Arkham Asylum has long been a part of the Batman lore. It is the notorious hospital for the criminally insane where Batman will lock up those he crosses paths with to prevent them inflicting their sick and diseased minds of the good citizens of Gotham. Of course, as any bat-fan knows, it is also very easy to escape from and has played central billing as the arena of conflict for Batman vs. The Joker, two particular highlights are Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum and Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s finale to the Death of the Family storyline. There is no finer establishment in the fictional DC world that is so hauntingly beautiful and captivating as this secure hospital.
Rocksteady Games were a small company when they were awarded the licence to make a Batman game. As many videogame fans can attest to, the superhero licence was a curse. Decent superhero games were few and far between, the Spider-Man games of the noughties were slightly above par, being entertaining but nothing that could be classed as a classic. Often we were treated to movie tie-in games that were designed to sell copies based on the film that was being released in the cinema at the time. So when Rocksteady presented the first chapter in the Arkham trilogy, it was with some hesitation that the game would do well.
The first instalment, written by Batman veteran Paul Dini, was something of a surprise to everyone. Not only was this game Batman in its DNA, it was also a fantastically written piece of entertainment that deserved all of the praise and awards thrown upon it. The team at Rocksteady used Arkham Asylum to contain their storyline. By not giving us a free-roaming city-sized sandbox to play in, we were trapped like Batman in the feverish hell of the insane asylum. Forced to step through Joker’s playground whilst examining the complex relationship between the caped crusader and the clown prince of crime. It was a master stroke. The visuals were stunning, quite ahead of their time. As was the design work and lighting the game employed. The moody blues and greys truly thrust us into the gritty world of Batman. The asylum so perfectly rendered we could feel the grime and dirt almost coming through our controllers and contaminating us. Not only that we were left on a cliffhanger that demanded to be resolved. The eagle-eyed gamers already spotted clues to the sequel hidden in the game when plans for Arkham City could be discovered. So it came as no surprise that the sequel would take us deep into Gotham itself.
Arkham City expanded on the premise of Asylum and put us in the shoes of Batman as he entered a sectioned-off part of Gotham where all of the criminal inhabitants had been put. Think of it as Escape from New York with Batman. The fighting physics that made us feel so empowered as Batman also were expanded and enhanced. As were the gadgets, perhaps Batman’s second-most famous feature. The Joker this time became the side antagonist, with Hugo Strange taking centre role as the game’s villain. This time the stakes were upped and Batman’s quest in the game becomes very personal when it is a race against time to save his own life. Not to mention the bittersweet ending when in a final battle the Joker dies with a distraught Batman bringing the body of his old nemesis out from the ruins of the city and walking away into the night like the samurai of old.
A finale had to be told and it was a four-year wait until Arkham Knight placed the final part of the trilogy into our laps. This time a new nemesis, the namesake of the game, along with Scarecrow, battled the dark knight for supremacy over Gotham City. The stakes were upped. For the first time Batman could summon the Batmobile at will, and when the credits rolled we were left with a very bitter taste in our mouths. Batman was outed as Bruce Wayne. Jason Todd, revealed to be the Arkham Knight, became the Red Hood, and Batman was literally being haunted by the ghost of the Joker in his own mind. Whilst the series ended on a high, our journey as Batman reinforced that all Batman ever suffers is loss. His parents, his friends, his greatest nemesis, and with the final chapter his own identity as Bruce Wayne.
Other media has explored Batman in equal depth. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, whilst partially an inspiration for the Arkham games, also did a fine job. But I would argue that the Arkham series captured the true essence of Batman better than almost any other non-comic medium ever has. The game series could almost be seen as an extension of Batman: The Animated Series (not just because of the voice talent). Because we always understood that even though this was a cartoon, it tackled various issues head-on and was a landmark in what a cartoon could actually do with a character. But I digress. The Arkham games were a fusion of the versamilitude of Nolan’s work mixed with the design aesthetics of the animated series it borrowed so much from. The series’ director, Sefton Hill, along with his team, produced one of the finest Batman stories of all-time. They understood that not only does the player want to be Batman, but they also want to be entertained and that calls for a captivating story.
Underneath the games there was always the rumbling pulse of menace. We were never sure just how dark the games would go. This world was not fun, it was dangerous. These people were not off-the-shelf criminals but fleshed out characters each with their own agenda. Certainly Zack Snyder took note of everything Rocksteady did when he introduced Batman into the DC cinematic universe in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Just as elements of Batman have been passed down the generations from team-to-team in the comics world, the games have taken from the comics and animated series and inspired a world of film. A true symbiosis of everything it is to be in the Batman universe.
But what was it that captured our hearts about the Arkham games? I believe it was to do with the storyline first and foremost. If the game had been poorly written then it would not carry the legacy it does now. Amongst superhero games Batman is the benchmark. To a lesser extent WB Montreal, given the unenviable task of producing Batman: Arkham Origins, did ape a lot do what made Rocksteady’s games so great, and whilst an interesting Batman game, it was just a placeholder until the final part of Rocksteady’s story was ready to be presented to us.
I feel that Arkham Origins was not given the just credit it does deserve. Were that the first game in the Arkham series we would have all been impressed, but because the first two Arkham games had already been released, many commentators and critics felt it was unnecessary. I would argue the story in it was worth telling and fully support it as an important part of the Arkham series. However I will not go into too much detail here as I do not consider it a true part of the Arkham trilogy.
Rocksteady took risks and pushed the boundaries of the Batman universe. They fused what it meant to be a dark knight and combined the grit of our world with the established legacy and history of the comic books. Many of the games’ characters will openly discuss incidents that have happened in the comics with Batman. As an average player the Easter eggs may escape some, but the Arkham games were made by fans of Batman.
Then this is what should truly be applauded. The love that has gone into the game series. The people working on the games had likely heard of Batman. Some may have even read the comics and played with the toys growing up.
I do not believe there was any one thing that was greater than the other in the Arkham games. All of the parts came together to form Batman
No longer is Batman restrained to the world of comics and films. He is alive and well across all the mediums. Rocksteady gave us a Batman we could be proud of, and for that we should be forever grateful.