playing, review, video games

Currency of Pain: A reading of Batman: Arkham City

It’s almost dream-like in its absurdity. Surreal might be a better word for it. All of Gotham’s greatest villains all kept in the same place, “locked away” in a free roaming area where they can enact all their evils on those around them with nothing but a wall to keep them in and away from the general population. Batman: Arkham City tries many times to explain away the need to have a part of the city become a new prison, to become a new place to hold all the enemies of Batman in one place. Yet, in all the exposition, it falls flat. After all, the story is never about the villains, their plots or their journeys, it is always about Batman himself. The place and its people are only ever a dark reflection.

To engage in playing a Batman game is to punish him on some fundamental level. For all his technology, he must climb, swing or even fight his way from one greater enemy to the next. His physicality propels him forward not because of some sense of justice, as much as that veneer might be pushed, but because he is as broken as those he fights against. He is not some avenging angel or dark knight, but the enforcer of rules and ways of society that exist, often, only in his own mind. In all his determination, he dismisses those who can help him, those who offer aid, out of some twisted need to get punished himself.

If the single difference, as Batman: Arkham City goes to lengths to show, is that Batman will not kill people while others will, it is that single thread that holds him from being a criminal himself. After all, it is Batman that knocks out or otherwise makes dozens if not hundreds of people unconscious. The echoing, gun-like crack that sounds off as Batman kicks or punches the last henchman each battle might as well signify a death for the way it resounds. Batman is the good guy only because he makes this one revision to his mission. The suffering is the same regardless. The lack of remorse is universal to all those locked away in this city cage, Batman included.

It’s hard not to see the way Batman continues, from taking on villain after another, as unchecked sadomasochism. Batman must go to each enemy. He must punch them, kick them. And they, in return, must punish him for his transgressions. Those that offer to help him, from Robin to Oracle, he spurns. The few moments where the game, in alluding to the greater canon of Batman lore, references that Batman, Bruce Wayne, might have some love or some life outside his nighttime activities, it is quickly put away. This is about hurting Batman. Not out of some redemption or cleansing — this is no ritual — does he go on, just out of a personal code. This is who he is.

The simple truth of the game is in how upgrades become available: the more Batman is hurt, the more weapons he gets. Batman must take out villains, put down henchmen and be damaged to become better at hurting. Pain is spent to progress. As he fails to get to the goal, the player sees the Game Over screen again and again. Each time, Batman falls to the ground as blows by enemies put him down. Each time, he gets up again and fights on in the mission. The threshold for relief is on the ever-retreating horizon as frustration pushes him forward.

In the lull between story moments, as Batman make his way from point to point in the city, he can request upgrades according to the experiences he has endured. Fighting his way through chains of combos rewards points, taking out yet another villain rewards more. Yet, as more toys become part of the ever-growing arsenal, his costume rips and tears in parts. Batman stumbles in places. As virtual reality exercises completed throughout the city unlock more tools, become more options to enable Batman to hurt others, yes, but also get hurt in return.

Batman: Arkham City tries to present itself as an extended episode of the 90s animated series or even like previous graphic novels, yet shows how out of touch Batman is from the reality that spawned him. He is no longer a fantasy projection of minds that want justice for the unheard or the innocent, the representation of Batman, through Arkham City, comes the closest to the truth of Batman: he is about pain. The game, in wanting to highlight the world of Gotham and that of its savior, instead crosses into the world of the Gothic and that of the macabre. Batman, supposedly a protector, must use the currency of pain to progress in the story.

With a mask to cover his face, he about confrontation and direct conflict, yet this is not Batman. He lurks in the shadows, attacks from the dark places. He mirrors death in his guise and his humanity in his pain. He wants for peace, yet his very presence promotes war. Batman sneaks around and seeks vulnerabilities in his victims. For his code against killing, he is perfectly willing to knock loudly on death’s door before leaving a soul clinging to life before seeking the next. For as dark as his world is, Batman is darker. He is the apex predator of his ecosystem.

Batman is never quite the protagonist. He might be the hero, in a sense, but he does not change. As Arkham City points out, even taking down one villain only provides a new opening for the next. It is an endless cycle of catch and release. Pain and lull before pain again. Arkham City is not rescuing individuals, as parts of the prequel Arkham Asylum is about, but of pain everlasting. Batman is the city: the duality of criminality and society separated by a wall. For as much as villains give rise to more powerful ones, in a sort of criminal evolution, Batman is there to put them down again. Each ecstasy of any single triumph fades quickly as Batman must fight more and more powerful foes.

He is a detective and, in parts, such technology helps… for a time. It is merely the conduit between points though. It is the tissue that connects Batman’s muscle to the cruelty of his world. In the end, he must always fight. Always. Enemies cannot be taken down without being hit. Villains cannot be faced without being fought with his own hands and feet. He may temporarily paralyze an enemy using technology, yet must always hit them. Just as he must always be hurt. Batman cannot proceed in a story unless he struggles: bound and freed in endless cycles.

To watch Batman take on battle after battle is puts the viewer at constant distance from the action. Not unlike watching a gladiator in an arena, the distance allows a measure of emotional disconnection. The pain seen is not the pain felt. Yet, to play Batman: Arkham City is to understand this cost and to put a fictional character in front of increasingly greater threats, to understand the need for pain and to go ahead anyway. The character of Batman might take breaks, take time to heal or even rest between issues or episodes, yet a game is about triumph, one continuous line from start to end of winning.

The player spends the pain of Batman for greater pleasure. All the failures, seen and felt by Batman, provide player progression. Batman will not move, will not engage, without player consent. For as much as the villains and henchmen alike try to kill Batman permanently, it is the player that must reanimate him each time. As his costume tears from him in pieces, it is the player who pushes him. Batman: Arkham City shows the true Batman, the one that takes on the pain, the one who likes it. After all, without the pain, the torture and the punishment, who is Batman but yet another freak trying to remake Gotham in his own image? To remove the pain is to remove Batman; he must suffer, both for us and for himself.