As rad as it is to have those nifty gadgets and stacks of money, man, it has got to suck to be the Batman. Your parents are dead. You’ve gotten an orphan killed, your love life is constantly slipping back and forth between crushing loneliness and chaotic violence, and you feel some weird urge to take care of a city that, by all accounts, is probably better off left to the wolves. The Arkham games do dive into the tragic mindset of the Bat but it’s almost always via a cutscene, an interruption of your control over him. Of course these games hardly aspire to Shakespeare; they’re the most bombastic kind of simulator out there: be the super hero, save the world, brood, look good in black. And yet, by denying the player complete control over everything the Bat does, the experience feels slightly hollow.
For me, a game lives or dies by two elements:
1.The design of a game’s interactivity.
2.The competency of that design’s execution.
Of course, interactivity is a broad term. It can mean almost any action within a game. When you’re moving around in an environment you’re interacting with it. It might not be as exciting as, say, shooting a bad guy or grinding a rail with a skateboard, but it is interactivity. So, for clarification, when I say “design of a game’s interactivity” what I mean is game-specific interactions that tie into that game’s creative vision in a constructive way. So, for example, in The Last of Us you have the option of talking with Ellie from time to time during your journey. Of course you’re not really doing the talking; you’re choosing whether or not to press a button and hear Joel and Ellie chat about the world before it fell apart. Giving the player the choice to engage in these conversations or ignore them is a neat way to let us characterize Joel as a reserved survivalist or talkative guardian.
There are always caps to interactivity, either due to technological constraints or because the design doesn’t allow or want the player to interact directly with certain elements. Most games go back and forth between giving the player control and taking it away from them, usually to propel the story forward, and it’s something that even games that stress the importance of making the player’s decisions matter do quite a bit. Consider Mass Effect, which is thought of by most people to have a high level of customization. You make your kickass space heroine, choose her powers, her look, even her background history and how she reacts to stressful situations. However, the cap is still there. The player only has access to prebaked conversation options and dramatic actions. You can’t literally type your own responses and listen to her say them to other characters in the game. That just wouldn’t work within the fantasy that Bioware is trying to construct, so they cap the interactivity with conversations there to keep the main story on the rails.
The Arkham series sets out to give you a very specific fantasy: be the Batman. And it does a good job of it! Rocksteady hands you all the gadgets, the suits and they’ve developed a fun rhythm-based fighting system that lets you whale on bad dudes with your fists and batarangs. The stories and characters in all the games thus far have felt reasonably true to the comics and given ample time to everybody’s favorite villains, from The Joker to Poison Ivy. Arkham is ultimately a solid, fun series of games that does right by its source material, which is shockingly rare when it comes to videogame adaptions of pretty much anything. And yet it can’t compare to Dishonored when it comes to recreating the power of Batman. What makes Arkane’s stealth-fantasy critical darling, a game that features zero bats or men in bat costumes, the best Batman game ever made?
The amount of control it hands over to the player is key. The most popular incarnation of Batman is always presented as a character of restraint. He has one rule: do not kill. The moment he uses his power to take a life is, in his mind, when he becomes just as evil as the villains he fights. This pops up all the time in pretty much any modernish Batman-related media, whether creators are harping on it incessantly with overwrought monologues or they’re creating an alternate universe just so they can have Bats kill someone for the novelty of doing so. More than the toys and the rich sad boy routine, that one rule is his thing. It’s what makes him who he is. The Arkham games are content to let us play around with Batman’s stuff but they always wrestle control away from us once a fight with a villain is finished. We don’t get to decide what happens with the Joker after we’ve beat him over the head a bit; the game sends us zooming toward the next story beat. We never have to make the choice of restraint; we don’t even get the option. For all of Arkham’s fun combat and flying mechanics, it keeps the most important part of crafting Batman’s identity out of players’ hands.
Dishonored casts you in the role of Corvo Attano, who, like Batman, is ridiculously overpowered thanks to a host of gadgets (and mostly optional super powers). Upon release Dishonored received some criticism for not being challenging and there’s definitely a measure of truth to that. Less than half an hour after the game starts you’re given all the tools you could ever need to overcome every obstacle you come across, and that’s not even taking into consideration the numerous power ups you can get throughout your journey. It’s a laughably easy game if you run through slaughtering people left and right in every level. However, this is also a game that invites you to make your own rules, that gives you power and then lets you loose upon its world. It rewards the creative and the patient by challenging you to live in defiance of its assertions that “Revenge Solves Everything” and “The Boldest Measures Are The Safest.” Dunwall, like Gotham, is a diseased city and you can either help cure it or make it more sickly depending on your actions.
If you play Corvo as someone who values all human life, the game becomes incredibly difficult. You’ll probably find yourself backed into a corner by foes a lot, armed to the teeth with all sorts of nasty, tempting devices that you’ve picked up along the way, and you’ll have to make a choice: flee and hide, try to take them out with tranquilizer bolts or—to hell with it all—kill every single last one of them. A pacifist playthrough of Dishonored forces you to confront your own power and your responsibility of it in nearly every situation. Do you slaughter the four men guarding this post with your crossbow from a distance? Or maybe try to sneak by? What about tranquilizing them and hiding them in a dumpster? There is a tangible cost to aggression. Killing will result in the world becoming a darker place, with plague rats showing up at every turn, and a bleak ending for the game. Whereas minimizing how many people you hurt will result in a happier, if not particularly joyful, ending. This is the standard morality system that a lot of games abide by, showering you with gifts and praise when you’re decent, slapping you on the wrist when you’re an asshole. However, because that reward or punishment ties directly into how you constantly handle situations throughout the game (as opposed to a few big cutscenes where you have to make a choice while a timer counts down) it meshes well with the rest of the game and whatever ending you get feels like you earned it.
Dishonored, if you allow it, can paradoxically be just as much of a game about resisting the temptation of power as it is power fantasy; that’s what the openness of its design allows for. As much fun as Arkham is, that series never make us confront our own power. It’s just unquestioned that Batman will do The Right Thing and needs no input from us even though this is a medium where player interaction is the crux of everything. Having situations where the player must question the use and consequences of their own powers is the difference between being Batman and being Batman. It’s a seemingly small thing, choosing not to let players be Batman all the time and, again, it’s probably for the best. Otherwise you’d have immersion and continuity problems that go alongside players making their Batman kill criminals in the street. However, Dishonored, which is not beholden to any previously established continuity, gives us that vital choice. We can be murderous monsters, sure, but it also lets us be the vigilante, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, making the decision to save a city instead of giving into a powerful, ever present thirst for revenge. The hard but virtuous road over the easy, bloody one.
I’m still going to give Arkham Knight a spin eventually but there’s this inescapable notion I have that I’m just going to be playing Batman on autopilot. I’ll be cruising around in the Batmobile, maybe descending from the sky to punch criminals in the jaw while warding off the legion of nightmares the Scarecrow sends after me, and it’ll all probably be good fun for a bit—but will the thrills last for the whole game? Will I even care that I’m playing as The Caped Crusader if the game doesn’t ever let me face the decisions he does? Rocksteady’s combination of solid combat, genuinely thrilling movement and devoted fanservice has aged well over the past few years, but it’s difficult to get excited for yet another Batman game when there’s already a game loaded into my PS3 that understands and emulates the character so well, a game that grants me nearly unlimited power and tries to teach me why that’s such an awful burden.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.