Being Batman

What is it about a game that invites you to roleplay somebody like Batman? The freedom of player choice can’t be it: the Arkham titles have a predefined protagonist with his own interests and motivations. You can interpret the Dark Knight however you like, but your actions have to at least be consistent with his core values. Some of these are even baked into the mechanics. Try killing a few mooks and you’ll soon realize that Batman brawls, but he never actually breaks heads. The bad guys can always walk it off behind bars.

Maybe it’s the cape and boots, then?

The Arkham City Batsuit is classic Batman

Some games do a great job of drawing you into their world through strong character design, but they really have to nail every point on a long list of things like art, animation, and voice acting for this to happen. Metal Gear Solid V is a good example. The game successfully makes you feel like Snake just by having you look and sound the part. Every aspect of Snake’s design contributes to building his character: the eye patch and arm prosthetic of course, but also the creeping canter and gruff tone of voice. Whether he’s the real Snake or not, these things all communicate a clear sense of identity. It’s even in the peculiar way that he lights up a cigar. But the Arkham games? Well, they kind of miss their mark on this one.
The Arkham Asylum Batsuit offers little in the way of protection

Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, Arkham Origins, and Arkham Knight might look and sound fantastic, but the character design just isn’t quite Batman. It’s an issue with the art direction more than anything else. Take a side-by-side look at screenshots from the four games and you’ll notice an uncanny phenomenon: the Batsuit gets thicker, heavier, and generally more bullet-proof in appearance. This up-armored Batman is thematically wrong. Bruce Wayne is the World’s Greatest Detective: he beats criminals with his wits - not with his fists. Sure, he pummels them into submission, but only after beating them with his wits. Batman doesn’t believe in killing even the dastardliest villain, so in what sense could this militarized aesthetic be a sensible design choice, anyway? It communicates all the wrong ideas about the guy.

The Arkham Knight Batsuit looks like it could withstand a shotgun blast

So then if it’s not in the character design, what is it that makes Batman such a compelling person to roleplay? Could it be the writing?

Games like The Witcher 3 hold us spellbound with their compelling narratives. With his complicated interpersonal relationships, Geralt of Rivia is a character that feels entirely grounded in the main storyline. You’re never left guessing as to what he’s doing, where he’s going, or why a quest needs to be turned in. The writers establish who he is right from the outset and stick with it. Your suspended sense of disbelief isn’t shattered when he chases after Ciri to Novigrad, Velen, or Skellige because the writer made it clear what his motivations were for doing so. Nothing about him rubs off as being out of character. He pretty much behaves as expected. Sure, he’s not really the main story driver, but he’s not really supposed to be, either. Geralt is “just a witcher.” We players are constantly being reminded that events in the Northern Kingdoms are well outside of his control. (Even if that’s not quite how the game functions mechanically). None of this can be said for Batman.

Spoiler alert: the following contains minor mid-game spoilers for Arkham Knight.

The Arkham games keep telling us that we’re Batman, but showing us otherwise. This holds true all the way up until the final confrontation with Scarecrow. Stemming from a fundamental misunderstanding about their subject, the writers never seem to have figured out that Bruce Wayne is a detective - not a vigilante. Batman is all about investigation: he analyzes, prepares, and predicts before jumping into anything. There’s a good reason why Batman has always got the right tool for the job. That belt of his doesn’t defy physics: he just knew what to bring. But the writers wanted twists, turns, and surprises. They didn’t bother to consider how the Dark Knight would handle things. Instead of putting Batman in control, the writers behind the Arkham series let him get swept away by his own story. Playing the World’s Greatest Detective like a sad fiddle, it’s the bad guys who end up driving the plot. There’s never any ‘gotcha’ moment with Joker and Scarecrow. Batman just blunders though every encounter. Scarecrow’s attack using the Fear Toxin is a case in point. The Dark Knight fails on two fronts: he proves unable to prevent the Fear Toxin from being released in the first place, but also to neutralize the impending danger. It’s actually Poison Ivy who takes over the cleanup detail.

Scarecrow's Fear Toxin floods the streets of Gotham

What makes Batman so much fun to roleplay in the Arkham titles isn’t the story. It’s not even Batman’s character design. It’s the combat.

Batman knows how to throw a punch

The developer behind the Arkham games, Rocksteady, did a brilliant job at crafting the combat system. It’s all about mastery: you’re confronted with different types of enemy that each require a specific series of attacks to lay low. Is that guard carrying a shield? Jump over his head and pummel him from behind. Stun baton? Whoosh your cape and let the beat down commence. Chain your attacks together well enough and you can even make Batman fling around the combat arena like a pinball. His acrobatics are even accompanied by a satisfying SMACK! whenever fist meets face. Grapple onto a gargoyle when you’ve had your fill, swing around the map for a while, and swoop right back down into the fray for another go. Stealthy maneuvers flow beautifully into more fighting. Batman even glides through crawlspaces and ventilation systems quickly enough to make them effective tactical opportunities. The result is a perfectly punctuated combat experience. What lends the system such authenticity isn’t hard to see: Batman as a character is pure power fantasy. Bruce Wayne has been obsessed with controlling crime in every comic book, movie, TV show, and video game ever made about the guy. The Dark Knight doesn’t just beat up the bad guys: he masters them in every possible way. It must be this aspect of Batman that really resonates in the Arkham games. The specificity of their medium after all is interactivity.

When it comes to Batman then, being seems to be synonymous with doing.