Where a story needs to give its characters the abilities to accomplish their goals, a videogame needs to directly translate those skills into mechanics players use to overcome every obstacle in their way. Both mediums use tools that challenge characters, one of the most powerful of which is creating a rival that fiercely stands in opposition to their primary mission. In 2009, Rocksteady Studios fully translated one of pop culture’s greatest characters into a videogame and pitted him against his equally well-established foil. By locking Batman and The Joker inside Gotham’s mental-clinic-turned-prison, Batman: Arkham Asylum brilliantly explores one of culture’s greatest rivalries over one long night.
Batman and Joker’s fight represents an existential conflict as old as time, placing The Dark Knight as a vanguard of order and the Clown Prince of Crime the agent of chaos. As it’s made of concrete and steel, Gotham’s Arkham Asylum is a neutral container that preserves the balance between order and chaos, separating them by steel prison cells. Arkham Asylum the game opens with Batman returning The Joker to the secure confines, its slow introductory scene moving the player through the facility and giving us a glimpse of its layout, while putting us in contact with the famous Gallery of Rogues Batman stuffed inside. When the Joker breaks free and seizes control of the facility’s security system, the controlled separation between sides flips, replacing medical staff and guards with thugs and psychopaths, and throwing the order into chaos. That means Batman must step up and restore balance.
A character, like any person, is a complex combination of skills, traits, knowledges, abilities, and experiences, all of which set their lives in a direction and affect how they pursue their goals. Mixtures of these elements place a character within a predefined archetype that makes them best suited for specific jobs and specialties over others. The man under the cape and cowl is made of many different facets all working together for the singular goal of fighting crime.
Batman’s legend was painted by a brush dipped in complimentary myths: he possesses a detective’s brain, a warrior’s prowess, a ninja’s agility, and a businessman’s ambition, all of which result in one formidable, fearsome archetype: the hunter. He’s able to puzzle together mysteries, defeat the strongest foes, stalk the deadliest prey, all while equipped with high-tech gadgets that can overcome any obstacle. Arkham Asylum wondrously captures this persona by creating a robust set of mechanics that are at once easy to use and as versatile as Batman himself.
Any character is only as strong as the forces against them, and while Joker is always present behind the scenes, it’s the convicts acting as his twisted proxies that fill Arkham’s halls. To make them appropriate threats to Batman, they were given a complete set of perceptual faculties that can detect movement and sound and come with various alert statuses simpler than any in Metal Gear Solid while remaining complete. Since their real danger is in their numbers, especially after they start wielding firearms that shred Batman’s light armor, you need to stick to the areas outside their senses and pounce when they’re alone and vulnerable.
Stealth had been a well-explored genre by Arkham Asylum’s release, but the hunter archetype clearly separates this game from the others of its kind. Batman’s melee-forward gameplay locks players in multi-faceted rooms with their enemies rather than building open maps where they can sneak safely by, forcing them to stalk the shadows and eliminate the gangs one-by-one. It walks a delicate balance between giving you the strength to beat rooms full of enemies but leave you vulnerable enough that you can’t run in haphazardly. To make it all possible, Rocksteady gave players strong tools to move quickly and strike silently through a combination of smart controller mechanics, context-based attacks, and complex level design.
Translating Batman’s moves to a controller meant reducing them to simple actions that work well together. Despite its overall simplicity, the combat design’s magnetic movement flips and rolls Batman between targets and makes group management fast and fluid while the Rock, Paper, Scissors-esque attack/stun/counter combat keeps brawls interesting. The traversal moves themselves have plenty of advantages when going into or out of a fight. Duck is as useful for creeping along edges and performing silent takedowns as it is to creep through ventilation ducts; the grapple is as effective for transitioning between levels and attack from above as it is to break line of sight during active engagements. All of Batman’s moves are easy to transition between and fully characterize the hero as a dynamic force.
