Sunday, January 22, 2012

Archives: The Beautiful, Baffling Bat

There's a great scene toward the end of Lost (a show which Arkham City cleverly references several times throughout the game) where Hurley tries to explain to his mother everything that happened in the five seasons leading up to this point. Now, Hurley is a sweet guy but he's easily flustered, and, not surprisingly to us, he stumbles through his explanation. The look on his face as he realizes just how crazy his exasperated recap sounds is priceless, and hilarious: yet we're not laughing at Hurley. We're laughing because we've been there before. When you get hooked on Lost, you get hooked on Lost, and at some point you feel the need to explain this show to someone else, not just because it becomes an obsession, but because it begs to be talked about. And if you've tried to explain the story to someone who has no attachment to the show, chances are you ended up sounding ridiculous. Just like Hurley did when explaining his island adventures to his mother in Season 5. What makes this particular scene so great though, is that immediately following Hurley's rambling confession, his mother looks at him straight in the eye and says: “I believe you. I don't understand you; but I believe you.”

Trying to explain what makes Batman: Arkham City so obsessively playable can feel a lot like that.

“So you're stuck in this city, right? And it's this city where 
all the bad guys in Gotham are locked up. Because Gotham is, like, a Police State now or something. Anyway, you get captured—Bruce Wayne, that is—and apparently the main villain, Hugo Strange, totally knows that you're Batman! Oh yeah, Bruce Wayne is Batman, by the way. So it's a big deal that he knows that. Anyway he—how? I don't know, he just knows, dude. Okay listen: so at the end of the last game—oh right, there's also this game called Arkham Asylum where the Joker buffs himself up with this drug called Venom, right? Well the Joker still has the Venom stuff in his body and it's killing him and—no, dude, he's not buff anymore. I don't know, you...look, it makes sense if you play Arkham Asylum. So anyway he infects Batman with this Venom, too! So you have to like, work together in a weird way to get this cure otherwise you'll both die. And then you meet the Penguin!...actually I was never really clear on why he came into the picture...and then you meet this guy who takes you to this place with this trippy stuff that makes everything look weird, but you have to meet this guy because you're dying know, I didn't really understand that part either. So anyway...”

You get the idea. There's a lot of moving parts to this story in Arkham City, and if you're forced to take a step back from it, you realize that it doesn't all fit together as well as you think it does when you're playing it. In fact often, quite frankly, the storytelling is downright sloppy. Especially when compared to its refreshingly tight predecessor.  

For me though, these issues of sloppy storytelling—often major issues, at that—almost never crossed my mind when I was actually playing the game; somehow, Rocksteady studios has crafted a story that feels great, even if in reality it's merely good. Did I fully understand my motivation for going to the Iceberg Lounge and confronting the Penguin? Not really, come to think of it. But did it feel completely amazing when the Penguin unleashed 40 of his cohorts on me and I took them down without taking a single hit? Was I blown away by Nolan North's raspy, cackling performance as the Penguin? On that note: was I blown away when I found out that the guy playing the Penguin was not a sophisticated Brit, but Nolan North? Yes, yes and double yes.

Here is a game that feels urgent even when it isn't. I didn't do a single side mission on my way through the story (resulting in a paltry 23% completion by the time those haunting credits rolled), not because they weren't enticing, or because there weren't enough of them--trust me, there's tons--but because the scene where I wake up and the Joker is transfusing his infected blood into my body was so shocking and diabolical, that I felt that I simply must stop him at all costs. And that's the truth. Most open world games suffer from a distinct lack of motivation: Rockstar, for example, creates worlds that are so dense and fun to explore that the story missions often feel like punishing diversions. Why follow Rockstar's structure when you could beat your own path? Rocksteady, on the other hand, has created a dense world that's fun to explore—but not one that felt significantly more fun than its story. That's an incredible accomplishment.

Which is not to say the story's misgivings are entirely dismissible simply because it's fun and compelling. A question: what was all that Wonder City business about? I'd be lying if I told you I understood a single second of that mission, in hindsight. There was a really cool gate that opened in dramatic fashion, I recall, but wasn't that just a hallucination or something? Oh, and there were some robots whose memory chips I hacked...but why? I'm told some of these things can be cleared up if I go through the menu and read the backstory on these places, but is a game's story really succeeding if major plot points have to be explained via menu screens? I only recently starting reading the comics: am I really expected to buy that Thalia Al-ghul is the love of Bruce's life, and he'd do anything to save her, just because the game told me this was the case?

Indeed, this is the major shortcoming of Arkham City: it often assumes far too much knowledge of the source material. Deep knowledge. If you're a newcomer to the Batman comic universe, perhaps introduced to the comics by the wonderfully-handled reboot of the series this past September, you'll probably understand the relationship between Batman and Dick Grayson/Nightwing/Robin. But will you have intimate knowledge of the significance of R'as Al-ghul and the Lazarus Pit? Probably not, and that's a shame, because it's of massive importance to the story, and little explanation is given beyond, yes, menu screens. 
This is a somewhat shocking problem, given that the game's predecessor, Arkham Asylum, was so great at familiarizing players with this potentially-intimidating universe with a 65 year history. When Arkham City does borrow storytelling devices from its prequel, it's often for the wrong reasons. The Lazarus Pit and Mad Hatter sequences, where Batman is forced to follow R'as Al-Ghul or The Mad Hatter down the figurative Rabbit Hole, are obviously trying to replicate the abstract, creepy mind-trips of Arkham Asylum's Scarecrow sections. But the Scarecrow sections were used not "just" to creep us out, but to teach newcomers to the Batman universe about Bruce Wayne's haunted past firsthand. Players might not have known going into the game that Bruce's parents were murdered when he was a kid, but they walked out of the game not only knowing that major piece of backstory, but understanding the effects it had on the character psychologically. In Arkham City, we learn nothing from the "trippy" sequences. They are merely spectacle.

And yet Arkham City is a shoo-in for critics and gamers' Game of the Year shortlists. As well it should be. I've said all this without even speaking of the gameplay, which features, by a wide stretch, both the best combat and stealth of this generation thus far. I didn't even mention Mark Hamill's stunning performance as the Joker. I didn't even talk about that ending. My goodness, that ending. I'm not sure if it was a good one, but I'm still thinking about it. Heck, the creditsfollowing the ending--they gave me more chills than any Rated T superhero game probably has the right to do. Batman Arkham City is a great game with, glaring storytelling problems and all, an undeniably compelling narrative. I know, I know.You might not understand me. But you've got to believe me.

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