“You are not going anywhere I don’t want you to.”
- The Joker to Batman in Batman: Arkham Asylum
I won’t make a habit about doing game reviews on this site, but I feel that Batman: Arkham Asylum is a very good representative of what’s going on in mainstream games. It’s safe to say that the success of AA will lead to more games like it in the future. Note that this is a review of Arkham Asylum, not 2011′s Arkham City. I actually experienced the sequel first, but I was told that I should really go take a look at the original game which was a better attempt overall. I’ve done so, and I think that the best way to explain my feelings would be to tell a short fictional story.
Your friend tells you that you should check out this new game he recently got. He excitedly brings out a bowl, and a marble. He tells you that the rules to the game are that you put the marble into the bowl. You look at him, a bit puzzled. He tells you to go ahead and put the marble in the the bowl. You awkwardly do so, and he’s like “Nice job, you win!” You smirk. He says you should play again. Finding the whole thing funny and wanting to be a good sport, you say, “Really? Alright, I will!” and you pick the marble back up out of the bowl, only to drop it again. “Nice job man, you own at this!” says your friend, sincerely. The initial humor has worn off now, and you’re starting to become curious. “Play again, dude.” He’s looking at you, waiting. “C’mon, just a few more games”, he insists. Now you’re starting to think that this isn’t a game but some kind of bizarre behaviorial experiment.
“I don’t… I don’t get it” you say.
“What do you mean? Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot to tell you. You’re Batman.” He says quickly, and looks back down to the bowl, as though that bit of information ought to explain everything.
“Yeah. This game is actually called Batman: Gotham Hero. Sorry I forgot to tell ya.”
“Really? I don’t understand…” you say, looking at the marble. “How is this Batman?”
“Well, this ball”, he holds up the shiny marble between his fingers, “is Batman. And when he enters the bowl, it means that he has beaten up and captured the evil criminal mastermind, The Joker! Pretty awesome, eh?” He’s looking at you, smiling wide.
“So… this is all the game is, though? Dropping a marble into a bowl?”
“Well… no – you’re Batman. You get to kick criminal ass as Batman on the streets of Gotham!” He detects that your facial expression hasn’t changed in the least. “It’s… dude, do you not like Batman or something?”
“Batman’s cool, I like Batman… it’s just. All I’m doing is dropping this marble into a bowl. How is this a game, really?”
“How is it a game?” he asks, somewhat appalled at your question. “It’s a game, first of all, because it’s damn fun to play. Maybe it’s just not your kind of game.”
You press on, mostly out of curiosity. “How can this be fun to play, for anyone? The only rule is that I drop this ball into this bowl, right?”
“Yeah… so? Dude – need I remind you? You’re friggin Batman! Guh. Anyway, sorry that it wasn’t your kind of game.” You try to interject, but he cuts you off. “I got one other game too, you’ll probably like it a lot more now that I think of it…”
“Okay, what is it?”
“It’s called Superman Vs. Final Fantasy” he says as he rustles through his backpack. After a moment, he lays a glass and a golfball on the table, and looks up at you, smiling.
The Batman Games
There are many reasons why people might like something. I am here to argue specifically that quality of gameplay is not something that anyone could like about these Batman games, any more than someone could like the Marble Game. Essentially, you could like it, but you’d have to be insane. All you have to do is keep pressing the attack button. I killed enemies who weren’t on the screen – who I didn’t even know were there, because the combat is auto-aimed and almost impossible to lose. I am pretty certain I could beat 90% of the fights in the game, on the first try, without even looking at the screen. So essentially, it’s follow one instruction – mash the button and you win. See the similarity now to the marble game? The most common reply to this I hear is that the thematic elements make up for this. That it’s because you’re Batman, going through this rendered world, with dialogue “happening” and a story and all of that.
