Arkham Asylum: On Repression

We were talking recently about sight in Arkham Asylum, and I said that we were working up to a bit more of a long haul through some of the visual design of the Arkham games. Architecture and visual design can be slippery to talk about – because we’re not just discussing the elements in themselves, right, it’s how they sit in context. So, for instance, both Arkham Asylum and its sequel, Arkham City, deploy this specific brown brick material – but they use it to totally different effect. In Arkham Asylum (the first image below), brown brick indicates dilapidation. It’s associated with the sewers – it’s the asylum’s inherent moral corruption made manifest. It tells us that the whole place is rotting from the inside. In Arkham City, brown brick is more often used to signify poverty. In the center of that second image, you can see this burnished brown brick building – the one with two rooms lit on the wall facing us, and a third lit room round the corner. It’s built out of the same material – and it’s obviously aged and weathered, but it’s noble. There’s none of the sense of rot. Instead, you have (on the rooftop in front, center bottom) this corrugated iron lean-to established against the building’s side. It might be hard to make out, but in the lean-to there’s a mattress, and a couple of shelves – someone lives there. The brown brick in that instance much more readily speaks to wealth and poverty. It comments on the gap between mainstream society, who live within permanent, established infrastructure, and the disenfranchised, who build temporary, make-shift shelters adjacent to that social infrastructure without ever being granted access to its protections. Same basic building material, totally different meaning.

While acknowledging that the architecture of these games has some complexity, I think we can still broadly group and characterise the environment based on theme. At its core, Arkham Asylum is a game about repression. The motif of locking villains up in the asylum, and having them escape and having to put them back in is only the most obvious, well-worn example. Arkham Asylum is equally a game about the things we choose to repress, the things we hide from each other, and the ways we try to draw those secrets out. Early on, Batman learns that the asylum staff are holding Bane captive. They’ve been experimenting on Bane, using his blood to create hulking monsters. The game here switches psychological repression for institutional: when you find Bane, he’s strung up with cuffs and restraints, wheezing for help. He’s genuinely a sympathetic figure, and one of the game’s strongest suggestions that the asylum is not a healthy place. The monsters created from Bane’s blood are then an example not of repression, but of its mirror, of something drawn out and elicited. When you see Joker’s thugs transform into Titan monsters, their muscles bulge, their spines burst through their backs, there are bone growths and protuberances – it’s one of the more grotesque sequences in the game, and it’s built around the motif of failed repression, of things bursting out and coming to the surface. The transformation of the thugs foreshadows Joker’s broader psychological plan in Arkham Asylum: he seeks to break down the things that Batman has repressed. Joker tries to overwhelm Batman with all the chaos of the asylum, breaking him down and bringing out his crazy side. Repression is the key psychological battleground on which the story takes place. In the climactic boss fight, Joker (himself mutated by Titan) tells Batman: “Come on! Change! Get crazy! It’s the only way to beat me!” Batman refuses, of course, and fights Joker without transforming, demonstrating his self-control and his ability to manage his emotions and his environment without all of his trauma bubbling over and taking control of him. He wins because he manages to keep it all repressed.

And there are plenty of other examples that we could draw out. The Scarecrow sequences (which we talked about previously) are obviously a major location for negotiating repression and self-control. Poison Ivy is part of a narrative about the dangers of unrepressed female sexuality – standard Batman fare, but still gross. Rather than itemizing every instance of repression, though, in all their variations, let’s consider how the theme is explored through architecture. For my money, there are maybe three or four key visual elements in Arkham Asylum. There are those iconic filthy tiles, which you see in the hospital wing and elsewhere; the brown brick of the sewers; and the patina green of rusted metal, which is probably most prominent in the gardens. There are plenty of additional locations that could be considered iconic (what about the Mansion, with its Castlevania clocktower? what about Croc’s elevator in the opening sequence?), but I’m not contesting key locations. I’m talking about the textures or materials that play a repeating visual role across the asylum. At just about every moment throughout the game, you can find some combination of these elements. They’re concentrated around those key areas – the hospital, the sewers, and the gardens – but they can be found just about anywhere. The first three images below show them in their concentrated form, and the second set of three show them in different combinations in different environments. Brown brick makes up much of the exterior of the buildings, as seen outside Intensive Treatment. A heavily stained variation on the tiles can be seen in the first gameplay area, where Joker first escapes, and that same green tinge – even when not attached to specific instances of rust or oxidation – pervades areas like the Medical Facility. You can see how we’re stretching our definitions a little here – strictly speaking these aren’t all the same exact materials. But I think we can treat them as dominant visual principles, as dominant aspects of the colour palette as well as key textures throughout the asylum.

