Batman Arkham Asylum – “Holy Similarities, Batman!”

Batman-Arkham-Asylum-videogame-batman-3854083-1200-675

Franchise adaptations into videogame terrain are usually characterized by a meaningless boxing of the original work’s aesthetic universe into a stereotyped gameplay genre. Rocksteady Studios nails the aesthetic translation requirement, by creating “Arkham Asylum”, an environment which faithfully replicates the comics’ narrative and aesthetic space. You will still find burly character models and limited colour palettes; let’s be honest, this game isn’t exactly profound in its aesthetic and narrative portrayals, but then again, neither are most of “Batman’s” comics. In this regard, a special mention must be made to the exquisite voice-work delivered by Mark Hammill (remember Luke Skywalker?) who, cast in the role of Joker, manages the exceptional task of transforming a poor script (penned by Paul Dini, of the animated series) into a delicious succession of black humor gags. His voice is so hypnotic and enthralling, one can almost forget how poorly expressive Unreal Engine’s facial animations are.

Batman-Arkham-Asylum_02

But the most surprising aspect of the new “Batman” game is precisely the renunciation of the typical logic behind franchise adaptations. “Arkham Asylum’s” game play mechanics are neither generic nor hollow, fitting perfectly with the dark knight: a mix of exploration, elegant and stylish brawler combat (somewhat evocative of “Assassin’s Creed” QTE style of battle) and stealth sequences. The game shows a meticulous characterization of Batman’s modus operandi, from the use of darkness, surprise and psychological mind games as weapons of choice for the caped crusader, to the employment of his iconic belt gadgets. Unfortunately, the different play styles are never blended organically, meaning that the experience tends to become a linear and predictable sequence of claustrophobic arenas, each enclosed by its own specific type of gameplay. Occasionally there are a few bosses, but not even these can serve as climax to a repetitive progression, which lacks crescendo and tension.

The-Dark-Knight_a188e9cd

However, the biggest fault I sense within this “Batman” lies not in its gameplay. It’s something far more encompassing and subjective, and in all honesty, something which I must admit is not even a fair critique. “Arkham Asylum’s” greatest sin lies in how well it reminds us of how close the video game medium is to comic books and juvenile animation series, and how distant it is from cinema. Whether it is the aesthetic, the tone or plot of the game, you can always feel the similarities it bears with both comic books and the animation series. The translation is effective precisely because of the spiritual and artistic resemblances between these mediums. But inevitably, the powerful cinematic rendition of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” will remain ever looming, reminding anyone of how much more immature and poor our own medium is when compared to its older sibling – film. And most likely, should anyone in the video game medium even attempt to move in closer to “The Dark Knight’s” ascetic, realistic style and morally ambiguous tale, they would surely be critically and commercially unsuccessful. Game designers who stick to comic book aesthetics however, fare well, let us not forget that it’s always easier to translate muscular men in tights kicking villain’s butts, than address issues of moral ethics, law and justice.

Nevertheless, despite level design flaws and these quibbles of mine, “Arkham Asylum” must be commended for being, surprisingly, one of those rare cases of a successful translation into the video game medium. It’s not a great adaptation… but it’s not that great a medium to begin with.

score: 2/5

[Part of this text was originally published in Portuguese, in Coimbra’s College Paper “ACabra”, dating 06/10/09]

Advertisements
  • Trackback are closed
  • Comments (16)
  1. That is an unfair comparition. For one, I don’t think Nolan’s “Dark Knight” is “a masterpiece about human nature” (as some people tend to think); not do I think the animation series is “juvenile” (anyone that saw Mask of the Phantasm would be hard pressed to dismiss the animated series and consider Nolan’s as the ultimate version of Batman)

    Furthermore, I think the game has some very succesful examples where videogames excel at telling a story in ways movies can’t. Not going to spoil anything, but just say that the encounters with the Scarecrow are examples of things that, in more lazy examples, could be covered like pretty much the same using cutscenes or storyboards with voiceovers… yet they manage to explore it in an interesting (and, more important, interactive) way.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • October 13th, 2009

