First things first: go listen to the newest Deus Treks. It’s the best one we’ve done so far.
With that out of the way:
It’s Batman time. Again. (Always).
Last time, I mentioned that Arkham Asylum, (though really neat), mostly doesn’t examine the Batman mythos with any real granularity. “You are Batman,” it says, “Now go punch people.” By and large, Arkham Asylum is a game about how cool it is to dress up in tights and a cape, but there are a few moments when it stops to ask the player a few questions about what it really is to be Batman, and those are the sections I want to talk about today.
The Scarecrow is an old Batman villain who plays a relatively small but memorable role in Arkham Asylum. If you’re unfamiliar with the Scarecrow, all you really need to know is that he is an ex-psychologist who is obsessed with fear, and has invented a powerful hallucinatory fear gas which causes his victims to relive their worst fears and nightmares. The specifics of his place in the plot are not really important, as the sections which feature him stand entirely (and somewhat jarringly) on their own. In any Scarecrow story, Batman is inevitably affected by the fear gas, treating the reader/viewer/player to an examination of what Batman fears the most. In the best Scarecrow stories, these moments allow us to learn more about the human side of the Dark Knight. In the worst, the story simply gets trippy and weird for a while before returning to normalcy.
Arkham Asylum infects Batman with the gas on three separate occasions. These three moments allow the game to put on its arty hat and dig a little deeper into the psychology of everyone’s favorite brooding vigilante.
The Scarecrow sequences follow a pretty strict form: first, Batman will get infected with fear gas, cough for a while, and then keep walking without any obvious dramatic shift. As time goes by, things get progressively stranger and stranger as the toxin works through his system and Batman begins to hallucinate. Eventually, these hallucinations culminate in a complete departure from reality wherein the player is required to play through a minigame with completely different rules from the main game.
In these minigame sections, Batman is placed in a nearly two-dimensional space composed of small pieces of the Asylum, floating in space. In the center of this space stands a fifty-foot tall Scarecrow, slowly rotating around and looking for Batman. His gaze is represented by a halo of orange light, and the player must avoid this light by hiding behind walls and only ducking through exposed spaces when the Scarecrow is looking elsewhere. If Batman stumbles into the Scarecrow’s gaze, the player receives an instant game over as the giant looms over a cowering Batman.
After successfully dodging the Scarecrow’s gaze and surmounting some straightforward obstacles, the player will come upon a Bat-Signal. Interacting with the Bat-Signal causes Batman to shine the light directly onto the Scarecrow, who will cry out and vanish. At this point, the hallucination ends, and Batman comes back to the real world, having completely shrugged off the fear gas without any apparent lingering side effects.
At first, these sections read as Batman conquering his fears and thereby surviving the temporary insanity produced by the gas. Batman endures the hallucinations and then comes out the other end by reminding all concerned that he’s Batman, dammit, and is therefore immune to your stupid poisons.
The first time I played the game, I took these sections at face value, and therefore found them to be an enjoyable enough change of pace, but didn’t feel like they lived up to their full potential. But as I thought about them later, I suddenly realized they deserved a closer look.
What is the player actually doing during the minigame sections, the real moments of gameplay? The large Scarecrow in the middle of the world is not the actual person, but a projection of Batman’s fears. If the player runs out and tries to confront the Scarecrow (and thus, Batman’s fears), directly, he or she is greeted with a game-over screen. The player must thus hide from Batman’s fears, must avoid coming into direct conflict or contact with them. Practically every other obstacle in the game is defeated through the use of physical force. Batman does hide in the shadows when he is attacking a group of armed thugs, but he does so only until the player can isolate them and beat them into submission.
But the player never actually fights Batman’s fears. Batman never punches the huge Scarecrow, never fights with him, never throws Batarangs at him. Instead, he runs away from him. He completely avoids the Scarecrow’s gaze, and if he allows himself to be bathed in the light of the Scarecrow’s eyes, to be caught and forced to reckon with his deepest fears, he goes completely insane.
