The Dark Knight, Too Triumphant?

Batman can’t fly. Not in the comics. Not in the movies. Not even in the upcoming video game Batman Arkham City, despite what you might infer from some of the game’s screenshots.

The Dark Knight of Arkham City nevertheless seems like a more powerful Batman than the one we last played in Batman Arkham Asylum. I saw the game in action last week and the new wall-punching Batman seems more mighty.

One of the game’s developers promised, however, that in at least one way, Batman may seem weaker.

Dax Ginn, marketing manager for Arkham studio Rocksteady, said that Batman’s detective-vision, the high-tech filter that turns much of the game world blue and Batman’s enemies easily spotted bright hues, will be less easily over-exploited in Arkham City. “It’s not so much if you will use it,” Ginn said, “But can you use it?”

Rocksteady developers had been saying that players of the first game used detective vision so much that they missed the beauty of the game’s natural look — and probably had an easier time getting through the game to boot. I knew Rocksteady wants Arkham City gamers to use detective vision less and assumed they’d apply a timer to it. They tried that, Ginn said, but it felt bad and very un-Batman. “He wouldn’t make a gadget like that,” Ginn noted. Nah, Batman wouldn’t use something with better batteries than that.

Ginn wouldn’t say what will prevent Batman from using his detective vision as often in the sequel, but it seems like the Dark Knight’s enemies might be scrambling his signals in some way.

It is possible to restrain Batman’s power by limiting his gadgetry or smartening his enemies, but the character’s power-level paradox is that he is supposed to be a mere man and yet also the mightiest, scariest person imaginable. Video games are a natural medium for emphasi\szing the latter, easily showcasing a Batman who could beat up the thugs who outnumber him and who can always land a batarang exactly where it needs to go. Arkham Asylum let Batman get beat down and saw him struggle with his fears.

The new game, as sequels do, does appear to feature a more powerful Batman. As seen in the screenshot up top, he can now soar from the heights of Arkham City. That’s probably because he needs to – because this game is Arkham City not Asylum and therefore there are greater heights in the game world from which to swoop. I saw this Batman hanging from helicopters, swooping down from them to rooftops, or down from street signs to bad guys on the ground. Surely this is out of the necessity of the new game’s virtual geography. Arkham City’s action takes place 80 per cent outdoors, Ginn said, flipping the indoor/outdoor ratio from Arkham Asylum. The guy needs to get around. Batman can’t fly, but this Arkham City Dark Knight sure seems like he could play Hawkman if he had to, at least the descending part of that role.

In the old Arkham Asylum game, Batman could break through weakened walls with the help of a little bit of plastic explosive. In the new game, he can punch through those walls. That boost in his powers is, on the one hand, a pleasant improvement in game system efficiency, streamlining an activity gamers might often want to make Batman do. But it also makes this Batman just a little closer to Superman, a guy who, billowing cape notwithstanding, he’s not.

Just as game developers are challenged by how to make Superman an interesting video game character despite his great strength and lack of weaknesses, Rocksteady and other Batman game creators always need to manage Batman’s power levels to make him seem in some way mortal. That is what makes him Batman. We’ll see how Rocksteady does when Batman Arkham City comes out this fall on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC.

(Detective mode image from Batman Arkham Asylum. Source.)


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