Batman, on the top of Wayne Tower, peering out over Gotham, is all the things that Rocksteady got right with their interpretation of the Batman mythos. In a game series that has only allowed the player to control an unmasked Bruce Wayne a handful of times, it’s curious how much Gotham City, in Arkham Knight, is the Wayne’s city. Suitably, Wayne Tower is the tallest building in the city, towering above the rundown GCPD offices. There is law, and then there is Batman’s law.
Bruce Wayne, as a character, is the upper-upper crust of Gotham’s moneyed ranks. He owns multiple towers in Gotham, as well as apparently supplying much of the police force’s armaments. He effectively owns the city. Batman’s law, then, isn’t much more than Wayne’s law.
It took me about 45 hours to complete Arkham Knight. In Arkham Knight’s case, a “100% completion” means that you do every single mission, capture every major villain, and hunt down all 200-odd Riddler trophies.
Even after spending that many hours in Gotham, I’m not sure I feel satisfied. I’m not going to spoil the true ending. This isn’t really about that, or about the intricacies of the story. This is about the Arkham series’ consistent tendency to pull punches.
All three of the major Arkham games (Asylum, City, and Knight) deal with the Dark Knight himself as he navigates the various dark ‘n gritty zones of villainy around and within Gotham. On the surface, it’s a pretty bog-standard Batman setup: Arkham residents are escaping. Again. Batman’s got to get ’em. Again.
But this is a Rocksteady title. It’s hot. It’s fresh. It’s for the new generation of Batman fans, raised on dark ‘n gritty Nolanverse Batman who like to see explosions and deep dives into Nolan-esque questions like “who’s the real bad guy” and “should you save the girl anyway” and “catwoman????”
Arkham Knight pretends it is in on a joke that it does not quite understand. Thugs on the street joke about how absurd the technology divide is, without making any move to right the hypocrisy. Batman punches thugs into unconsciousness after his million-dollar earpiece catches them speaking about how they were abused as children. We are meant to understand the justice in this action.
It’s interesting, against the dark n’ gritty backdrop, that the games are so stuck on keeping Batman as nonviolent he has been traditionally characterized. In Arkham Knight you get a “freakin’ tank”, as the street thugs so lovably call it. The “freakin’ tank” neatly avoids the question of “what happens when you hit someone” with a convenient “proximity zap” that knocks out any thugs near the car at high speeds. Don’t worry if they fall off a building to surely die on landing- that’s not the Batman’s kill. That’s gravity’s kill. Gravity is neutral- but more importantly, gravity is not the Batman.
The games feel as if they are straining to push the Dark Knight, trying to get him to break character, and he doesn’t. The narrative punches are always pulled, just like Batman literally does in all three games. Punches that would break necks are THWOCK’d into a cartoonish smack. The thunderclap finisher moves leave opponents ‘sleeping’. The violence is always pulled back juuuuuuust enough to keep Batman ‘nonlethal’.
If there is any superhuman aspect of Batman, Rocksteady would have me believe it is his inhuman ability to carry so many contradictions within himself. If Bruce Wayne started interrogating his own mental baggage and seriously put work into understanding his own trauma, it’s likely the Batman would cease to exist. The tension required to hold the Batman together necessitates an eventual breaking point- one that Rocksteady refuses to offer. The Arkham series is all build, no crash.
Every important death throughout the series (except for uh, one big one) is rolled back by the end of the game. It’s a game and a gameworld that conceivably exists to push the Batman to killing, and reasonably would be improved if this was the case. Push Bruce into killing. Make the Batman break. But it doesn’t. And it won’t.
It’s a strange problem with working with such an established character. People clamor for new adjustments to make the character fresh again, but don’t want too many changes. Even Superman has a healthy roster of stories that literally revolve around ‘Superman starts killing people’. Batman? Not quite as plentiful. We like our bright days tinged with rain, but we can’t have our Dark Knights ending up fatal.
The Arkham series is littered with flaws (smarter writers than I have already written reams on them) but when it comes to the character of the Batman, they feel remarkably hollow. The Batman doesn’t get pushed to killing. Gotham is still a bizarre anachronistic 1920s-meets-1890s-meets-2010s gang-infested metropolis. Joker is still Joker. The (beautiful, intricate, wonderfully built) detail of Rocksteady’s take on the world doesn’t effectively modify the character relationships- only casts them in a new light. Then pulls punches. The game isn’t willing to kill you, only to knock you out.