Each principle, then, has something to say about the nature of repression in the asylum. The brown brick of the asylum speaks of age, and earthiness – it’s very Gothic. Note in the image of Intensive Treatment how the ground seems the same colour as the building. The two almost merge into each other, such that you can almost imagine the building have grown up out of the earth, like a hill – or a burial mound. It’s got a much different vibe to, say, the red brick of Knowle Hospital, an actual real-life psychiatric hospital (now retired) that actually looks much smarter, much more classic. The association between the earth and the asylum gives real potency to the sewer and other underground sequences, where that material comes through strongly – it emphasises the feeling of going under the earth, entering into this chthonic sub-reality. The theme of being below the surface slots into that theme of repression – when you enter into the asylum, it’s not a superficial visit. You enter into those subterranean spaces, digging under the skin and reaching into these deep psychological concepts. And what you find in those spaces – as we’ve said – is rot. You find decay, corruption, the base of things being eaten away. The foundations are crumbling. Whatever is down there isn’t contained – it’s eating away at the base of the psyche, and it’s coming out.

The tiles, then, represent an attempted incursion into this subterranean space. To take the setting at face value, Arkham Asylum is a place where doctors try to cure the violent insanity of Gotham’s supervillains. The tiles evoke the sanitary, the sterile. They make you think of hospitals – again, in practice, the idea with tiles is that they’re meant to be easy to clean. In a psychological context, they suggest a calm, clear environment, wiped clean of the clutter and noise of the world. They offer refuge from the outside, a hygienic environment in which to rebuild these supposedly shattered psyches. And yet the tiles in the asylum are never clean. They’re always stained or bloodied, or chipped away and broken. On a visual level, that staining is ambiguous. Does it come from the villains, from the bile they traipse around everywhere, or is it caused by the doctors’ fumbling interventions? To speak metaphorically, we might ask: were the villains already bleeding, or are the doctors cutting into them? Is it an existing wound or poorly managed surgery? This game has a deep ambivalence about attempts to carve into the psyche – as we’ve discussed with Bane, the doctors arguably aren’t part of the solution. Scarecrow himself – Doctor Jonathan Crane – manifests the game’s fear of medicalisation. You first meet him – or his gas – in a cutscene that looks into an operating theatre, where orderlies and patients scream in fear, including one with his eyes held open by specula in a reference to A Clockwork Orange. The game knows that something is repressed, but it’s really not certain about the role of medicine in rooting it out. The medical or psychological venture is portrayed as something forced upon patients, often to their detriment. The tiles articulate that tension: they promise safety and undermine that promise in the same breath.

The green patina tinge then articulates that really deep sickness as it moves through to the surface. It’s the colour of The Matrix, the colour of a world that isn’t right. It’s unnatural. It’s also, incidentally, the colour of oxidized copper, that Statue of Liberty colour – which works really well to suggest the age and decrepitude of the asylum as a whole. It ties into that broader theme of Gothic horror in the asylum, which I’ve written about before (in my first peer-reviewed article, ‘Doubling Fear in Batman: Arkham Asylum‘). It’s fitting that the game really leans into this colour around the Gardens, which is one of the late-game areas. It’s where you finally confront Joker with his functioning Titan formula – where the barrier between the surface and the underground is at its thinnest, where repression finally bursts (quite violently) through the flesh of Joker’s mutating thugs. It’s a climactic colour, the strain of repression brought to its height and articulated on a visual level as if it were some sort of psychosomatic illness. It is a sickness born of holding back the floodgates. It’s a step on the way towards Joker’s electric green. Joker emerges here as the final form of Batman un-repressed: he is the chaotic id, the uncontrolled, the madman. He is the sickness brought to the surface, made manifest and given agency. He is, in the final analysis, what Batman is always working to repress.

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