The Inmates Run the Asylum in Rocksteady’s Arkham Trilogy

I love video games. I suppose I always have. Growing up in the early years of economic liberalisation in India, you took your first steps into the world of gaming on bootlegged consoles, manufactured by local companies that had cropped up all over the country to meet the demands of a large population with growing purchasing power and aspirations to live the life their relatives “abroad” and the stars of their movies did, all the while the companies that actually manufactured those consoles scrambled to set up shop in the nation. My earliest memory of gaming is playing Contra and Super Mario on one of these bootlegged “NES,” plugging in those “99999 in 1” game cartridges and setting up the system on those huge CRT television sets that took up an entire corner of your living room.

I am telling my age, aren’t I?

Well, kids, playing video games for as long as I have teaches you a lot of things, especially if you are interested in the behind-the-scenes stuff – how they are made (the tools and technologies that go into making a game and how they evolve over time), the politics of it (because, as with everything else in life, there is politics involved here as well), the economics of the gaming industry (and how it, at times, becomes the primary driving force for innovation) – which, I suppose, you become at least tangentially aware of if you stick with a particular hobby long enough. But, perhaps more than that, it teaches you to see that hobby differently. You learn to notice and appreciate the craft behind it. You learn to see video games as art.

Video games are a unique medium because they allow you to experience a story by putting you in the shoes of the protagonist (which, with the advent of VR gaming, is true quite literally now). Using the controller to move a Batman under the influence of Scarecrow’s fear toxin down claustrophobic corridors with decaying walls as his grip on reality slips has a completely different effect on how you experience the story than, say, watching Christian Bale play Batman in a similar situation. It engages you with the story on a more profound level, but that, of course, does pose a challenge for the developers. How do you sustain this effect throughout the game? Or rather, in the case of Rocksteady’s Arkham Trilogy, how do you sustain this throughout not one, but three games?

When you break it down, Rocksteady’s approach to this is deceivingly simple. Every game in the trilogy, from Arkham Asylum to Arkham City to Arkham Knight, follows the same core idea but expands it out one level further every time, thereby raising the stakes – of the story and for the players – in, what comes across as, completely natural. Well, as natural as can be in the case of Gotham City.

A Serious House on Serious Earth

We start small and, as is enforced by the game not just with its opening sequence but throughout, rather mundane. The Joker has broken out of the Asylum (again) and is brought back in by the Batman (again). Nothing seems out of the ordinary – it is just another night at work for the Batman – until, of course, it isn’t and the night turns into something else entirely.

Influenced in parts by the Grant Morrison and Dave McKean book of the same name, the game follows a rather simple story, but enriches it by using complex narrative devices through which that story is told. This is true for the gameplay as well, for even though the combat is rather simple in its design – you could button-mash your way through the enemies, though that of course would not be advisable – its presentation works well within the context of the game since the idea here is to let you, the player, be this extraordinary individual who is an expert in perhaps every fighting style known to man.

Once the story kicks into gear, we are faced with the core idea that Rocksteady employs through all these games. The social order of things is flipped and the inmates run the asylum now. Interestingly enough though, the same hierarchical organization of society remains. While earlier you had the medical staff and the security personnel reporting to the warden, Quincy Sharp, you now have the inmates and the henchmen reporting to the Joker, one way or the other. You could read this as the human need for community and our natural inclination for order and control, as much as it is possible in a lawless place, but it is perhaps something more.

It is fascinating how quickly and easily the structures of ordered society in the game collapse, thereby allowing for the siege of the institution, yet the characters in the game maintain an air of nonchalance about the events. I’d like to think that this is because they believe that good will prevail over evil no matter what, but it is perhaps that they live in Gotham City, where nothing really seems out of the ordinary, does it? In a way the Asylum becomes a microcosm of Gotham City as a whole, with the characters caught in the traps of their world, an idea that is reinforced by the game design, where while it does seem like you are progressing linearly further along the story and are visiting a particular section of the Asylum grounds for a reason – to further the plot, that is – you are actually circling the same rooms, this time perhaps with a new gadget that can help get you those pesky Riddler Trophies.

The game design also offers a look into how Gotham City chooses to treat its most vulnerable, but unlike Arkham City, where that is quite literally a plot point, here that is explored in subtle undertones – in how a public-funded institution purposed to offer mental health assistance is built like an endless prison labyrinth, with rotting infrastructure, little to no accountability, haunted by suicide spots, and located far off from the main island of the city. Out of sight, out of mind.

Big Brother Is Watching You

Escalate the situation and the forces at play that led to the rise of the ecosystem that developed during the events at the Asylum and extend it over a couple of city blocks and you get the middle chapter of the trilogy, one that acts as, of course, an expansion of the core idea of the previous entry – the inmates run the asylum now – but also as a prelude of things to come in the next.

It is perhaps telling of the decay already underway – of the individual, of the sense of community, and of society and its institutions – that the city’s response to the events at the Asylum is totalitarian. Politicians are paid off, public misinformation campaigns run rampant, and Professor Hugo Strange – Gotham’s preeminent psychoanalyst, noted Batman cosplayer, and all-around Nice Guy – is handed over the keys to a super-prison right in the heart of the city. This is also an extension of the “out of sight, out of mind” approach Gotham takes towards the “criminally insane,” wherein the city essentially turns into a fascist state without falling into the textbook definition of one. Cordoned off from the rest of Gotham, Arkham City becomes the dumping ground for “scum… criminals… and worse.” Left to fend for themselves and survive in a place of absolute anarchy, gang culture and the violence it begets run rampant. However, as Gotham can argue, since these criminals – shunned away from society and already demoted to second-class citizens – have no one else but themselves to victimize, they have no one else but themselves to blame.