    Of course it is unfair, I say so myself 😉 Doesn’t mean it isn’t pertinent, quite on the contrary. It’s the sort of comparison that move things forward and not backward. “Dark Knight” may not be “a masterpiece about human nature”, but it surely beats the vast majority of video games and comic books (notable exceptions excluded, like Alan Moore’s and so forth), and any of the TV episodes of Batman I’ve laid my eyes upon (granted, I haven’t seen the one you refer). I think Nolan’s film is not only a great piece of entertainment, as it’s also very nuanced in its thematic discourse, with a meaty sub-text (which most people don’t even recognize) on nine eleven and the moral issues surrounding crime fight. That, and great dialogs, characters, cinematography and so on, and so on. It’s a great film, not because it is a great “Batman” movie, but because it is a great movie besides being a “Batman” movie. Most Batman fans probably don’t even like the movie as a Batman movie, because it’s not really an adaptation of the “Batman” universe.

    I agree with your initial sentence: “I think the game has some very succesful examples where videogames excel at telling a story in ways movies can’t”. But I totally disagree with the example you gave. The scenes with Scarecrow are, for the most part, not interesting on an interactive or narrative level. They bog down to side-scrolling sequences in which you die should the Scarecrow lay his eyes on you… not much on my book. The only remotely interesting piece, in my opinion, is the nightmare sequence in which Batman “dies”, and even then, there isn’t much in the way of interactivity (you move the camera and little else), nor much artistic merit – character models lack of expressiveness becomes painfully obvious in those dramatic scenes.

    If anything, the best use of interactivity in “Arkham Asylum” comes in the stealth sequences, because that is the sort of action which video games excel at producing. It’s much more tense and rewarding than any vignette or movie clip, and it’s all the more representative of Batman’s psychology as a hunter: vicious, predatory, sneaky and brutal. That, we can agree video games nail perfectly. The rest: the drama, psychological nuances and plot… not so much.

    Thanks for the comment! Love a good argument 🙂

  2. In short, I don’t agree there’s a possible comparison between the cinematic Batman, the Nolan versions in particular, and this action/stealth game. When it comes to drama, character depth and subtext, how can a mass of polygons beat the flesh and bones of such exceptional actors? Not even the best synthespian could ever come near it, and Batman A.A. is certainly not a brilliant example in the field of virtual acting – just as Rui mentioned.

    One thing I can say in its favor is that Arkham Asylum is the latest addition to a legacy of impressive action game titles that comes from the late 1980’s, including some classic like Batman The Video Game (Nes), Batman Returns (Mega CD) or The Adventures of Batman and Robin (SNES and Mega Drive). Of all superheroes, Batman has always had the most solid game lineup. Too bad we’re no 14 anymore.

  3. “When it comes to drama, character depth and subtext, how can a mass of polygons beat the flesh and bones of such exceptional actors? Not even the best synthespian could ever come near it…”

    That is where you lost me. Although I understand (and can agree to some point) that this game is not much more than a pretty impressive and well executed action/adventure game (which I still consider a very good feat), the idea that flesh and bones actors are better by default than “mass of polygons” is a fallacy that I don’t support for a long time now. I found Up’s Carl Fredricksen or The Iron Giant’s Hogarth Hughes to be much more interesting characters (in terms of “drama, character depth and subtext”) than Terminator 4’s John Connor, even when one is represented by a “mass of polygons” or a set of paint stains over cellulose and the other one is an “exceptional actor”.

  4. @ Coyote

    I said Arkham Asylum was a good action title as well 😉

    I don’t understand how you got lost? You just compared two of the finest animation movies of recent memory with one of the worst action films of the decade. Do you think it was a coincidence that you compared Cinema with Cinema? My question is: where are the video games in that equation?

    Also, be careful using my words here: the expression “mass of polygons” was used in the context of videogames and not in the context of 2D or 3D animation. Personally I believe that the human factor is still vital to this discussion and the proof is that however impressive Fredricksen and Hughes might look, they are to a large extent the result of an actor who has provided them with a voice, a personality and facial expressions. I have a great respect for the fields of virtual acting, although I don’t fool myself into thinking that it has reached the level of Olivier. I’m not even sure it will… or that it should. For all intents and purposes, Arkham Asylum, I’m sure anyone will agree, is far from being a paradigm in the field of virtual acting. Why is this so hard to accept, I don’t know?

