Friday, January 27, 2012

Why Batman: Arkham City Disappointed Me



I'm about to tell you a secret. And you cannot, cannot tell anybody else, understood?

I like video games.

Quiet! Don't gasp so loud! If anybody in the Pretentious Liberal Arts Majors Society learns about my affection for video games I'll be kicked out for sure, and I just paid this year’s dues! (Note: Seventy five dollars and a scathing critique of anything remotely popular, and or and gushing review of a work no one has ever heard of, in case you were wondering. But you do get a free mug out of it. --E)

But it is true. For a long time, I tried to hide it. To deny. Surely an English Major, whose entire existence revolves around dithering on about high works of literature, could not possibly like video games? Or even should like video games? Surely it's a hobby way below the tastes of such impressive intellects and keen insights as our own?

But I finally could deny it no longer. I like video games. And comics. And all sorts of lowbrow nerd obsessions that even the most destitute artiste would dismiss as beneath their considerations. If you ever wonder why I don't post my real name on this blog, that's why. Cause if anyone found out, I would never be allowed at a roundtable discussing the Christian symbolism in Moby Dick ever again.

Still, at my heart I am a penniless and pretentious holder of a B.A. Degree. And as such, it does take quite a bit for me to purchase a video game. One, because I'm penniless, and games are sixty bucks hot off the presses. And two, because I'm pretentious, so I need a video game to fulfill something deeper than a waste of a few hours. I need it to mean something. I need it to say something. And I need it to understand what it says, and at the very least, take it seriously.

I need it to be art.


Boy, this little discussion has gotten really tiring over the past years, hasn't it? Both the stalwart proponents of a higher evolution of video game artistry and the steadfast defenders of the industry's current state have both bitten back and forth at each other ad nauseum. Literally. I'm almost to the point that even I, who spent the entirety of college debating works of art, don't want to hear it anymore. But if we're going to discuss the ramifications and thematic issues of something like Batman: Arkham City, then this interminable argument is inevitably going to come up, so I just wanted to get it out of the way here and now.

Of course, video games are art. Even if you have to go by the most basic, rudimentary form of the word (that is, art=craft), then video games are art. They are constructed visual pieces designed to, on some level, emote a reaction from the viewer. They're art. And some of them are pretty close to “high art,” whatever that means.

But honestly, The Game Overthinkersays everything that I personally think about this whole debate, and does it much more stylistically and eloquently, so if you really want to delve into this subject, then go ahead and click on this link: Game Overthinker: Response to Roger Ebert.

Mainly, I bring up this whole issue because this post is going to discuss Batman: Arkham City on a more traditionally artistic level than you would normally review a game. Specifically, we're going to focus a lot on the game's narrative, as well as decisions made that impacted the games effectiveness at both fulfilling its purpose as a game and as a work of art.

Mind you, this is not a thesis, or a carefully documented essay on the flaws of Arkham City's structure, tone, and methodology. These are just a few thoughts I bounced around in this crazy brain of mine until I came to conclusions about what I was thinking. But I think these points do speak to issues with Arkham City's place as a work of art, and of a problem that many video games might have if they aspire to the realm of high art, whatever that means.

Just an FYI.

So without further ado:


It's not because it's not a good game, because it is. In fact, it's a very good game. But in this case that just makes it worse, because it highlights what exactly this game could have been, and how it ultimately falls short of the mark.

Like I said, it usually takes a lot for me to buy a game. A. Lot. I'm talking sometimes years of good attention and press and general circulation through the interwebz. As such, I'm not one to usually buy at game when it's at its primary $60 price tag. For example, I bought Batman: Arkham Asylum about a year after it came out, when it was the GOTY edition and thirty bucks cheaper. Saves me money and by that point I know I'm purchasing a spectacular experience. But there are exceptions, usually coming when the game is a sequel a well-known property, i.e., Metal Gear Solid 4, which I have loved in the past and expect to love again. Batman: Arkham City falls into this latter category. I loved, loved, loved (Note: Loved. --E) Arkham Asylum, and so I eagerly awaited Arkham City with all of the excitement of a child waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve (a fitting metaphor as I got the game for Christmas).

And let me say again: I liked the game! I definitely had fun playing it, and as a game in and of itself, it functions perfectly. The graphics are fantastic, the voice acting beyond commendable, the controls intuitive, the fighting satisfying, the stealth complex and the bone-breaking almost inspiring in its gory beauty. There are a lot of people who would defend it on that merit alone: it's fun, it's a good time, why does it have to be anything more? Why can't we just enjoy things, and not have to worry about such things as tone and theme and implications? And while I do agree that a lot of properties can be enjoyed on that superficial, look-at-the-pretty fireworks level, there are a two main problems with this sentiment that make it inapplicable, to my mind, when it pertains to Arkham City:

  1. Arkham City has to live in the shadow of its predecessor.

It’s not exactly ideal to fail to live up to the first in line in whatever you create. The human instinct is to make things better, to improve or at the very least add a new paradigm to a project that they continually work on, and this game is no exception. No one at Rocksteady wanted any consumers to say, “Well…it’s decent, I guess, but it’s nowhere near Arkham Asylum. And certainly no one who bought the game wanted to end it feeling that way. So simply because of what Arkham Asylum did with its portrayal of characters, its story, and its atmosphere, Rocksteady couldn’t make the game a purely superficial, fun experience, because its predecessor wasn’t that way.

More importantly:

  1. It tells a story.

And this is the main crux of why Arkham City can’t be enjoyed on its merits alone. It’s the great burden of all narrative forms of art, and anything that tells a story, really: a story implies things. People are going to be invested in it. It’s going to cause emotions. It’s going to matter, whether the reaction to it is virulent hatred or fawning love. When you tell a story, of any form, you take on a certain burden. Sure, part of that burden is to be entertaining. But another part of that burden is that you are going to be saying some things, things that you may not know that you’re saying until the work is completed. It behooves you, then, to go back and make sure you know what you’re saying it, whether you mean to say it, and at the very least, understand what it is your saying.

This is true of all narratives. All of them. From the schlockiest waste of DVDs at the bargain bin in Wal-Mart to every single print in the National Film Registry, all narratives say something. It may be simplistic. It may be stupid. It may go way over your head, and you may not understand it. It may be offensive, or ignorant. It may be affirming, or ironic. It may just be half-assed and not thought out at all. But all stories say something.

So this truth holds with all video games with a narrative. Let’s jump back in time for a second, and look at this through the eyes of a truly great game, Resident Evil 4.


In my opinion, Resident Evil 4 is tremendous. It’s fun to play, with good controls, legitimately creepy elements, and fantastic settings. It also has the one of the most simplistic stories you’ll see outside of a first grader's creative writing assignment.

The story of Resident Evil 4 is as follows: an agent named Leon Kennedy has to rescue the President’s daughter and fight through a crazy cult somewhere in the boonies of Spain to do it.

That’s it. Seriously. That’s the whole frigging story. It literally gets no more complicated. Sure, you learn a lot about the Las Plagas (the parasite that’s keeping the villagers under control), and how they were discovered and “weaponized,” so to speak. Sure you learn some backstory about the characters. You know Leon worked for the RCPD, and has a relationship with Ada Wong having to do with Umbrella, and that he knew Wesker from RCPD as well—but it’s all just details, and has no impact on the main story; nor do we really learn about Leon, or Ada, or the President’s daughter. Their hopes and fears and dreams and why they are the way they are? Nothing.

Now, I want to be clear: this isn’t any sort of problem. RE4 is not a character study, and wasn’t meant to be. And the game does a great job in making you care for these characters despite the sparse details surrounding them. But I’m saying all this to illustrate that RE4’s story is one of the basic, most simplistic kinds you could ever put on paper.

And yet, the story says things.

It says things about religion. It says things about the manipulation of people. It says things about the nature of humanity: are those controlled by the Las Plagas still human? Should we feel anything at all about blowing them away? It speaks to fear, and how to manipulate the player into a sense of anxiety and paranoia. It speaks to the precarious facade of human civilization. It even speaks to the idea of consciousness, and whether or not we are really in control of ourselves as we like to think we are. RE4 says all this, and it has a story that, as Yahtzee says, could be scrawled on the snow with one real good piss.


I mean, hell, let’s look at Mario for one second. You could literally argue that Mario has no story in the traditional sense of narrative (SAVE THE PRINCESS!). You may not be right, but you could argue it. Mario's story is three words long, and what we really know about him barely more than that. And even from that, even from that, we have had debates about gender and gender roles in the Mario games.

So what was the point of this digression? To hammer home that the second Rocksteady included a story in Batman: Arkham City, (and really, it’s not like they had a choice), they consigned it to be taken on a level more than that of a mere fireworks display. Because the game was now burdened with the task of narrative, and that’s a burden that a lot of people take for granted.

Now that we got that out of the way, here are the reasons that Arkham City disappointed me. No, they don’t make it a bad game. In fact, it’s the game’s quality in other areas that really highlight them. But I do think it prudent to bring them up, simply because it seems to be, in large part, where the industry is heading at the moment, and if games really do want to be considered high art, or at least, high narrative, I’m honestly not sure that this is the way to go.

REASON I: The DLC Problem.

You know, DLC really bothers me. Not because I think it’s basically taking advantage of customers who own a game (though in some cases I don’t doubt that’s the case), and not because I think it doesn’t have good add-ons or features. It just seems…incomplete, somehow.

