One of my favourite moments in Arkham City comes after the Demon Trials with Ra’s al Ghul. You’re exiting from Wonder City, passing back up through the subway, and you hear one of Joker’s thugs lecturing Penguin’s hired help. By this point you’ve already defeated Penguin, and his men are scattered and disheartened. Captured by Joker’s gang, many of them decide to switch sides. You can see them in the image below – Joker’s guy is in the foreground on the right, in the sort of tin soldier body armour, and Penguin’s ex-comrades are grouped on the left. They’re all wearing the standard Penguin uniform – khakis, army boots, and gray thermals with a penguin silhouette emblazoned on the bicep – and then they’re also putting on clown masks, to show their changing allegiance. It’s a really satisfying moment – it highlights the changing nature of this city under war, where inmates pledge and re-pledge their loyalty based on the fortunes of the various crime lords. As Batman battles through the night, the shifting political landscape of Arkham City inscribes itself across the bodies of its inmates, just as much as across the physical environment.
Batman: Arkham City is a 2011 action adventure game developed by Rocksteady Studios. The sequel to Arkham Asylum, I’d say it’s probably considered the height of the Arkham trilogy: the game mechanics and the spread of the city are more finely tuned than in the claustrophobic Arkham Asylum, but it’s less gimmick-heavy than the rootin’ tootin’ Arkham Knight. City hits this sweet spot where it takes the key ideas of Asylum and just makes these absolute quantum leaps forwards. Take the environment, for instance. Both Asylum and City change the environment to mark the things that happen throughout the game. For example, near the start of Arkham Asylum, Harley Quinn drops a lift on Batman. For the rest of the game there’s this broken lift crumpled at the bottom of Intensive Treatment. City does a similar thing – for instance, there’s a church that you visit early in the game, and Joker blows up the tower at the top. For the rest of the game, every time you pass the church – which sits around the middle of the map, so it’s pretty often – you see this smouldering, flaming ruin, a reminder of something that’s happened earlier on. It’s the same basic maneuver, but City I think does it more successfully, mainly by virtue of being open-world. Asylum was primarily an indoor game – it took place between six or seven different buildings in the asylum. You were mostly indoors, except for the odd occasion where you had to run across the grounds to get from one building to another. There were a couple of stand-out moments where the environment really was changing – like when Poison Ivy starts growing her enormous plants – but on the whole, Arkham City does it better. It’s more consistent. It’s an open world, you’re constantly moving across the map in pursuit of side quests and incidental actions, and so you have this much more densely layered experience of a changing city. Case in point – that exploding tower isn’t the only thing to happen at the church. After the explosion, you goof around with Joker for a bit, and then you discover that Riddler has broken into the church, and kidnapped the medics and guards sheltering there. He hangs giant banners with green question marks on the church’s exterior: the environment is traced and re-traced, changed and changed again. For the rest of the game, Riddler’s banner flies under the flaming tower, a reminder of the kidnapped staff and your obligation to save them.
As the physical environment changes, so do the enemies, who move across different locations. Bad guys in Arkham City have a strong relationship to place. They are rooted in the spatial fabric of the city. The place where you find an inmate tells you as much about the story as anything they say or do. Broadly speaking, each villain has a key stronghold: Two-Face has the courthouse, Penguin has the museum, and Joker the steel mill. As you draw near to each location, you mostly see thugs belonging to the relevant faction. But as the turf war escalates, people start to move around, reflecting the ebb and flow of the conflict. The spatial location of the thugs thus becomes a storytelling technique: it tells us things about the relationships between villains at any given moment. On your first trip to the steel mill, you find Joker’s men at a food drop, eating everything to deny it to the other prisoners. Two of Penguin’s men can be observed on a building up above, watching, but not yet doing anything. They are spies, skulking around the edges of Joker’s territory, suggesting that Penguin is gearing up for a fight. Then the first move: not a direct attack on a stronghold, but a clash over unclaimed territory. Groups from both Penguin and Joker’s camps move towards the old GCPD building, pursuing Mr Freeze. When you arrive, the bodies of Penguin’s men are littered around the place. One or two survivors can be found huddled up, surrounded by Joker’s men, who are planning their horrible demise. If you attack, Penguin’s guys run away, cowering in fear. You saved them. The same two spies are still on the rooftop – not acting, just observing. A group of neutral prisoners, still in their orange jumpsuits – not yet aligned with one faction or another – observe the conflict as well. Whoever wins, they agree, we’ll sign up with them. By the end of the game, it’s a rare thing to see an inmate in an orange jumpsuit. They’ve all joined one faction or another – or maybe they’re just dead.
The rest of the game showcases this same basic logic, exploring its different manifestations. The thugs are mobile markers of place, claims that the supervillains make on each other’s territory. They are interpretive, declarative, demonstrating ownership of a given environment. As Batman, you can fight them, but knocking them out doesn’t fix the problem. If you run around the city trying to punch out all the bad guys, you’ll never make any progress. They swiftly respawn, repopulating areas that you’ve recently cleared. Arkham City is bigger than you. The guys on the street are just symptoms; to solve the problem, you have to go to the source. That’s really, I think, the iconic experience of Arkham City: you traipse around these different strongholds, fighting supervillains and trying to solve the conflict, and you do it against the backdrop of hundreds of inmates embroiled in a gang war. Sometimes you can intervene, and step into individual moments – like the captured Penguin thugs on the approach to GCPD – but there’s too much going on for that to be an effective solution. It’s telling that Batman never tries to take and hold key locations. He isn’t running round posting guards and sentries, replicating the behaviour of the crime lords. He repudiates that approach to controlling the city – especially as it’s expressed by Ra’s al Ghul. Ra’s, it transpires, wanted to lock up all the criminals and then butcher them, saving the city by eliminating its undesirable elements. His approach is that of the supervillains: take and hold. Batman knows better. Gotham can’t be controlled. It’s too big, too complicated. We can navigate our way through it, but it’s never fully ours.
[…] Arkham City: On Place and Control | Death is a Whale James breaks down the spatial storytelling of the Arkham games, where Gotham is itself a character that shifts with the narrative beats of the game. […]