In 2008, I was at a showing of The Dark Knight. A man had brought his young son with him to see the film. Too young, I thought. And sure enough, during the Joker’s snuff film antics, the kid began to cry uncontrollably and had to be ushered out of the theater. That was the moment when I knew Batman wasn’t for kids anymore. The Joker torturing that man didn’t feel PG-13, and there was plenty of imagery from that movie that felt like it belonged in an R-rated movie.
In 2015, the latest entry in the extremely successful Arkham series of video games has finally broken the seal. The game, Arkham Knight, is rated M. This moment has been a long time coming. And of all the beloved superheroes, it had to be Batman that would cross the line. The uber-violence of 2005’s The Punisher game was toned down after the threat of an Adults Only rating from the ESRB scared the publisher into sterilizing the violence with a black-and-white filter (an effect used in Kill Bill two years earlier for similar reasons), but it makes sense that a Punisher game would be ultraviolent. There are comic book properties that lend themselves to mature ratings, and there are plenty of comic book video games rated M.
But Batman is different. Batman is mainstream.
Sure, comics like The Killing Joke are unequivocally “mature,” but not the type of stories that reach the majority of public eyes. This is a character who doesn’t kill people. That makes him (almost) a role model—certainly a hero for edgy, brooding kids to look up to. The ESRB description for Arkham Asylum, the first game in the series, makes specific mention of this: “Players assume the role of Batman as he fights (never kills) his way through a psychiatric hospital populated by psychopathic criminals…” The game was rated T for Teen. And though the ratings of the subsequent Arkham games have made explicit reference to that aspect of Batman’s personality, it is a crucial part of what makes him a compelling character.
When the film Man of Steel came out, many were up in arms over the fact that Zack Snyder took the bleak tone of Nolan’s Batman films and added it to a film about a man who has the symbol for Hope on his chest. The trailer for Batman v Superman has done nothing to assuage those who felt burned by the movie. If anything, Snyder appears to have doubled down on the hopelessness of it all. But in doing so, he’s made a film that looks less “adult” and more “emo kid.” Things that are “dark” and “gritty” aren’t inherently more “mature.” And so I went into Arkham Knight expecting to see a game that was trying too hard. And, well… The first two things you do in the game are:
1) Cremate the Joker.
2) Take a hit of Scarecrow’s fear gas and go crazy.
The former is interesting, because I didn’t realize it was on me to trigger. I sat there, staring at a close-up of the Joker’s dead, grinning face as he lay on a cremation bed for a full 15 seconds before doing anything. I flicked the analog stick absentmindedly, wondering what the point of this overly dramatic pause was. And then I saw flames. Before long, the Joker went up in smoke, and Batman told me that he had, in fact, cremated the Joker himself. I was doing the Batman’s work.
It was a fascinating moment—one with potentially real significance—but it also felt particularly “M” rated. The following sequence even more so. The scene takes place in first person. You’re a cop at a diner. A patron comes over and asks you to stop a man in the corner from smoking. You go over to the man and… it’s Scarecrow! Scarecrow’s horrifically disfigured face. And then the entire room is on fire and there are burning bodies and you’re trying to fight your way out. You can’t, of course, and initially think that the character has died.
It’s one hell of an opening. And for a moment, you think that maybe the film has justified that M rating. Maybe it really is an “adult” game. But then you realize that, no, Arkham Knight is the video game equivalent of two children standing on each other’s shoulders wearing a trench coat. Because once you get into it, you realize that those “Mature” moments aren’t representative of the game. This could have easily been rated T. It should have been rated T.
Soon after you finally get control of Batman, you and a police officer are nearly run over by a tank. After grappling up to a nearby rooftop, Batman tells the policeman that it’s time to Even the Odds. A button prompt appears on the screen: “Press L1 to Even the Odds.” It’s silly. Pressing it, though, is when things become problematic. It summons the new Batmobile—a cross between the sleek older designs and the Tumbler from Nolan’s film.
