Last month, WB Games and Rocksteady released the conclusion to the “Arkham” trilogy. Although With a Terrible Fate does not typically offer game reviews proper, I make an exception in this case because I believe that, beyond just being the best entry in the trilogy, “Arkham Knight” is a compelling case of the new kinds of storytelling that video games make possible.
The review will assess the game from three perspectives: the degree to which it is immersive; the particularly innovative storytelling mechanics it uses; and the depth of character development across the course of the story. Note that the review will cover the entire game, and therefore contains liberal spoilers.
The game’s ad campaign boasts that it gives players the opportunity to “Be the Batman.” But what is it like to be a Batman, and what is it like to play this game? In this section, I argue that the game, while far from perfectly immersive, does provide the player with an environment in which they feel more like Gotham’s dark knight than a mere gamer watching a story unfold.
Obvious metrics for the degree to which a game’s world is immersive include size and detail of the world – in other words, breadth and depth. One advantage that games like “Skyrim” and “Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker” have in this regard is that their worlds are substantially larger than required for mere completion of their main storylines: so, whenever a player wishes, he can decide to “explore” the world instead of merely following along the main plot of the game. “Arkham Knight,” like the other members of the trilogy, does not fall short in this regard. The world is so vast as to encompass all of Gotham, and is more detailed than it initially appears – indeed, many of the Riddler’s challenges in the game require Batman to uncover minute details of the world, which shows how much attention was paid to the world feeling lived-in.
This puts the game on par with its predecessors in terms of immersion, but “Arkham Knight” goes even further than this: it integrates roads with the rest of its world, and introduces the Batmobile to let the player manipulate these roads with ease. This is particularly relevant to immersion in a “Batman” context because so much of the identity of Batman is grounded in his ability to manipulate the environment to accomplish his goals, terrorizing villains and bringing them to justice; the Batmobile is central to accomplishing this on the streets of Gotham.
Some players complain that the Batmobile is too central to the events of “Arkham Knight,” and that its subpar controls hamper an otherwise compelling game. I recognize the complaint; but, while I believe it is well founded, I also think it is overstated. I share some of this disappointment about the Batmobile, in two particular ways: first, its play-style does not do justice to the dynamics of Batman more generally; second, otherwise compelling stories within the game are sometimes relegated to the less-interesting gameplay of the Batmobile.
With regards to the first point, it is important to note that the Batmobile’s controls, both in its car mode and its tank mode, are something that the player can practice, learn, and become adept at, similar to other aspects of the game (e.g., the hand-to-hand combat system and stealth). The problem, rather than the controls being broken in some way, is that it seems that, once the player enters the Batmobile, he is playing a different, less dynamic video game. Though this does hold for the car, it is most apparent in the Batmobile’s tank mode: when Batman enters the tank and engages enemy forces, it feels as if the player has gone from playing an “Arkham” game to playing a modern rendition of “Tanks” with next-gen graphics. While many love “Tanks,” it is not an “Arkham” game, nor is it in keeping with the dynamic Batman articulated by Rocksteady and WB Games: instead of myriad tools and choice about how to dispatch enemies, as is the case in stealth and hand-to-hand combat situations, the player must merely avoid enemy shots and shoot back at the enemies. The only choice of “gadgets” is a limited suite of secondary weapons (missile barrage, EMP, and hacking an enemy drone); yet the availability of these proceeds in a linear fashion as the “Bat-tank” accrues combos, which makes them much less dynamics than, for example, the gadgets that Batman can deploy at any time during a street fight.
It is because these gameplay dynamics feel anti-Batman that it is frustrating when the climaxes of storylines take the form of a tank battle or car chase. Horrible though “Arkham Origins” was as an overall game, it did afford the player the chance to face Deathstroke one-on-one in combat; in “Arkham Knight,” Deathstroke reappears, but now you must defeat him in a game of “Tanks.” Rather than the man-to-man duel that the character of Deathstroke virtually demands to have with Batman, the storyline plays out as a “Batman-versus-the-militia” scenario, which has little to do with Deathstroke despite his token presence in the game. The main storyline is somewhat more redeemable because Batman ultimately does have to face the Arkham Knight in a one-on-one environment, but it does not help matters that Batman must defeat the Knight in two separate vehicle battles before that moment comes.
One might be tempted to see this as symptomatic of a game that focuses too much on the conflict of Batman-versus-anarchy, similar to the issues routinely cited in Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises.” Note, however, that I have emphasized that the apparent problems with the Batmobile stem only out of Batmobile game mechanics falling short of the dynamism expected of Batman as a character. I have said nothing to support the above inference, and I do not think it is the right inference to make – namely, because the question of anarchy is barely relevant to the theming and story of “Arkham Knight.” However, I will save further comment on this for the section on character development.
