There’s a new Batman game, and I feel like I should like it. I’ve been a lifelong comics fan, and genuinely always interested in Batman and the pathos of Bruce Wayne. Once, as an extremely edgy teenager, I explained for hours to my bemused mother why I could justify the way I relate to and support a fictional billionaire despite being an anti-capitalist. He uses all his money for civil service, okay mom?!
It isn’t that the Batman colon Arkham something games are bad. They’re quite fun, actually, definitely the most enjoyable games based on comic books I’ve ever played. The combat is intuitive and thrilling, the puzzles are generally fair, and it only really makes the same missteps with its female characters that DC regularly makes in the comics. But to me, they’ve always felt soulless. I get bored after a while. They’re not scratching the itch I desperately need scratched. They just feel, well, not very Batman to me.
I started getting genuinely obsessed with Batman when Batman: The Animated Series was on air, and then started collecting comics once a livejournal community I belonged to, scans_daily, started posting scans from Young Justice (RIP, you borderline illegal angels). Young Justice was more or less an attempt to capture the magic of the original Teen Titans, taking the then current sidekicks of three major heroes and giving them their own team and clubhouse. Impulse stood in for the Flash, Superboy for Superman, and Robin, of course, for Batman. But this wasn’t Dick Grayson, who already relocated to New Jersey analogue Bludhaven (REAL NAME. Comics!). This was Tim Drake.
Tim Drake was a fucking nerd that became Robin because he singlehandedly hacked the Batcave’s computer after deducing Batman’s true identity and Bruce was weirdly impressed. Tim wasn’t an orphan (yet). He wasn’t quite as naive or innocent as Dick when he started out, nor as brooding or cruel as interim Robin / 900 number murder victim Jason Todd. Tim seemed to represent all the things that DC, at the time, was willing to admit about Bruce. That at the heart of Bruce Wayne’s quest for justice, there’s just a little boy with PTSD, reliving his trauma every day. Batman is that child screaming up at the night over his mother and father’s dead bodies. Tim, to Bruce, was an adopted son unlike Jason or Dick before him. He was the boy Bruce could have been if he hadn’t needed to become Batman.
Bruce, at this time, had a sizeable team, affectionately called the Batfamily. There was Stephanie Brown, Cassandra Cain, Barbara Gordon as Oracle with her Birds of Prey. The Wayne Manor resembled a foster home more than a high tech lab for a James Bond in a batsuit. Before DC neutered or killed all the aforementioned characters, there was a real sense that everyone on this team really got that fundamental point. Bruce Wayne is a broken person. He somehow missed out on all the really good therapists he could obviously afford and Batman is his way of getting a handle on his issues. His main motivation isn’t really cleaning up Gotham, though that’s a side effect. He just doesn’t want to see anyone else not have a family, to be as alone and confused and scared as he was.
The Batman of the Arkham Etc. games is a guy who punches real good. And it’s not like that’s especially wrong or bad or anything—part of the thrill of Batman is that he is really fucking good at punching. But it just doesn’t seem like there’s much to say. Here’s the Joker, the game says, now punch the shit out of him. Here’s the Riddler. Solve some of these fucking riddles, then punch him. Here’s Killer Croc, which no one has ever asked for in their lives. Go ahead. Punch that guy. No one likes him. Punch his green nose all purple and bloody.
And it’s sad, because I was pretty pumped for the first one, Batman: Arkham Asylum. The promotional materials were clearly drawing upon Grant Morrison’s comic of the same name. Morrison is one of my favorite comic book writers despite his obvious and glaring flaws (he can’t end anything, he overcomplicates everything he writes, he needs a good editor to wrangle him in but sometimes just… doesn’t get one). But Arkham Asylum was willing to reach deep into the Batman mythos and pull out all the threads that had been woven into Batman and his villains over the years, to show, explicitly, how similar Bruce is to the people he fights. And hell, they got Kevin Conroy for that game. They got Mark Hamill. It was written by Paul Dini, who wrote that animated series that I loved so much as a kid. It had everything going for it.
But Arkham Asylum never felt as strange or brave or confident as Morrison’s Arkham Asylum. And it’s a shame, because videogames, like comics, are a niche, pulpy medium, dealing with the same kind of modern folklore. We have seen, time and again, that videogames can be weird, they can be strange, that even if they don’t go as overt or over the top as Grant “The Joker Wearing A Madonna Cone Bra and Insinuating that Batman is a Little In Love With Him” Morrison, they can actually explore more complex themes than “punch a guy.” It isn’t just the job of the indies to give a shit about writing—and indeed, I don’t think it’s just the indies who do. Batman: Arkham Asylum wants to tell a really good, classic Batman story. They hired a real writer to tell it. But ultimately, it wants too badly to also be wish fulfillment.
The games do a really good job of almost pulling me in. E3 has just passed, and we know that the pull of nostalgia is strong and irrational. Hell, Arkham Knight has a Robin in it—it has Tim Drake! It has Nightwing and Oracle, it has a good percentage of that Batfamily that I used to love. But this Tim has a shaved head and a serious, furrowed brow, instead of a full head of flouncing hair and the sense of humor of a thirteen year old hacker. Tim, Dick, the rest of them, they’re just some more guys who can punch real good. These games want to give me what I think I want. They want me to experience being Batman. But honestly, who really wants to be an emotionally stunted, masochistic orphan?
In order for these games to be wish fulfillment, to be a thrilling tale of adventure and punching, Bruce Wayne needs to not be the character that I’ve always found so interesting. And it’s fine to want to have all the gadgets and toys, the car, the finely honed body and mind, to want a play a game as that guy! But these games will always leave me wanting something a little more substantial. Morrison’s own eventual run on Batman was uneven, and confused, as his writing often is. But one arc, the Black Glove, astonished me with the way it could explain what makes Batman fascinating. It was simple for Morrison, three issues long, a murder mystery set on a Caribbean mansion, with Batman rejoining the Golden Age International Club of Heroes. They’re terrorized by the Black Glove, a secret, villainous, hedonistic cabal who made a bet that they could make the “ultimate noble hero” suffer the “ultimate ignoble defeat.” But Batman wins—he always wins—not through punching, but because Batman is the tool Bruce Wayne uses to cut through all deception and confusion. Batman is the thing that keeps Bruce stable, something he made for himself for this express purpose. There is no pain that Batman cannot endure, because Bruce has already endured every kind of pain imaginable.
Batman of the Arkham And So On games doesn’t endure pain. He just deals in it. And that’s fine. I just find it a little boring. Arkham Knight will be gorgeous and it might be fun, but it won’t ever be what I want. And it’s fine. Really, it’s fine. These games are clearly what a lot of people want, and I’m glad they get to have them. But is there anyone else out there who thinks that they could be something a little more?
Gita Jackson has dedicated her entire adult life to wading through the marginalia of popular culture and finding gold. Find her on Twitter @xoxogossipgita.