When the curtain rises on last time today The Dark Knight Rises, one of the greatest series to ever put superhero to celluloid will be complete. But at the same time, we are seeing a rebirth of the Dark Knight in the digital world that will forever be known as the new high bar of Batman games. Both Christopher Nolan and the team at Rocksteady Games tackle in such and honest and unique way, we cannot help but think that there may be some similarities in their approach.
The Dark Knight movies have a very different take on Batman compared to the comics. The Joker isn’t a criminal who fell into a sewage drain, which dyed his skin white, and his hair green and then lost his mind. He’s a raving psychotic who gave himself a scarred smile and badly applies clown makeup. Christopher Nolan was able to make such changes to the story while still remaining true to who Batman is by honing in on the essence of what defines Batman.
This is precisely what Rocksteady Games did when they produced Arkham Asylum, and why it‘s generally considered the best Batman video game ever. Establishing things like Batman’s collection of gadgets and Bruce Wayne’s wealth are easy. Delving into his psychology and character are more challenging, and that’s what Nolan’s Dark Knight movies and Rocksteady’s Batman games have gotten exactly right.
Bruce Wayne is largely defined by his relationship to his own fear. The fear created by the death of his parents is what motivated him to fight back against crime in the first place. Like Yoda says, “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate.” And in Bruce Wayne’s case, hate led to the suffering of Gotham City’s criminal element.
Christopher Nolan makes Bruce Wayne’s fear a little more tangible by focusing on his aversion to bats. Bruce has to master this fear to pass his final test to become a member of the League of Shadows, and faces it again during his exploration of the Batcave beneath Wayne Manor. Bruce Wayne’s resistance to this fear in Batman Begins demonstrates the power of his motivation to avenge his parents’ deaths by bringing criminals to justice.
Rocksteady’s demonstration of Bruce Wayne’s relationship with fear may have been one of Arkham Asylum’s most brilliant moments. Suffering under the effects of Scarecrow’s fear gas, Batman stumbles down a hallway of the asylum that slowly transforms in his mind into a Gotham City alleyway, while the player hears an audio depiction of the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents. When Batman bends down to look at a phantasm of his dead parents, a flash of lightning covers Batman’s transformation into the little boy that witnessed his parents being killed, and the player spends the rest of the sequence controlling young Bruce Wayne as he finishes his walk down the alley. This may be one of the most under-appreciated moments in Arkham Asylum. It tells the player everything they need to know about the fear and trauma that Bruce Wayne deals with by becoming the Batman.
Fear is also one of Batman’s most powerful weapons against the criminal element. In Batman Begins, Nolan gives us the scene at the docks when Batman takes down a gang of thugs and trusses up their boss, Carmine Falcone, for the police. Their terror was enough to establish how Batman wields fear as a weapon for the rest of the film. In The Dark Knight, Nolan accomplishes the same task at the beginning of the film with a cancelled drug deal, because the dealer sees the Batsignal in the night sky and is too scared to make the sale.
Rocksteady didn’t have the luxury of establishing the fear that Batman inspires among criminals with just one scene. It was a theme they had to constantly reinforce throughout the entire game, and they accomplished it magnificently with the Invisible Predator system. It’s worth playing Arkham Asylum for this unique take on stealth tactics alone. The Invisible Predator system isn’t only about isolating thugs and taking them down silently; it’s about making your enemies freak out.
Fear is usually a setup for fisticuffs in Batman stories. Bruce Wayne has always been depicted as being a master of not one or two but a multitude of martial arts. In Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan establishes this in a fight between Bruce and Henri Ducard shortly after Wayne arrives in the temple belonging to the League of Shadows. Ducard literally lists off the names of Wayne’s various martial arts styles during the fight.
Fighting was a key mechanic of Arkham Asylum that would remain important throughout the experience, and therefore Rocksteady had to constantly reinforce Batman’s martial arts mastery. Their solution was the “Freeflow” combat system. Arkham Asylum is neither a fighting game nor a straight-up brawler, so expecting the player to learn dozens of different move combinations in order to demonstrate Batman’s variable martial arts style would have been unreasonable.
The Freeflow system smoothly translates “regular” attacks into high-quality martial arts choreography that includes a variety of grapples and throws as well as strikes. In other words, Batman mixes his styles up without the player having to do anything special. The Freeflow system isn’t just a cool mechanic that’s fun to look at. It’s a character-building device.
Batman uses his brains as much as his brawn in his fight against crime. There’s a reason why “the Darknight Detective” is one of his most popular nicknames in the comics. Bruce Wayne spent years traveling the world and studying under master investigators and forensic scientists. He learns to anticipate his enemies, and to read clues to track down even the cleverest criminals.
Christopher Nolan didn’t really delve into this aspect of Batman until his second film. In The Dark Knight, we see Batman cutting a block of stone from a wall to recover the shattered bullet inside, and then Bruce Wayne running ballistic tests to determine the type of bullet used, and then using a scanner and computer imaging to reform the bullet in a virtual environment and pull a fingerprint.
Rocksteady gave Batman a detective mode that allowed him to scan the environment for clues, but there wasn’t too much actual detection involved in terms of taxing the player’s brain. The Riddler’s puzzles might actually be more representative of the type of work that detection represents, but between the two Rocksteady made sure to let players solve problems with something other than their fists.
There are plenty of other ways in which Christopher Nolan and Rocksteady Studios got the Batman right. They chose wisely which villains from his Rogues Gallery to depict and which to leave on the table. They constructed his environments like Gotham City and the Asylum well, drawing off key influences from the comic books. But we’ve focused on the Batman himself because in the specific case of video games, this is usually what everyone gets wrong.
So many Batman games in the past were obvious franchise tie-ins that didn’t really have anything to do with the man behind the cowl. Rocksteady decided to care about depicting Batman properly, and that’s why they were the first studio to make a Batman game that felt like a Batman game, and why so many people felt like they were getting a taste of what it must feel like to be the Batman when they played Arkham Asylum.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance video game journalist from Boston, MA. He’d love to talk to you about Batman on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.