Batman is a hard character to pin down. He has a few simple aspects that remain at the heart of what sets him apart, but otherwise, he’s been interpreted into more genres and styles than most other superheroes. Rocksteady created their definitive Caped Crusader in video game form by introducing Batman: Arkham Asylum in 2009, aiming to include as many facets of what makes the character so compelling. A never-ending quest for justice, detective skills, high-tech gadgets, the rogues’ gallery and their respective relationships with Batman, and of course, prefacing every item he uses with the word ‘bat’.
Needless to say, it didn’t disappoint. With fan favourite voice actors plucked straight from Batman: The Animated Series, something special had been created.
Two years later, Arkham City built on that excitement with a larger map, more sidequests, an even broader cast of villains and a storyline to rival any superhero film. Fans were shocked at the killing off of Mark Hamill’s Joker, wondering how they would replace him with a worthy antagonist for the inevitable sequel.
And then earlier this year, Arkham Knight revealed itself as a fitting end to Rocksteady’s trilogy, and gave me some of my favourite gaming moments of 2015.
One of the marketing focuses of the game was of course the Batmobile, being basically the only mainstay gadget that hadn’t been usable so far in the series. It was the final piece to the bat-puzzle, so there was an understandable backlash when Rocksteady gave it perhaps too much utility, with the now infamous tank-mode greedily eating up vast sections of the games story and side mission. Considering Batman is so opposed to guns, it seems odd he’d be driving around in such a deliberate instrument of death. While a sensible criticism, it’s a small price to pay for the thrill of having the vehicle at all. I’d be lying if I said the first time the game prompted me to ‘even the odds’ with a push of a button, summoning the almighty Batmobile to the streets below me, I didn’t feel a tiny bit like Batman himself. Thankfully, the story compelled me to stay rooted to my sofa, rather than taking to the streets myself and dealing out some justice to the superstitious, cowardly criminals of Bristol.
Speaking of villains, like a lot of people I was worried that Scarecrow wouldn’t be a worthy replacement for Batman’s most famous nemesis. But Rocksteady got to have their cake and eat it too, bringing me to one of the best moments in the game – the reappearance of the Joker.
Oh yeah, spoiler alert and that.
At the point in the game where Batman first confronts Scarecrow in his evil chamber of villainy, the gas starts leaking in, affecting Batman’s mind, and just when you think it’s all over…
At first you think, oh, maybe he’s just appeared as a result of the Scarecrow’s toxin, a flash-in-the-pan cameo for fan service, but after you’ve fetched a clean pair of underwear, it’s soon explained that the events of Arkham City mean there’s a little Joker inside Batman’s psyche. For the rest of the game, we get more of Hamill’s amazing voice acting, and see the most enjoyable hero/villain relationship play out all inside Batman’s head as Joker urges him to go further, punch harder, and enjoy every second of his violent brand of justice.
It’s this psychic battle that brings me to another excellent moment in the game, where Batman relives Jason Todd’s torture at the hands of the Joker, forced to see the damage his crusade has on those around him. The crucial moment comes when, after having kept him captive instead of killed him straight away, the Joker finally manages to convince Todd to give up Batman’s true identity.
Months of the Joker’s brainwashing and torture have torn the dynamic duo’s bond from Todd’s mind, and here he’s ready to commit the ultimate betrayal. But before he can utter the name, the Joker blasts him in the face. He doesn’t care who Batman is. This act is quintessentially Joker; committing a chaotic murderous act, right at the point when you think you see method in his madness. It demonstrates to Batman the power Joker has over Jason at this point, that not only can he break the Boy Wonder’s spirit, but that he doesn’t even need to.
And last but not least, another Bat-dream that takes the form of Alan Moore’s lauded graphic novel The Killing Joke, where Batman sees the Joker coming to Barbara Gordon’s apartment and shooting her through the spine, confining her to a wheelchair and ending her career as Batgirl.
For fans of the graphic novel, watching Barbara open that door, with the Joker waiting on the other side, is both exciting and excruciating. Whoever came up with the idea of having the Joker in Batman’s head for this game, allowing for these flashes of classic Batman stories of the past deserves a bat-medal. Again, we see one of Joker’s senseless acts of violence, and have already felt the consequences resonate through the series, with Batgirl now being Oracle, and an acknowledgement of what led to the difficult relationship between Barbara and Jim.
I’m well aware that all of my favourite moments contain the Joker threatening to use/actually using a gun, but there’s a reason he’s been the secondary focus of three Batman games. And you know, guns are cool.
Well, there you have it. The Arkham games have defined the character in video game form the same way Christopher Nolan’s movies redefined the character for a new generation of movie-goers.
Nice work, Rocksteady.