Friday, December 17, 2010

The Mediocrity Codex: Volume I, Issue I
Section V: I’m Nothing Without you, Batman

Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989) was the only iteration of Batman I knew until I was 12 years old. I first watched it on VHS with my parents when I was about 9, and I remember being intrigued (and a bit confused) by the killer handshake buzzer (as in, “so THAT’s what those things do.” Yes. After watching this movie once I came to believe that ALL handbuzzers were indeed killer shock handbuzzers.) I was also wonderfully and willingly drawn into the world of Gotham City: a perpetually dark, aristocratic yet sordid landscape of petty criminals and billionaire vigilantes. From that iteration to that which appeared on the WB a few years later (1996), I had become thoroughly convinced that Batman was nowhere near a regular human being, but indeed a full-fledged super-human.

Chalk it up to my disinterest in comics (more like lack of exposure), but I never got into the original illustrated series. Nor was I aware of Adam West’s portrayal of the hero. To me, Batman will forever be Michael Keaton in a nipple suit with Jack Nicholson in too much makeup (I was SERIOUSLY disappointed when I saw Val Kilmer in the sequel. And don’t even get me started on the rest of those impostors).  This brings me to my review of Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Let me first say that I have no idea who Rocksteady is. Apart from sharing a name with one of my favorite villains from the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game, they conjure neither glee nor disdain in my mind. Their last game was apparently a mediocre first-person-shooter that rattled no chains and shook no foundations, but at the very least gave players a good time a chance to “overindulge” (this isn’t a correct word. It’s practically a recursive. So redundant. Overindulge.)

In Batman: AA (heretofore referred) they’ve done something magnificent. Let’s break it down. Batman: AA is a comic.  I mean, it knows it’s a game but what it really knows is that it’s about something that really isn’t about anything besides itself. It’s got a story, it’s got characters, it’s got scenarios. It’s not about making a difference or saving the world. It’s not about a hero who was never a hero before and now you get to live his life story as he becomes the hero and you’re going to be lifted up out of your mundane life because you experience this life of his becoming a hero. It’s about Batman. It’s about Batman kicking ass and saving Gotham City. And this never changes.

To this end you’re given the ability to BE BATMAN. I mean, really, how many games go about setting you up to believe that you’re something you’re not nor ever will be, implying that you can do things that you couldn’t do if you didn’t just try right now? Go find a battleaxe. Get a suit of armor. You can do that. Go build a laser. Now put it inside a little case that’s operated by a trigger. You can do that. Ok now say “Aveda Kedavra” a few times. Ok, well, no you can’t do that.

What I mean to say is that this game lets you be the Batman you want to be. You will always be Batman. You fall on your ass, you get shot up by shotguns, you’re still Batman. You still have that nipple suit and the cape and the mask and the batarangs. You still have the chance to break a man’s arm because you promised not to kill anyone. You still hate crime and love love and want the Joker to learn his lesson and stop being such a nasty guy. You never stop feeling like Batman. Unlike the jarring (but endearing) death codec calls that Snake receives when he dies (hilariously elaborated on by Comedian Dara O’Briain), Batman doesn’t answer to anyone.  If he dies, he dies. Barbara Gordon won’t know until she receives his bullet-ridden corpse on her doorstep. If he wins, he wins, and Gotham City won’t know it was on the verge of doom. But the best part of all is having a nemesis like the Joker.

Writing a character is always hard. Mostly because believable characters need to have depth and complexity. They need to be multifaceted and interesting. “real” characters are always more than they seem. But that isn’t true. What makes a character great isn’t depth, or complexity, or facets, but conviction. Singlemindedness, unwavering dedication to a single idea. Shove a character like that into any situation, and see where his conviction takes him. That’s basically the Joker. He’s a pure character. He’s got no secret desires or complex musings. To put it succinctly, “All I want is for Gotham city to melt in a pool of radioactive goo. Is that too much to ask?”

Thrust thusly into a game are these elements, with a bit of grandeur and a nice bit of sugar, and you have Batman: Arkham Asylum. What? You say I haven’t mentioned anything about how it plays or what it looks like or whether it’s a good game or not. Really, now. But I have. I have. Games should be able to take for granted gameplay and the ability to be played. A game that allows the player, the character to focus on how the game plays out has done the job of being a good video game. What makes this a great game is that it’s a good video game with a great atmosphere and features to boot. Great video games are like playing through great movies where you control the action. How each character gets dispatched and how it looks from each angle. What tools to use and how long each sequence should take. A great game makes you the director, and builds a world that you can feel realized in. It may have been easier to make a good Batman game, seeing as how his persona and his environment is well-tread, but I don’t think it detracts from its quality.

The bottom line is, if you’ve ever wanted to BE Batman, take a trip to Arkham Asylum.

Otherwise, play this game.