Rocksteady’s Arkham Knight, the finale to their Batman trilogy is here and with it all the comic easter egg goodness. Warning before we get into the why and what not about the game’s relevance let me disclaimer you: this will be filled with spoilers. So if you care about that kind of thing and haven’t played the game or watched the cinematics on YouTube, turn away.
Just an update before we get started. Last week, Comics Beat put up a story about the press release sent out in regards to WB pulling the PC version of Batman: Arkham Knight from store shelves and Steam. It was written in a way that made it seem as though Rocksteady was only at fault for the game’s catastrophic PC launch. The PC edition was ported and optimized for computer hardware by a different developer known as Iron Works. Rocksteady has since stated they’ll come in and devote resources to fixing the game with Iron Works, in fact yesterday they released a patch to remedy some of the issues. Yes, we’re in the age of pre orders putting out inferior and often times buggy product, but Rocksteady have had a great track record of working games and the controversy shouldn’t reflect solely on them.
Ok let’s get into the game spoilers in 3… 2… 1…
First, we have to acknowledge the elephant in the bathtub. Just about every review and comment from gamers who’ve played Arkham Knight loathe driving the Batmobile in the game. These opinions aren’t entirely unfounded. Driving around in Batman’s car and having it handle like a lawnmower with an attached jet engine can be frustrating for two reasons. First of all; the car is just plain overused. More than 3/4 of the objectives in the game can’t be completed without the Batmobile. In fact the moment where the car is crushed by the giant drilling machine gave me a sigh of relief, only to be snatched out from under me by the addition of a back up car. Secondly, using the car wouldn’t be so bad if there was more of a learning curve to driving. Particularly in the Riddler track challenges that Batman has to complete in order to release Catwoman from the bomb collar. You’ll go from an easy straight forward track to executing barrel rolls in a sewer as you have to focus on steering and triggering puzzle elements in the level. Then there’s the tank mode, at the push of a button the car goes battle stations and takes on enemy vehicles . These sequences slow down the pace of the game but never enough to take you out of the story. Learning to transition between the sets of controls effectively takes time and patience. Both of which I have in spades… now excuse me while I put this quart of frozen ice cream in the microwave.
This all begs the question; would we have been better off not having the car in the game? No. Having the game on newer consoles like PS4 and Xbox One meant it was going to be bigger and better looking. It needed something new, something more forthright than switching between Robin or Nightwing during certain melee sequences. Driving the Batmobile was a logical progressive addition to the series. Could it have been better executed and more balanced with the story? Yes, but I’ll take Batmobile over no Batmobile any day.
The Stories that made up Arkham Knight
After E3, we talked a bit about how “one-way” the streets that connect comics and video games can feel. Comics are more often tasked with bringing video games to books than gaming taking on the tales we love. Sure there’ve been a few games that have tried translating the language of comics in games. Most of the stories lucky enough to make the jump become cannon fodder for the activity/reward relationship games are built on. With Arkham Knight, Rocksteady, managed to translate pieces from a library of Batman stories containing 75 Years worth of history to build something that harmonizes with sitting down to play a video game .
Anyone that’s played previous Arkham games knows, like television, there’s always two plots to a story. While the surface of Arkham Knight is about stopping the Scarecrow from unleashing his fear cloud over Gotham; Batman was grappling with his Joker infection from the events of Arkham City. A disease that threatens to wipe away Bruce Wayne and replace him entirely with the consciousness of his worst enemy. It’s a story we’ve seen before in the Batman Beyond animated universe story, Return of the Joker. There it was Tim Drake of the future who felt the Joker take over his mind from beyond the grave.
Then there’s the Joker running down the events of his days of yore with the dark knight. If you played the game, those chilling moments in the Batman’s mind where Joker makes him relive the horror of paralyzing Barbra Gordon from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. Rocksteady captured that iconic moment in history nearly panel-for-panel. Knowing what would happen when Joker stepped through that doorway made it that much more intense for us and kudos on not diluting the madness of that moment for the sake of a friendlier rating. When the game first received it’s “mature” M from the ESRB, it wasn’t hard to guess we’d see some of the Batman’s most graphic moments played out in front of our eyes.