The thing about art is art has to be finished. George Lucas might tell you otherwise, but I won't. Art can’t change. It has to be completed, then shared. Now, art might evolve. Stories might become more complex, events might be a bit different, things might get added that weren’t there before—you can see this a lot in folk tales, or, for a nerdier example, look at the comic book industry. But evolution in the artistic realm can pretty much only occur when something that is already done is taken and changed somewhat. For art to be appreciated, understood, or impactful, it has to be finished—not perfect, perhaps not what the creator wanted, but finished, then shared. The thing about DLC is that it guarantees a game is never “done” or “over.” There’s always something changing and made new, often slightly transforming the entirety of a game as a whole—meaning that it’s hard to take the work as a standalone piece if it could be even a little different at any moment. It’s impossible to get any sort of real perspective on it, or fit it in history, or parse out a meaning in it, or use it to reflect the culture around it at the time of its creation, a few of the many things that make art important. (1)

So let’s talk about this Catwoman thing.


Ostensibly, it’s really not that important. It’s really not. It’s not like the game breaks without Catwoman. Or that you need her to…understand what’s going on, I guess. And if you bought the game new, she doesn’t even cost money! Not to mention that completing her missions is an effective 0% of the total story percentage.

And it didn’t really bother me. It didn’t. Then I read this quote: spoke with Arkham City director Sefton Hill at the New York Comic Con in Manhattan last weekend, where he defended this decision, calling Catwoman a “guest star” and emphasizing that her segments make up less than 10% of the game’s total content.
I certainly understand and appreciate the concerns of the DLC issue, but that was the decision that was made,” Hill said, noting that developer Rocksteady Studios had specifically created the Catwoman content with an eye towards distributing it in this manner.

Something about this irked me. And just developing it “with an eye towards distributing it” in this manner really doesn’t make up for it.

Let me be clear here, as well: it’s not like Mr. Hill is some bad guy, or the people at Rocksteady are some kind of greedy, evil, bloodsucking company that rubs their palms together at the idea of a steady influx of DLC cash. It was a business decision, and not a bad one, gameplay wise.

Story/narrative/art-wise? I don’t know.

Games are in a weird state of being where they can actively reward their players ancillary to the overall story. Movies can’t do that, books can’t do that. You can have something like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which sort of “fills in” parts of Hamlet in the same sort of manner that the Catwoman sections “fill in” parts of Arkham City, but in the case of the play, it has to be its own contained work of art. In games, it doesn’t really. The Catwoman sections make little sense out of context of the game, and that wouldn’t pass in other mediums.


It’s just that…if you’re going to make this content, and you’re going to loop it into the structure of the narrative itself, I am simply not sure that it’s a prudent course of action if a game is going to be taken seriously as a work of art, or narrative.

As such, it’s the 10% part of the quote above that really makes me furrow my brows at this—I mean, what if instead of a video game, the quote read like this: spoke with Raiders of the Lost Ark director Steven Spielberg at his Los Angeles home, where he defended this decision, calling Salla a “guest star” and emphasizing that his segments make up less than 10% of the movie’s total content.
See the issue here? Not one of quality, or monetary considerations, but completion, and closure. If you don’t have a good internet connection or didn’t buy the game new, you miss out on 10% of the content, sorry. And yes, you could say that the Catwoman sections have nothing to do with the story, and you miss out on nothing if you don’t play as her, but if that’s the case, why did Rocksteady design her sections to begin with? They obviously wanted her to have some impact, even if it was just a bonus to unlock or a way to see the narrative in a different light.

And the fact her sections have no real bearing on the story doesn’t hold much weight either. Just because something has no bearing on the story doesn’t mean it has no meaning. You want to know a famous part of another medium that has no bearing on its overall story? Here, take a gander:

Yep, that’s right. One of the most famous, harrowing scenes in the history of cinema has nothing to do with its story. You could argue it sets the tone and the hell that the characters are getting into, and you’d be right. But as a story point? You could literally excise it from the movie and the movie would hardly change. Yet most people would feel cheated if it was removed.

Just because Catwoman has no bearing on the overall story doesn’t mean that it’s good she’s stored on Rocksteady’s server space somewhere, waiting for an input code or, if you're broke enough to have to buy used, a ten-spot.

Really, this is a facet of the modern generation of games that I just don’t get. What happened to the days when content like this would be on the very disk that you were playing? The stealth camouflage and unlimited ammo items you get in Metal Gear Solid upon completion, and the tuxedo you get to wear if you beat the game twice, are famous bonus features that are parts of the game. They've really gone down in history as the perfect type of reward for good play. In today's market? You could probably get the Stealth and Bandanna for a few bucks, but they might let you have the tuxedo skin for free, or if you bought it from a certain store or something.

Why does this content has to be DLC in the first place? Are you really going to tell me that Rocksteady spent probably hundreds of thousands of dollars and maybe in the hundreds of man hours detailing, writing, and rendering the Catwoman sections and missions, all in some strange effort to get people to buy the game new? (Note: Even that might be preferable to the alternative option, which is Rocksteady just trying to scam a few bucks out of people—but I don't want to be that cynical. --E)

Gaming is in a situation where they can actively reward their participants while still being a complete, artistic whole. It's one of the unique things, in a meta-sense, about the entire industry. Books can't do it. A book doesn't give you another book for free if you finish the first one. But games can do so; and it sucks that, if people are going to have bonus content on their games, that this advantage isn't, well, taken advantage of.

I think this might be another case where limitation breeds more fully-realized artistic vision. Resident Evil 4 didn't have the option of putting their extras as DLC. They had to put it all on the disc. And RE4's bonus content is very comparable to Arkham City's: both have challenge maps, and both have bonus levels and sections seen through the eyes of a minor supporting character. But RE4's execution of said bonus levels is inherently better than Arkham City's simply because of the manner in which it's garnered. It's won. It's earned. It's literally a reward for playing the game; this bestows a sense of accomplishment, no matter how small. Not to mention that Ada Wong's sections are every bit as fleshed out as Leon's, even though she's in the main game for, what, seven or eight minutes?

Likewise, Wong's sections also fill us in on other parts of the story, give us more info about a lot of characters, and act as a means to hint at the sequel which at that point no one knew was going to be a disappointment. It fits into the narrative of the story well while telling its own, and it really makes the player feel like they've gotten something out of finishing they game. Plus, and I can't hammer this down hard enough, the very fact that extra content on RE4 is on the same disc as the main game keeps the game as a functioning whole; if you don't wish to play the extra features, it's entirely up to you. Nothing is withheld. It is an organic unity.

Yeah, I went there.

Look, maybe I'm overreacting about this. Maybe it doesn't matter at all. Maybe it's just a lot of overanalysis and nitpicking for no good reason. It certainly didn't affect my enjoyment of the main game—but then again, I had the technological capabilities to get Catwoman. And the game was bought new, so she was free. If I had gotten it used? And had to lay down some green just to get her sections? I might be a little more than disappointed; I might be outraged.

And why shouldn't I be, when I'm missing out on what the director himself admits is ten percent of a work of art's content?

REASON II: The Sandbox problem.

There is one thing that drives any story, and that is tension.

Anyone who’s ever taken a creative writing class has heard this concept come up at some point, but more or less, tension is what keeps the audience interested. It gives a story stakes. Without something at stake, the audience doesn’t care what happens next. And when the audience doesn’t care what happens next, it loses interest, and that spells trouble for any type of narrative.

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that “tension” should be the driving impetus behind what a filmmaker, author, or any narrative creator does. Everything in the story should serve to create tension. All that writerly stuff that moderately successful windbags go on about: character development, dialogue, setting, style, structure, editing, revising, every single bit of it is in the name of fostering, and just as importantly, maintaining tension. We develop good, complex characters because when we have good, complex characters the audience gives a damn what happens to them, and that creates stakes. Books rather need to have good writing because good writing puts the reader in a place where the can delve into the story without distraction or lack of clarity and can therefore focus on the story. Not to mention that really good writers have a few tricks up their sleeve to get the reader to feel a certain way. Movies, especially, are edited, lit and shot in ways entirely to put the audience in a certain emotional state. This emotional state creates tension. In a horror movie, it might be shadowy lighting and a building, torqued musical score, heightening the audience’s fear and apprehension to the payoff, the jump scare or whatever it is, where the tension is released and the process starts over again. It might be an action scene with lots of sweeping, grand shots complimented by grand musical score with our heroes riding at a forefront against their foes with the fate of the world on the table. It might simply be a guy wanting to be with a girl, and us caring enough about that guy to want to see him succeed. All of these work off tension. Some broader, some more focused, but all specifically designed attempts to keep the audience invested in the story.

And, not to go on a long digression here, but it’s a concept that a lot of storytellers just do not get. How much tension a story has is directly proportional to whether a piece of narrative is a superficial fireworks display, fun but by no means memorable, or an emotional involving work of art. It’s at the point of tension where actions in a story go from “stuff happening” to “moving the story forward.”

What this means is that the creation and maintaining of tension has nothing to do with action, loud explosions, guns, people screaming, or self-indulgent direction. Or, to put this point simply, let’s look at these two clips.

Here’s a fight scene between robots we care nothing about and can’t really tell apart. This scene might be appreciated, it might even be liked, but I am willing to be a solid amount of money that the enjoyment of it is purely superficial. It's pretty, sure. Very pretty, in fact. It's "cool" too. But it’s a firework. Bright, shiny and just as fleeting. Enjoyable on a completely detached level.

