Celebrating Fear in the 'Batman: Arkham' Series

The Scarecrow in Arkham Knight

The idea of striking terror in the hearts of criminals becomes an idea clearly represented by gameplay in the Arkham series. After all, fear is Batman's best tool.

One of the central conceits of the Batman mythos is the idea that fear can be a powerfully useful tool for justice. This idea emerges as a conclusion drawn by Bruce Wayne when he first decides to take on the mantle of the Batman. Additionally, this conclusion becomes the motivating factor for taking on a particular identity in order to wreak vengeance on criminality, as he observes in Detective Comics #33: “[C]riminals are a superstitious cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able to strike terror in their hearts.”

This same conceit has also been central to Rocksteady Studios's design philosophy for their Batman: Arkham series. Rocksteady's success has been in creating a game that evokes a fairly authentic feeling of “being the Batman,” which is related to a host of well implemented design decisions, both in terms of how the character of Batman is not merely portrayed in their games, but in how Batman is “played” in these games. One of their best gameplay systems that supports this sense of being Batman is their “stealth-combat” room sequences.

While Batman in all three of RockSteady's games, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Batman: Arkham City, and Batman: Arkham Knight, can fairly easily take on dozens of unarmed thugs at a time in basic combat sequences, Rocksteady importantly designed a series of recurring combat-stealth set pieces that encourage the player to play Batman in a manner that acknowledges the Dark Knight Detective's preference for fear and intimidation as weapons rather than mere fists. Basically, any time Batman confronts a room of armed (as opposed to unarmed) thugs in an Arkham game, direct assault ceases to be a viable option. Batman is only human and can't dodge bullets, so these sequences slow the pace of the game down, forcing Batman into the shadows to strike swiftly from below or above at one or two opponents before disappearing again into the darkness to once again bide his time for the appropriate moment to strike again.

From the very first Arkham game, Batman: Arkham Asylum, these gameplay sequences defined Batman as a crime fighter whose philosophy and methodology is bound to this idea of criminals being a “superstitious cowardly lot”. Unlike many other stealth-based combat systems in video games, Batman stringing up criminals from overhanging gargoyles or emerging briefly from a grating in the floor to knock a man out and then disappearing again have a distinct effect on the artificial intelligence of your opponents that is telegraphed loudly to the player. As the number of thugs in a room is whittled down by the Batman, remaining opponents see changes in their AI behaviors. They begin acting erratically, wandering more nervously around the room, blindly firing into the darkness, and making stupid decisions to either split up or cower so closely together that they become easy victims to a well planned attack. In other words, the idea of striking terror in the hearts of criminals becomes an idea clearly represented by gameplay, and even an argument for the efficacy of Batman's methodology. After all, fear works for him.

All of which is why Rocksteady's concluding chapter in the Batman: Arkham saga is so smartly written as a confrontation between Batman, a master of fear, and one of his oldest foes, the Scarecrow, a villain who makes the same claims about the value of fear in controlling others. In some way Rocksteady's decision to make the Scarecrow Batman's chief antagonist for this game seems like the perfect way of bringing full circle their contribution to the Batman mythos through their trilogy of games (I am not counting Arkham Origins, since it is the only Arkham game not developed by the studio). They began the series with a commitment to the character as a super hero whose power largely derives from his ability to evoke terror and to intimidate in order to rise triumphant over his foes, and they end this series with a confrontation that forces Batman to reconsider and reaffirm his commitment to a philosophy of justice that is contingent upon fear as its best weapon.

While I call the Scarecrow the main antagonist of Arkham Knight, there remains throughout the series one antagonist whose presence is felt over the course of the full series, Batman's true arch nemesis the Joker. Amazingly, despite the Joker's defeat, his illness, and even his death before the events of Arkham Knight, Rocksteady is able to keep this antagonism alive even in the third game through a preposterous, but, nevertheless, compelling premise in a series of games that focus so much on the psychology of its protagonist and its antagonists. While the Joker's body is cremated at the beginning of Arkham Knight, it isn't his physical presence that remains a threat to the Dark Knight Detective. Instead, the tainting of Batman's blood with the Joker's own infectious blood is revealed in the game's latter half to now be slowly transforming Batman into the thing that he most fears, a twisted madman like the Joker.