The sequence where Batman and Robin (Tim Drake) have to recover escaped Jokerized patentients in the movie studio cuts to a piece of comic’s history. It nods to the, A Death in the Family, story where Joker blows up second Robin, Jason Todd. Not only did it tell parts of those events, but it somehow made them more brutal. In Rocksteady’s version there would be no desert and no bomb. Instead they got around the revolving door of comic death by not actually killing Jason Todd. Joker would hold Robin in secret, warping his mind and turning him against the Batman.
Joker’s torture created the Red Hood comic fans are familiar with today. Most of the events the actual Arkham Knight character puts Batman through during the game are calculated insider tactics only someone close to the Bat would know. Breaching Wayne security, informing Crane about Oracle, even calling the Batman “Bruce”; it all pointed to Jason Todd being the Arkham Knight. During the game’s penultimate moments, the Arkham Knight lifts his veil and reveals himself to Batman. So much of that moment and Jason’s motivations borrow from Judd Winnick’s Under the Red Hood.
There’s the lies Rocksteady told
An editorial I came across last night, over on IGN, read like an angry complaint letter to the game. I see how anyone invested in the Batman mythology could feel lied to. One should understand the ballsy chance Rocksteady took. In today’s age of “scoops” where secrets and mysteries just don’t exist; the developer risked agitating the audience and consciously chose to add mystique where there couldn’t have been any. It worked. We all guessed Jason would be under the Arkham Knight’s mask, but we took Rocksteady at their word when they said it would be an original character. Is being honest and upfront a requirement for making great games? Who knows. Though it’s hard to be angry at Rocksteady because the lies they have been telling since Batman: Arkham City have value. Remember when Mark Hamill came out and said voicing the Joker in Arkham City would be the last time he’d ever do it. Had the studio come out a year ago and said Jason Todd is the Arkham Knight, then it would have been easy to deduce the return of the Joker. After all he’s as intertwined with him as he is with Batman.
Sure by the middle of the game it’s bombastically obvious, Jason Todd is the Arkham Knight. That wasn’t the surprise this game banked on. Had I known about the Joker in the game before it’s release then I would have lost that moment where I’m about to put the controller down for the night and then like a bolt of lightning to the system, I see the face of the Clown Prince of Crime alive and well (sort of). The shrill echo of Mark Hamil’s laughter comes through my speakers and no I’m definitely not turning in yet.
The argument about this not being an original story is also flat. When you look at all three Arkham games as a whole, it’s probably the most original Batman story in recent years; next to Scott Snyder turning Gordon into the new dark knight. Sure, Arkham Knight borrows a lot of notes from several DC Comics stories, but that’s the way it should be. DC could sell tons of books to gamers who’ve never read comics by marketing the list of “stories that inspired the game”. Lies equated to an end result that has potential to boost two industries. That’s a fair trade for any negative PR they’ll get.
This Arkham universe remained true and defied the convention of comic’s revolving door of death where no one ever really dies. Joker was dead and using him in Batman’s head was a brilliant way of still being able to keep him in the series without betraying the events of before. If Rocksteady isn’t lying and THIS is the end of their Batman run then they went out on a better note than what Christopher Nolan did.
In the end, they lied. So what? The Golden State Warriors lied and now they’re NBA champions. Tom Brady did the things with deflated sports balls and he’s married to a supermodel. A story about a fictional comic book character is allowed to be marketed any way it sees fit to make money in a gray world.
Batman: Arkham Knight is a gorgeous end to the character. One where he loses in the end, not a loss he’ll live with either. It’s an ending we could never get in comics or film. The existence of the Arkham universe is finite and it gave Rocksteady a freedom no one else has had with the character. Sure they took some liberties with our attentions over the last two years but in the end we got the Batman game we deserve.