    But why keep engaging in these pointless discussions? I’ve said this on a number of occasions: I think anyone who is so obsessed in opposing the underdeveloped medium of games to the world of cinema – or arts in general – will have a tough time in this world. Focus on the object at hand and leave Cinema where it belongs – you hear me, Rui?! 🙂

  5. @ dieubussy:

    Ok, if we are discussing this in terms of the video game itself, I agree. The Unreal engine was never very good at emoting to begin with, so I guess that is expectable… After all, as ruicraveirinha said, most of the credit on making the characters emote goes to Mark Hamill work, more than whoever animated the Joker.

    However, your previous paragraph feels more like talking about 3D and 2D animation in general compared against real life acting. That where I disagree… If I missunderstood you, I apologize. But, if I missunderstood you before, and you are talking about the movie compared to the game, I guess you are falling into your own trap…

  6. No problem there!

    I don’t wish to compare Cinema and Video Games at all. Given my great esteem for both as individual languages, it is something I simply don’t do. I did try to present some reasons why one should never rival this Batman game with any of the aforementioned Batman films; let alone in what concerns the depth of dramatic expression that only a great actor/director can provide, as opposed to the visible limits of actual videogame technology – Arkham Asylum being average, if not mediocre, in this department.

    I do agree that animation is a valuable alternative and I’ve often pondered how some animation films have provoked a greater emotional response in me than some of the great films, with great actors, that I had the pleasure to watch. I believe that emotions can even be conveyed even with the use of elemental symbols. If any game has ever warranted such strong emotions from me, in the role of a player, it did so using these resources; and not the conventional “direct approach” to the most uninspired of cinematographic dialects.

    One good example would be Machinarium, a genuine stroke of genius that blends the best of Eastern Europe’s animated film tradition with a very classic adventure game structure… almost as if they’ve always been meant for each other.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • October 15th, 2009

    @ dieubussy:

    “[…] Focus on the object at hand and leave Cinema where it belongs – you hear me, Rui?! :)”

    “[…] If any game has ever warranted such strong emotions from me, in the role of a player, it did so using these resources; and not the conventional “direct approach” to the most uninspired of cinematographic dialects.”

    I think you sometimes misunderstand my comparisons. I am not claiming, in any way, that “Batman”, the videogame needs to employ as powerful a cinematic dialogue as “Batman”, the film (though that certainly would help mask some of its fragility as a game – perhaps we disagree on this?). What I was trying to say is, that when you take these two adaptations of the same work into different mediums, you get two vastly different artifacts. One, which makes use of the power of its medium to overstep the bounds of the original work, as to produce not only an entertaining artifact, but also to address important aspects of human life; and the other, which sticks to a direct aesthetic translation of the original, adding little more than a swift and shallow embrace of mindless pleasure as surplus to the original work.

    I am sure we all agree, that a videogame can address more powerful themes and ideas than merely kicking villain’s butts, even in an action game (examples abound). With or without resource to cinematic ideas, that is besides the point. A “videogame” can be dramatic, outside cutscenes. Or it can be thematically more profound, by employing certain interactive principles or archetypes which are more in tune with the medium. All works for me. What I criticize is lack of depth, period. If cinema can translate “Batman” comic books into a “Dark Knight”, videogames should be able to do the same, semiotic differences aside.

    @ Coyote

    “When it comes to drama, character depth and subtext, how can a mass of polygons beat the flesh and bones of such exceptional actors? Not even the best synthespian could ever come near it…”

    As to the issue of real life actors versus polygons. I am perhaps even more adamant on this issue than Dieubussy. For I believe that Animation can’t even be deemed Cinema (in a strict definition), precisely because of the use of iconic imagery that, by definition, presupposes a filter on reality, as opposed to what is in essence, a life-like representation (simulation?) of what our eyes and ears sense. This means that animation requires an inference in terms of what is being displayed, whereas cinema presents audiovisual information that is almost devoid of conceptual transformations – what you see, is for the most part, what you would see, were you a witness to the situation portrayed in the film.

    This explains, why, in principle (it is not a rule), it is much easier to get powerful emotional reactions relating to fictional experiences in cinema – because the fictional world displayed on screen is that much easier to decode and translate into a simulation of our own experience. Of course, this also means, it is much easier to give a film the needed qualities to attain emotional elicitation (regarding to fictional reality), than it is in the realm of animation, and more so, videogames – both predominantly iconic and symbolical in their representations. Add to the fact that there are technological bounds in videogames that are hard to overcome, and you have a serious issue relating to emoting, and by extent, emotional elicitation regarding fiction.

