bad people and makes it difficult to shake off the criticism that video games are designed to indulge the crass fantasies of male gamers. Shoot Nazis and dominate women, guys. Enter the Konami Code to open a beer bottle with your eye socket. If the industry is going to be serious about being inclusive of women, it can’t just be a part-time commitment.
The end result is a worry that the writer, Paul Dini, has some serious problems when it comes to women. Which is a shame; the guy has written some amazing stuff. Why he resorted to such low hanging fruit, I have no idea.
Arkham City is not even remotely in the same league as Arkham Asylum, which was clever, intense, and witty. Once you finish the ‘plot’ (and I use that word loosely) section of the game, it becomes a thousand times better. Hanging out, swooping on psych patients, solving riddles, performing daring feats. That part is fun and the game pulls it off perfectly. Such a shame it’s bundled with the misnamed ‘story mode’.