Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What I've Been Playing #5: Batman: Arkham Asylum

I just started Batman: Arkham Asylum and, so far, have been enjoying it quite a bit. The game manages to capture most of the various facets of the Batman character that collectively make him such a geek fantasy to roleplay.

Physically, he's a beast and, on the normal difficulty, easily capable of taking apart a whole gang of muscled (unarmed) goons with a variety of punches, kicks, and a near-uncanny ability to sense and counter oncoming attacks. And this decimation is always highlighted in spectacular fashion with a cinematic slow-mo zoom-in on the finishing blow. Very satisfying.

It's a different story when the baddies are packing heat. Batman can't withstand bullets, alas, but Arkham Asylum conveniently transforms into a stealth game in these situations, encouraging you to take foes out from the shadows. So far, these segments remind me of the first Metal Gear Solid more than anything else; they're essentially puzzle rooms, where you observe and then exploit simple enemy patterns. What distinguishes Arkham Asylum is, not so much the mechanics, but the minor narrative details that make you feel like you really are the Dark Knight. As you silently pick off enemies one at a time, you get to watch their remaining comrades progressively lose their heads in panic. Seeing how terrified they are of you is perhaps even more empowering than when you get to pummel them with Batman's martial arts.

Less empowering, however, is Batman's telling silence whenever some friendly NPC remarks that the Joker and other rogues should simply be "fried." This comes up with alarming regularity, which is perhaps understandable, since you're usually running into these NPCs only after some buddies of theirs have just been murdered by one of Batman's lunatic foes. Also, why would they stop making this point, considering Batman never has a response?

The no-kill policy maintained by Batman and most other comics superheroes has long fascinated me. As a kid, I was quite often frustrated by heroes refusing to end the lives of villains who were clearly irredeemable and almost certain to strike again in subsequent stories. I wondered at times if that made me a bad person, but I know I wasn't alone in my feelings. Indeed, Hollywood, unlike comics and cartoons, seemed to consistently agree with me that bad guys should be ended with extreme prejudice. And it's nothing so simple an issue as superhero comics merely aspiring to higher moral standards than Hollywood. After decades of stories of the Joker somehow breaking out of Arkham repeatedly to commit many murders, Batman becomes hard to take seriously as a moral paragon, as his refusal to do what must be done starts to sound more like just a selfish or even neurotic impulse to preserve some kind of personal purity above serving the greater good.

Mind you, I'm not even taking the "if this were real life" tack; I'm saying that, internal to the comics world, Batman's no-kill philosophy must be challenged. If it be evil to take the one life of the Joker, nevertheless it must surely be the greater evil to let him live and inevitably take dozens more lives. That is, unless Batman and the Gotham authorities sincerely believe, every time they apprehend the Joker, that it really will be the last time they have to deal with him. But, in that case, I better see Batman looking truly shocked and disappointed every time the Joker breaks out. But I don't see that.

Clearly, many of the comics writers too have recognized the mounting absurdity of Batman's high horse moralizing (although, in fairness, what doesn't become absurd when a story spans 70+ years with the same cast of ageless heroes and villains?). Otherwise, these NPCs wouldn't be saying these things. Yet how I wish Batman would respond! Because I don't even know that he's wrong; I just know that it's a challenging topic. And when these guys make these challenging statements against everything Batman stands for, and he just stands there silent, I can't help thinking, Batman, you're taking a beating here! These are the moments that demand a response! Where is the "lecture, philosophize, or browbeat" button prompt? Instead, he passively allows these random NPCs to make him look foolish.

Well, it's early yet. Maybe Batman is seriously meditating upon their words, and this is all building toward a climactic quick time event, when the player will have to take all arguments presented into consideration before deciding whether or not Batman will end the Joker. Now that would be empowering.

1 comment:

Sam Kahn said...

Great game. I prefer Arkham City.