The Batman: Arkham Series Is a Serious Psychological Mindscrew
What are you afraid of, Batman?
Claustrophobic Environments (Batman Arkham Asylum/City/Knight)
In horror games, one of the big things that needs to be included is an environment that the protagonist can’t escape from. If our player character sees horrible grotesque looking monsters and immediately leg it to Florida, then what’s the point in it being called a horror game or the character sticking around to deal with their inner demons if they can just drive away? Claustrophobia is a fear that people have, but not everyone has it, so the trick is to make gamers feel like they’re in a claustrophobic environment.
Barring Arkham Origins, which just goes for pure open world, each of the Arkham games has had a claustrophobic tone looming around them. Arkham Asylum was the best at this, starting players off in an environment which is literally designed with the intent of keeping people in a contained location, for both their sake and the sake of the people of Gotham. After all, no one in Gotham wants to ride the metro with Killer Croc and Mr. Zsasz. The titular Arkham Asylum is its own island, and not helping things is the Joker planting bombs all around it, cutting the outside world off from helping Batman and saving lives. Despite the large, gothic buildings that make up the different parts of the asylum, it feels like Batman, and by extension the player, is being guided through the mind of a mentally unhinged human being. Even discounting the Dark Knight’s rogues and the Joker’s gun-armed henchmen, the asylum seems to be the greatest enemy of all, determined through the human villains to drag Batman down to its level of feral and deranged people.
Batman: Arkham City and Knight leave the asylum for the comfort of our hero’s hometown of Gotham City itself, though in two different contexts. In City, the asylum has been expanded into a large chunk of Gotham for the villains to have their fun and go all Lord of the Flies on each other, with their only rule being that they can’t escape unless they want a new hole to breathe from. Knight stars off with Scarecrow driving the 6.3 million people in the city out by threatening to gas everyone with his Fear Toxin and watch them tear each other apart. When flying around Arkham City and Gotham in Knight, the sense of isolation weighs heavy on our Caped Crusader as he listens in on enemy transmissions about how they want to kill him or beat on some random civilian too unfortunate to escape when the shit started to hit the fan. Batman may be in an open world, but the truth is, he’s just a rat in a slightly larger cage. He never really left the asylum, he’s just in a new area.
Everything Wants to Kill You (Batman Arkham Asylum/City/Origins/Knight)
To say that Batman has a lot of people who don’t like him is putting it lightly. Sure, he’s got the Robins, Oracle, Gordon, Alfred, Nightwing, and Catwoman, but that’s pretty low compared to the number of people in Gotham and indeed the world that want him dead. You aren’t going to make friends by ruining other people’s fun, but Batman goes further and not only ruins the fun of those people, but breaks about a dozen bones each of the eight dozen or so friends associated with those people. If you want an idea of how hated Batman is in Gotham among the villains, put it this way: Batman Arkham Origins and Knight had at least six or more villains come together to kill him. If that doesn’t show how hated the guy is, very little else will.
In typical situations, or at least what we’ve seen in TV and films, Batman is basically untouchable until he goes up against the big bad. He just swoops in, takes a guy out using his fancy tech, and punches the henchmen into unconsciousness. Not so much in the Arkham games. Oh sure, he can still crush skulls and break bones like the best of them, but the enemies here have some tricks up their sleeves. In Arkham Asylum, the Joker’s men were equipped with assault rifles and high powered snipers. Nothing special, right? The sequels add some wrinkles to the formula like brutes and blade-wielders to the mix, but their overall goal is to make sure that you continue not breathing. Even the skies aren’t safe; in Arkham Knight, automated turrets are set up on buildings, bridges, and there are flying drones that patrol the city just waiting to put you down.
When you do die, you’re instantly berated for your death by the villain in question, and that’s what helps sell the whole thing. It would’ve been easy for Rocksteady and WB Montreal to just boot you back to a loading screen upon death, but they went the extra mile here. It sells the immersion factor that the games try to draw you into because well, you’re Batman, and why wouldn’t they gloat about beating you once your ass has been promptly handed to you? This can either make you want to die again and again to see what else they’ll have to say about you, or learn from your mistakes so you can wipe that smirk off their face with a good old-fashioned fist to the jaw.
Mental Madness (Batman Arkham Asylum/Knight)
SPOILERS AHOY FOR ARKHAM KNIGHT!
Batman is a really messed up dude when you get down to it. Few, if any people could get over something as watching their parents get gunned down on their 8th birthday, and even worse is the fact that Bruce has a monumental legacy to live up to. Like plenty of people have said, “you gotta be pretty out there to dress up like a bat every night and punch people.” Adding to whatever issues he has is the villains of Gotham and the different effects they have on his mind, particularly Scarecrow and the Joker.
In Batman Arkham Asylum, the Bat gets hit with Scarecrow’s Fear Toxin not one, but three times. Keep in mind that just one dose sends people into a feral panic that leaves them with severe PTSD, just look at Officer Owens at the start of Arkham Knight. So getting hit with the stuff three times…yeesh. Each experience is more disturbing than the next, starting with seeing Commissioner Gordon dead and culminating with repeating Batman: Arkham Asylum‘s intro sequence, but with you bound up and carted through the asylum instead of Joker. Sure, the Scarecrow levels are little more than avoiding getting caught by his giant glowing eyes, but the environments sell that there’s just a lot of weird crap that goes on beneath the cowl.
LAST CHANCE FOR SPOILERS, WE WARNED YOU!!!
Arkham Knight takes this to a new extreme not just with the return of Scarecrow, but showing the aftereffects that the Joker’s death in Arkham City has had on Batman. Joker sent his tainted blood out to multiple hospitals in Gotham, and while most donations were accounted for, four people weren’t so lucky. Fortunately, Batman has set up five containment cells to hold them and study their blood to search for the cure. The fifth person the cell is for just happens to be for is Batman himself, whose ‘Jokerization’ is slower than the other four victims. With Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight’s invasion already taxing his horribly diseased mind, Joker is still around in Batman’s noggin and constantly teasing or berating him for his actions. Batman is strong enough to ignore the Clown, but sometimes Joker just manages to get to him. It’s to the point where Batman can go “Joker” for a bit and beat down on Scarecrow’s men and nearly kill them.
And then of course, there’s the first ending. After giving into Scarecrow’s demands and surrendering himself to Scarecrow, Batman is injected with the evil doctor’s Fear Toxin. This is all Joker needs to take over Batman’s mind and show the Dark Knight just what would happen if the Clown Prince was back in the picture, which involves a lot of murdering his competition like Killer Croc, Two Face, and Penguin. The city is in complete and utter anarchy as Joker steps out and marvels at all the chaos. Batman manages to turn the tables on the Clown by showing his fear of being ignored by the people of Gotham and banishing him to the dark corners of his mind to be forever forgotten. This isn’t just a moment for Kevin Conroy to deliver his classic line again, this is the moment where Batman masters fear and becomes the legend that’ll live on for years to come.
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