So today I want to look at how Batman: Arkham Origins does stuff wrong. I’m not actually interested in criticising the game though – because most of the stuff I’m talking about isn’t actually what the game is trying to do. It’s not quite fair to say ‘This game has poor story and is therefore a failure’ when the story’s not really the main focus. It feels a little like criticising Schindler’s List for not being funny enough. So rather than saying ‘Here are the reasons that Arkham Origins has a bad story,’ I’d like to instead look at the narrative potential that the game has and how that could be spun out into a really strong narrative. There’s a few games that do this – they have this freaking amazing potential that they do nothing with, and for me, as a guy who likes story, it’s really disappointing.
In this case, then, we’re looking at the theme of justice in Arkham Origins. Arkham Origins is the third game in the Arkham series. Where the first two games were made by Rocksteady, this one was made by Warner Bros. Montreal, and it was generally panned. It slips into that Assassin’s Creed pattern of fiddling with a couple things, but not really providing any substantial step forwards. Anyway, all you really need to know is that Batman is running around Gotham meting out justice and ragging on bad guys. Where it gets interesting is that you run into three or four other groups who have the same goal of justice, but have very different methods. As such, they come to blows.
First off, you’ve got Jim Gordon and the Gotham City Police Department. Although the department is largely corrupt, there’s an underlying philosophy of justice which should be taken seriously. Batman is an illegal vigilante, and the police are pursuing him as such. Leaving aside the issue of corruption, our society is built on the idea that justice should not be privately pursued. There’s actually a democratic imperative here – the legal system is built into the fabric of society, so it’s not just one dude deciding on his own what counts as right or wrong.
To some degree Batman tries to supplement the GCPD, in that he catches criminals and leaves them for the GCPD to arrest, but there’s still a difference in terms of the chain of command. If you’ve got Batman working as a deputy, he’s under the authority of the police (and therefore within the police philosophy). However, if Batman and the GCPD ever differed on a judgement about right and wrong, Batman would just ignore the GCPD and do what he thinks is right. In that regard, even though Batman’s goals often align with those of the GCPD, these are still two distinct philosophies.
Secondly, you’ve got Shiva and the League of Assassins. These guys have a really simple philosophy: they’re basically Batman, but they’re happy killing people. As a philosophy of justice, these guys are interesting, because it’s introducing a discussion of capital punishment. They target the same group of criminals for the same set of crimes, so they’re on the same page as Batman and the GCPD in that regard. However, rather than shuttling thugs through prison, the League of Assassins reckon it’s better to just execute them. They function almost exactly like Batman, but with capital punishment.
Again, there’s a really interesting social question here. Morally speaking, socially speaking, who’s in the right? Batman or the League? Surely with some hardened criminals, who have no interest in reform, we can all appreciate the use of capital punishment. Some might argue that we don’t have the right to take life, while others might argue that nobody is truly beyond reform. We can see the string of arguments unfolding here for either side – without needing to elucidate any of them, we can see that there’s a really interesting question of justice being raised.
The third example is the Riddler. Although he kills innocent people and is a bit of a scumbag, these are rather superficial ad hominem details. They’re not important for the philosophical question about justice that is raised by his actions – they’re just surface details to justify Riddler’s badness. What Riddler does is illegally collect a whole bunch of dirty secrets (through digital means), and threaten to release them publicly.
Now, although Riddler’s got this whole “And then Gotham will collapse under the weight of its exposed corruption!” thing going on, again, it’s just superficial. The central philosophy is another topical question about justice, this time hinging on privacy. If a hacker steals private information proving corruption or other corporate scumfuckery, is it morally right for them to whistleblow? How does the moral imperative of privacy stack up against the moral imperative of justice? It’s a really interesting question, and it’s neglected insofar as Riddler’s just another loon.
The fourth and final example is Anarky. He’s a disenfranchised anarchist, setting out to destroy all of the symbols of Gotham’s evil corporate consumerism. He plans to blow up banks and casinos and so on. Again, he’s willing to kill innocents and so on, but this is ad hominem. It’s not crucial to the philosophy. It’s a lazy way to discredit the philosophy without having to actually do any work. Again, there’s a really fascinating question about justice here. Anarky is reminiscent of the recent Occupy Wall Street protest. He speaks a familiar language – that of mistrust towards the corporate enterprises abusing human rights and exploiting workers and the planet.
When I was playing this game, I had trouble with Anarky, because I kinda sympathised with him. I think maybe the game was trying to mock him as over the top, with lines like “Now back to your regularly scheduled programming of propaganda and consumerist garbage”, but if that was the intention, it fails, because that’s actually how angry disenfranchised punks talk. Again, there’s a really interesting question here about corporate exploitation and the just way of responding to it. Should we use violence? Or are peaceful protests enough?
With all of these characters, there’s repeating themes. There’s an anger at corruption, at the rise of professional criminalism. There’s a frustration at bureaucracy and a real burning desire to make things better. Everyone’s got more or less the same vision, and different ways of achieving the goal. The question for me, as a fan of narrative, is what makes Batman’s methods better than everybody else’s? This is the big question, and it’s one that’s never explicitly dealt with.
The really frustrating thing is that it’s actively raised as an explicit big question within the game. Anarky comes out with lines like this: “You’re a hypocrite. Running around ‘dispensing justice’. Telling people what they can and can’t do. You’re ensuring Gotham’s freedom – provided it conforms to your twisted view. Whatever pleases the Bat. That it? You’re not a hero. You’re a despot. You don’t enforce justice. You suppress it.” Here, Anarky is actively challenging the legitimacy of Batman’s methods. What’s the reply to this challenge? There isn’t one.
Anarky again: “I think I’ve figured it out. You didn’t take me down because I broke the law. No. No, you took me down because you don’t want the competition? That’s what this is is really about isn’t it.” This is really exciting in terms of narrative potential, because Anarky is opening up a dialogue about the justification for Batman’s actions – specifically over and above the actions of somebody else who’s trying to achieve a similar goal.
Even the fact that the goals are similar is explicitly addressed: “There’s a way to make this work. To show you that we share the same goals. Maybe I took things too far with the bombs and the threats. I, I can learn from that. I mean, you could be a mentor to me. And maybe, well, maybe I can teach you something too… you’ve gotten so used to the power, you think you’re better than everyone. Above reproach.” Again, we have an offer to work together, highlighting the similarities between the two goals, as well as another direct challenge to the legitimacy of Batman’s methods.
Of course, all of this potential remains untapped. To reiterate my earlier point, I’m not saying that Arkham Origins failed to hit its mark. I’ve got no opinion on that question. What I’m saying is that it’s got really great narrative potential, and by identifying that potential (and how the game ignores it), we can learn how to do game narrative better. I’ve got a couple ideas on things that could be done with this potential, but I’ll leave those until next time.