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Batman Arkham Origins — The Hero We Need, Sorta

Batman Arkham Origins — The Hero We Need, Sorta
Batman: Arkham Origins

There are several distinct formative experiences shared by kids who grew up in the nineteen nineties: Becoming briefly enamoured with Pogs. Squinting in vain at scrambled pornography. Watching helplessly as a supposedly liberal president exploited racial divisions to gut the welfare system and destroyed the Glass-Steagall provisions of the Banking Act of 1933 at the bidding of corporate lobbyists. Slap bracelets, those were fun.

Like most 90's kids, my formative experience with Bruce Wayne's crime fighting alter-ego was Batman: The Animated Series, created by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski. The show established a beachhead of (mostly) quality superhero animation for the rest of the DC comics universe to storm, eventually making room for Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Justice League, and Justice League Unlimited. BatmanTAS started with a deliberately narrow focus on Batman and the rogues of Gotham, but as time passed the scope of the stories Warner Bros. Animation told steadily expanded, stretching to include Superman's Metropolis, Wonder Woman's Themyscira, The Flash's Keystone City, and whoever the hell lives in Blüdhaven, establishing what's now known as the DC Animated Universe, which set a gold standard of animated superhero storytelling that often surpassed the comic books themselves.  5 I recently re-watched the original Batman Animated Series and can personally attest that, a few glaring exceptions aside, the episodes hold up incredibly well—far better than most so-called adult fare from the 90's. (For example, films based on Michael Crichton novels that aren't Jurassic Park.) There were also a lot of video games based on the DCAU, but we don't talk about those. There is a dark side to every Renaissance, and the video games based on properties like BatmanTAS and SupermanTAS cast long shadows whose chill still lingers deep within many a gamers' bones. For those of us who still remember the dark days of Superman 64 complaining about a game like Batman Arkham Origins can feel like tempting fate, but what the hell, let's do it anyway.

On paper, at least, Batman: Arkham Origins seems like a test by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment to gage how much change in a beloved property fans will tolerate.

Executive #1: What do people like about the Arkham Batman games?

Executive #2: Well, they like the story written by comic book and Batman The Animated Series alumnus Paul Dini.

Executive #1: What else?

Executive #2: They like the characters being voiced by the original actors from the animated series, particularly Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker.

Executive #1: Right, right. Anything else?

Executive #2: They all seem to really like what developer Rocksteady Studios has done with the property.

Executive #1: Now, what do you think would happen if we made another game, but removed every single one of those elements fans love?

Executive #2: I think we'd both get promotions.

Executive #1: Quick, schedule a pitch meeting! Now, where are my pants?

We'll never know if that noble executive found his pants or not, but the existence of Batman: Arkham Origins is irrefutable. Having played it, I can say in all honesty that it lives up to the storied pedigree of the Arkham video game series, which stands as both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.  First, a brief overview:

All fiction is the beneficiary of selective memory, but comic book franchises, with their decades upon decades of accumulated mythology, are particularly fond of hitting the reset button, with the writers penning stories where the very fabric of time and space is manhandled within an inch of its life before gamely snapping back into place at whatever point the editors desire. It can be jarring for the uninitiated to learn that Batman has been around since 1939 when he first appeared in Detective Comics (the      “4DC” in DC Comics stands for Detective Comics, so saying “DC Comics” is saying Detective Comics Comics) and has been subjected to hundreds of writers and illustrators of wildly varying talent, but in a way that is the most fundamentally human way to tell a story. Fiction can spring fully formed from its writer's imagination but capital-m Mythology takes shape in geologic time, with each artist quietly leaving their mark like waves steadily depositing sediment until a new landmass is formed. We used to slow-cook our mythologies, with each new revelation taking shape over generations of conflict between the dogmatic and the heretic, the icon and the iconoclast, the reformation and the counter-reformation; it was all very Hegelian, and it was kind of a drag. These days our myths exist in a permanent flux of narrative Balkanization, with parallel, conflicting storylines effortlessly coexisting. The present idea of Batman exists in the same ontological limbo as Schrödinger's cat, allowing the dark knight to be simultaneously dead in an issue of Batman, alive in an issue of Detective Comics, suffering from amnesia in an issue of Catwoman, and a gorilla in an issue of Justice League of America, with no Council of Nicea to tell us which is the One True Batman. We can all choose to believe in whatever Batman we like the most, and all those choices are equally valid as long as they're not Ben Affleck.

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Howdy.

