Here I am again coming to defend the interpretation of a game that someone seems to have another problem with. Look, being critical of a game is perfectly fine and is necessary in the discussions that have to take place in today’s ever growing gaming media. But understand why a topic is being discussed, and why a theme is put there despite there being other reasons for it not to make sense is also important. It’s important to understand why these kinds of decisions were made in the long run, and while it may not make sense thematically, that there’s a reason that was specifically chosen, despite the inconsistencies in the character or in gameplay.
Sure, it’s great when you can have 100% consistency in a world where every rule makes sense with the others, but that shouldn’t come at the cost of more advantageous story telling or fun gameplay. And in this case, I’m going to counter Polygon’s Ben Kuchera article, on why the idea of Batman NOT killing people is important to the gameplay of Batman Arkham Knight, and why the silliness of such concepts of “stunning” pedestrians even though they most certainly suffered blunt force trauma is important to the events of Batman and what happens in the Arkham Knight. Specifically, I want to make clear that this is in context of the Arkham series as presented in the video game medium as a whole and not necessarily to the Batman series as a whole.
Please note, spoilers for Batman: Arkham Knight are ahead. If you wish to remain unspoiled, don’t read the rest of this article.
There’s a theme that Batman games, comics, and movies like to explore on a regular basis, and it has to do with the relationship with Batman and the Joker. These two are locked in an endless struggle and many of the common themes of the books/stories have to do with the idea of the opposite yet surprisingly similar nature of the two. Some stories and themes of those media even go so far to say that one cannot exist without the other. But let’s look at what both are supposed to represent to truly understand exactly why Batman’s struggle with the idea of killing can be central to his character development within the bounds of this universe that Rocksteady has created.
Batman throughout the Arkham series has been a representation of the concept of order. He stands for his idea of righteous rules, he stands for hope and justice, but it always follows a specific rule set that can change from Batman to Batman. But in the end, it’s the idea of the purity of order. To enforce his own set of rules for the good of society and the good of people should be protected by someone who is righteous and has enough conviction to be able to apply those rules against those who would break them.
You can see this with his interaction with some of the characters in the series such as Catwoman; while she is technically breaking the law and Batman will stop her in certain situations, Batman doesn’t relentlessly pursue putting in her jail due to his rule set. She steals, but she also in these games doesn’t harm innocents as well or use force to get her way. Batman’s strongest character element in my mind has always has been his conviction that, no matter what the case is, he stands behind the choices he made for the greater good of Gotham, even if it came at the cost of relationships and caused massive problems around him.
What does the Joker represent? Well he represents chaos—the opposite of what Batman represents. He’s unpredictable—he doesn’t work off a specific set of rules. He’ll kill someone without any thought to it, he’ll use his own people as pawns in his game, even though logic should indicate no one would want to work for him after the first 12 people he killed. It doesn’t matter if you’re good, or even evil in this case, it’s all about what Joker wants to do, regardless of the situation. Get in his path, and you’re dog food most likely.
The idea of order is a very funny thing. With all the rules that order usually puts into place, the problem with it is the rigidness of those rules at times. People may sit here and say “Batman breaks rules all the time, he hangs people from ledges, he threatens them with their head being run over by the Batmobile, he’s no embodiment of order!” But that’s the funny part about all this, does that necessarily mean that order isn’t observed in that case? I’d argue no. It’s a matter of upholding justice and keeping people safe, and it’s not like he hasn’t done it earlier in the series in terms of aggressive tactics as well. But one thing was made clear: that Batman had a problem with killing. The Bane scene in Arkham Origins is the prime example of this; he literally goes out of his way not to kill someone who would cause him problems left and right. With even a friend’s life on the line, he couldn’t do it.
You see, the idea of order surrounding what it takes to uphold that order is what Batman: Arkham Knight is hitting on some levels—how order can fall apart so easily with one simple rule break. And this is taken into account with the idea of killing, and in particular, in relation to the toxic blood that’s running through Batman’s veins. You see, the idea of willingly killing as an option—going about and actually purposefully causing the death of a foe that would seem like it would be good for everyone in the city in the end—would actually be one of the biggest sins Batman can face. Because that would break his own vow of not killing, and the order that he stands for in this series. The line between order and anarchy can be razor thin at times, and Batman’s struggles with the Joker internally is a prime example of that.
In particular, let’s consider the end-game sequence where Batman is directly exposed/injected with the fear toxin and what happens to him. In his drugged state, he ends up actually having to fight the representation of the Joker within himself. And during the confrontation you are forced to kill the Joker. And what happens? You take the reigns of the Joker. Well, Joker Bruce Wayne. In your mind, you have succumbed to breaking the rules.
And the outcome? A massive slaughter at the hands of the Joker. It shows the breakdown of the order: the city decays, the boundaries are destroyed, and literally, it’s given way to the madness of the Joker. Heroes and villains start to blend together (see in the symbolism of gunning down Two-Face for example). That’s symbolic. In the eyes of Bruce Wayne, the order that he has created has been destroyed; with one rule broken, it’s the madness that will set in and make him cross the line to anarchy. The persona of Batman, and one of the ways Batman dies, is the breaking of this order. Break the order, break the Batman.
