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