Batman is not facing his fears and triumphing over them, he is running away from them. Each section forces Batman to interact with elements of self-doubt– all of the hallucinations relate to Batman’s perception of himself. Each time the Scarecrow poisons Batman, he forces him to take a long, hard look at himself.
And how does Batman shake off the toxin? Not by accepting the fears, or by confronting them, but by shining the Bat-Signal on the image of the Scarecrow, literally stamping the Batman emblem on his fears. This is an act of self-definition, of reasserting his identity in the face of the unpleasant introspection the fear gas is making him undergo. When Batman shines the bat-signal on the Scarecrow, he is redefining himself as Batman, “triumphing” over his fears not by confronting them, but by reminding himself who he is. Batman is an idea more than he is a person, and by shining the Bat-Signal on his fears, Bruce reasserts his identity as the legend. He is not Bruce Wayne, he is the @#$%# Batman.
The fact that he shrugs off the effects of the gas all at once immediately after this act of self-definition indicates that he is completely repressing his fears and self-doubt, shunting them out of his mind, conquering his fears not by facing them and letting them pass through him, but by putting his fingers in his ears and shouting “I’m Batman and Batman is not afraid of things,” until they go away for a while.
So, what does the game think Batman is afraid of? The three sections boil down to two major fears.
1. Bruce Wayne
One of the most interesting parts about Batman is the interplay between his two personas– the interaction and frequent disconnect between the way he views himself and behaves as he switches between Bruce Wayne and Batman. The real question is one of definition: is this person really Bruce Wayne, a billionaire playboy who moonlights by night as a costumed vigilante, or is he primarily Batman, who pretends by day to be a wealthy executive? Some superheroes are less confusing in this regard: Clark Kent isn’t a real person, he’s a mask for Superman. Spider-Man, conversely, is an excuse for Peter Parker to do all the things he really wants to do. But Batman is less clear-cut. Where does Batman stop and Bruce Wayne begin?
Arkham Asylum is mostly unconcerned with this dynamic. You play the game as Batman, and although Oracle calls you Bruce from time to time, the Bruce Wayne side of things is mostly irrelevant. But the one time you do play as Bruce Wayne rather than Batman is telling: you don’t play Bruce Wayne the billionaire playboy, you play Bruce Wayne the terrified little child.
The second hallucination sequence causes the player’s avatar to be replaced by a little boy in a tuxedo, walking down a raining alleyway, and listening, in the distance, to the sounds of his parents being murdered. The alleyway seems to go on forever, stretching on in permanent darkness, and the player can do absolutely nothing to stop the murder of Bruce’s parents. Keeping the murder entirely auditory is actually a stroke of brilliance as it makes it all the more inexorable. You can’t see what’s happening, so you wouldn’t even begin to know how to stop it, but you can hear it, so you know it’s happening. The game does not take control of the avatar; it still allows the player to have control over the character, in that the player can physically move the little boy around, but the player has no control over the events that are unfolding in the game.
This is how Batman views Bruce Wayne: as a scared, powerless little boy, perpetually trapped in the dark alley where his parents were murdered. In Arkham Asylum, at least, Batman associates the name “Bruce Wayne” with powerlessness, with weakness, and with loss. He becomes Batman to escape from Bruce Wayne, to leave the little boy behind, and in this case, the reassertion of his identity through the Bat-Signal is a way of distancing himself from this part of himself. “I am not Bruce Wayne,” he says, “I am not this powerless little child who could not save his parents from being murdered. I am Batman, and I can do anything.”