    I will address some of these issues in my next post. Thanks for the comments, it’s great to hear from you.

    • José
    • October 15th, 2009

    You should update this more often. Great read. 🙂

  7. @ruicraveirinha: However, Cinema itself works with several filters of reality, at least most of the times… Sometimes it is just by using camera or edition tricks (special effects), sometimes is by adding elements to the experience that would not be there if you where just a witness (narrator, soundtrack, camera changes, concurrent events, etc), sometimes is by not showing all you need to know, and sometimes is just a tacit agreement between author and viewer… like the suspension of disbelief.

    To me, animation works the same as suspension of disbelief. I can enjoy it, and the “filter” doesn’t bother me at all, since I am willing to forget for a moment that this was “filmed” with a computer or a drawing board, instead of some scenography or green screen (which are just as well filters)… The same way I enjoy the Dark Knight movie if I let myself forget that besides the acting, story and aestetics, there is a guy in a rubber halloween suit talking like he just inhale 3 pounds of tobacco because he has some parent issues…

    I am not going to continue, since this is getting away from the point of your original post, just wanted to put my two cents in this conversation…

    • ruicraveirinha
    • October 16th, 2009

    Yes, cinema still has filters, but they are lesser in number and degree of intrusiveness when compared with animation or video games. Animation has all the filters you just mentioned plus the ones that stem from its iconic nature.

    I never said filters bother people. Only that they determine certain aspects of the experience, namely its relation with reality or real-life experience. It is no accident that animation, comic books, and video games, tend, more often, to portray extraordinary events and plots – their strengths as mediums lend themselves better at representing worlds and aesthetics which go beyond reality – science fiction, fantasy, horror. Film, if we exclude digital manipulation and special effects (their use puts them closer to animation, and further proves my point), work the other way around – the need to capture through audiovisual means a real person, a real set, a real object, makes them closely resemble real life experience. This makes film more apt to represent events of the mundane, usually in a more adult and serious fashion. We then move away from the dreamy minds of the adolescent, with its bubbling fantasies – only possible to recreate through a computer generated image, or painted drawing – to the toned down, more profound and mature reflections that come with adult life. Which is not to say that the other mediums cannot achieve the same, only that their inherent features, strengths and limitations make them less prone to do so.

    And don’t ever worry about getting off-topic, or dropping your two cents. Your opinions are always welcome and appreciated. This is a free space to debate. Cheers!

    • José
    • October 16th, 2009

    I have to disagree with you, Rui. I frankly don’t believe that mediums like comics or videogames can’t represent what you call mundane reality. A book like Exit Wounds from Rutu Modan give you a trivial, mosaic and “real” perspective of how it is to live nowadays in Israel, for instance. Same way with Waltz with Bashir. The problem is not with the vehicle you use to transport and present the reality but with the audience’s sensibility. Cinema grammar like montage and cinematography impact the transposition in the same way drawing and coloring affect comics illustration. I relate with characters and situations independently of how they are aesthetically represented. That’s the power of (good) fiction. Games are wrapped with mechanics that appeal to younger people and, yes, they are expecting fantasy scenarios to support them. Try to play Facade to get a feeling of what you can do with mature and “mundane” material http://www.interactivestory.net/ IMO it’s how you make it and not what you use to make it.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • October 18th, 2009

    “I frankly don’t believe that mediums like comics or videogames can’t represent what you call mundane reality.”

    You misunderstand me. I never said “can’t”. I said that these mediums are not as well equipped as others for those purposes, because of their nature. The same is true for any medium. There is a tendency in each medium to seek a specific aesthetic that matches its underlying representational quality – that much is undeniable, and “Bashir” only proves that tendency, for it is but an exception, and not the rule in the realm of animation.