By contrast, take a look at this scene, what is, in my opinion, one of the finest moments in cinema.

One of the greatest, tensest and most famous climaxes in the history of movies is three people staring at each other. But what makes this moment so great is everything I’ve just talked about. We’re emotionally involved with the characters, first of all. Second, look how everything builds—it’s almost like a horror movie in its careful crafting of tension, to the point where it’s almost unbearable, and you’re just begging someone to shoot. Notice how the music becomes more and more grand, and the way Leone cuts back and forth between the men’s eyes. And then, the release: one shot.

Bunch of robots nonsensically battling=pretty.

Three men looking at each other=one of the most famous moments in film.

So after all that, we’re finally going to get back to Arkham City! (Yay!)

Actually, we need to talk about sandbox games first.

The whole creation of sandbox games only really became practical in the PlayStation era where there was enough space on a disc to craft a fully-realized “world” as it were, with parts that one could, possibly, never even go to. Now, I will never portend to be an expert on video game history, but from what I can tell the modern version of sandbox started with GTA III. And that’s great. It was revolutionary, it was a world that felt about as real as anything could get at that time, and fundamentally changed the video game paradigm. I’m also not going to say anything ridiculously inaccurate like sandbox games don’t have merit or any game that’s a sandbox in automatically lowered in quality.


What sandbox games can suffer from (if not very delicately handled) is a lack of tension.

Now, maybe this is a pretentious douchebag thing (I am a member of the Society, after all). But if I’m going to play a game that has a narrative, and I’m going to be invested in the narrative, it’s going to follow that I’m only going to be invested in the game as long as said narrative is going on.

It’s the reason why I never could bring myself to get into The Elder Scrolls games (Skyrim specifically, since it’s more current). It’s not that the game’s not great, but I knew, when I really thought about it, that it wouldn’t be worth my money because once I finished the main quest, the game would cease to hold my interest.

Is that a personal opinion? Of course. But I don't think it can be argued that a lot sandbox games lose quite a bit of the all-important narrative tension once the “main quest” or “major storyline” has reached its conclusion, even though you can still keep playing long after it.

This can be entirely traced back to what tension is: it's the driving force behind all stories. It's the very thing that keeps us interested. We want to find out what happens next and so we keep playing, or watching, or reading, and when the onus is removed...

Let me put it this way. I stayed up entire nights finishing Bioshock—and I am not one prone to that sort of behavior, mind you. It's warm milk and bedtime at 10:00 p.m. for the most part (don't judge me). But I was so enamored with the tale Bioshock was spinning that I risked sleep deprivation just to see it through. The same was true of Arkham Asylum, which spun a tale much less complex but just as worthy of its comic book origins, characters, and investment into the storyline.

Arkham City? Same thing. Stayed up late, was really excited to play it, wanted to see how the Joker related to Strange and what Protocol Ten was and where Ra's Al Ghul figured into everything. And then I finished it. It was entirely by accident too. I completed this one mission—I can't remember which—stepped outside the door and there were the Tyger helicopters blasting everything away in sight. You couldn't exactly go around completing the other side missions at the moment, so I carried it through and it took me, literally, to the end of the game. No deviation, no choice. The problem with that paradigm is that it left me with a situation where I had almost 40% of the game to complete, but no real onus to do it.

In other words, I had no problem putting down the controller after I defeated the Joker and the credits rolled.

Is that a problem? Maybe not on a basic, pragmatic level. It's not like the game suddenly goes all buggy and breaks after the credits. But from an artistic perspective? I think it might be. Not only because the lack of tension that results from “finishing” the story too early has the ability to take you out of the game, but that it also turns a game that I would stay up late pursuing completion of, into just another fireworks display that I could take or leave.

And that's the problem with sandbox games, of the type of Arkham City, in any case. It's not that it's an open world, and it's not that there are side missions ancillary to the main plot. It's that those side missions ancillary to the main plot work best when they are, you know, ancillary to the main plot. If the main plot ends, those sections are not strong enough to hold up the tension of the game, or any story, really, and they were never meant to be.

To bring this point home through another medium, I think the closest comparison you can have to a sandbox game in literature is the Harry Potter series of books. Surprisingly, the two things have same set-up: a large, overarching story (Harry's relationship and confrontation with Voldemort; Batman's investigation of Hugo Strange, the Joker, and Protocol Ten), peppered throughout by bits that serve no real purpose other than pumping up the veracity of the world they're in, or at the very least serving as self-contained supports to the overall story (the Quidditch world cup and Quidditch matches, the classes, the Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter; the Deadshot, Freeze and Penguin storylines from Arkham City).

Now what makes the aforementioned parts in Harry Potter not mere pointless wastes of time is the way it builds Harry's character, the way it completes the world around, and, significantly, the way it feeds into the larger conflict as a whole.

The reason we're willing to read about the various activities in the wizarding world is because, no matter how mundane or random, there is always a shadow lurking over them, if you will; that shadow being Voldemort, and the inevitable confrontation we know is going to occur at some point. It's not always obvious, and very often it's understated, but it is there. What does that serve? It gives these sections, which would otherwise be non sequitur bits of puffery, an inherent, subtle but nonetheless very real tension. We know that the influence of Voldemort is there, even if it's in the form of a wrongly accused “cohort” (Prisoner of Azkaban) or a miracle stone required to bring Voldemort back to life (Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone).

I cannot overstate this enough. The lurking, omnipresent figure of Voldemort that hangs over every book is at the very least part of what makes these mundane little traipses into Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley have tension—even if it's in the most diagonal way (one of the myriad fights the kids have with Malfoy, for instance, on the surface seems to have little to do with Voldie. But then you think...well, Malfoy=Slytherin and Voldie is Slytherin, and Malfoy's father was one of Voldie's right hand men...). It gives them purpose, and depth. It helps build the world, the characters, and often, the very conflict that it ostensibly has nothing to do with.

So imagine, if you will, that the Harry Potter series, of seven books, has the ultimate confrontation and defeat of Voldemort, its Big Bad, in book 4. And the final three books are just Harry attending classes, getting into romantic faux pas, and having fun in Hogsmeade or at the Quidditch World Cup.

Sounds like bad fan fiction, right? The propulsion of the story is gone, and all we have left is “stuff happening.” There's neither context nor perspective. No reason, really, to be reading what we're reading. We have regular, unassuming, mundane days in real life. There's no point in reading about regular, unassuming days in a fictional life.

Would three books of Harry just doing stuff with no context, drive or tension be unbearable? Probably. But, you know, it's possible Rowling could have made it work. She's good writer, we like Harry, maybe we would be okay with seeing him just chilling out. But would the books still be page-turners that you stay up all night way past any logic or sense reading just to get to the end? I can pretty steadfastly say: no.

This is exactly what happens in Batman: Arkham City.

Yes, I still play it. Yes, I even have fun. The Riddler puzzles, for example—it's nice to outsmart the bastard, it really is. And I'm working on finishing off the side missions. But more out of a sense of duty—or maybe OCD—not really because I'm desperate to. The game has been relegated from something I run to do to something I goof around with whenever I'm bored for an hour. And entire sections of the game simply have no meaning. Why should I waste my time fighting anyone? Or spend twenty minutes stealthily taking out thugs with guns? What's the point? Why am I here? Why am I doing this? Why do I even exist?

I don't think it's the sandbox itself that's the cause of the problem, but how the game is structured. To illustrate this, I would like to point out one of the recent legendary games that has undergone critical backlash in the last few years: Final Fantasy VII.


Say what you want about this game. Is it overrated? Is it dated? Is it the beginning of everything that went wrong with the FF series? Maybe all those things and more. But what cannot be denied is that FFVII is suitably epic in its scope, taking a full on, balls-to-the-wall advantage of the PS1's more sophisticated disc storage mechanic. It's also what I would consider to be the most famous prototype sandbox game that came out of that era.

FFVII isn't a sandbox game in the now understood meaning of the word—I think there were still too many technological limitations in that era to pull it off. But you can see the beginnings of it taking shape. After spending the first 20 or so hours in the corporate-controlled dystopia of Midgar you're thrust into a vast, open world where you can do anything, take the story at your own pace, and, at a certain point, gain the freedom to pursue fun but not imperative side quests. Now I know previous FF games had a more open-world idea...but I don't think it can be argued that FFVII took it to a bigger, more fully realized level. Here was a game with dozens of side quests. Weapons to be found, weapons to be killed, games at the Gold Saucer, special characters to unlock, side missions to go on, chocobos to raise, extremely powerful materia to locate, submarines to explore, etc. It's true you only get “true freedom” to explore the world once you get the airship, but the point is that the seeds of what would later come to be known as sandbox games were all there.

But God damn it, once Final Fantasy VII was over, it was over, man.

People might bitch and complain about FFVII's (in?)famous ending, but the fact remains that FFVII did an excellent job building up its Big Bad as the super-colossal-behemoth monstrosity that your entire game is working towards defeating. Like Voldemort in Harry Potter, the shadow of Sephiroth hangs over everything you do in FFVII. No matter how many times you here that ear-shattering doinky music in the Chocobo races, you know he is out there, waiting.