But let’s circle around back to Mr. Kuchera’s article, which talks about the whole death thing as a whole. He’s right to a certain extent that the game has pushed toward a stronger element of realism, and that the idea of getting hit with a cannon with the force as shown in the games doesn’t make sense; they should die, right? But that’s the thing: it’s purposefully done off screen, because the game developers and designers valued the narrative that they are going for more then the realism of the situation—a choice that I believe was intentional by the game designers.
You see, letting Batman run over innocent civilians in the Batmobile takes away from the overall themes that you’ve been presented in the series up to this point. It’s one of the problems that open world games run into; you want to give the player absolute freedom to do what they want, however, at some points you have to realize that creating an overall narrative that fits in with that storyline that the user is creating is difficult. The idea of Batman killing goes against everything that has represented the Arkham series up to that point and could lead to confusion when getting into those specific story elements. If the Joker is talking about Batman letting go of his inhibitions and taking out someone like Penguin or Two-Face for the greater good, how well does that play if Batman has already killed 200 people to begin with?
But them possibly dying off screen or from later injuries—their death isn’t certain. And because their death isn’t certain, that means the narrative that the game is going for still holds up. The narrative is still present: the themes of the original games and this one still stand tall, even if logic tells us otherwise. Does it lead to hilarious situations like this comic over at NerfNow? Of course it does; it’s that little detail that doesn’t seem to make sense in the world. But you have to realize why that detail exists, and why choosing your battles on what is more important to the series is necessary.
The concept is called acceptable break from reality. Do you sacrifice a narrative for realism? It’s a choice that developers and designers have to make, especially in sequels of games when rules have been established. Now for Mr. Kuchera, it looks like this decision in particular is the breaking point of his “believability” of the game in question. Whether or not these inconsistencies and other narrative parts of the game should detract from the other elements of Batman.
Which brings us back to the Joker, and why this idea of Batman being OK with murder is so off base. Batman throughout the game is tortured by the idea that he killed the Joker. And let’s take a look at actually what happened:
He drops the cure … when he gets stabbed by the Joker. To say he’s responsible for the death of the Joker would be a stretch even on the best of days, and yet what does his subconscious do to him throughout the events of Arkham Knight? He blames himself for killing the Joker. For going over the edge. Remember: this is a combination of who he is and the tainted blood, but some part of this is going through the idea that yeah, he did something wrong. He caused the Joker’s death. A villain that literally did nothing but cause pure misery.
In fact, in my mind, it does the exact opposite of what Mr. Kuchera says. Batman is so driven by his sense of order that even the slightest bending of the rule bothers him at his core. That the idea he was responsible for Joker’s death is somehow a burden that he has to carry. He values life. He values the order that he’s attempted to create and strives for and the rules set regarding that, even to apply them to one that rejects that notion at the very core of his character. It’s absolute in this case.
While yes, there are logical leaps regarding the Batman that you have to overcome to enforce the rule regarding killing within the Batman universe, is it worth sacrificing the narrative that you’ve created about THIS Batman in this universe up to this point? This isn’t a completely new game that doesn’t have any context to it in terms of an established universe, as there’s a reason why each of the Batman games have the name Arkham in the franchise. There’s cohesion there; there’s an understanding that, yes, these games are all in the same timeline and universe with the rules that it has created. As you go along with sequels in the series, it can be more problematic to fit your new elements of a game within the realms of that universe that you’ve created.
The Batmobile is the prime example in this case (despite me hating it for the most part in Arkham Knight): if you want the gameplay to seemingly be “fun” and without it actually damaging the narrative that you’ve created up to this point, you’ve either got to put a lot of time or effort in AI that somehow escapes every situation regarding the vehicle, completely change your narrative element … or cheat. And in this case, in my mind at least, the developers went with option C. And the thing is, I think that’s OK, as long as you can sell the universe in question, or misdirect the player to not draw that much attention to it. You could argue that there’s a way to get both incorporated into the mix—to keep the narrative but not have the silly logic. And it’s possible that solution exists, but not one that I see that easily keeps the focus on the mechanics the game seemingly had, without causing new problems.
But in particular, there’s one quote that really, really stood out to me in terms of Mr. Kuchera’s article that spawned this counter article, and why I really wanted to present my arguments against his opinion piece.
Arkham Knight, just like the recent Netflix version of Daredevil, uses these circumstances and characters as a way to legitimize both torture and murder.
Now look, is there forms of torture used in uncomfortable ways within Arkham Knight? Yes, in particular with the Tire scene. And I do agree, there’s a trend in media—just look at pretty much any season of 24—where torture is used as a plot device to drive the information out of bad guys that the good guys need to legitimize it. If you’re going for the idea of “realism,” understanding that the methods of torture usually get useless information or anything that the person wants to hear is something you have to consider. Now note, one of Batman’s primary tools has always been fear, whether it be a fear of what bumps in the night, or whether it be the fear of physical harm. The extension of using methods of torture within the bounds of that character is possible given the rule set created in this universe. Can it be done in different ways? Yeah, it can.
