There’s no denying that the Batman: Arkham series of games are incredible. But, with the release of Batman: Arkham Origins being similar to its predecessors, we’re left wondering what should be next for a Batman video game.
First, I’ll tell you how I think the next Batman game should be: I don’t want to like the guy. I want to wonder, chapter after chapter, why I should be on this guy’s side. I want a Batman game to try and shatter my moral compass with the difficult choices he’s had to make throughout his career.
For example, Joker’s death in Arkham City. Never has there been a more Shakespearean moment in a Batman game than in the final moments of the Joker’s life. Batman, having the chance to end the suffering of millions of people once and for all, decides that he will not kill his archnemesis. It’s his one rule – the only thing that really makes him the “good guy.” It was probably the best moment in the entire Arkham series because it did, in those final moments, what I’ve wanted a Batman game to do forever: make me feel conflicted.
The Joker deserves to die for his crimes, yet we know that a true hero does not exact vengeance. He never takes a life. But we also know that Batman’s very existence is due to his thirst for vengeance against the crime world that took his parents. When you think about a morality, don’ think about it in terms of what a hero would do. Think about it in terms of what Batman would do if driven to the very edge, given this opportunity to finally end this terrible dance of heinous crimes (the Death of the Family storyline recently asked this very question).
Then see that he’s NOT making the moral choice. He’s making the selfish one. He’s not protecting a city. He’s protecting himself from ever becoming one of the bad guys.
This was the best moment in the Arkham series, but now that series is dead. Let’s get that out of the way. If you kill off your series’ main antagonist (albeit in a great way), you have nowhere else to go but backwards.
That’s exactly what Warner Bros. Games Montreal – a developer created specifically to handle Arkham titles – did with Origins. Not that it’s really about Batman’s origins at all, or his first battle with The Joker (not that we really need it to understand the nature of Batman’s relationship with Joker within this series; the final scenes in City are really all we need). Instead, we get a younger Batman (exciting on paper because we love how much more of a rogue young Bruce Wayne is than older, raising-kids Bruce Wayne) whose potential for captivating an audience of gamers flounders under the pressure of not fixing what isn’t broken.
Origins is more of the same, which is exactly what you don’t want from Year Two Batman. You want less control, more violence. You want a Dark Knight that’s still very much on the edge of becoming the villain (the now non-cannon Year Two storyline comes to mind where Batman teams up with Joe Chill, aka Guy Who Murdered My Parents, to stop the hardcore vigilante The Reaper, who represents a mirror image of Batman – this is what you could become if your moral compass ever falters [Batman even starts carrying a gun at one point in this storyline]).
Instead, Origins suffers from the prequel pandemic that’s spread throughout the gaming industry: heroes at the beginning of their quests with newer and better tricks. To me, Batman seems just as skilled, if not more so, than his future self. That doesn’t work for me.
Batman doesn’t really feel the heat in this prequel, and that’s a major problem, since the whole point of the plot is to overwhelm him with the zillion assassins that are out to kill him and cook him for Christmas dinner. I LOVE the idea behind the plot. It’s just that there really isn’t a struggle in this story. The biggest battle in this game is between merchandising and my wallet. Characters such as Deathstroke and Shiva make their Batman debut mostly for the buzz. Sure, it’s cool to fight them, but with a team of assassins of this magnitude, I want to feel defeated, dragged through the streets of Gotham to my impending doom, until somehow, in that way that only Batman knows how, I rise up from the darkness and defeat my opponents. THIS is the lesson Batman needed to learn in his early days. To be an inch away from death would’ve made him the symbol of heroism we see in the first two games.
Which brings me to a bigger point: what’s up with all the glorified hero stuff in Batman games? I mean, this guy who uses fear as his main weapon and often times beats henchmen within an inch of their lives, basically walks on water in the game world. Origins does touch on the early days of the Jim Gordon/Batman team, and that’s about as much origin story as we get besides Bruce and Alfred subtly disagreeing about whatever. Year Two Batman is still considered a dangerous criminal or is in his very early days of working with the GCPD (e.g. The Long Halloween and Dark Victory). Yet, no one really sees Batman as dangerous in these games.
This is where I might lose you, another crazed Bat-fan preaching the word of Frank Miller, but I can’t help myself: Miller is the only guy that really understood how big of a douchebag Batman is. His Dark Knight series – The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, and Batman: Year One, is one of the most revered in the history of comic books, and for good reason. This series brought to light Batman’s psyche. Why does a man decide to do what he does? How long can one manipulate the darkness before the darkness has a hold over him? How have his actions affected the sanity of the city he vowed to protect for his own selfish reasons (Batman does what he does, at least at first, for retribution)?
Miller’s work points the spotlight at the scarred mental state of a man who has faced abuse after abuse, from watching his parents get gun downed to beating after beating on the road to becoming Batman. What we’re really seeing in every single Batman comic is the abuse he’s suffered reflected onto others. That’s why the Dick Grayson we meet in Miller’s pages is completely batshit (no pun intended) crazy. Batman kidnaps the boy and verbally and physically abuses him in All-Star Batman. All for the purpose of turning the boy into the ultimate “soldier.” If that isn’t a reflection of what Batman thinks of himself, I don’t know what is.
What’s more, the very existence of Batman as hero is a paradox. Not only does he instill fear in his enemies from the shadows, but he has also used that fear to carry on his own legend (think of all the “legend of the Batman” storylines we’ve seen where other people tell Batman stories as if he’s an urban legend) creating characters like The Joker and Scarecrow as an inevitable response.
To see this come way up in the video games would put a huge spotlight on Batman that we haven’t seen before. An entire city as a reflection of one man. Is Batman really the best thing for Gotham? With the decision-making capabilities offered to us by video games, each and everyone of us could make that choice for ourselves.
I can only hope that the next Batman game takes us deeper into the myth, deeper in the mind of the Bat, that we can finally see the things that haunt him in the night, that there are casualties to such a moral animal.