And then you’re in the Batmobile chasing down the thugs that almost ran you over. You’re driving through the streets, crushing pretty much anything in your path. (Pillars, tables, trees, etc. are all destructible, and crumble upon impact.) It’s like something out of Grand Theft Auto. And then you… shoot missiles at the car. Yes, it says that you’re doing this to immobilize them, not kill them, and yeah, you might see someone come out of the wreckage. But when you see that car explode and then flip over in a flaming wreckage, the only thing you can think is, “Yup. They’re dead.” Followed by, “Wait… Did Batman just kill somebody?”
There are a lot of moments like that in Arkham Knight. Pretty much any time you get in the Batmobile, you’ll reflect on the fact that you killed at least half a dozen people. Seeing Batman run over thugs (there are no civilians in Gotham City anymore—they were evacuated following threats by Scarecrow) was off-putting. And the developers put effort into “justifying” this all-in-world. You can’t fire the cannon shots at people, only rubber bullets (cannon fire is reserved for unmanned tanks, of which there are many). Instead of actually striking them, the Batmobile pushes people away with an electric charge. But let’s be honest, here: When you electrically charge someone into an oncoming car, that person is dead. And you, Batman, are the cause of it.
And when you’re thinking about that, you’ll also think about the rhythmic combat that the series is known for. You’ll think that, even though the game said you were just knocking them out, you were definitely mortally wounding at least some of them. Baddie got kicked backwards headfirst down a flight of stairs? That’s a broken neck right there.
It’s all reminiscent of the CollegeHumor sketch from a couple years back where it’s revealed that Batman actually does kill his enemies, but he doesn’t understand what death is. He can claim ignorance because he’s too dumb to know the endgame. It’s an excellent bit, and this game makes it increasingly difficult to believe that Batman is sticking to his one rule. And that’s a problem.
But it’s not all bad. Despite Gotham City being effectively lifeless in the wake of the evacuation, as a location it is far more compelling than any of the previous Batman games. And, in fact, it’s one of the most compelling open world locations in recent memory. Standing from high upon a tower and looking down, you see a colorful and fantastical city. It makes you wish that it was full of life. It’s brimming with potential. And then when you jump and glide above and through the city, and it’s one of those things that reminds you why video games are so amazing in the first place. It’s not a new mechanic, but the location gives it new life. It’s like swinging in Spiderman 2 on the PlayStation 2. You went through Manhattan and just enjoyed the feeling of that movement. Other open world superhero games like Crackdown or the Infamous series have done some of it as well, but none of their locations are as beautiful as Gotham City. And in those moments, you feel like the Batman.
It’s just unfortunate that the narrative is hampered by its game-ness. Batman narrates everything for you, the player, because he doesn’t trust you to be the world’s greatest detective. You are constantly blocked by objects that serve no purpose other than to waste your time (and help the developers keep the illusion of an experience with no loading screens). The ability to choose from various storylines at any given moment undermines the impact and urgency of all of the other ones. (If you decide to track down a random serial killer in the middle of your quest to stop the Scarecrow, are his minions going to just wait for you to finish? Yep.) And though these problems aren’t specific to Batman, they are particularly noticeable, because we know how a tight Batman story can be told. We can directly compare the writing and the pacing to films and TV shows and graphic novels. We can even compare it to its predecessors. And though it may be the most varied single Batman experience, it is certainly not the best.
As the story progresses, you yearn for something even grittier. The game’s main antagonist, the eponymous Arkham Knight, is only threatening until you interact with him, at which point you realize he’s just a whiny child. It ruins the effect when this dastardly villain throws a temper tantrum in front of you and a half-dozen minions. Whether you want camp or seriousness from your Batman experiences, it’s a moment that completely kills the tension, and it’s indicative of the problems within Arkham Knight—the game tries to have it both ways and simply can’t. Hopefully Snyder’s film doesn’t follow suit.