Good game design finds a balance between player moves, enemy behaviors, and level design, and the Arkham Asylum complex suits Batman’s abilities perfectly. Individual rooms are uniquely built with different geometry to hide behind and verticality so Batman can catch enemies unaware from below or above. They have grapple points to string enemies from and ventilation systems to silently reposition. Maps are routed intelligently and the player will rarely get stuck in a vulnerable position without an option other than die. That Batman moves seamlessly between ground and air is testament to both the versatility of the mechanics and the level design that lets you exploit them. Batman is a scary predator that strikes lightning quick and disappears unseen.
Arkham Asylum’s use of fear is intriguing. As any group of thugs shrinks in numbers, panic and fear spread among them until they are blindly attacking random noises and group up for protection. Batman has always used fear to his advantage and AA does a great job of capturing the strategy in its gameplay, all the more remarkable considering how videogames generally use fear against a player rather than add it to their arsenal. A key part of Batman’s persona is his stoic and confident demeanor in all things who never doubts his ability, never cries out, is always prepared. Then he walks down a nondescript hall and it transforms into the dark alley where his parents were famously murdered, forcing him to relive the traumatic event that defined his life afterward. You soon learn why- the Scarecrow has used his potent fear toxin to give you a dose of your own medicine.
Arkham is a place where mental issues are worked through, so it’s no wonder that Batman’s well-known villains are locked inside, as each represents a specific psychological pathology or are exaggerated caricatures of social stereotypes. While the Scarecrow’s interludes try to break Batman down and hit the player with psychological gameplay affects, his real-identity as Dr. Crane, former psychopharmacologist from that very Asylum, is consistent with his other companions. He’s joined by the drug addicted tough man Bane, the narcissistic Riddler, angry side show Killer Croc, and eco-terrorist Poison Ivy. All these villains are uniquely integrated into the story and come with their own place in Joker’s scheme. Their presence morphs the treatment facility into a carnival funhouse.
Every individual building on the island is comprised of rooms with different levels, electrical systems, and ventilation ducts to create dozens of different scenarios placed one after another. Batman’s detective skills are particularly important here, and his different visors reveal each clue in Joker’s plan and creates a trail to the next. Then comes his well-stocked utility belt. Equipped with homing batarangs, exploding gel, and other items, he gets new ways of using the environment to take down enemies and open up new areas, exposing new obstacles.
Games that present the player with an initially closed off world then gives them a series of items that open it up area by area have a lock and key progression. The structure became popularized by adventure games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, and Resident Evil because of its pacing and sense of accomplishment. It allows a story to simultaneously feel organic but be scripted, while quietly directing the player to the next location and rewarding backtracking. It expands the small-scale routing of a single room out until the whole facility is an interconnected labyrinth, layering the horizontal locations with verticality. Within small amounts of time you can be led into new areas that return to the old, armed with additional gear to discover more secrets. Its guided exploration.
Considering all the history and stories it’s witnessed firsthand, the Arkham Asylum facility is a character all its own, and the systematic lowering of its defenses is both literal and figurative. Throughout the narrative, Joker’s insanity had infected others and created an army of zealots now running the clinic, and only one man’s sheer will stands against them. The effort to free the compound is countered by Joker’s men getting better gear and consolidating their strength as their territory shrinks. By defeating its enemies and clearing its halls, you are returning it to balance and treating the insanity that had overtaken it. You are restructuring the chaos into order and excising its mental demons. And behind the last locked door stands the psychopathic clown.
The battle between Batman and The Joker is as timeless as the war they represent. The terror Batman inflicts on criminals is wasted on The Joker who perversely thrills in screwing with him; Joker’s laughter cuts right through the Caped Crusader’s intimidating persona to reveal the strict moral code that prohibits him from taking a life even when it would finally end its murderous rampage. And Arkham Asylum is the perfect theater for their conflict. Straight through to their climactic battle, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a game about the competition between forces, and is, in every way, a triumph only possible because of the Dark Knight’s legendary character.
PLATFORMS: Playstation 3, Xbox360, PC
DEVELOPER: Rocksteady Studios
Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.