The game doesn’t shy away from making Arkham City the Orwellian nightmare it really is – as is communicated with Plakatstil warnings all around the decaying urban slums that make this city within a city, cautioning the prisoners that “lethal force is authorized,” and the near constant public service announcements of the “rules” of Arkham City by Hugo Strange – “These rules are mandatory and by the power vested in me, by the people of Gotham City, lawful.” – reminding the inmates of their state-sponsored dehumanization.

Fans have long argued why Batman doesn’t kill. Surely, isn’t that the simplest solution, giving him something concrete to help end his war on crime with, rather than choosing to reform these criminals and be caught in an endless loop with them? This has some very real world parallels, particularly with regard to the death penalty, but Batman’s world is steeped in heightened melodrama and offers an imaginary playing field to confront these questions. Arkham City comments on all of these and more, with the final act of the game putting the player right at the heart of this dilemma. Protocol 10, which the Batman spends much of the game investigating, turns out to be, essentially, mass murder. Do the inmates deserve it and is this the solution to ending crime? Since video games can articulate a story on experiential terms, what do you feel when you look around and see missiles being rained down upon Arkham City? Whatever it is, that is your answer to this question.

The City of Fear

Arkham Knight is the endgame. The stakes have never been higher, as is reinforced not just by the game’s ominous opening lines – “This is how it happened. This is how the Batman died.” – and the sheer scale of the map that is available to the player from the get-go, but also by just how different the game looks than its predecessors. This might be the conclusion to Rocksteady’s trilogy, but perhaps more than that, this is their magnum opus. It is also, however, the natural end of the core idea that Rocksteady had been employing in their trilogy, with the entire city of Gotham now becoming an asylum overtaken by its inmates.

On a Halloween night nine months after the fall of Arkham City, Scarecrow threatens to unleash a potent new strain of Fear Toxin, resulting in the immediate evacuation of six million residents of Gotham City. The city’s criminals and supervillains stay behind, choosing to run riot under Scarecrow’s protection, leaving Commissioner Gordon and the Gotham City Police Department outnumbered. In a way, the Batman has already lost. While in Arkham Asylum the inmates running the asylum felt wrong, an upset of the established order of things that needed to be corrected by an unofficial extension of the traditional institutions that make up a civilized society, by the time we get to Arkham Knight, it is perhaps the norm, the new world order. Here, Batman is the outsider, representing order and structure in a lawless place with no need for either.

On one level, technical limitations force this game design, but it also ties into the structural decay of society that is hinted at across the three games. The rot at the heart is now complete, the forewarnings of Wonder City from Arkham City have rung true, and Gotham is doomed even before the player gets to control the Batman. The horrors perpetrated in the name of fear of the other that led most citizens of Gotham City to look the other way while a section of them are subjected to dehumanizing practices has caught up with them.

With Scarecrow as the main antagonist, fear is the central theme that runs across Arkham Knight. Every decision taken by a member of the main cast – and, therefore, every choice that drives the plot forward – comes from a place of fear. For Batman, it is the fear of not being able to fulfill his promise to his late parents; for Joker, it is the fear of being forgotten; for Gordon, it is the fear of Barbara’s life; for Arkham Knight, it is the fear of being replaced; for Scarecrow, it is the fear of Batman.

Obsessed with overcoming his phobias, Jonathan Crane dedicated his life studying fear, the psychology and psychiatry that makes it tick, but somewhere along the way lost his way and became the Scarecrow. Bruce Wayne is obsessed with fear too, but perhaps in his own way. Fear is at the heart of what makes Batman such an intriguing character, one that has been able to withstand the test of time for over eighty years now and still be relevant. His origins are based on the very idea of overcoming your fears – something that perhaps everyone can relate to – but since Batman’s world is steeped in heightened melodrama, as we have already established, a traumatized young boy’s idea of overcoming your fears is to weaponize it for his vengeful war on crime. “Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible…” Both Scarecrow and Batman understand the power of fear and the role it has played in making them who they are. “We are all products of what we fear,” as Scarecrow observes in the game. Arkham Knight, therefore, also becomes the culmination of Batman’s approach to using fear in his mission, and on that fateful Halloween night when the Batman dies, something even more terrifying rises from his ashes.

A character that never seems to run out of room for yet another deconstruction, Batman has had a lot of interesting takes over the years, across various mediums from comics to films. However, I have been particularly keen on those that weave the very medium into that deconstruction. Rocksteady’s Arkham Trilogy lets you be the Batman, of course, but perhaps more than that, they offer a look into Batman’s world in a way comics and films never could. Collecting interview tapes in Arkham Asylum is, essentially, reward-based exploration, but it enriches your understanding of the inner workings of the eponymous psychiatric hospital/prison; tracking down the “Payphone Killer” in Arkham City is a ‘race against the clock’-type mini-game, but one that uses clever level design to recount a villain’s origin story; and, well, in Arkham Knight, you get to do tank battles in the Batmobile.

From the surreal nightmare levels against the Scarecrow in Arkham Asylum to the ever-changing perspective and shifting landscapes during the final showdown against the Joker in Arkham Knight, Rocksteady continuously experiments with how the gameplay can be used to offer the player a peek into the broken psyche of the Caped Crusader, regardless of whether the player is a neophyte to the Batman’s lore or has been armchair-psychoanalysing the character for years. Rocksteady’s Arkham Trilogy succeeds in its deconstruction of the Dark Knight precisely because everything great about video games and the aspects unique to them are tuned to perfection and pointed, collectively, to serve the story and how the player experiences it.

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