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:

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