You’re a Legend, Mr. Wayne 1

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 Form

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.

The Content

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.”

2. Illegitimacy

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.

Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and groundskeeper of The Ontological Geek, now that it has shifted over to archive mode. If something on the site isn't working, please shoot a DM to @ontologicalgeek on Twitter!

One thought on “You’re a Legend, Mr. Wayne

  • Lifeson

    I look for­ward to your thoughts on Arkham City, which does a lot more to grind the harsh real­i­ties of being Batman into the play­er. The premise is shaki­er, but the exe­cu­tion is quite solid, and rais­es a lot of ques­tions about what good it is to be Batman.

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