Arkham City: On Heat and Cold

Previously, we’ve talked about how the visual design of Arkham Asylum is built around the concept of repressing madness. Most of the game’s visual elements tie into that theme: they express either some facet of madness or its attempted repression. Arkham City, on the other hand, is a game about society. It’s a game about communal living, about the urban, about humanity as a collective. It’s about how we come together to build something in the face of the elements. It’s about how we respond to the cold. The interplay of heat and cold mark Arkham City‘s most obvious difference to Asylum. The game takes place outside during winter. Rooftop pools are frozen over. Political prisoners huddle around bin fires. Batman has a Freeze Grenade, Penguin steals an ice gun – oh, and Mr Freeze is introduced as a character. In the broadest view, cold in Arkham City is the enemy – not on an individual level, but as a threat to society. All of the city’s infrastructure and architecture is designed to stave off the cold. As in Frostpunk, heat symbolizes community. It is the beating heart of the city. It represents the press of warm bodies, an act of defiance against the elements. It is a symbol of civilization: we work together or we die alone.

The Steel Mill, then, serves as part of the history of Gotham’s response to the cold. It’s an old abandoned factory that you can visit in the Industrial District – it’s where Joker sets up residence. The Mill foregrounds industrialisation as part of Gotham’s story. Historically, the production of steel is one of the key features of the Industrial Revolution. In Arkham City, it’s an example of heat as a marker of civilisation. Steel production carried Gotham out of the past, out of the last vestiges of the Middles Ages and into the modern day. And yet in the game we find the Steel Mill abandoned. It’s sectioned off as part of the city’s outdoor prison experiment. Arkham City shows us a Gotham that is firmly post-industrial: coal and furnaces and steel production are all part of the past. The Steel Mill is a relic of a bygone era. It’s inhabited by characters who are equally relics of the past – like Mr Hammer, a refugee from the USSR. It’s a place for people who don’t have a spot by the fire, people who don’t have a place in the modern day. It belongs to criminals and malcontents, to those outside of the protections of the social contract.

The heat and light of the modern day, then, remain an open question. If not the Industrial Revolution, then what? What serves to warm contemporary Gotham? The city is torn on this question. In the distance, outside of the penal colony of Arkham City, players can see the rest of Gotham – a shining beacon of light, drawing clear influence from Metropolis. You’re never able to visit those areas in Arkham City. You roam only within the prison walls. It’s left ambiguous, I think, whether the Gotham outside is real or imagined – whether it’s the dream of what Gotham imagines itself to be, or whether it’s just literally there. In either case, it’s a type of façade. It’s the Gotham that exists above the water line, above the murky dredge of crime and poverty. Even if it’s not literally a dream, it’s inaccessible and therefore in some sense intangible for the inhabitants of Arkham City. It’s not the Gotham that they know. It’s a lie on the horizon, a mirage.

For the criminals of Arkham City, the electricity that lights up the skyline is more immediately experienced in the searchlights that rake the prison – both those mounted on the walls and those on the security helicopters roaming around the city. As helicopter spotlights fall on inmates, you’ll occasionally hear them cry out – “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!” By the end of the game, of course, those helicopters are unleashed, as Hugo Strange attempts to purge the prison of its inmates. As in the image above, for the residents of Arkham City, electricity is experienced both as the basis of the shining image of Gotham and as the mechanism by which they are excluded from its protections. The power that lights and heats the city is also the barrier erected against its criminal element. For that reason, electricity is experienced as something of a mixed phenomenon in City. It’s very rarely a source of comfort or support. It’s dangerous. It’s Riddler’s electrified death traps, or the tasers used by prison security. The power of electricity is also mystified, elevated into something supernatural. It’s set alongside the Lazarus Pit as one of several ways of bringing people back from the dead: where the Lazarus Pit resurrects and restores Ra’s al Ghul, Penguin uses electricity to reanimate Solomon Grundy.

You can see how the game stretches beyond the realistic here – Ra’s and his whole thing aside, the Solomon Grundy episode has that very Frankenstein feel. It’s less about what electricity is known to do and more about what it could do, about the potential that we’re certain is just about to be unlocked. It exemplifies this sense of joy and excitement about the possibilities of scientific discovery. Tonally, Grundy belongs alongside the era of Wonder City, a lost Victorian city tucked away under Gotham’s foundations. In Arkham City, Wonder City is portrayed as a revolution in urban planning, as a solution to crime and suffering. It feels very Great Exhibition, very Crystal Palace. If you’re not familiar, the 1851 Great Exhibition was a showcase for invention and new discoveries, for art and culture. It was in some sense utopian, built by a people at the height of their cultural and technological innovation in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Both Grundy and Wonder City feel like products of that same energy. Naturally, by the time of Arkham City, both of them are abandoned and disused. Penguin discovers Grundy locked away under the Iceberg Lounge, and the Wonder City project fell into disrepair. Hope belongs to the past. Innovation belongs to the past. Gotham wants to believe in the Victorian concepts of hope and progress, but its inventions are equally barriers, pushing parts of the population out into the cold. It wants to move forward, but it can’t figure out how. The result is Arkham City, a part of Gotham sectioned off and abandoned to the criminal underclass – arguably less a prison and more an intense form of zoning, built over the ruins of belief in a better world.

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