The first game in the Arkham series, Batman Arkham Asylum, wasn't just a great game, it was the right Batman at the right time: an exquisite synthesis of the gritty realism of the Christopher Nolan films, the Gothic horror of the comics, and the episodic pacing of the animated series. The good name of Batman had been leveraged so many times to sell crappy games that playing something that finally got him right, made by people who loved his leathery hide almost as much as we did, was a revelation. Batman has always been billed as The Hero With No Superpowers, but follow his crime fighting escapades long enough and it becomes obvious that his willpower is far beyond that of the average mortal man—his data point hovering far above the bell curve, as if in perpetration for an inverted takedown.  Arkham Asylum and its successors went to great pains to portray this iron will, with tears accumulating in Batman's cape and scuffs appearing on his costume and stubble sprouting on his brooding scowl as the long night wears on, and the rogues are brought to justice one by one. The Arkham Asylum Batman represented the epitome of the lone badass, dispatching goons by the truckload via a combination of predatory stealth and a kinetic combat system that scores of game designers would shamelessly imitate. It was the best at what it did, to quote another unrelated comic book property, but what it did took place on a small, isolated island of the DC universe where all the elements could be judiciously controlled. What we saw in Arkham Asylum was a small fraction of the Batman mythos, which is itself a small fraction of the greater DC continuity. The opportunities to explore new storytelling avenues with further entries in the series were virtually endless, but the formula hasn't changed.

6 I know. Now go!

The sequels to Arkham Asylum have been great leaps forward in terms of scale, but not in terms of story, and attempts to expand the Arkham series into the greater DC continuity have resulted in frustrating half-measures and trivial, if amusing, fan service. The Catwoman storyline in Arkham City played like the afterthought designed to extract more cash from the player that it was, managing to tell a story that simultaneously lacked any significant connection to the main plot line and failed to generate any narrative momentum of its own. The cameo from Tim Drake's Robin played out like a deliberate parody of crappy character cameos, with Robin offering help and an inexplicably irate Batman demanding he go away. While the environments in Arkham City were left free to grow the story felt deliberately strangled, as if it were a bonsai tree the designers felt obliged to restrict lest it expand into something vulgar. The best part of Arkham City was when Batman journeyed to the underground ruins of Old Gotham, which is, not coincidentally, a point where expanding the environment coincided with expanding the story.

The reviews of Batman: Arkham Origins have almost all said the same thing: “It's more of the same, which is good, but it's more of the same, which is bad.” a sentiment I can't help but echo here. Batman Arkham Origins is a victim of the plague of sameness that has befallen mass media in general and video games in particular, where every formula turns to iron dogma as sequel after sequel is released, and success becomes a prison.  The Arkham series had taken the framework established by Arkham Asylum as far as it could go with Arkham City and, faced with the prospect of evolving or dying, decided to punt by releasing a prequel, which is like a sequel where everyone has amnesia and has to reintroduce themselves.  All those relationships you hoped would develop into something interesting haven't even been formed yet, so you really can't fault us for neglecting them.  You want Batgirl?  Well, you get to listen to a pre-Batgirl Barbara Gordon talk on the radio!  That's something!  You want Nightwing?  That's not gonna happen.  No Nightwing for you.  Are you tired of collecting hundreds of Riddler trophies?  Now they're called Enigma data packs!  Remember Ice Grenades?  Now there's Glue Grenades!  They're like Ice Grenades! But glue!  In Arkham City the streets were filled with criminals because a huge section of the city had been sealed off and turned into a prison, in Arkham Origins the streets are still filmed with criminals because all the law abiding citizens abide by the curfew, and this is apparently just how Gotham is.  In Arkham City Batman fought the police because they were a private security firm controlled by Hugo Strange and Ra's al Ghul.  In Arkham Origins Batman fights the police because they're overwhelmingly corrupt and James Gordon doesn't trust him yet.  In Arkham Asylum you go into the sewers.  In Arkham City you go into the sewers.  Arkham Origins, ditto.  I'm not saying that Arkham Origins is a bad game—in fact it's still quite good—but, as BatmanTAS demonstrates, there is so much more that could be done with the property. If I were watching a TV version of the Arkham series as a kid, Arkham Origins would be the point where I changed the channel in pursuit of more varied fare, like Bucky O'Hare.

Whenever someone wants to justify their political apathy (and really, political apathy requires no justification) they trot out the old chestnut about how they stopped following world events for a few years, then dove back into the newstream  only to find the exact same people still arguing about the exact same things, and it left them feeling like the whole enterprise is futile.  Comic books are a lot like that.  There's something tragic about the Sisyphusian task of superheroes who, due to their floating timelines, can never fully defeat their enemies or surrender their mantle, and will always inhabit a desperate struggle for their very lives and the lives of their loved ones.  The X-Men can never stop being hated and feared, Spider-Man can never stop bearing his immense responsibility, Aquaman can never become someone who doesn't suck, and Bruce Wayne can never stop being Batman.  Like a Hercules whose labors stretch on into infinity, Batman will never run out of nefarious schemes to undermine, innocents to save, and goons to punch.  It's the writers' job to make this seem more like an adventure and less like a form of ironic punishment.   BatmanTAS and later instalments in the DCAU did an excellent job of steadily expanding the character's world, introducing new enemies and allies and environments so Gotham didn't come to feel like a prison, and the world remained a place worth saving.  I don't doubt that video game designers often feel like Sisyphus themselves, trapped in an ever-renewing cycle of toiling to appease the public's appetite for novelty.  I can only hope that their boredom coincides with ours, and their appetite for something new, different and exciting in the Batman universe will eventually prove just as ravenous.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

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About the Author
Eric Thornton

1090 Points, 2 Comments, and 40 Articles.

Eric Thornton is a sentient ape that lives in a spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy. He is mostly water.

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