How is Batman different from the costumed lunatics and murderers he opposes? Bruce Wayne, a grown man, spends his nights dressing up like a bat and beating up criminals and lunatics, and calls it his life’s work, arguing that he’s saving Gotham City. But Bruce could unquestionably accomplish far more good as the multi-billionaire CEO of a major corporation dedicated to rescuing Gotham, and he would probably get punched less. Rather than personally beating up robbers and rapists, Bruce could donate several million dollars to reforming the entire Gotham Police Department, and then donate several more millions of dollars to the educational systems and infrastructures of the city so as to help people avoid becoming robbers and rapists in the first place. In the real world, while Phoenix Jones may (or may not) do some good with his vigilantism, it’s hard to argue that he does as much good for the world as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Jones, of course, isn’t a billionaire, but Bruce Wayne is.
This is not to say that all future editions of Batman comics ought to center around the day-to-day affairs of a billionaire philanthropist, because, you know, yawn. And to be fair, many of the Batman stories do show him doing all manner of philanthropy in the daytime in addition to his night-time antics. But if Bill Gates ran around in a bat costume and punched people, even bad people, we would not cheer him on, we would call him crazy and lock him away. In the real world, that kind of vigilantism isn’t really laudable, it’s psychotic.
Batman, sadly, does not live in the real world, but any work of art which really wants to engage with the Batman mythos is going to have to explore this problem. Arkham Asylum does so in the third hallucination sequence, which takes the game’s opening cinematic and inverts the roles. In the original cinematic, we watched as Batman drove a bound and gagged Joker to the Asylum and escorted him to his prison cell. In the hallucination, however, the Joker takes a bound and gagged Batman to the Asylum while all of the other villains watch and comment on how crazy Batman is. What’s the difference, Batman’s psyche asks, between these lunatics and yourself? It ends with the hallucinatory Joker killing Batman, and then cuts (after some fun fourth-wall breakage involving a faux game-over screen) to Batman’s grave. Batman then claws his way out of the grave and walks through a series of cells which each contain images of Batman behaving just like the lunatics in the asylum before descending into the final minigame section. Maybe Batman isn’t that different from the Joker. Maybe he should be caged. Maybe he is a lunatic. Maybe the Batman myth is dead.
Batman is almost completely silent during these hallucinations. He doesn’t engage with these legitimate doubts and questions, he avoids them, and this time, when he shines the Bat-Signal and reasserts his identity, he is actually reasserting the value of the entire legend.
The Bat-Signal is really one of the sillier aspects of the Batman mythos. While it inevitably shows up in all of the darker Batman stories, it really seems most at home in lighter versions of the character. It belongs with a Batman who is anything but dark and edgy and brooding, a Batman who is pure-hearted and good and maybe even a little goofy, who inhabits a universe completely free of psychosis and real violence. Thus, using the Bat-Signal to reassert the validity of the Batman legend may serve as a way for him to forget all of the issues that undoubtedly underlie his behavior and remind himself of the legend. No, he’s not a psychopath. He’s different from the Joker because he’s BATMAN. The Batman legend seems dead for a moment, but Batman crawls his way out of the grave, again, not by actually confronting the issue, but by reasserting his identity and his own self-made definitions, ignoring what is probably the truth of the matter in favor of the myth.
The most telling part about this is that this interpretation is not immediately apparent. Batman certainly doesn’t think he’s running away from anything. Batman thinks he’s triumphing over Bruce Wayne’s pitiful self-doubts and nightmares, and reminding himself who he really is.
Arkham Asylum is usually anything but subtle: it climaxes in a battle with a twelve-foot maniac clown. But hidden down beneath the broad strokes and nifty gadgets is real commentary about the sort of person Batman must be. You have to dig down to find it, past the trappings of the situation into the mechanics, the fundamental level at which the player interacts with the game.
When Batman finally breaks out of his last hallucination, he has the real Scarecrow by the throat. Scarecrow astoundedly yells that he has injected Batman with enough toxin to drive ten men insane. Batman has the willpower of ten men, the game seems to declare. But maybe it’s not so much that Batman is stronger than the rest of us. Maybe he just has a much greater capacity for self-deception.