But remember, what’s being claimed here is the legitimization of torture and murder by the game and tv show mediums in question. But it’s not direct causation; only when exposed to it and justified with a hundred of other factors that equally play a part in the issue do I think is there a “causation.” Given other secondary evidence in other elements of a person life, do I think it’s possible that they could come to the justification of torture? Yes, I believe that’s possible. But like every element in life, a person is the sum of ALL experiences that they’ve had up to that point. It only plays one small part in a huge overall summation. And one piece like that doesn’t just make you justify it, unless horribly over exposed to it. And lets face it, over exposure to any concept or idea can lead to problems, even if the exposure is to something that’s supposed to be “good.”
But do I think there are better ways of going about the plot without using it? Yes I do, and ones that stay true to the style of Batman. He’s not a person who’s unwilling to use these kinds of methods, but he is a smart and capable individual that can resort to other means within his character. He is a master of using his enemies heads against them and using his words to strike fear into the heart of his enemies. While it would shift the threat of physical to psychological, it doesn’t have the impact as much as seeing a guy’s head under a tire does.
But murder? The guy who literally has a part of himself speaking to him about killing his arch nemesis (the person that was killing people indiscriminately left and right, that legitimizes murder? I’m just trying to understand the context in which Mr. Kuchera took this in, because of all the conclusions that he could have come to, the legitimization of murder is the last thing I would have thought of.
But let’s dive into this a bit more, shall we. Let’s counter the ideas brought forward by Mr. Kuchera and what he’s presenting, because here’s the thing: when you bound a game to the rules of reality, you’ll find what you see upon close examination very interesting. Now specifically, he mentions the GamesRadar article for some of the absurdities of the ways that Batman goes about things that would normally kill a man:
‘As with any vehicle collisions, crush injuries to the victim can occur. This is when the body is caught between two objects being pushed together by a high pressure. These type of injuries are responsible for broken bones, severe bruising, bleeding and compartment syndrome,’ Dr. Hussain says in one section.
But can you say that? Remember, this world here, while realistic, is still based in the realm of fantasy. It may be closer then older versions of the tales, but let’s face it, a game where you have someone walking around as a giant crocodile-like creature, or a Man-Bat due to genetic manipulation, there is some element of fantasy there. We have elements of Bane’s Venom that were injected into people for example, and we don’t know how that affected everyone that was involved. A good thing to take not of is while rules have been established about some of the elements of fighting within the universe, they aren’t necessarily set in stone. But, let’s see what happens when I stay around after the fight. You know, like the open world let’s me do, because as Mr. Kuchera said:
Batman has always killed people, the “camera” just never sticks around to see the aftermath.
He’s still breathing, so I can guarantee that yes, he’s alive at this very point. Now, internal injuries? Yeah, that’s possible, but we have no idea at this point. There’s actually no way that Batman can figure out if the person is going to die at this point. We’d think he’d be dead, but we’re unsure. It may be chaos to understand what’s going on with them, but we just don’t know. And while tropes can be problematic for the genre, I do think that one can apply here with relative ease: if you don’t see the dead body in question, you can’t say someone is truly dead in the comic book world. It’s a trope that people of the genre can relate to, and through whatever sorcery, magic, or even bizarre circumstances that can be used to justify that, it can be used to a story telling advantage. This is the universe after all with the Venom serum, a guy who can literally resurrect himself with a certain pool, and a masked vigilante that somehow hasn’t died within a week of dressing up as a bat to go in the middle of the night. You see, that’s the great thing about the universe in question: you CAN justify that somehow those people survived … even if every logical element of your body tells you otherwise.
How far do you go with this? Let’s be honest with the article that he has linked to; it’s indicated that it’s quite possible that several of the elements of the game lead to the death of those involved, including the combat. And yet, the combat is one of the stand out features of the Batman games, so much so in fact that many games have attempted to recreate the formula that the Arkham games have created.
How much do you scale it back to go for the realism justification? Now note here, that’s not what Mr. Kuchera is arguing regarding the game, he’s actually arguing that the game should allow the Batman to kill. But as pointed out, to keep the narrative strong in the game, he can’t kill. So, the only other option to keep a sense of “realism” here? It would be to scale back the things that could cause the deaths of those involved, and as the GamesRadar article pointed out, that’s pretty much everything. And now it’s not the Arkham series of games any more.
To allow Batman to kill with the events of the Arkham games already existing … it cheapens the narrative immensely that’s already been established for the series, and something that shouldn’t be considered in THIS Batman series. Now, a new series not in this universe? Fine. But within this universe, it doesn’t makes sense given the context of the prior games and what had happened, and I do believe keeping to that strength is a noble goal from the guys over at Rocksteady.
Do you think Batman is OK to kill in these games? Or do you think the games need to reboot before it goes forward with that idea? Is there times where inconsistencies are acceptable in games to achieve stronger narrative elements?
Edit: I incorrectly indicated that the scene regarding the Bane situation occurred in Arkham City, when it was Arkham Origins. That sentence was changed accordingly.