And once you defeat him? Game's over. What this does is not only lend credence to Sephiroth as the villain, but gives the story a focus and drive it would otherwise be lacking. I mean, let's be honest here: would defeating Emerald Weapon have been as satisfying if you could come back and do it whenever you wanted, before or after Sephiroth was defeated? I really don't think so. And would Sephiroth have become the be-all-end-all list topper of greatest video game villains if his ultimate defeat turned out to be just a routine action? A percentage of an overall game completion score? I don't think so. Having the game umbrella-ed under the final battle of Sephiroth gave him weight, the story weight, and the entire game weight. It gave it a narrative tension that, no matter the critical backlash that's sprung up against it the past few years, makes it a memorable work in video game history.

Can that same feel of epicness and tightness of story line apply to Arkham City? Can the intimidation of the main villain even approach Sephiroth's? Can it even approach the Joker from Arkham City's own predecessor?

No, it really can't. And it can all be traced back to the lack of tension, diminution of villains and discarding of storyline that comes simply from being able to dick around in Arkham City after the credits.

It doesn't make it a bad game. It doesn't mean the puzzles aren't interesting and the level design isn't fantastic and the side missions are useless. It doesn't mean that gamers shouldn't have the ability to make their own choices in a game, or should be forced to stay on a linear path throughout. No, what sandbox games that are handled like Arkham City do mean is that their entire narrative, the thing that they have worked to get us interested and invested in, becomes essentially meaningless because you can come back after the credits as if nothing has happened. If that's not the antithesis of narrative tension, I don't know what is. And I don't know if a game can be taken seriously as a narrative work if this is the type of sandbox game it chooses to be.

But when you get right down to it, all of these so-called “problems” are forgivable for a variety of means. You can chalk them up to a lot of things, including just simply being the nature of the medium as it is now. At the end of the day, both of these issues I’ve droned on (and on and on) about are really just personal opinions that a guy who admittedly barely buys video games has had with a game he chose to get. Gaming is a new medium, especially in the realm of narrative, and it’s quite possible that over the coming decades the whole understanding of the distribution and enjoyment of art might change, or at the very least, games will inherently be understood to follow a different set of rules than literature and film.

Yet if there’s one thing that I’m sure is a real issue for Batman: Arkham City, one that might hurt any attempt for it to be really examined critically, and the one that truly, deeply disappointed me as a player, it is this:

REASON III: Batman: Arkham City totally whiffs on its thematic responsibilities.

All narrative art has themes. Period. It cannot be avoided. As I mentioned waaaaaaaaay back up there are the beginning of this article, all pieces of art with a story are inherent going to imply something, and this is one of the overlooked burdens of narrative.

Why is it a burden? Because if you are responsible, you’re going to look back at the story you’ve crafted and understand what it’s saying beneath the surface—and this might lead you to places you weren’t expecting to go. Your story might say things you aren’t comfortable with it saying—things that you never intended it to say, which means you might have to change or scrap the whole project. Or, it might be saying something that you’re okay with, but which might be easily misinterpreted, meaning you have to go back and revise the piece until it functions wholly. And inevitably, no matter how careful and how much scrutiny you put a piece under, someone is, at some point, probably going to raise an objection to a concept or theme in your work that you never even spotted and still can’t even when pointed out to you, putting you in the rather disadvantageous position of defending your work. You think Shigeru Miyamoto ever expected his harmless little game about a plumber and a princess to ever be at the center of feminist debate? Probably not. Likewise, I doubt the creators and hardworking men and women of Rocksteady would ever expect some douchebag nobody on a new blog raise some possible concerns about their treatment of Batman and his relationship to the lower and criminal classes, but there you have it—when you put a narrative out there, weird shit is bound to occur.

You see, there’s an inherent—oh, let’s call it a problem with Batman, something that I think is coming more and more to light with the recent American collapse of the banking systems and repeated multi-billion dollar bailouts to large corporations. In this era, where the prevailing attitude is that corporations and CEO’s rake in millions of dollars while leaving the poor and disenfranchised to rot, the picture of Batman has become something a little more bleak than it was at the beginning of the decade.

Because when you boil it down to its essence, Batman is a story about a billionaire who goes around beating up lower classes citizens who are probably just trying to make their way in the world.

Is that overly simple and off-target? In a way, yeah. It completely lacks context, and doesn’t take into account the myriad missions where Batman has, say, fought corrupt scientific laboratories, the Mob, or greedy politicians. Yet there is some truth to this cut down, bare bones interpretation of Batman. The guy has unlimited access to money, and uses it to prowl the streets of Gotham and take out criminals, usually without perspective or understanding of those criminals as human beings. It’s this fact, among others, why Batman is not as popular as goody-goody Superman in high crime/poverty neighborhoods, and part of the reason I think Superman might see a resurgence in the next decade, in a time when everyone’s fed up with the rich and powerful—but that’s another post.

Now over the intervening decades much has been done to make Bruce Wayne/Batman a more complex and compelling character than that little statement a couple of paragraphs above would make him out of there. His parents have been killed, he lives in the shadow of their memory, he only goes after truly horrible pricks, some versions even contemplate the notion that he’s a bit insane—that’s actually a good thing, mind, a very self-aware reading of the character that in turn makes the character stronger as he’s forced to make sure he doesn’t fall into a pit from which he cannot return (On a side note, this last is something that Arkham Asylum did almost to perfection. –E)

But then we get to Arkham City. And there are a few problems. They don’t leap out at you—they’re not brazen or obvious, which is why I’m sure that Rocksteady didn’t mean to imply what they are implying…

So follow along with me here. Arkham City is Quincy Sharp—secretly controlled by Hugo Strange—attempting to settle every single Gotham Criminal into one large sadistic prison camp. This means everyone from Arkham Asylum and the more general prison and Blackgate as well as the other prison in the Gotham Area are going to be emptied into this sector behind a high wall where they can basically just tear each other apart. You killed your whole family? You’re in Arkham City. You stole a popsicle from a convenience store? You’re in Arkham City.

Then in swoops Batman, entirely by accident, mind, mainly because Bruce Wayne was protesting the penitentiary and Hugo Strange tossed him in like a sack of mail. At which point Batman goes on a quest to put down the criminal elements in Arkham City and defeat Hugo Strange. What’s missing in this? What makes this story and its themes so disappointing to me? Only this: there is not one mention of the ethical or political ramifications of not only throwing all criminals into the same prison as if all levels of criminality are the same, but of treating criminals like dirt to begin with.

Yeah, really.

There is never a point in the game where Batman wonders if the guy he just broke the face of is really that bad of a person, or if he was a man caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. What’s more, there are never any “lesser” criminals in Arkham City. There are only political prisoners, whom Batman makes it clear are innocent people wrongfully accused by Strange. There’s not, say, the guy who is completely out of his element in prison getting beaten up by a bunch of much more violent thugs. Or the youth that lifted a car to impress his friends and was thrown in with people who would own him in a second. And let me say again: the game makes it clear that all criminals in the Gotham district have been transferred to Arkham City.

Like I said above, I think this is a situation where Arkham City designers and writers just either missed the inherent complexities of the story they were raveling, or simply did not notice that this little implication was in there, lurking around for some obtrusive, overly sensitive lit major to stumble upon.

Yet it must be said: Arkham City implies that all criminals are the same, the rapist is in the same league as the shoplifter and the mugger is in the same league as the assaulter, and that they are all the same level of despicable and equally deserving of having a fist punched through their liver by Batman. sort of a problem.

Now whether or not Rocksteady intentionally took this stance, or whether anyone else noticed it, doesn't mean it's not there. As we like to say in English classes, the evidence is in the text. Meaning that whether they wanted to or not, Rocksteady has set up Arkham City to look like this:

a) That every criminal in the district is tossed into Arkham City.

b) That Batman can beat down every single criminal.

c) That every single criminal wants to beat down Batman.

d) That every single criminal in Arkham City deserves what they get.

This is a rather questionable stance to take to begin with. So how do you combat it? You take a very mature, nuanced approach to it, backing up this stance—however unintended—of undifferentiated levels of criminality. It would have to come through in the story, dialogue and Batman's interactions with the villains. It would have to be carefully crafted and well thought out to make sure that what is being said is not only intended but supported.

Instead, we get nothing.

The closest the game comes to addressing this issue at all is in a conversation Batman has with Oracle at the inception of Protocol Ten, when Babs asks Batman if killing off every criminal in Gotham wasn't, in fact, a good thing, I expected Batman to respond in one of the following ways:

  1. No, Barbara, all human life deserves to be protected.
  2. Remember, Barbara, most of the criminals in here have committed minor misdemeanors or less severe crimes. They certainly don't deserve to be shot to death by Tyger operatives.

Instead, Batman reiterates that there are innocent political prisoners in Arkham City.

It's all about implication and subtlety. No, Batman doesn't outright agree with Oracle that it's a good thing all the criminals in Arkham City are getting toasted. But he certainly doesn't disagree with it, and that's problematic when the game you're making is not thematically set up to dissect or at the very least address that implication. Which means that, however subtly or unintentionally, the game's implying that all criminals are not only the same, with no wiggle room whatsoever, but if they happen to be lumped together in the prison camp and then shot down by Gatling guns mounted on police helicopters, well, they were just criminals, right? Right?

So maybe I’m grasping, here. Well, that’d be no surprise. I spent three years of college writing twenty page papers based on grasping, I see no reason that I would have fallen out of the habit now. And perhaps you could convince me that the issue itself really isn’t that big, and that I’m just overanalyzing it because that’s my nature, and that everyone else who played this game was not going to notice such a pointless detail because they were actually, you know, playing the game. And it is possible I could be convinced of that.

