OK, so I’m gonna level with you here. I didn’t get a copy of Batman: Arkham City until right at the end of last month. So I’m pretty late, right, I know. It didn’t keep me from playing it, you ass. Shut up. You and your playing games when they come out. Games are like cheese, right. They’ve gotta age. Something. Uh, there’s mold involved. Look, you get to punch guys. You need to know more? Jeez.
I played the first game, Arkham Asylum, and I thought that thing was great. And the sequel’s even better. I thought I probably should tell you a little about what’s going on in there.
There are two things, of course, that draw anyone in. The first one is obvious, and it’s the gameplay. The combat system, with its wheel of quickfire gadgets and simple hit + counter + stun + jump button map makes for complicated but satisfying hitting of guys who aren’t too nice. The “predator” sections are a little different, but because the game’s a little more free and a little less linear.
But the crazy thing, the good thing, the fantastic thing is the feeling of this insane world growing around Gotham City. It’s a “sandbox” game that allows the freedom to matter, because you’re creeping around, listening to hoodlums complain about how insane the supervillains are – but they’re still in one gang or another. They’re still debating the relative pros and cons of leaving Two-Face’s gang and hiring out to the Joker or the Penguin. They’re all insane – and the people on the street admit to this, even when they view them as sort of classic criminals. Some of them like the crazy. Others feel like it’s the only game in town. And every so often someone would like to get out of the prison and go to Bludhaven. It’s crappy, but hey, it’s not Gotham.
Now, I’m a fan of Batman, though I’m getting back into it after years of not really following the comics. So I don’t know every single plot point from the past ten years or anything, but I’m putting my effort into seeking out the excellent writers who do Batman stories. Scott Snyder, Grant Morrison, and the Rocksteady Studios are the three best right now. Morrison explores what it means for Batman to be in a world where he can make a difference, not just by punching guys, but by creating the Batman. Scott Snyder, so far at least, wants to deal with Batman as an entity whose natural habitat is Gotham, and what it must mean for a town to have produced a creature like the Bat.
Rocksteady is messing around with the idea of Batman as a force. The game revolves around affecting other people. You frighten hoods with your violence, traps, gadgets, and reputation. You start it as Bruce Wayne, who can’t get anyone to take him seriously until he beats the shit out of Penguin. Since a game’s strength is the way you as a player affect the game world, it’s quite natural for the thing this particular game to do would be for it to explore how Batman affects the things around him directly – and how they affect him. The travel over-land is esquisite, with the grapnel and the glide-cape making it a lot of fun to get around. I understand one of the Spider-Man games based on the movies did web-slinging around New York and did it well, but Batman’s Gotham isn’t Manhattan, even if it is basically New York. It’s twisted and old, and partly flooded in parts, actually.
We have to wonder, though, if it can say anything even though it explores so much of it.
I think it does. Gotham is an ecosystem. Amercan superhero comics make up an ecosystem. Originally DC wasn’t like that – the characters didn’t share a world. They began to meet each other sometimes, but Marvel added the touch of having the comic world consistently move with the characters, even if they didn’t move much. DC added it in themselves, and now superhero comics are nearly defined by their creation and maintaining of a functioning fictional ecosystem. Arkham City is that. The city changes as the story progresses. The side quests exist as strange strata, like niche systems, swelling and growing as they feed on the chaos – the life stuff of a crooked comic book world. Batman tries to act like a rock in the stream cutting through this ecosystem. He wants to be unchanging and unyielding. His conversations, over radio, with Alfred and Oracle are remarkable for how they make this clear. In the face of what’s threatening him, Batman tries to behave as though nothing is wrong, even as Oracle reads his own life signs back to him.
Grant Morrison shows us a Batman who makes people better. Scott Snyder shows us a Batman in love with his home and wracked with a mystery inside it. Rocksteady shows us a Batman honed to a force of will, a mind set against the forces of an ecosystem, shaping it through thought and willpower.