Batman: Arkham City and Kleptomania

Batman: Arkham City isn’t a particularly great game. I know this goes against “the consensus”, but I’ve got valid reasons – many of which consist of the same criticisms of the first game in this relatively new franchise.

Like Arkham Asylum, the game tries to place you in the role of Batman – the Dark Knight. As such, developer Rocksteady places you with as many abilities as possible – through stealth segments, all-out brawls, and open world puzzle-solving, as well as a comic-book grade story to go along with it, Arkham City succeeds in feel but not in mechanics. Bigger is better, apparently.

As far as the open world goes, it isn’t interesting in itself; ho hum, yet another city environment where I can barely remember any landmarks. Admittedly, I am terribly bad at directions when driving just about anywhere, both in real life and in the game, but this should be an experience for anyone, right? There’s few defining landmarks in the game, and frequent trips to the map screen are simply a bore and a chore. How am I supposed to know the difference between the GCPD building and the Museum? It’s the same problem in just about every GTA game, except now you’re grappling and gliding a whole lot. The art style, similar to the last game, really captures that Gothic aspect to Batman. I really like this style; it’s much more interesting than Nolan’s films and perfectly captures the dark nature of the world here. By the same token, a limited color palette makes it difficult to differentiate buildings and areas from each other. This is my common criticism of all these games, however.

As for the combat and the “predator” sequences, they remain the same for the most part. A few interesting wrinkles here and there add some flavor (like making Detective Mode worthless until you take out specific enemies, or having guys with body armor/shields in melee combat requiring different move), but it’s all rather samey. The fistfights, though, are much more fair than the first and require a bit more thought than just jamming on the attack/counter buttons. At least you have to find out how to disable each enemy type. Same goes for the predator sequences – some enemies can see you in the sky and use heat sensors as well, making no particular location safe. It rewards efficiency, although they still shoot you far too often because the game doesn’t provide good feedback on when and how enemies can detect you. At least they got rid of the horrible snipers; they were horribly unfair.

If you liked the first one, you’ll like this one. God, I wish I bought this thing on consoles (but the game with all the DLC was seventeen dollars on Steam – I couldn’t resist). I’m still playing the game on Hard, as well, leading to more than my fair share of deaths. I’m not saying it isn’t fun or challenging, but the mechanics as seperate components are all rather rout and drearily boring affairs; it’s the experience of making you play Batman that is the key here, like it was last time. They’ve just transplanted everything to a more “epic” setting, improving the graphics and musical score (now professionally orchestrated, I think) to give you that good “gamefeel”. Do I love neologisms or what?

You might be wondering why I’m talking about this game. After all, if it’s so similar to the first one, why are you playing it? See, that’s the thing: I find that I am playing it compulsively. If you remember the Riddler trophies scattered throughout the first game, you’ll know that they really captured some people’s minds. In Arkham Asylum, they were a neat little bonus that unlocked a few things here and there. In Arkham City, little treats and bonuses exist everywhere. Do this challenge, get stuff. They’re all little bits of fun, and not particularly challenging, but they give you stuff to collect. We all remember how everyone lambastes the “collect-a-thon” games most exemplified by Rare’s output in the late 1990s, but Arkham City does the exact same thing.

I always found it odd why collecting a bunch of random knicknacks was so engaging, but I think I can put my finger on it. We’re all, bizarrely enough, hidden kleptomaniacs. If you haven’t noticed the increasing use of “numbers going up” in a number of modern games, allow me to point it out. Notice that experience systems, from online rankings to collection rankings, have become the norm. That’s because it appeals to our instinct of “getting stronger”. The Arkham series is FULL of this stuff. There’s an experience bonus for just about every task, and its gives you new abilities. All of it makes you feel really good; it’s like a little endorphin high when you complete Arbitrary Altered Reality Challenge #46, or figure out how to get Riddler Trophy #27. Not only do you get that, you get actual rewards for collecting and completing side missions: new costumes, new characters, new Challenge Mode maps and Campaigns. It all “feels” rewarding.

By feeding you a constant stream of rewards, Rocksteady wants you to continue playing. Most people will out of the sheer pleasure of being a kleptomaniac regarding digital objects; it’s the basis behind every MMORPG ever made, after all. Modern games give you constant rewards without requiring any skill. A string of little rewards becomes an easier commodity than an intangible rewards from merely defeating a difficult end boss. If I sound cynical, I’m not. I just detect a clear design choice towards a string of slightly fulfilling rewards grafted onto the superstructure from the outside, rather than one that the developers develop naturally into the game mechanics.

I find it sad when more challenging and fulfilling games like Vanquish and Bayonetta get lost over a stream of “little reward games”. Sure, these games have a bevy of unlockables too, but they force you to rely on your skill to obtain them; they’re merely secondary to the thrill of dominating a game’s challenges. It might just be my Christian impulses, but the reward which God promises aren’t the small kind. It’s interesting what Paul says about such foundations in 1 Corinthians 3:

What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. 11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13  each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.

What value do the challenges in Arkham City provide? What’s the foundation on which it is built? Does it stand under the fire of true criticism, not just that which examines its experiential qualities? It’s certainly not the that of a true reward, that’s for sure. It’s the deception of reward which modern video games prey, and to which our modern audience eagerly hungers in lieu of substantive and memorable game mechanics.

Not that I don’t like Arkham City, but I see it for what it is and enjoy it as a sweet treat: too much will rot your teeth. Not that I’m not addicted now!

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.