    The point is this: the qualities of these mediums make it easier to deliver certain experiences which are outside the realm of the ordinary and adult, whereas cinema (forgetting aforementioned manipulations) is geared towards more down to earth representations. Is it not obvious that it is much easier to draw a starship than to actually create a lifelike model, with actors inside, which can be shot in a movie? And it is also not much easier to get an actor to deliver a dramatic interpretation, by employing subtle use of his body muscles, than to replicate it in an animation, at thirty frames per second, with limited drawing detail? The strengths of these mediums are different, and the experiences we get are made to match with the expectations and qualities which we identify in them.
    It’s not that we cannot create whatever we want in these mediums, it’s that there is a tendency to utilize the tools which fit the purpose best, by matching the medium with what is is better apt at delivering.

    “Cinema grammar like montage and cinematography impact the transposition in the same way drawing and coloring affect comics illustration.”

    One should not compare montage, cinematography and coloring in such a hasty way. Each of these devices change the end experience in markedly different ways. From a semiotic point of view, there is no comparing cinematography and coloring – they produce very different languages, one mostly representational, the other iconic and, sometimes, symbolic. [This is only true because coloring is done with the logistic limitations imposed by comic books and animations, which don’t allow for a great amount of detail that could, taken to the limit, put them closer to a realistic representation (as paintings can), as opposed to an iconic one, which is the most common.]
    Any way, I won’t discuss this further, for this is too complicated and complex for a comment page, and I am no expert on the subject. But I would advise you reflect more on the differences between these mechanisms and its existence in these mediums, and how they change our experience, and how artists can create them.

    As to Façade, yes I’ve played it, and it is a valid, technically impressive academic exercise, but it is also dull, and poor in terms of artistic merit (it was never meant to be otherwise, so this ain’t a critique in any way). If anything, Façade proves precisely how computer-based entertainment still has a long way to go to deliver that sort of dramatic experience. It is still not possible to make that personal experience seem real, consistent and captivating in videogames – characters lack facial expressiveness, intelligence, understanding of language and there is still no account on what can make such experiences interesting from a purely interactive point. Sure, we can work to change the fate of the evening, but so what? Is that really any better than watching the same script, with more dramatic performances from actors, superior character and plot consistency and better cinematography? My answer is: it isn’t.

    There is still no solution to these issues, and there may never be. Cinema fits these subjects better, don’t you think? What we need is to find mature subjects which video games, with their current technological level, can already address.
    This is my opinion (and from what I can guess of Dieubussy’s comment, he agrees with me). There are already much more powerful exercises in the realm of videogames, most of which take into heart the qualities they possess, and not the ones with which they struggle with.

    Thanks for the comments.

    • Felix
    • October 18th, 2009

    I found this blog incidentally and have since been following it for a while, as I don’t know anything else like it. Since I also like animations, and fantasy, I thought to give a quick opinion on this discussion.

    I think a subdued feeling of reality in animation is merely dependent on composition and cinematgraphy. An „iconic“ drawing of a character is completely immersive as long as the artist can achieve what he wants to. While there may be inherent thematic tendencies, I wouldn’t speak of them in terms of adult and adolescent, implying an artistic hierarchy. After all, genres are also only so adult as the individual work itself.

    For a good example I would recommend the obscure little film „Angel’s Egg“, an early work by „Ghost in the Shell“ director Mamoru Oshii, and in some terms perhaps his best film. It has a very realistic feeling of time, space and placticity, although it’s highly allegoric and has surreal characters. I especially like some subtleties of facial expression, something an actor wouldn’t need trying to surpass. Since it’s nowhere for sell, as far as I can find, it seems legitimate to watch it on streaming sites like youtube or veoh.com.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • October 19th, 2009

    Thanks, it’s good to know people appreciate Metagame as a space for discussion and seem to like my somewhat foolish ramblings.

    I’ve seen “Angel’s Egg” and it’s a great animation, Oshii and Amano do make a great team. Just notice how it’s an animation that fully embodies its symbolical nature, adopting a language that would be nigh impossible to translate to a live action film.

    Cheers!

    • Felix
    • October 20th, 2009

    I certainly don’t think your articles are foolish in any way and I cherish the treatment of games here. The strongly symbolical nature of animation (and certain genres or schools of fiction) is indubitable, I just tend towards thinking how “metaphor” and “fiction” automatically lends all forms of art something of that nature. It’s a very simplified and unsystematic way to put it, but like you said, a comments section doesn’t seem like the right place to bring every aspect and interjection under a unified system.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: