The Joy Of Arkham Asylum’s broken Batman

A few hours into Arkham Asylum [official site], I thought Batman’s cape was glitching. It does occasionally catch on railings if you brood-squat at an odd angle, but this was different; an occasional flash of colour in the gloom of the garment* caught my eye and I thought Bats’ big old utility belt was glitching through the cape. But, no, the cape had been torn and as the long night in Arkham continued, Batman’s beatings would make marks all over his suit.

More importantly, he gets a heck of a five o’clock shadow.

One of the themes of the Arkham games is that Batman never really stops working. We only see him briefly as Bruce Wayne, at the opening of Arkham City, and even then he’s doing Batman work rather than living the playboy lifestyle. He’s campaigning to shut down the new Arkham megaprison, figuring it’d be impossible to punch an actual city into submission as Batman, so using his billions and position among the wealthy and influential to strike from a political angle.

It all goes wrong, of course, and he ends up incarcerated. Even before he suits up, becoming the Bat, Wayne gets his knuckles bloodied fighting off some angry inmates and a few of Penguin’s new recruits. The damage can be seen as he puts his fists into the suit’s gauntlets, the skin split and shaved down almost to the bone.

Arkham Asylum puts him through the wringer. The cape is torn during a fight with Bane, when poor Bats is hurled through a wall, and he gets a laceration on his face, as well as a cut across the chest that goes straight through his armour. There’s a grim punchline at the end of the game when Commissioner Gordon tells a battered, bleeding Batman to get some rest, right before a call comes in to alert the cops to a bank raid. The culprit? Harvey Dent, aka Two Face. Before Gordon can even respond to the call, Batman has hopped in his Batplane and jetted off to deal with the new threat.

All in a (k)night’s work.

The damage shown across the three games, all of which begin with a pristine Batman in a fresh suit, is cosmetic. It’s scripted as well, the cuts, scorches and bullet-holes all occurring in cutscenes rather than while you’re actually at the controls. While it’d be interesting to see damage occur in real-time, it could also lead to a ludicrously charred and ruptured hero – barely five minutes go by without a baseball bat to the Batbonce, and every encounter with a supervillain would leave more scars than a Victor Zsasz cosplay.

Dynamic damage isn’t the point of Arkham’s damage modelling though; it’s a storytelling device, and it’s a damn good one.

It’s fair to criticise or at least question the narrative shift toward a militarised Batman in the Arkham series, the actual characterisation of Wayne, the man beneath the cowl, is effective. No matter how desperate the situation becomes, and how many betrayals and escalations he has to deal with, his voice rarely wavers. He’s tough, matter of fact and confident in his abilities, but the wounds and damage show that he’s not invulnerable.

In a world of Teflon protagonists, who can survive a localised apocalypse without looking any the worse for wear, Asylum’s Batman looked like he’d been “in the wars”, as my mum would say when I came home from school with a scuffed knee. Batman pays a heavy price for surviving all of those cutscenes, and that creates a continuity between the scripted sequences and the rest of the game.

There’s a parallel in the treatment of the various iterations of Arkham/Gotham across the three games as well. In Asylum, the titular institution is changed by events in the game, and in Knight the whole city undergoes a couple of transformative events as villains and (anti)heroes alike unleash their powers.

I’m a Batmobile apologist – no, a Batmobile fan – and it’s worth keeping that in mind when I say that the Arkhams are among my favourite modern action games. I love the side missions, Riddler trophies, rhythmic combat and comic book shenanigans. There are duff moments, particularly in City which strikes a weird too-edgy tone and completely drops the ball on a couple of characters, but they’re big daft delights on the whole.

And that torn cape, that stubble, and all of the scars and tears matter. These little changes to the character model are the thread that runs through every ridiculous setpiece and plot device, reminding us that events are unfolding across a single night, and that there are no breaks or timeouts. By the end of each game, the suit is like a trophy cabinet to – “ah, let me tell you about this wound. I was deep in the dark with a vicious cannibal killer…”

Big games often hang together on the smallest details.

* The Gloom of the Garment is the name of post-retirement Batman’s haberdashery / fashion label

18 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    I like when character models, suits and etc, change through the plot.

    See also Prince of Persia Sands of Time.

    Bats gets kicked around a lot in these games, and it’s great that it shows.

    Though it does raise the question of who repairs these things. Alfred?

  2. Da5e says:

    Spec Ops: The Line does this remarkably well too, I thought; the way the player model looks more and more battered as he goes through more and more horror made it all seem far more meaningful that the way the blokes out of, say, Gears of War wander through xenocide without a hair going out of place.

    • Premium User Badge

      Grizzly says:

      Killing people generally becomes more violent too. Exploding heads are common at the end at the game, whilst they don’t happen at all at the start.

  3. TΛPETRVE says:

    It’s a bit of a shame that the same doesn’t hold true for Batman’s standard enemies, who go through combat without the slightest visual wear and tear. The games have always been pretty damn violent affairs in light of their Teen rating, but it often felt like you were pummeling a bunch of stuffed potato sacks.

    • Ghostwise says:

      I would hope so. My parents were murdered in Crime Alley by a stuffed potato sack.

  4. Halk says:

    Shadow of the Colossus also changes the player model 16 times (I think) but always so slightly that you might notice it either very late or never.

