Sunday, July 12, 2015

#94: Batman: Arkham Knight: The Ghost of Confidence

(Spoiler Alert: This article contains major spoilers of crucial plot elements in Batman: Arkham Knight.)
Though I do not talk about them much, I am a huge fan of the Batman: Arkham games. So when Batman: Arkham Knight came out on June 23rd, I was eager to purchase and play through what developer Rocksteady states to be the final entry in the Arkham series. With all of the spare time that I had that week, I completely finished the game. Ultimately, I was very happy with the game that I had played, and the way it ended the series. Despite fulfilling the promise of a satisfying conclusion to the franchise's story, there is an underlying problem with the writing of Arkham Knight.

To be blunt, Rocksteady's inclusion of the Joker was not necessary to the game's story. For those of you who haven't finished the game and don't care about spoilers, one of the early reveals is that Batman is slowly turning into the Joker. Back in Arkham City, Joker injected his Titan-infected blood into both Batman and a large supply of blood bags going to hospitals across Gotham City in order to motivate the Dark Knight to develop a cure of Titan-poisoning. Though the cure was eventually developed for the Titan half of the infection, Joker's blood acts as a virus that transforms those infected with it into a clone of the clown prince of crime, taking on many of his physical and psychological traits.
On its own, Batman has enough willpower to resist the mutation and still retain his moral code, albeit with slightly sharper edge. However, when Scarecrow gases him with a powerful dose of fear toxin, the combination with the virus manifests as visions of the Joker himself. Because Batman's greatest fear is succumbing to baser instinct, every hit of fear toxin strengthens the Joker's hold on him, leading to a climactic battle in his mind.

While these plot elements are fine, and there is nothing inherently wrong with them, they are unnecessary when both Scarecrow and the titular Arkham Knight are both effective villains with their own schemes and set-ups. At the very beginning of the game, Scarecrow is able to force authorities to call for a mandatory evacuation of Gotham's 6.3 million citizens with the threat of literal terrorist attacks via fear toxin. Proving himself to be one of Batman's most capable adversaries, he then manages to convince Penguin, Two-Face, Harley Quinn, and even the Riddler to unite together in an effort to finally destroy not only the Batman, but his legend and legacy. In the game's grand finale, Scarecrow succeeds at apprehending and publicly unmasking Batman, revealing his secret identity to the world.

Yet Scarecrow isn't the only character whose limelight is stolen by the inclusion of the Joker. The Arkham Knight also loses out on screen time, despite being two-thirds of the game's title. Even before his true name is revealed, it is obvious that the Knight has a grudge against the caped crusader. Most of his lines to dedicated to exactly how badly he wants Batman dead. Furthermore, he has a clear in-depth knowledge of Batman's gadgetry, skills, and tactics. When Batman battles his militia forces, he will often coach them on, directing them to avoid Batman’s most common tactics.
Even if the game does make his identity fairly obvious about half-way through, this element of mystery is an important plot point. However, it isn't until the mask comes off that this plot is allowed to develop beyond a mere "Who is the Arkham Knight?". For those who are unaware, Jason Todd, the second Robin, is the Arkham Knight. Having been tortured by the Joker for an entire year before even the events of Arkham Asylum, he grew to blame Batman for all of his pain, assuming the guise of the Knight in order to take his revenge. During and after his boss battle, the two reconnect and reconcile, leading Todd to realize the error of his ways and don the persona of the Red Hood. During the finale, after Scarecrow has revealed Bruce Wayne to the world, he uses this new identity to swoop in and save the day.

Both of these story arcs are strong on their own, and each serve to examine the mind and psyche of Batman. Scarecrow helps us, as the audience, to better understand what drive Batman and what he is truly afraid of. With the Arkham Knight, Rocksteady is able to illuminate some of his previous failures, adding extra context and forcing the narrative to be more introspective. Putting the two together gives Scarecrow a powerful advantage by giving him access to knowledge of and the ability to get at the most important people in Bruce Wayne's life, like Commissioner Gordon and the Oracle. At the same time, the fact that Jason Todd does care about those same people affords a justification for why they aren't brutally, systematically slaughtered in order to break the bat. There is an odd chemistry between these two characters, their abilities, and their motivations that works to drive the events of the game.

And then, the Joker comes in with his signature dark humor. While his writing is solid and the legendary Mark Hamill once again delivers on the voice acting, I cannot help but feel disappointed by his inclusion. The moment the clown prince of crime makes his first appearance on screen, he steals the show. Almost every story beat is punctuated by a quip about current events or his past misdeeds and relationships with various characters. Since he is only an illusion in Bruce Wayne's head, this is mostly unobtrusive from a gameplay standpoint. It can even lead to some interesting and amusing little diversions.
Unfortunately, it also robs both the player's attention and valuable screen-time from the other main villains, who aren't dead and have their own designs upon Gotham City. One particular instance stands out that really demonstrates this point. About halfway through the game’s campaign, the Arkham Knight manages to pin down Batman. Taking out his sidearm, he pinpoints the weakness in the Dark Knight’s armor, where he is most vulnerable, and fires straight into him. Leaving Batman to wallow in his injury, the Arkham Knight departs, leaving his militia forces to clean up. It is then that Joker appears on screen, commenting on how foolish it is to think that a single bullet can defeat the Batman. With this one line, all the threat and mystique that Rocksteady developed for the Arkham Knight in that scene is immediately shot down. Other similar examples happen so frequently that the non-Joker villains are severely undermined by these quips.

What this tells me is that Rocksteady didn't feel confident in their ability to conclude the Arkham storyline without using the Joker. That's honestly sad, because the set-ups and plot threads with Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight demonstrate an obvious understanding of how to write a good Batman story and why Batman is an interesting character. Adding Joker into the story make the other two major villains feel less like threats in their own right and more like tools for Joker to assert his dominance from beyond the grave. It is Scarecrow's fear toxin that awakens and empowers the jester's control over the Dark Knight. Even Jason Todd only resents Batman because he was trained over an entire year to do so by the Joker. In this light, neither one of them can be seen as inherently threatening.

The resurrection(?) of the Joker also deprived Rocksteady of a valuable opportunity to explore not only how Batman is coping with his inability to save everyone, but how Gotham and its criminal underworld are adjusting to the fact that the single biggest threat has been eliminated. There are shades of this sprinkled throughout that narrative. Not only do many of the random mooks expressed surprise and remorse about his passing, but it is implied that Scarecrow's opportunity was only opened by the power vacuum left open. It is interesting to think that his insanity might have been accidentally aiding Gotham PD by preventing any one criminal enterprise from obtaining too much power over the others, yet the game does not give much time to the thought.

I won't say that Batman: Arkham Knight is a bad story. Nor will I claim that I didn't enjoy seeing Mark Hamill return to show why people love his take on the Joker. All I want to say is that the narrative as a whole would have been stronger is Rocksteady had the confidence to soldier on feeling the need to bring him back. As I write this, I know that my opinion on this matter is going to be in the minority. However, it is important to point out ways in which even a good story can improve itself. With so much talk about the other flaws in the game, it is only right for the story to get its due.

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