Though the above problems with the Batmobile are valid and a drag on player experience, they do not condemn the Batmobile in terms of player immersion in the game’s world. The fact remains the Rocksteady did a commendable job of integrating roads with the rest of Gotham’s world: the player can easily call the Batmobile to Batman’s side, glide into it from the city skies, or eject out of it to soar over the skyscrapers of Gotham. This means that, although gameplay within the Batmobile is less dynamic than it ought to be, the presence of the Batmobile itself, as well as the ways in which Batman can use it to traverse Gotham, allow the player to feel in greater control as Batman patrolling the city at night. In other words, when you view the Batmobile as another “tool” in the Dark Knight’s arsenal, it is clear that it makes the experience of living in Gotham much more vivid for the player.
A final point that bears mention, though not unique to this game within the context of the “Arkham” series, is that the presence of stochastic events – events that happen somewhat randomly – hugely increases the immersive dimension of player experience in the world of the game. I am thinking in particular of radio broadcasts: patrolling the streets of Gotham, the player hears some distant radio chatter of some thug, or perhaps a police dispatch – then, he can locate the source of the signal, travel to it, and act upon it, whether that means stopping a riot or investigating an unsolved homicide. Such radio chatter, which happens at random points in the game, makes the player feel that there is in fact a world that they are engaging as the Batman, rather than a mere story with which they are following along. Events happen randomly without the Batman directly bringing them about, and then the player can choose to act upon them or not. I have spoken before at length about the importance of events in a video game being determined by the action of the player; while this is certainly true, it seems to me equally true that the presence of events that happen and evolve without direct determination of the player increase the sensation that there is a reality to the world of the game, because the fact that things will happen in the game whether or not the player chooses to act is a dynamic mimics the reality of our actual lives. This is the same sort of mechanic as the inevitability of the moon falling on Termina if the player abstains from action in “Majora’s Mask.” It makes the player’s actions meaningful by establishing a background of events in the game that happen independently of the player; then, the player can act to change the world of the game, rather than inventing every aspect of the game’s world through his actions. This is a feature that make Gotham feel very lived-in, and which makes the player feel that there really is crime happening that the player really can prevent as Batman.
In large part, the little things like those radio reports are what make the world of “Arkham Knight” extremely immersive. After playing for a while, one will probably notice that, although the game’s perspective is usually that of a camera fixed on Batman, Batman’s head will always turn to look in the direction that the camera is looking. This nuance makes it feel that, rather than having a god’s eye view of the world, the player really is engaging the world of Gotham through the conduit of the Batman. Nuances like this provide the player with the resources to explore Gotham as its hero, and to save it – in other words, the game’s design does much to support the ad campaign’s claim that players are able to “Be the Batman.”
Regular readers of With a Terrible Fate will know that I believe that video games, as a medium, have the aesthetic resources to tell stories that could not exist in other media. One reason why I think “Arkham Knight” is a cut above its predecessors in the series is that it does an exceptional job of utilizing the unique narrative resources of video games to tell a Batman story uniquely suited to the video game narrative. This is what I discuss in this section of the review: in particular, I analyze the game’s usage of UI opacity, meaningful completionism, and perspectival fluidity; I argue that these dynamics present a narrative of Batman that show video games’ ability to shed new light on characters that are almost a century old.
When I attended PAX East this last spring, I came across a panel of top UI (“user interface”) designers discussing the role of UI in video games. The panelists all espoused a view that UI is best when the player never notices it – that is, when it does not intrude upon the experience of gameplay in an obvious way – a view that reflects an aspiration for UI to ultimately reach the perfect transparency of virtual reality, where players are perfectly immersed in a visual world and can act upon that world just as we act upon our real world. In an article I wrote about that panel, I expressed concern that this was a hasty conclusion with respect to the end-goal of UI: it was apparent to me that there are some special aesthetic experiences made possible precisely because UI is not as transparent as simply deciding to lift your arm and then seeing it move. A few months later, “Arkham Knight” provided a perfect example of what I was talking about.