But even if all that’s true, and I am sort of pushing it here with my interpretation of events based on clues Rocksteady didn’t even realize they were putting in, I could not be convinced that Rocksteady didn't drop the ball here as far as story and theme are concerned.

Arkham Asylum wasn’t the deepest game, and it didn’t need to be. It was a great game with fantastic play elements, a fun story, and great voice acting. The deep parts that did come through, specifically the Scarecrow sections where Batman’s character is sent through the ringer and examined thoroughly were the gooey caramel sections inside an already tasty chocolate bar. They gave the player a taste of a deeply thematic, visceral experience. So when Rocksteady made it known that they were intent on making the game bigger in every way, I honestly think a lot of folks were expecting a deeper, more nuanced and thoughtful game. And in that way? Rocksteady didn’t deliver.

It was a combination of expectations due to what occurred in their previous game, and what Rocksteady ostensibly was tackling in the current. Certainly not all Batman games, or even games period, need to have nuance and complex themes and major internal conflict and character development, but when your previous game had those elements, and the game you're currently building is, intentionally or not, a perfect set up for this type of complex, nuanced game, when such a thing does not occurs, it dampens the experience.

I mean, Rocksteady built an entire living breathing world with an absolutely gorgeous aesthetic design, realistic combat, interesting side missions, and a momentous story, and then hamstrung it by focusing only on those things just mentioned. They served us a prime rib with no fat on it. It’s neater, sure, but there’s no juice where there should be. Arkham City is an internment camp. You almost cannot escape without saying something profound about something…I almost wonder if Rocksteady didn’t try to not make the game with any thematic oomph.

Think of what could be said here. Think of what could be examined just by the setup that Rocksteady put in place. They could talk about the penal system, about the nature of criminals, about the inherent problems with putting major offenders in the same camp as minor ones. They could really dig inside Batman and get at not only the major good in his stances, but the bad as well. Maybe Batman encounters a character that seems to be an irreparable villain but was actually turned that way by Arkham City’s hardline stance. Maybe this allows Batman to think about what he is truly about. Does every criminal deserve to get swooped upon in the night? Maybe, maybe not, but what a fascinating thing to explore!

I mean, good Christ people, the place where Bruce's parents were murdered is right there in the city. And what do they do with it? Well…Strange says some things when you first encounter it…then if you go back there you can pay your respects while music plays in the background…does anyone else not see the missed opportunity here? I don’t know what they could have done, but for such a momentous occasion and place in the main character of the game’s life, you would think something more could be done.

And that’s what it boils down to, really. I mentioned up near the top about how great Arkham City was, and about how that’s what made me really disappointed in it. Do all video games “need” to be “high art” (whatever that means)? No. Do some “need” to be “high art” (whatever that means)? Maybe not. But I do think that games need to at least try. That’s the real rub for me here. Rocksteady set itself up with a great first game, a great premise, a cool aesthetic and beautiful gameplay…and then they didn’t do anything substantial with the materials that they themselves created. If games are ever to be taken seriously as art of any kind, they can’t shy away from tackling issues that are right in front of their faces, especially ones that are, intended or not, present in the game’s story and are just begging to be explored.

Expecting something that is not quite lived up to…that’s the definition of disappointment, I guess. And that’s what I got from Arkham City. A very good game that I was just expecting—maybe even merely hoping—would push just a little bit farther, confront just a little bit more, say something a bit more profound. Or even say anything at all.

Now if you excuse me, I have some Riddler trophies I still need to collect.

Until next time,

Mr. E

(1) Once again I found I was basically quoting a recent Game OverThinker episode in this section. He talks more in length about art and completeness here:

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ewoks and Emperors: Or Why Return of the Jedi is, in fact, a Good Movie Part Two

We covered last week the range of opinions that are held in regards to Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi, (ROTJ). About how it's unique in the Star Wars fandom for its divisiveness, as well as how it hints towards the marketing monolith that Lucasfilm has become.

I also asserted, then, that ROTJ doesn't suck, and at once proceeded to spend about four thousand words and an hour of your life that you’ll never get back explaining why it sucked.

You can blame the contradictory nature of the human psyche for that, I suppose.

Of course, in reality it was to point out that while I consider ROTJ to be a good film, it is certainly not without some, even many, large and often damaging flaws, most of which are so great that it is no small wonder why so many people leave ROTJ with feelings of dissatisfaction or disappointment at best or downright loathing at worst.

And really, it's these people I'm trying to convince with these posts. Not necessarily people who liked the movie—I mean, this would just be an article reiterating what we already know it I did—but to people who don't like the movie, or think it's just okay, or believe it didn't really fulfill the vision that the first two movies so skillfully set in place.

That's really the point here. Sure, ROTJ has flaws. Sure, they're numerous, and ponderous, and indications of where the series as a whole was going to descend to at the coming decades.

But, despite all that, is it still a satisfying end to such a great movie trilogy?

I believe yes. And now I will pretentiously tell you why.


POSTULATE I: Details, details, details.

Now this is probably the most nuanced and obscure portion of all the reasons for and against ROTJ's quality. But it really is overlooked in the criticism of this film in particular. Now, I must reiterate here, I’m not a student of film. I know what mise-en-scene and auteur theory is, but if you asked me to give a break by break, frame by critique of blocking or action flow—well, I’m not your guy. Basically, I can't do what this guy does.

But with the rudimentary working knowledge that I do possess, I can say with same degree of certainty that ROTJ, from a perhaps less nuanced but nonetheless important point of view, gets most everything right. The direction, the set design, framing, blocking, color scheme, it's all actually well done and quality work. It's not as if this is a prequel where everybody was shoved in front of a greenscreen and told that they would just take care of it later. A whole lot of toil and sweat went into creating these environments, creatures, and settings—yes, even the Ewoks.

Take Jabba the Hutt. Iconic design. Booming, unforgettable voice. Full-sized working puppet. The amount of labor and visual trickery needed to pull him off in 1983 without him looking fake or turning into a laughingstock is nigh-incomprehensible. It’s John Carpenter's The Thing but with a giant weevil instead of a shapeshifting abomination.

You see, despite everything else, ROTJ is a well-made film, at least in the most basic sense of the term. It's well directed well, lit well, sounds great. John Williams score is excellent, the acting's good (okay, Harrison Ford phones it in a bit, but Harrison Ford at half-power is still Harrison Ford) and so on. It's not a clusterfuck of badly rendered clones projected onto a green screen while Ewan Macgregor hopelessly tries to find some acting rhythm in an empty room with nothing to work off of. Nor is it a shaky-cam lens-flared CGI advert with robots that are entirely indistinguishable from one another. You can tell a lot of care, effort, and brainpower went into the sets and design, the action and the script.

Look at the second Death Star. In a pre-CGI world, how much time exactly did it take to create every single one of those hanging, unfinished struts jutting into empty space? Along the same vein, how much construction and film magic was necessary to create the harrowing, breath-taking race to the center of the Death Star?


Although, to be fair, ROTJ is ironically host to the single lamest effect in the series:

But that alone can't tip the balance into mediocrity; Richard Marquand's direction (however much of it was actually his, anyway) is unassuming but competent. I especially like the way he lights the Emperor's face—it's a small thing, but it's one of the many touches that make a movie feel real and a character feel menacing. The lighting really suggests the true evil of the Emperor. What we can see is scarred and rotted by his decades long involvement with the dark side (Note: until the prequels ruined that interpretation. But we’re going with this as if it’s May, 1983. Can we do that, please? Before all the mediocrity? –E). But beyond that there's nothing, just the swirling blackness of his cloak and the pitch-black shadows around his face. It really looks like the Emperor is cocooned in a vortex of pure evil; which, I'm sure, is the point. But the direction, and lighting, and even the way he is positioned (if you look at the window behind him in his Throne Room, it looks like a spider web, as if he's the center of all these events he's set in motion) all serve the purpose of making him seem threatening and, quite frankly, terrifying. These just aren't considerations that you usually see in a garbage movie; it doesn't mean that there hasn't been a bad film that thought things through to this level—but often they're of the overly-pretentious Art Theater type of films. You know, like the ones me and my friends watch every other Friday while mocking the masses for not “getting” them.

POSTULATE II: The villains are some of the best in the history of cinema.

It's hard to make a movie with three villains. Look at Spiderman 3. It's even harder to make a movie with three villains where every villain is a legitimate threat, is fleshed out, and gets a chance to shine. Look at Spiderman 3. Usually when you have three villains—three main villains, no less—the story becomes fragmented and messy. You try to have each villain do something evil, and you have to have the good guys take each villain out. Usually, this results in the filmmaker either, a) giving each villain a separate part of the movie to focus on, which allows each villain a chance to prove how much a bastard he is but can elongate the movie time and make the story a stagnate, incohesive mess, or b) try to coordinate each villain to have something to do with the overarching storyline in the interest of cohesion. You get a better story perhaps, but you risk casting one of your villains (main villains, need I remind you) to play second fiddle, and in turn, making them laughable.

Again and again, look at Spiderman 3.

What few people realize is how successful ROTJ is with a three-villain narrative. Each villain gets a chance to prove how evil a prick they are, then gets a chance to put the good guys in an untenable situation, and finally, gets their comeuppance in a most satisfying manner (Vader may be a stretch here, but I'll get to him in a minute).