Batman's constant hallucinations of the Joker, often provoked as a result of his exposure to Scarecrow's fear gas, reminds Batman constantly of the presence of fear even in the heart of the predator. He fears that by having taken on the role of “a creature of the night” that he may be devolving into one. By aligning himself with fear, he may be becoming the very thing that the Joker has come to represent for him: a violent, irrational, sadistic monster.

Thus, Batman's final confrontation with Scarecrow, his final confrontation with his own fears, all end up wrapped up in this emblem of the Joker that haunts his mind. When the Scarecrow injects him directly with his fear formula, he does to Batman what Batman has done to so many of his foes over the course of three games, opening Batman up to a sense of vulnerability, irrationality, and fear, bringing him not directly into conflict with the physical manifestation of his enemy, the Scarecrow, but the representation of his true enemy, the Joker, and, therefore, his own mind.

As noted, though, this is not a battle that Batman will lose. Instead, it becomes a reaffirmation of his own commitment to the value of fear. In these closing moments, the player takes on the role of the Joker, and in this sense, too, the Batman is taking on the role of the Joker, since the landscape that we traverse in these sequences are not those of Gotham City, but the Batman's own mind. And Batman uses this mindscape as a battlefield, embracing the fear induced by Scarecrow's drugs, and making them, as ever, his weapon to wage war against the Joker.

The Joker is let loose here to murder Batman's foes and to burn down a hallucinatory version of Gotham. But then Joker finds his world growing slowly more claustrophobic as he discovers through newscasts and reports of his funeral, that no one really cares. Batman recognizes that he must take on a disguise, an alternate identity, in order to become the Dark Knight, but the Joker is his opposite. The Joker wears no mask. He hides in no shadows. He is a villain his only interest is in spectacle, in drawing attention to himself. He is the loud mouth, the chatterbox, the clown. Thus, as Batman becomes fearful that he is becoming infected by something like the Joker's psyche, he uses the worst fear that someone with the psychological profile of the Joker could have against himself. He terrifies the Joker by making the clown feel that no one is watching, that no one cares about his performance.

This final way of freeing himself from the Joker, of finally defeating the foe he has never been able to end (once again, despite even that character's death) essentially boils down to simply saying to him: “No one cares, dude.” Ironically, this moment is punctuated by the Scarecrow's final solution to defeating the Batman, which is to expose his identity to the world, letting everyone see the creature of the night in the light and thereby destroying his power. Batman accepts this loss, confronting his own fear as someone who needs to hide in order to be frightening and allowing his own myth to die through this exposure of who he really is, ending who he has always pretended to be.

While I still regard Batman: Arkham Asylum as the best game in the Arkham series because the tight claustrophobic hallways of the smaller game world of the asylum tend to lead to a tighter, better focused storyline and exploration of characters than the broad, often distracting overworlds of the two larger game worlds, Arkham City and Arkham Knight, I still think that these latter two games shine in their conclusions. While Asylum tells a better tale of the Batman from moment to moment, its greatest weakness is its silly and unsatisfying final boss fight, a confrontation with a ridiculous Joker-monster hybrid that just feels like the tacked on stuff of video game conventionality. Both City and especially Knight, though, provide much better conclusions to stories of the Batman by exploring the psychological toll of being the Batman and the difficulties of embracing such a potentially cruel and punitive methodology of using fear in the name of justice. Arkham Knight boasts the most interesting and insightful conclusion to a Batman story by making what the player has become by embracing this same methodology, what Bruce Wayne has become by embracing this same philosophy, the central question of the whole Batman mythos. How valuable is fear? And can exposure truly destroy the value of a myth predicated on the power of terror?

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