At one point in the game, Alfred tells Batman that Lucius Fox has not been responding to communications for a while. The player can then choose to go to Wayne Tower, where Lucius has been stationed during the events of the game, to check on his status. Batman enters the elevator up to the top of the Tower, where Lucius presumably is, and is seen in the elevator dressed as Bruce Wayne – ostensibly because Lucius’ staff, who does not know Batman’s secret identity, are still in the building, the player directs Wayne into Lucius office, only to find it empty. Searching the office, there is once prompt available to the player: to use the retinal scanner on Lucius’ computer. Wayne sits down in the chair, does this, only to have the computer reject his retinal scan. At this point, Lucius enters the room, approaches the desk, and asks Wayne is anything is wrong and whether there is anything Lucius can do for him. The UI prompt for the player is to press a button to again “Use Retinal Scanner.” However, when the player pressed the button, rather than merely looking into the computer’s scanner again, Wayne grabs Lucius, slams his head against the table, presses his eye up to the scanner, and then begins transferring funds out of Wayne Enterprise’s bank accounts. At this point, the screen is revealed to be security camera footage that the real Batman is watching in the elevator up to Lucius’ office: although the player presumably did not realize it at the time, he was previously playing as Hush, who had surgically engineered his face to look like Bruce Wayne’s in order to break into the Tower.
The “what-have-I-done” horror of the player upon “using the retinal scanner” is a direct result of UI not being transparent: although the player expects his agency to be extended through the avatar in one way (that is, merely putting one’s eye up to the retinal scanner), his agency ends up effecting something vastly different than what was expected (that is, brutalizing Lucius). This also makes vivid the completeness of Hush’s transfiguration into Wayne: in the game, the source of Batman’s agency is the player, who directs how he ought to act; the player also knows that Batman and Bruce Wayne are identical. Hush was so successful that he tricked the actual source of Batman’s agency into mistaking him for Bruce Wayne, indirectly making Batman responsible for Hush’s attack on Lucius. This makes the standard guilt of Batman for the actions of evildoers grounded in a very strong theoretical way with respect to game mechanics: in this case, Batman’s dual identity, an explicit theme throughout the game, ends up hurting those around him because an enemy is able to convince the player, the agent who most wants and is able to make Batman a hero within the universe of the game, to unwittingly help Hush in his wicked machinations. This grounds the guilt of Batman for the evil that happens in Gotham in a way that only video games could ground it: not only does that evil happen in spite of him, but, in cases like this, it actually comes about because of him.
The complementary case is also true: just as the medium of video games enhances the storytelling of Batman, so does the narrative of Batman uniquely serve to game the mechanics of video game interesting and worthwhile. In particular, “Arkham Knight” makes one of the best cases for completionism – the attitude that one ought to complete every available objective in the game, including all side quests – that I have seen of any game in recent years. The events of the game’s main plot end in Knightfall: with Batman’s secret identity exposed to the public by Scarecrow, Batman recognizes that he must vanish from Gotham and be replaced by a new hero in order for the cowl to still be meaningful. Before bowing out, however, Batman wants to take the remainder of Halloween night to round up the major criminals loose in Gotham, leaving the city safe before disappearing from it.
Batman can initiate Knightfall without capturing all villains and locking them away; he need only round up a certain percentage of them, such that Gotham is relatively stable. If the player does choose to pursue 100% completion of the game, then he must undertake a much more involved and time-consuming task than the game’s main plot. As was the case in the previous “Arkham” games, this is primarily due to the Riddler, who has hidden literally hundreds of fetchquest-like riddles around Gotham. To confront and arrest the Riddler, Batman must solve every one of these riddles. This takes hours, and requires the player to explore virtually every nook and cranny of Gotham, all for the sake of arresting one man. I have previously criticized “Assassin’s Creed” for inane sidequests that, on the surface, look quite similar to the case of the riddles; however, I think that striving to complete every last mission in “Arkham Knight” is both merited and incumbent upon the player. Why, other than simple bias, might this be the case?
In the particular case of the Riddler, Rocksteady has always been able to get away with this kind of fetchquest because it is exactly the sort of long, torturous exercise that the obsessive, narcissistic, deluded villain would devise to torture Batman – and, by extension, the player. This is enough to make it consistent within the narrative, but it certainly isn’t enough to make it incumbent upon the player to solve every last riddle. In “Arkham City,” this onus was brought about by the fact that the Riddler had hostages, and the only way for Batman to save them was to solve the riddles. In “Arkham Knight,” the duty of Batman instead is to defeat every villain “once and for all” – not in the Punisher-sense of killing them, but in a narrative sense of bringing them all to justice as the Batman’s final act for Gotham City. This is no small undertaking, and the riddles in particular make the breadth and intensity of the task phenomenologically salient to the player. It is a tedious task; it is a task that invites players at every turn to quit, accept less than 100% completion, and say “This is enough to be satisfactory.” And all of this is what makes Batman’s words to Alfred after imprisoning the last villain that much more rewarding: “Alfred, Gotham is safe.” It is a labor of both duty and love, and the Sisyphean struggle that the player must overcome in order to complete that labor is what makes it feel as though he really has gone out of his way to save Gotham, rather than merely having reached the end of a story about Batman. It is not easy to make 100% completionism genuinely meaningful in game narrative, but “Arkham Knight” makes it the case that 100% completion is the only proper way for the player to conclude their experience of the series.