Now ROTJ did have some distinct advantages to other movies that attempt a three villain scenario. First, the audience knew that three villains were going to appear since ESB ended. We knew that the rebels were going to rescue Han from Jabba's. So there's one. Likewise, we knew that we were going to meet this mysterious Emperor figure that had been hinted at in the first movie and partially seen in the second. That's two. And it went without saying that Vader was going to play a major role.

So not only did the audience expect three villains and were prepared for it, but the story lends itself towards having three villains. Hell, half the work on ROTJ was already done for the screenwriters in The Empire Strikes Back. We knew that Han was to be rescued, and so that would take up a good chunk of the screentime. Likewise, we understood the Emperor was going to play a major role, and that allowed a very simple crafting of narrative, wherein the Emperor masterminds this plan to destroy the alliance once and for all. The movie isn't perfect in terms of cohesion (Act I, Jabba's Palace, could be played at an entirely separate theater and nobody would be confused as to what was going on), but even so, ROTJ does a good job with not only having three villains but, more importantly, having three great, memorable villains.

I mean, let's not understate the fact here: each one of the antagonists in ROTJ has gone down not just in film history, but in the American cultural history. That's quite an achievement for any movie, especially one as critically divisive as ROTJ tends to be among fans.

I think this is good example of execution uplifting an already good idea. Where the filmmakers stumbled with the Ewoks, they succeeded swimmingly with all three of the antagonists. Look at Jabba the Hutt, for example. We know he's a gangster; we know he has lots of power and lots of influence. From Han's conversation with Greedo, we know that this figure is great enough to blacklist one person over an entire galaxy. That's a lot of mojo right there. And these are things the audience understands just from hints in the movies.

I think it’s prudent to note here how easy it would have been to make Jabba some pastiche of a guy in The Untouchables. That’s basically what he was in the original cut of the first movie, some Scottish dude in a parka; fortunately they did some good editing and realized it wasn’t viable.

Instead, they used the intervening five years to create the most bloated, disgusting, and memorable mob boss in cinematic history. A mutated slug with a booming voice, whose repulsiveness is only matched the by the odd fact of his elegance--genius. Then put him in a dark, dingy, sweaty palace reeking of hedonism; keep him in shadow and put a couple of slave-girls in chains dancing around his throne; oh, and no good mob boss is complete without a trap door leading to a death arena where a vicious clump of meat would be more than happy to bite your head off.

This is a tall order, but ROTJ pulls it off perfectly, and the proof of that is no more evident than in the effect Jabba's had on American popular culture. He has become a metaphor in his own right, cruelly able to satirize American obesity issues, or corporate greed, and shady business practices. Like Darth Vader himself, mentioning Jabba's name is sure to elicit a shimmer of recognition even from non-Star Wars fans. This pukey glob of fat has literally become a cultural icon and symbol, a poster child for all things corrupt and gluttonous. Not bad for a villain who is obliterated from the story less than a third of the way through the movie, and has, what, thirty lines of dialogue?


The Emperor, too, has become an icon of sorts. Oddly, not on the same level as Jabba, though I think this is mostly because Jabba represents some of the biggest problems we have in the West—overeating, greed, corruption, etc. We haven't really had a problem with insane dictators for about seventy years, meaning the Emperor is less relatable as a cultural mark. What the Emperor is, however, is a perfect example of how an actor can make a role.

I'm no expert on Ian McDiarmid—in fact I had to look him up on Wikipedia to make sure I spelled his name right—but he so perfectly nails the Emperor's role, feel, look, and manner that he is the one tolerable thing in all three prequel films; never is this prowess more evidence than his original introduction to the SW universe in Return of the Jedi. While the same role in the prequel films is enjoyable for its gleeful, unapologetic haminess in the face of underwhelming material, his role in ROTJ is memorable for making the Emperor appear to be, truly, the greatest prick in the universe.

Again, this is quite a tall order for McDiarmid to carry. Remember, this series already has a big bad guy, and a hugely famous one at that. Now the movie is introducing another, even bigger, bad, and has to convince the audience that this second antagonist is someone whom Vader himself would take orders from.

It's really interesting the way the filmmakers went with the character of the Emperor, although it might have been inevitable. You couldn't really go with an “ultra-Vader” or anything without it looking ridiculous and lazy, so they chose instead to make the exact antithesis of Vader. Where Vader is bombast, the Emperor is subtle. Where Vader brings fear through anger, the Emperor brings fear through cruelty. Where Vader is strong, the Emperor is crafty. Where Vader must rely on external sources of support—his suit, his lightsaber, his oxygen chamber—the Emperor only needs the Force. A lightsaber's not necessary (Note: again, going with OT logic here, and blatantly ignoring the PT, something I’ve become very adept at doing. –E) simply because he's so powerful in the Force. It creates this interesting dynamic between the two characters—Vader and the Emperor—here we have basically a robocop with magic abilities and a sword that can cut through anything taking orders from a—by the look of it—centuries-old man that needs a cane for long walks and appears like his flesh is about to slide off his face.


It gives the audience a double whammy of, “What, really, Vader takes orders from this guy?” and, at the same time, a feeling of apprehension: “This guy must be able to do some serious shit if he has Vader under the thumb like this.” And after garnering this reaction from the audience, you need a performance of the highest caliber to convince them, and this is where Ian McDiarmid’s understated yet very visceral performance comes through brilliantly. He plays the character with a subtle grace; he looks weak physically, yet something about his mannerisms, body language, the way he carries himself, implies that he’s much more frightening and powerful than immediate appearances. McDiarmid’s insidious growl is also a boon to the character, simultaneously making the Emperor sound like an old man and like every word he says is a snarl. Like he knows he’s condescending himself every time he has to speak to one of these peons, and that he knows he is better than they are. The arrogant swagger with which McDiarmid carries himself within the character is what truly makes us fear him; the makeup and the cloak just accentuates this fact.

Every word drips with malice, every action reeks with sardonism, every conversation hums with dismissal and disdain. Remember the first time Luke and the Emperor speak? How the Emperor casually swats him down, mocking him for his beliefs and his way of thinking? How effortless did it seem, and how easily did he completely stutter Luke, and it had nothing to do with visual displays of power. It was all subdued displays of prowess; words and confidence and the knowledge that he is in the right. That is the nature of the Emperor, and that’s what makes him such a worthy Big Bad in the Star Wars universe, the same universe that created Darth Vader. He doesn’t need demonstrations of his abilities to keep a hold over his subjects. He only needs his intelligence, his manipulations, and his influence. This makes him unique in all the realms of Star Wars, even from Yoda, who had to “show” Luke the power of the Force in order to get Luke to believe. The Emperor almost, not quite, but almost, convinces Luke of the advantages of the dark side simply by speaking to him and wearing him down. It’s only when it becomes clear that Luke’s not going to fall for it no matter what that the Emperor takes the gloves off, using an ability unique to him in the entire SW menagerie (well, before the PT, when everyone and their mom can shoot lightning from their fingers).

But what about our protagonists, you ask. Where do they fit into this equation? How do they make ROTJ a good movie? I'm glad you brought it up, now that you mention it...

POSTULATE III: The movie successfully and deftly completes the characters arcs for each of the trilogy's main protagonists.

This might look like a relatively minor point, but I do think that ROTJ's quality is supported by its treatment of the characters that it's supposed to be taking care of. Rather, that it continues the story of Luke, and Han, and Leia, and Vader, without betraying their characters or leaving us unsatisfied about their fates or the course their futures are going to take.

I guess the word I'm looking for is closure. The audience wants closure; they want to know the story has come to an end and they want to have it come to an end in a way that meets their expectations. Now this extends to more than the characters in ROTJ, but we'll get to that later. Right now, let's look at our heroes.

As with a three-villain film, it's hard to bring about a logical, visceral end to the arc of the amount of main protagonists in ROTJ. You can look at the Matrix films, for example, where after the first, the characters have no real growth or change. Their arc is stagnant. Neo's greatest change as a character, where we see him become something more, or at least different, than what he was, happens in the first movie. What happens over the next two? How does his character change, or grow, or even differ? It really doesn't. He becomes the One at the end of the first movie, and he is the One over the next two movies. It's stagnate, static, and even a little boring. By the time the third movie ends, we barely care about the character of Neo anymore, simply because he's the same guy that he was at the end of the first movie.

Do all characters have to have arcs? Well, it's never good to put down a hard and fast rule when it comes to artistic mediums, but I will say that unless you are making an intentionally ironic piece about the immutability of the human mind (A Confederacy of Dunces, maybe), I will say, yes, the main character of a movie has to change in some way be the end. It doesn't have to be a monumental change, but it does have to be some sort of shift where the character is a different place than they were when the movie started. You see this occur even the darkest, bleakest types of films and literature. Blade Runner. Gangs of New York. A Song of Ice and Fire. Hell, even something like Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson, as literary and as cynical as you can get, has the main character undergo some sort of transformation, no matter how minute.

I could write an entire other blog post on character arcs and why they’re so integral to narratives (Note to self: write other blog post on character arcs and why they’re so integral to narratives –E). But suffice it to say that, for whatever reason, they’re important. They matter. And viewed through that one fact, we can see how well ROTJ takes care of the characters we’ve come to know and love.