You know, I remember when lots of politicians were all up in arms about GTA, and how you could kill hookers and all that. The politicians would say “these games are teaching our kids to become desensitized to violence!” But the gaming community, rightly, pointed out how our brains work when we play games. It’s not about “killing hookers” or “killing cops” or anything like that. It’s about reaching the goal. Whether that goal be to escape from the police, or to get a certain amount of money, or whatever – games work on an abstract level in our minds. When we’re making decisions, we have to boil stuff down into its necessary elements. If you’re trying to make a tactical decision, your brain focuses entirely on those elements which are important in making the decision. Everything is reduced to numbers, concepts, spacial relationships.
So, we can’t now turn around and say “oh, well now the thematic layer does matter, and it is what we’re thinking about when we’re playing”. Either Batman: Arkham Asylum‘s gameplay sucks, or everyone who played GTA is now desensitized to violence – those are the only two options here. You can’t have it both ways. At the end of the day, any adult (and hell, most children) knows that the Marble Game doesn’t become more fun if we pretend that we’re Batman. If the gameplay isn’t at least a little interesting and challenging, then the gameplay isn’t fun – for anyone. For those who disagree, please watch this clip (spoiler alert).
If you thought you had fun with the software overall, who am I to say that you didn’t? If you had fun with it, you had fun with it. What I am saying is that the fun didn’t come from the gameplay. There are many reasons why a person might enjoy something, and I invite you to either show me how I’m wrong about the gameplay, or offer up where the fun did come from, and why the brain-dead gameplay didn’t get in the way of it.
Epilogue – The Writing Sucked, Too
Sorry, this isn’t normally my thing, and I’m not really a writer by trade, but, Arkham Asylum‘s writing was not good and someone needs to point that out. Real quick, though – “it’s like the comic” or “it’s like the cartoon” aren’t a defense. Bad writing is bad writing, I don’t care what it’s being faithful to.
It’s inconsistent: There’s plenty of implications in the dialogue that Batman and Joker already have a history at this point in the story. Indeed, Batman even goes as far as to say that he knows that something that the Joker said was a lie. When asked how he knows it was a lie, Batman says, “I know him”. Alright, that’s fine… although at one point, early on in the game, Batman shouts in the Joker’s face, “Tell me something… what are you really after?” Isn’t Batman supposed to be a super-detective? I can tell you I’m no super-detective and it’s plain as day that the Joker is an insane agent of chaos with a special vendetta against Batman. Why would Batman ask such a stupid question? Is Joker going to spill the beans right there? This gets into my next point…
It’s stupid – I love super-detectives. Sherlock Holmes, Columbo, Death Note’s “L” – I love them all. I just love an open mystery and I love to observe a perceptive mind at work. Batman, in these new games, is not a super-detective. I think if he was really as stupid as he seems to be, he couldn’t qualify as a regular detective. He’s just this big, dumb muscle-man. Let’s see some examples of his stupidity. Firstly, again, the above – asking the Joker what he’s after despite knowing that the Joker would never answer such a question in a useful way. Also, yelling this at Harley Quinn: “You have one chance to surrender, Quinn!“ The other guards around him had to be looking at each other like, “what is he doin?” Seriously, this not only makes Batman look stupid, it also makes him look weak. Batman isn’t just stupid, either – the whole game has an air of stupid-ness to it. From the mayor referring to his campaign as his “mayoral campaign” to the loud-speaker computer-voice lady saying “Shoot to Kill permissions granted”.
This game’s writing is dumb as rocks. Not a hint of subtlety, subtext, or cleverness. If you really liked the writing in the game, I highly recommend you start watching professional wrestling on Pay Per View. You’ll love it.
A Final Note about Cutscenes
Hey developers, who do you really think you’re fooling by allowing me to hold down the W key during your cutscenes? You think I can’t tell that this is still a cutscene, just because you let me waddle around? I can’t attack or use any of my abilities – I’m on rails. Why not just let me take my hand off of the W key, eh? Ridiculous. Don’t let this bullshit tactic fool you – this game has a 30+ minute opening cutscene. And like I said above, it’s not good. I leave you with an episode of He-Man. If you enjoyed these Batman games, I wonder what you will think of this?
Official Dinofarm Games Rating: Forty-Four out of Two-Hundred and Ninety Seven Stars