“Arkham Knight” also complicates player experience by creating a story in which the player can “Be the Batman,” but in which they also take on many other perspectives. The game begins with the player controlling not Batman, but a police officer in the first person who suffers from Scarecrow’s fear toxin; the game shifts between the player seeing Batman from the third person perspective, and from seeing through his eyes, each shifting marking crucial narrative moments; and one of the most poignant sequences of the game is not one in which the player controls Batman, but rather when the player controls the Joker within Batman’s mind. I will examine the importance of these various perspectives in more depth in the next section below; for now, I want to explore the impact of perspectival fluidity, or dynamics shifts in player perspective, by focusing on Azrael at the end of his sidequest, “Heir to the Cowl.”
The quest surrounding Azrael focuses on his desire to be named Batman’s successor, in the event that anything should happen to him. In order to vet him, Batman tests him with a series of combat challenges, in which Azrael must defeat a group of enemies without ever being hit. Importantly, the player takes control of Azrael during these challenges, so the gameplay dynamics mirror the narrative goal of the sidequest: as Batman is seeing whether Azrael would be a worthy successor, the player is effectively “trying him out” as an avatar, so as to see whether he really could fill the role of Batman in a satisfying way. (And, quite possibly, this will end up being more than a well-composed sidequest: with Knightfall concluding the narrative of “Arkham Knight,” and a new Dark Knight arriving in Gotham, readers of the comics will reasonably infer that the new avenger shown at the end of the game is Azrael, as we see in the events of Knightfall. Thus, a game could potentially follow “Arkham Knight” in which this sidequest comes to fruition with the player really playing as Azrael’s “Batman.”)
What’s particularly interesting is the perspectival shift at the end of the sidequest, which supports the identity of Batman in a way that only video games could. Batman ultimately realizes that Azrael has been programmed by the Order of St. Dumas to kill Batman in order to become the righteous, vengeful, executioner of a hero that the city needs. Batman realizes this just as Azrael arrives at his Clock Tower; Batman tries to tell Azrael that he has been indoctrinated, and warns him not to let someone else manipulate him into doing anything; instead of arresting him, he then turns his back to Azrael and lets Azrael choose. And Azrael really can choose: at this moment, the player enters Azrael’s perspective, controlling his actions and seeing the world through his eyes. The player can hear the voice of Azrael’s cult leader telling him to kill Batman, but there is a choice for the player to make: there is an elevator out of the Clock Tower, and a sword to the side of the elevator. The player can either walk Azrael into the elevator, or have him take up the sword; if Azrael walks or chooses to break the sword and then leave, Batman tells him that he made the right choice, and they embrace; if Azrael tries to kill the Batman, then Batman counters him and arrests him, telling him that “the choice was always [his to make].” And, because of the possibilities made real by video games, we know that Batman was absolutely right.
The game mechanics here reveal an essential aspect of Batman in a special way. When we talk about Batman’s “One Rule,” his abstention from killing, there are many ways to justify it that plausibly describe Batman: for instance, it is all the keeps him sane; or, if you prefer, it is what separates him in kind from criminals, who also work outside the law, but who have no regard for human life. One incisive way to explain the Rule, which I borrow from featured author Dan Hughes, is that he gives criminals the ability to choose. Criminals are arrested and punished for their actions, but whether they continue to commit crimes is up to them; to kill them would be to rob them of such an ability to choose. This deep sort of respect for choices and consequences is inherent to the Batman; yet, ironically, there is no real sort of choice in comics or movies. We might imagine how events in a comic could have gone differently, but there is usually nothing within the text of the comic itself to describe the different ways in which events could have gone. Here, in contrast, Batman’s mantra of choice is reinforced by the medium itself: Azrael is given a choice, and, by virtue of the player’s agency extended through him, he really does have as much of a choice as Batman has over the course of the narrative. Batman’s rule and character makes allows that choice, and the perspective dynamics of the video game make that choice meaningful. Such instances show how well suited the medium of video games is to telling the story of the Batman – a potential on which “Arkham Knight” capitalizes in full.
Given what I have said about perspectival fluidity, not to mention the fact that the game is named after a different character than Batman, it is counterintuitive to suppose that the entire game is actually an examination of Batman’s identity. Nevertheless, this is precisely what I will show in the final section of this review.
