There’s a problem facing the new Batman game, Arkham Asylum, and it’s the same one that’s faced pretty much any incarnation of the Dark Knight since he was first conceived. In fact, it’s one that faces most super heroes that exist in their own continuity and universe that have existed for any long period of time. It’s an issue of identity, and an issue of where to place your focus. Batman is an established character; people know who he is, but if that is relied too heavily upon, then the whole thing falls apart.
Of course, this isn’t an issue a lot of people are going to consider when looking at playing the game, but really it’s at the very heart of what will make the game work or not. There are certain things that make Batman who he is, that the recent films have partially glossed over, or merely kept away from the camera due to them not being hugely interesting. The detective aspects which were so prevalent in the early comics seems to have receded recently, replaced by a hunter nature which is far more black and white. Yes, he still takes evidence and comes to conclusions, evidenced rather well in the recent films with removing bullets from crime scenes, analysing video etc etc, but how well they’ll work within the framework of Arkham Asylum is an interesting dilemma. It’s entirely possible they’ll just opt out and go with a Condemned-esque simplified forensics instead of deductive puzzle solving. Really, though, it’s a sub-point to the much greater issue.
The problem with comic book heroes that has become increasingly apparent with the sequels coming out of Hollywood is that after the origin story, where the villain merely serves as a spring board to launch the transition from man to vigilante, the hero is susceptible to become stale and two dimensional, merely serving as a protagonist in an antagonist’s story. The Dark Knight barely managed to avoid this problem, with Christian Bale’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne serving more as a catalyst for the events of the film rather than becoming it’s main focus. There was still a great deal of character, but Batman became part of an ensemble, rather than the entirety.
Something like Spider-Man 3 however, managed to focus entirely on the villains, leading to a confused plot and a convoluted story line, trying to show you what was happening on the darker side of the story without making it a main focus. This could be down to having too many villains, making you wonder who is the true evil (because obviously they can’t all be the Big Baddy, right?) and ending up failing to emotionally link you to the characters as a result. Arkham Asylum, by nature of location, is going to contain a huge amount of iconic villains from the Batman universe, and it’s entirely possible the whole thing will come out as a tangled mess because of it.
However, there’s something to be said for the nature of games in general that could easily work in the story’s favour. The concept of levels and bosses means that Rocksteady could easily use The Joker as a primary antagonist, and then the (lesser) villains as pawns in his plan, obstacles for Batman to overcome. It’s fairly likely this is going to happen, but at the same time they must avoid making the enemies entirely deserving. In the (frankly quite brilliant) Arkham Asylum, A Serious House on Serious Earth, Grant Morrison really plays up the Mental Asylum idea, having a good majority of the villains as entirely insane, making Batman’s journey through the building horrifying and entirely morally confusing, as he (sometimes quite viciously) dispatches with the inmates in his path. Without this element, the game could feel entirely too much like a comic-driven powertrip just there to make you feel like the quintessential badass. I could be expecting far too much from Rocksteady, but it would be nice if they decided to push a few boundaries.
The real problem though will be faced with the way the story is told. Yes, The Joker is completely unhinged and dangerously manipulative to an entirely homicidal level, and yes, most of the inmates in the Asylum deserve to be there, if only for their own good, but if Rocksteady don’t do a little introspection on Batman’s part, the premise of the story could lack any emotional impact. He needs to be shown as a step away from the people he’s fighting, kept on the other side of the bars by not much apart from a rigid code. If he doesn’t seem a little villainesque, if you don’t sympathise with some of The Joker’s arguments, then Rocksteady will be really missing a trick. That they have Paul Dini (writer of the 90s cartoon), Mark Hamil and Kevin Conroy among the cast gives me tentative hope that this will have a serious chance at a serious game, not just a cash in on the hype of the films. I hope it’s not misplaced.