Arkham City: World Of Echo

Published on November 30th, 2011 in: Comics, Feminism, Game Reviews, Gaming, Movies, Over the Gadfly's Nest, Reviews, TV |

By Paul Casey

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Arkham City, released October 21, is an important Batman story. While perhaps not as unexpected as its predecessor, Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady have turned in a Batman game that builds on that one’s many successes. As someone who has been obsessed with Batman for a couple of decades, with changing degrees of intensity, Arkham City is literally a dream come true.

To have an interactive slab of Gotham City with such extremely detailed and well observed parts of Batman’s long history concealed for your own brand of detective work . . . well, it makes me feel both old and lucky to have been around this long. That the game is actually a wonderful, expertly paced, physical experience is something else entirely. As with Arkham Asylum, it still seems quite unusual to have a great comic book like Batman finally tap into why video games are such an exciting medium.

Arkham City, as so many reviews and articles have noted, makes you feel like Batman. It puts you in his place. Video games do this in a way that no other medium can. That the series’ beginnings owe much in tone and quality to Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s surreal, atmospheric masterpiece is appropriate given that book’s ability to blur the lines of reality. That the other major influence, the peerless Animated Series, breathes life into Arkham City by utilizing several of the show’s key voice actors is doubly poignant. Kevin Conroy will forever be Batman to me in a way that Keaton, Kilmer, and Bale cannot.

Taking on the role of Batman is something that has been at the heart of every kid’s love of the character since Bob Kane and Bill Finger created him in the late 1930s. The Animated Series connected to me so strongly as a younger fellow that it means a lot to get such a personal and involved way of finally touching that world. This makes some of the elements in the game feel like a bit of a betrayal.

There have been two good pieces written about the sexism in Arkham City, one by blogger Film Crit Hulk and the other by Kirk Hamilton on Kotaku. Arkham City is written by Paul Dini, one of the great modern Batman writers and responsible for a lot in The Animated Series. He is one of the few that manages to give his female characters credibility. His and Bruce Timm’s Mad Love, which tells the tale of the weird abusive relationship between Harley Quinn and The Joker, is one of the greatest stories written in the last few decades. It subverts expectations and in many ways is a fine commentary on the role which women have in comic books, both as characters and as readers. Heart of Hush, which is a wonderful, real Catwoman story and deals with real feelings and real people, was also written by Dini.

Considering the talents of Dini, the horrendous depiction in Arkham City of Catwoman—shown as all tits, grinding up against herself, and willing the environment to be a stand in for a giant metallic cock—is surprising. And disheartening. Both video games and comic books have had a problem with women for much of their existence. When the two meet, it leaves a particularly bad taste. Both of these mediums are capable of better, and considering that comic books have many decades on games, they should really know better. Yet they don’t.

The recent reboot—the concept that allows writers to erase previous hacky and convoluted continuities to come up with their own hacky and convoluted continuity—has actually seen an increase in trying to capture the women-hating, wanking into a pillow market. Again, there have been two excellent articles which have covered this.

The first is this criticism of DC’s “liberated sexuality” by Laura Hudson. This article by Michelle Lee, describing a conversation with her daughter about the reboot to Starfire, encapsulates exactly why Arkham City‘s sexist quirks are so depressing.

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When comic books exclude children and non-women hating people from their audience, it’s a nasty thing to do. It’s part of that weird attitude which feels that replacing inspiring fantasy figures who children can look up to with an extremely violent boner is the only way to gain adult credibility. In this way, reducing women to a position of servicing the male audience in every panel has nothing to do with the “rating” of the book. It has everything to do with what you choose to value.

Everyone forgets what it was like when they were kids. It actually meant a lot to have Batman stand up for fears that seemed too big to tackle. The recent hardening of the sexist guff that’s always been present in comic books is excluding thousands of people from having that same experience.

To have The Animated Series be so intimately involved with Arkham City and to have this tone, which defines every woman as something to fuck or kill, feels wrong. It feels out of keeping with the world that Kevin Conroy showed us as Batman. It feels like a betrayal of that inspiring, heroic, human quality, Batman as an enlightened sort amongst those who weren’t. He shouldn’t be shown as a peaheaded jock who probably likes to pull out “NO HOMO” at every occasion; Hurrah Kevin Smith and Frank Miller.

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Check more of Miller’s script notes to Jim Lee for All Star Batman And Robin, the Boy Wonder, courtesy of Girls read comics blog.

This isn’t about what the scum of Gotham would likely express, but allowing the player to chuckle at the line about fucking Harley Quinn. Because sure, she’s a maniacal killer, but she’s also HOT. And that’s the important thing, right? This allows the player to ponder on whether raping Catwoman is preferable to beating her to death, or maybe some combination of the two.

The way the PR for Rocksteady have referred to Catwoman as “The Sexy Thief” also suggests something more far reaching than a few careless slip-ups, or an oversensitive audience. Whether this originated from DC to keep in line with how they now want to portray women, or from a braindead element in an otherwise talented studio, or from a Paul Dini who has hit his mid-life crisis, is unclear. However, it represents the wider problems in mainstream comic books.

In most ways Arkham City is disconnected from the excesses and creative crimes of Continuity. It exists apart from all that, and can reference whatever it chooses to. It can also alter characters and put forth only what it needs to for its own story. This is a fantastic development, and makes the above ugliness all the more inexcusable. That the main story of Arkham City takes about ten hours or so gives it a much larger scope, and many great character moments. Everything focused on Batman is top notch. The interplay between he and Joker is some of the best stuff between them in many years, about on a par with The Dark Knight. The final section is a surprising and tonally perfect conclusion.

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The combat is as satisfying as ever, and the power given to Batman is perfectly balanced with the challenge of taking on large groups of enemies. The difficulty is never in failing to perform the moves you need to. Everything works with complete predictability. You know the outcome should you choose to engage a group of gun wielding fiends, and you know the specific tactics you should employ.

The detective elements are far more engaging than the first time around, mostly thanks to some great and unexpected side missions. The multi-part effort to track down Deadshot is just complicated enough that you feel like you are having real input in his capture, but forgiving enough that you rarely feel frustration. This expresses much of the experience of Arkham City. The challenge is there should you want it, but it’s always willing to help you out, should you need it.

Arkham City is most important because it represents the possibility of great writers unshackled from the misguided marketing-led rules of DC Comics Continuity. It is something that can reach thematic and emotional areas which The Animated Series was unable to, given the restrictions of Network Censorship. Yet, there is a note of caution here. This target audience and its willingness to accept, need for, and obscene defense of what constitutes “mature,” has injected a sour, misogynistic brew into an ocean of artistry. Let them get their yucks with torture porn and watching videos of young gay men being assaulted on a Saturday night in town. They don’t need to get it here, too.

If you pick up Gotham Central Volume One, and give “Half a Life” by Greg Rucka a read, you will see how things could be. If you read The Dark End of the Street by Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke, you will see how things could be. Attractive sorts occasionally having sex feature in both, yet the characters are still real people, with real thoughts and feelings.

And they, as well as many Real Life people, don’t actually like to be thought of in such insulting and shameful ways. Video games and comic books need to grow up, yes. Most of all though, the audience does. Especially the audience that excuses this with a half erect penis underneath their semen-stained IGN keyboard, and continues to suggest to the bods in DC Comics that it’s an acceptable way of behaving.

Buy the game and love it. It deserves that. As a Batman fan, though, acknowledge what needs to happen next, if these mediums are to continue their exciting journey together.

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