The reason why the gameplay dimensions of player choice in Batman’s confrontation with Azrael and player guilt in Hush’s assault on Lucius work so well in the overarching context of the game is that “Arkham Knight” is a narrative obsessed with the Batman coming to terms with the consequences and guilt of his own choices. The game was able to draw out these themes incisively by using the Scarecrow as a villain late in the series, in contrast to his early usage in Nolan’s trilogy. When Scarecrow is brought in early in a Batman series, it is easy to use him as a foil to Batman conquering fear, motivating Batman to use fear as his own weapon against evildoers; but this is not the function of Scarecrow in “Arkham Knight.” This time, Scarecrow enters a world where Batman has broken his one rule for the Joker, where Jason Todd was left for dead in the Joker’s clutches, and Batman’s one fear is the choice he makes as a hero costing the lives of everyone he loves.
This is why there is no suspense surrounding the question of the Arkham Knight’s identity; anyone paying attention in the game, regardless of their prior knowledge of the Batman universe, will be able to guess that the Arkham Knight is Jason Todd well before the “reveal” happens. However much we might be conditioned in modern times to expect a surprise twist in storytelling, the plot of “Arkham Knight” functions much more like classic Aristotelian tragedy: it is clear that one of Batman’s dearest former allies has turned against him, and only Batman seems to be fighting that conclusion. Likewise does it feel inevitable that Batman will be discovered in precisely the way that Scarecrow wants: Scarecrow holds all the cards necessary in order to ransom Batman into revealing his secret identity, because Batman knows that his weakness is wanting to protect his friends (Barbara, Gordon, Robin the Second, and so forth). The game is about “aftermath” insofar as most of its events revolve around choices Batman has already made – failing to save Jason, killing the Joker, and so forth. The unknown from which the story gets its intrigue is the question of how Batman copes with that aftermath.
Enter Joker. It is telling that the majority of the game features Batman hallucinating Barbara’s being dead and the Joker’s being alive: this is a synthesis of guilt for what he has done and fear for what he might bring about. But the Joker’s presence in Batman’s mind is about more than this: it is an experiential version of the Joker’s famous claim that “all it takes is one bad day” to push someone like Batman to the madness of someone like the Joker: the entire course of the game is a struggle for Batman to assert himself as the Dark Knight in the wake of having broken his rule for none other than the Joker, proving that killing a madman does not turn you into one. This is why the character of the Arkham Knight is interesting: not because of suspense about his identity, and not even about his resentment towards Batman per se; rather, it is the fact that, if Joker had been able to turn Jason against Batman and Jason had killed Batman, then the Joker would have proved his point about it only taking one bad day to turn ruthlessly violent. The fact that Jason ultimately returns to save Batman, quite to the contrary, shows that the Joker is wrong. Batman makes his point through the redemption of Jason.
But this is not the only way in which Batman makes his point. As I mentioned earlier, one of the most poignant sequences of the game is when, strapped down by the Scarecrow, Batman confronts Joker within the arena of his mind. The Joker seems to have won, having wrested control of Batman’s mind from him – something shown through gameplay by the player taking control of the Joker in a fantasy of him slaughtering all other supervillains, such that the Joker has actually wrested the agency of player away from Batman and taken it for himself. But then something happens: Joker gets trapped in a nightmare. By a matter of degrees, it becomes clear that he is not being poisoned by Scarecrow’s toxin (and indeed, as a manifestation of Batman’s mind, how could that be possible anyway?), but rather that he is being hunted and rooted out by the Batman, who is taking back his own mind. Everywhere the player turns, images of the Joker’s demise and statues of the Caped Crusader confront the clown prince, until Batman himself emerges from the darkness, declares himself the master of his own mind (“I am vengeance! I am the night! I am Batman!”) and seals away the Joker for all time, with the poison of the Joker’s blood finally leaving Batman’s eyes. What’s interesting is that, as with Azrael, the Joker has the agency of the player during this sequence and so can move in different ways, yet there is no way to escape the Batman; this reinforces the game’s theme that the Batman’s will is absolute, immutable even when tested by the demons of his past.
The combination of immersive world with game-specific storytelling and a character arc that forces the Bat to confront himself renders “Arkham Knight” a game that allows the player to understand Batman from the inside. Beyond being the Batman, the player is responsible for guiding the Batman through a story that compels him to be himself, liberating his identity from the temptation of Joker and the fear of failure. When Batman destroys himself in Knightfall, it is to preserve a symbol that both he and the player fought to create: it is that symbol that keeps Gotham safe, and that renders the actions of the player worthwhile. This conclusion, I believe, is the most fitting capstone possible for the “Arkham” series. The game made good on its predecessors, and then some.