You see, when you have a series of…whatever, be it books, movies, even video games—you have this odd paradigm, wherein not only do you have to have an arc in each individual movie, but you have to have an overarching…uh, arc…that demonstrates the change the character has made through the duration of the series. This is especially hard in TV series, where many times a character has to have a “mini-arc” ten, fifteen, twenty times, one per episode, while at the same time constructing an over-arc where the character changes over an entire season.

So put in that light, ROTJ succeeds swimmingly in this aspect of storytelling, simultaneously giving the main characters an individual movie arc while completing the over-arcs set up by the previous two movies. To illustrate this, let’s look at Luke’s arcs in each movie. Now, this is a pretty simplistic overview of what occurs, but for the sake of argument, if you had to boil it down, Luke’s arcs would look like this:

ANH: Goes from a young, eager, immature, and yes, whiny moisture farmer to a hotshot hero of a guerrilla force fighting against an evil Empire.

ESB: Goes from a hotshot hero whom everything seems to go well for to a humbled, more mature person who grasps the magnitude of the forces he’s dealing with.

ROTJ: Goes from a mature, measured, patient warrior to a Jedi Knight, redeeming his father along the way.

Then the over-arc would be his journey from the first part of the ANH arc to the last part of the ROTJ arc: his journey from a frustrated kid to an honorable Jedi.

So if ROTJ does one thing very well, it’s that it takes each of the character and allows them to come to fruition, so to speak. Han finally makes the complete turn from scoundrel to hero, Leia becomes a more patient and self-aware leader (and the two of them accept their feelings for each other); and of course, the Rebel Alliance is victorious and saves the day.

Then of course there’s the icon of the entire series, and the way his arc is one of the best parts about the film.

POSUTLATE IV: Vader’s redemption is fitting and poignant, and my personal favorite thread of all three movies.

When the world heard the news of the now infamous “NOOOOOO!” added to the blu-ray release of ROTJ when Vader is contemplating throwing the Emperor over the edge into the pit of—whatever that thing is--well, I like most other fans had the required fits of outrage. How could he change this? Why would he change this? Is he trying to create some stupid link to that awful scene in Revenge of the Sith? Or is he just trolling us now?

But what really stunned me were the reactions in favor of the change. There weren't many, but there were a few. People who said that they liked the addition, that they thought Vader's silence at the ending was a little wonky and this more clearly expressed what was going on...I was in shock. Really, I was.

Art is endlessly subjective, and no one is ever going to agree on the quality (or lack of quality) of any given work. There's always going to be someone, somewhere, who doesn't like something that everyone else does. Sometimes for tangible reasons, sometimes merely a feeling that settles in their gut they can't quite explain, but that turns them off of whatever work is in question. It's the same reason that I just couldn't get into The Hunger Games. I read the first book, and while I can see why it's popular, why people like it, and why it's objectively good, I just...couldn't...get into it. Not enough to keep reading the series anyway.

Now, I made that point to make this point: I'm probably a little too close to this issue to be objective about it. In my mind, the way Vader's redemption is handled is nothing short of perfect, right up there with the best parts of the series. I have always felt this way; and so it was with this frame of mind that I raged over the change Lucas made to the blu-ray edition, and that shocked me when I saw people, however few, think that it was a welcome addition. There are certain things that affect objectivity for everyone, and that includes me. I was so embroiled in what I perceived as ROTJ's tonal bulls-eye when it comes to Vader's arc that, even though I consider myself an objective person, it did not even enter my mind that others would not agree. I just wanted the seven people who stumbled upon this blog while searching Google for Lasix eye surgery to know that, because in my opinion, this issue is the biggest selling point for ROTJ, and the biggest thematic reason why it can be called a good movie. Every scene, every moment that even tangentially deals with this issue is spot on, so much so that we're going to look at every scene in turn.

SCENE I: The Opener

Yes, the first scene of ROTJ has a lot to do with Vader's redemption arc even though, ostensibly, it appears to have little to no impact on the proceedings.

But what it does do is provide framework. It lets us know that the Vader in this movie is still the Vader we've seen over the last two...and frankly, the conversation he has with the Death Star commander is Vader as his malicious best. Half mocking, half intimidating, wholly in control.

What I really appreciate about this scene is the direction and the dialogue. You can see the terror on the Imperial Commander's face as he swallows that lump in his throat, and the way the shuttle door opens and Vader's revealed with the Imperial March echoing behind him, through clouds of hissing smoke like he's coming from hell itself, and a low, upward angle implying his dominance and power. It's all tonally perfect, it all feeds the audience information about how Vader as a character is still the bastard we've come to know and love.

The dialogue, too, is some of the best in the movie, simultaneously threatening and subtle. I especially love that line at the end that Vader says: “I hope so commander, for your sake. The Emperor is not as forgiving, as I am.” That’s pure ironic dialogue at is absolute apotheosis; not only does this make Vader look like a prick, as if he's just toying with the Commander for no reason other than his own giggles, but it doubles as a means of selling the Emperor's evilness before he even appears on screen.

SCENE II: Dagobah.

The second scene dealing with Vader's redemption comes on Dagobah, in both Luke's conversation with Yoda and with Ben Kenobi. This scene is important because it highlights Luke's own struggle that he's had over the past year between ESB and ROTJ. He still doesn't believe, or part of him doesn't want to believe, that Vader is his Father. But once it's confirmed, he's forced to reconcile the disjunct: his father is Darth Vader. But to become a Jedi, he must defeat Vader, possibly even kill him. This sets up the conflict that Luke has: he has no desire to kill his father. None whatsoever. Instead, he wants to redeem him, believing “there is some good in him.” This is important, because he seems to be the only one that thinks so. Yoda doesn't think so, and when Luke mentions the “good in him” to Kenobi, Kenobi only reiterates that he's more machine than man, and twisted, and evil. The Emperor certainly doesn't feel Vader can be saved, and Vader himself doesn't think so, not consciously anyway. Luke's decision to try and save Vader comes without support from any of his allies or enemies. It's something that he himself, alone, believes, and if he's going to carry it out, it's going to be on his shoulders alone. It's a bit of tangent to the main point here, but it demonstrates Luke's growth (read: arc) as a character that his resolve and determination have grown the way they have since ESB.

SCENE III: Where the F#*& is that shuttle going?

The third scene in the Vader/Luke pathos is when the Rebels are attempting to sneak the captured Imperial shuttle past the Deflector shield. It's a small scene, and not extremely important in the overall picture. But it does establish that a) Vader knows Luke is on the planet, and b) doesn't really care. He lets the shuttle land, sure, but he immediately goes and tells the Emperor that Luke is with the Rebel force. This demonstrates that Vader still cares more about bringing Luke to the Dark Side than about Luke's value as his son.

SCENE IV: The Conversation

One of my favorite scenes with one of my favorite moments of the entire trilogy. So Luke has voluntarily surrendered himself to Vader in the effort to save him, as it were. What I like about this scene, specifically, is Vader's refusal. You can see that he sees himself as truly lost, and there's a sad note of desperation in his voice when he says: “It is too late for me, son.” It's a little moment, well acted by James Earl Jones, and it demonstrates a chink in the armor that Vader has put over himself. The dialogue before and after sounds confident and assured, but in that one moment, there's something haunted about Vader's character. It adds a lot of depth and lets the audience realize that maybe there is something there for Luke to grasp hold of, however small it may be.

You can see Luke's disappointment when Vader refuses his offer to come with him, but its disappointment that is not crushing. Rather, it steels Luke, and when he says, “Then my father is truly dead,” you can see that it honestly impacts Vader—leading to one of my favorite moments at the end of the scene, where Vader walks forward, leans on the banister, and just stands there, thinking. Again, very subtle, very well played—it tells us that Vader's been impacted by what was said, but it needs no dialogue or exposition whatsoever. It's just that tiny bit of contention that Luke is going to hope to exploit; and, as the audience, knowing that it's there is really going to help us buy Vader's eventual turn.

SCENE(S) V: The fight sequence.

Now I don't include the scenes with Luke, Vader and the Emperor mainly because those were mind games between the Emperor and Luke exclusively, meant to show the Emperor's manipulative capabilities and the honest-to-God struggle Luke is having in resisting him. Where the film returns to Luke's quest to bring his father back “to the light,” if I may go there, is when they begin the lightsaber fight.

Luke attempts to work on Vader psychologically, pushing him, trying to get him to realize that he's not beyond redemption.

But, surprisingly, it doesn't really work. Luke ends up just trying to hide from Vader in order to not fight him, and near the end is really struggling to maintain his control and follow his teachings...something that he ultimately fails in doing:

But he brings himself back at the end with some well-placed imagery (the comparison of the robot hands), and that brings us to the climax of this arc, and arguably the climax of the series as a whole.

SCENE VI: The Hurl

Film is a visual medium. I know I’m bound to win a bunch of awards for the originality of that statement, but I think it bears repeating here. Because this scene is perhaps my favorite in the entire saga, and the reason that it works is that it exploits all the advantages that film has over other mediums, and uses them to perfection to create the tone and ambiance that it requires.

I don’t like to vehemently disagree with others opinions. Really, I don’t. And like I mentioned, I may be too in love with this scene to possibly look at it objectively. But in my mind, this scene contains every advantage that film has over other mediums, and displays them at their finest.

The Emperor lets loose with a flurry of Force lightning. This is an ability that we’ve never seen before (hitherto, in any case), from anyone in Star Wars, even the powerful Yoda. This informs how serious a threat the Emperor is, that he is able to do this thing, unique to him in the OT.