    It’s also the earliest game I can think of with cloth deterioration.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Dorga says:

    Max Payne 3 had really cool changes, like the shirt getting drenched with sweat, or the suit getting torn at the sews.

  6. Premium User Badge

    N'Al says:

    (How) does Arkham Origins figure into this?

    Oranges.

  7. kud13 says:

    I liked all 4 games ( Oranges is quite good, as long as you keep the difficulty in Normal), but I was not at all a fan of the Bat-hummer.

    Riddler trophies were pretty great though. Especially in City and Knight, where you got periodic lore rewards for solving “rows” or “clusters” of riddles in the former of bio tapes.

    The hummer was the only time I considered that M+K may not be the best way to play the games. Those “drive up a pipe sideways” sections were infuriating.

    • PikaBot says:

      Oranges was the flawed gem; there’s a lot to recommend it, but the lack of polish, the reused areas from City, and the fact that the two most significant special powers it gave you (the shock fists and the double line launcher) were so powerful that they utterly break the game’s design, all work against it quite strongly.

      On the Batmobile, I think there are different aspects to it. I quite liked driving it around, chasing down cars, and using it as a mode of traversal. That felt good. The tank combat, on the other hand, although merely mediocre from a gameplay perspective, had nothing to do with being Batman, and so had no place in the game. Just tedious.

      When it was used for puzzle solving, I was…mostly okay with it? There were a couple parts where it got irritating, though.

  8. icarussc says:

    Adam, so glad to hear a wise and discerning voice among the nay-sayers (which is to say, you agree with me and therefore must be right). The Arkham games are, for me, very easily the best action games I’ve ever played, and Knight (despite those ludicrously extended tank battles) was the top of the bunch, and the season pass well worth it. I, too, was charmed into fan status by Asylum’s degrading Bat and the silent commentary it provided on our hero.

    But for my money, the not-silent commentary provided in Arkham Knight by Batman’s, er, hitchhiker is even better!

  9. kapone says:

    The accumulative damage we see on Batman through these games is important because it reinforces Batman’s true ‘superhero power’.

    It’s not intelligence, it’s not gadgets, and it’s not a bottomless bank account. It’s his resilience and tenacity (something I often remind my young son of when having a difficult time).

  10. Premium User Badge

    FeloniousMonk says:

    I love the concept of a brood-squat and plan to deploy it during overlong work meetings.

  11. Premium User Badge

    DuncUK says:

    I remember being absolutely amazed by the level of polish and sheer cinematic awe induced by the interactive intro sequence to Arkham Asylum. Joker’s voice acting, the awesome scale of Killer Crock as well as all the small environmental details added up to a truly immersive introduction to the series. I loved every game in the series (even Origins) and was one of the lucky few to not experience any issues whatsoever with Arkham Knight. I loved the ending to it as well, the apocalyptic feeling of the story foreshadowing the finality of its ending, the only shame was it being an apparently permanent end to the franchise. For me, it outclasses the ending to even Nolan’s Batman film series.

    I was excited by the frequent references in A.K. to Superman, as impossible as that game would be to do well I’d still love for Rocksteady to give it a go.

  12. Nelyeth says:

    Makes me think about Tomb Raider (the 2013 one). The gameplay was alright, and the story quite bleak, but what made me play it until the end was Lara. No, I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not because of the polygons, I swear.

    The intro, during which (spoilers ahead, mind) you get put through the wringer by skewering yourself on a rusty steel rod, fighting a cannibal, running from a rock-slide, and ending up outside in the rain, thirsty and hungry and dying, really made an impact.

    Lara’s battered, limping and whining, she’s at the end of her rope, but she’s still somehow fighting to survive. Later in the game, her stomach wound starts bleeding again, and you have to fight through the pain to get to a place where you can cauterize it with a burning torch.

    And even later on, the emotional trauma when she wakes up in a see of bodies… Yup, this game was a real treat for someone who thought Tomb Raider’s reboot would be less mature.

  13. CartonofMilk says:

    one thing that bugs me with the last 3 arkham games is theyre supposed to happen over one night but it takes like over 20 hours to do everything…

    Normally fiction stretches time. 5 minutes in real time might be an hour in an open world game. Here it’s the opposite. Apparently 24 hours in real time is 6 or 7 in the game.Of course that’s a minor quibble…

    I’ve said to people Arkham Knight IS the best Arkham game IF you haven’t played the other ones before. What i mean by that is it is the best but because at this point the series was starting to feel a bit too rehashed, it’s hard to see it as the best one because most of what it does that’s cool you’ve done before in the other games. But i’m pretty certain if i’d played the series in reverse order i’d think Knight was the best. I thought the bat-tank battles were fun as hell. They managed to make it so that in the worst of it you felt overwhelmed by all the enemies on screen and having to avoid their hits and shoot their missiles but at the same time the controls are good enough that you can still pull it off. Also, finally they made the riddler challenges completely reasonable. I mean i finished them all in the previous games but some of them required me to look online and a small handful i only cleared through endless repetition and a bit of luck. In Arkham knight the challenges are not annoying. They’re well balanced.

    Lastly, but that stands for all Arkham games, that art design…..

    Oh and it has the best Joker in all arkham games if only because now that he’s dead and just in Batman’s head commenting on everything he does or thinks or says, well it’s the perfect interaction, the perfect dynamic.