It also works well as a storytelling element. It allows for the degradation and torture of Luke in an acceptable form. The Emperor probably could have easily killed Luke right of the bat, but he wanted to torture him, make him pay for not falling in line with the Emperor’s grand scheme. It was the overconfidence that Luke had mentioned coming into play: the Emperor was convinced that he would be victorious, and when he’s not, he reacts the way anyone with great power does with they are proven wrong.

It’s also this same overconfidence that proves his own downfall, in true poetic fashion. The Emperor never even considers that the henchman he made it clear that he did not mind replacing would turn on him, or that said henchman would never chose his son over his master. The Emperor was so sure of his hold on Vader that this did not even cross his mind—this moment plays because of the setup that’s gone on before, where it’s been made obvious that the Emperor thinks he controls and is control of the situation, of every little strand of the web he has spun.

What strikes me is just how on point every aspect of this scene is, and its why it confuses me about the people who say (and they were very few, but they were there) that they preferred Vader’s added “No” in the blu-ray release, because they thought it was odd he didn’t say anything. But adding the “No” takes away the subtlety of the scene (as well as making us question why the Emperor wouldn’t hear a guy half a foot away from him say something that might, just might, signal that he’s about to be thrown off a bridge, but that’s another post). The filmmaker builds the perfect tonal pitch here, with every aspect of the scene’s design: the crackle of the lightning bolts, the pain on Luke’s face and the abject glee/profound hatred on the Emperor’s, the building music with the mournful choir, Luke’s desperate, echoing screams for help, and the dynamic pan-in of the camera on Vader’s face—all this works well together and in conjunction with each other part to create a moment where we don’t need dialogue to “get into Vader’s head,” or know his intention. There are things unique to film that cannot be said for any other art form, be it books or plays or music or painting. Film, solitary among art forms, can use multiple disciplines to its advantage: music, and visuals, and dialogue, and stages. All of this, when put in motion correctly, can help create a realistic moment in time, something that sticks with the audience subtly, resonating in their emotional core. And that’s why I think this scene is so good, because it accomplishes that. It also accomplishes getting inside the thoughts of a man with a mask over his face—if that’s not a feat worthy of praise, I don’t know what is.

But enough of me slobbering over this scene. Suffice it to say I think it works beautifully, and it’s one of the best parts of all three movies, from the Emperor’s first volley to his final scream, it all combined to make a seminal moment that showcases the greatest strength of film.

And finally, the number one reason that ROTJ is a good film—perhaps even more important than the scenes mentioned above, is:

POSTULATE V: Act III saves this movie.

I harped on the problems with the three-act structure, specifically for this movie, in my previous post, and they all still stand. But…

Okay, remember how when you were in school and were working on expository writing? You know, that writing test where you had to write a five-paragraph essay with intro, three support paragraphs, and conclusion? That rubric that you never had to use for anything ever again in life, and were laughed at for using in college? (Note: I’m not bitter. –E) Remember what did your teacher’s always say about those all-too-important three supporting paragraphs? Always put your best reason at the end, they said, Cause the person reading it will remember what you said last, best.

Now that’s a little trite and simplistic, but you know what? It’s basically true. Especially in longer works. The audience is willing to forgive a little second-act boredom for a kick-ass third act, and fortunately for the critical survival of ROTJ, its third act is undoubtedly kick-ass.

It’s amazing to me just how quickly the tension ramps back up after that god-awful Luke and Leia talk in undoubtedly the worst moment in the movie. First, we have that great scene with Vader and Luke that starts us off; and you know shit is really going down now, cause Luke’s going to the Emperor.

Then, almost immediately after, we have this absolutely wonderful scene with the rebel fleet, the Millennium Falcon flying amongst the cruisers, heading the dozens of fighters following behind—it’s majestic and sweeping, the music for this little scene is perfect; I mean, hell, it’s been over half an hour since we’ve seen these guys! We’re just happy they’re okay! Then they BLAST off into hyperspace and you’re like, “Oh shit here we goooooooooo!!!!”

The divide between Act II and III is just astonishing, but in a good way, I guess. Act III is so effective at building the excitement sorely lacking in Act II that it almost gives the audience whiplash; I mean, it’s a pretty effective wake-up call. And within minutes we’re fighting Imperial legions with squirrels armed with bows and arrows on the ground and blasting away at Star Destroyers above, interspersed with a tense dramatic showdown between the three Force-trained people in the series—God, what’s not to love? All the doldrums of the second act are forgotten in this grand conclusion to the Star Wars saga.

It also can't be overstated just how well Act III handles a three thread, shifting storyline. We have the Rebel assault on the Death Star, Luke's final confrontation with Vader, and the mission to blow up the shield generator, handled through intercutting the screentime of each thread together in ways to advance all three stories to their final conclusions at about the same pace. But in order to pull that off successfully, you have to maintain the tone.

Now what do I mean by that? Simply, you can't fit an uplifting scene and a depressing scene together. Or a comedy scene juxtaposed with a scene of horrific mutilation. Or a lament right beside a limerick. Basically, you can't do what this movie did, okay?

I know it seems like I harp on the prequels (mainly because I do), but considering these were the two movies that came (production-wise) right after one another, you can easily track where Lucas went wrong or lost his head. The ending of The Phantom Menance is an untenable mess. Entertaining? Yeah, sure—I remember being mesmerized when I saw it in theaters (oh, what a young, innocent mind I was). But similarly unaffecting, and, in part—beyond the lack of characterization the protagonists and antagonists have, and therefore the lack of empathy the audience has for them—is that the tone of the ending in The Phantom Menace is not cohesive. Ben Burtt says it better than I can:

“In the space of about 90 seconds, you go from lamenting the death of, you know, a hero. To 'escape,' to slightly comedic with Jar-Jar, to Anakin returning with his little tag. It's a lot, you know, and it's really a very short time...”

(Note: This whole featurette is fascinating at the least for seeing where The Phantom Menace went wrong. But the pertinent quote is in this section at about 5:20 --E)

The problem with this jolting whiplash is that it doesn't allow the audience to feel a certain way. Their emotions are strung back and forth so much that in the end they end up feeling nothing. And it's at this point where the movie becomes the bright pinwheel of flashing lights that bitter fans accuse the prequels of being. Emotional investment into a movie is what keeps us involved with it; it's what takes a movie from being mere satiating entertainment into something we remember long after it’s over. And a movie doesn't even have to go down in history or anything in order to strike an emotional resonance. But all good movies do have that emotional investment, where we care, and are affected, by what's happening on screen. When we don't, a movie is just nothing more than 10.00 out of our pockets a way to waste a couple of hours on a slow Saturday night.

And so that's the problem with The Phantom Menace's use of the multiple-ending technique: it's lack of cohesion kills the emotional involvement because we are asked to feel to many things in too short a time, and that keeps the audience at a distance.

How Jedi avoids this pitfall is, one, they have one less thread, which really helps, but mainly, the ups-and-downs of the narratives pretty much match each other. It's not perfect, I wouldn't say, but it maintains a pretty steady track with one another. When things go to hell for the Rebel fighters, they're going to hell for Han and Leia on Endor, and they're going to hell for Luke in the Throne Room. When everything starts to get better, it pretty much gets better for everybody—uh, save for Luke.

And then when everything starts to resolve, it all starts to resolve. The touching scene in the Death Star where Luke and Vader talk and Vader dies comes right before the Falcon et al. blow up the whole frigging joint. It's fitting really, almost symbolic of how the Empire has fallen and the series has come to a close.

And that too, I think, is a big reason why the multi-thread ending in ROTJ functions so well: because it was the right time and moment for an epic, multi-thread, planet-engulfing finish, with each of our main characters taking some part, however small, in destroying the second Death Star and outcome of the war. This is truly the end of a saga, and such an end begs for a huge, multi-faceted battle where the stakes are higher than they've ever been and our heroes all reach the extremist of lows. The ending of ROTJ works because it is the perfect sort of finish for this sort of journey. Big, loud, bombastic, and ultimately, satisfying. Tying up the ends and letting us leave the theater with a sense of closure that, as I've mentioned, all audiences desire at some level and in some form. Luke becomes a Jedi, his father has been redeemed, Han and Leia get together, everyone survives and celebrates at a Teddy Bear luau on the planet's surface, BYOB. It's a fitting conclusion to this tale that we have come to know and love, and that, in the end, is why Return of the Jedi is a good movie.


These are all big, reaching, momentous reasons, when you get down to it. But there are so many other moments in this movie that I could point out and wax eloquent on. How about the pyre Luke makes of Vader, and the haunting rendition of Luke's theme that plays over it as he watches the suit burn? How about the music as a whole, and how it rises and falls, explodes and tapers at all the right moments? How about the effects—that shot of the Falcon zipping away from the main reactor just as it explodes still wows me to this day (and talk about a good musical cue):

There are just so many moments, too many to delve into detail on in a blog post—too many to really say that ROTJ is not a good movie, or even is just a mediocre one. It’s not perfect, it’s not as good as the first two, but it deserves respect for what it is, and what it manages to do, some of it expertly.

To the seven people that happened upon this blog while trolling Ebay for bootleg copies of the Star Wars Holiday Special, I hope you’ve enjoyed this overly-capacious little nostalgia trip to the early eighties; now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a lecture to attend: The Dumbing Down of America by Mainstream Entertainment, presented by Lee Przyzewski.

Have to keep up appearances, you know.

Until next time,

Mr. E.