My interest in Arkham City has been waning. I took to it initially to see how a trip through Batman gamertown-Gotham took Harley Quinn from kooky Brooklynite jester in Batman TAS to stripperiffic psychogoth in the recent Suicide Squad movie (which, disclosure: I haven’t seen. I hear Margot Robbie’s Harley delivered, yet Jared Leto’s Joker was disappointing).
I had also read about the Batman games delivering power fantasy / wish-fulfillment without addressing the Bruce Wayne psychodrama (Except maybe accidently, with copious interpretation of paradigm-dissonant game mechanics) There was a lot of pseudo-grit: Gotham turned into a squalor-filled city-prison, nasty bone-breaking takedown maneuvers, Brutal interrogations by Batman, and yet Arkham Asylum paid barely even lip service to the Bruce Wayne’s internal compulsion to to don the Bat costume and physically pound hoodlums (hoodla?) to chutney, imagining he’s dispensing justice. Perhaps Bruce Wayne holds a subconscious belief that a punk head somewhere in Gotham holds the key to waking up from this horrid dream, if he can only find it and bust it open*
All the misaligned dark-and-edgy bits and the shallow / unreliable narration speak to missed opportunities, but they don’t break the game for me. Rather, it’s the Riddler puzzles that may wear me out. Pan across the Gotham / Arkham skyline and there are green question marks as far as the eye can see. Riddler puzzles wait on every building and between the buildings and inside those buildings that have an inside, and under the buildings that have an underside. And I’ve completed dozens of them and gotten that stupid green trophy again and again, not yet completing a single row of trophies (if that does anything). But despite the countless puzzles that pepper the traversable city, the puzzles come down to a few formats many of which aren’t so much a test of logic as just physically difficult:
• Using the batarang and explosive bat-foam push a number of buttons scattered about the local area within a tight threshold of time.
• Touch / land on a set number of spots without stepping anywhere else.
• Navigate the RC batarang through a narrow bending channel to hit a target.
• Use magneticly charged engines to push / pull a ball through a maze.
• Blast / glide through a wall or hack through a security lock or some combination thereof. Trophies, locks and walls may be hidden
• Photograph a landmark implied by an oral / writen clue. Batman lore and puns may be involved.
As I noted before, my reflexes are not what they used to be, and so piloting Batman to hit a set of precision targets, or navigate a batarang through a maze of twisty little passages (all alike) can get frustrating and tedious after a number of failures. And my interest in trying again, or attempting other puzzles of the same category has ended.
But then, these puzzles unlock further parts of the Riddler campaign, which means they aren’t optional. If I want to beat the Riddler, I have to gather the Riddler trophies. I can’t say the Riddler is smarter than I am, but I will concede to his mighty endurance and industry. In truth I’m reminded of the painful decision game designers would make to require a player to make additional trips across hill and dale, or include puzzles involving the slow pushing / dragging of large blocks in order to pad out an over ninety hours of gameplay box-lid guarantee.
Oodles of puzzles and secrets is not intrinsically a bad thing. Borderlands 2 and TPS each of the levels have auxiliary challenges which earn badass points and serve as an excuse to linger in (often spectacular) level environments.
But in the Borderlands games, these challenges are entirely optional. Some of these challenges are super hard, and their completion (either how to or simply I did it!) are common topics for online videos. Other challenges have a collect-’em-all quality such as the vault symbols which are sometimes hidden well enough that collaborating with friends isn’t really considered cheating. The immense quantity of challenges in the Borderlands games is a deliberate attempt by the developers to sneer at the notion of 100% completion and the tendency for some players to obsess on attaining it as a goal. There isn’t even an achievement.
To be fair, the Riddler arc is a side-mission, not part of the primary campaign. And it may not require solving all the puzzles to rescue all of the Riddler’s victims (though the people-will-die-if-you-fail thing does give it diegetic immediacy). Present comic-book Batman with a morass of constructed puzzles and he’d focus instead on finding Riddler’s face for a double-dose of Gotham justice. Dick Grayson might solve the riddles for funsies after the fact because he likes puzzles when human lives aren’t on the line.
Batman understands the concept of diminishing returns, and completing story arcs in four-to-five issues (or a half-hour episode). He has the patience for one or two Riddler puzzles, if that many, before he instead goes into detective mode and searches for the clues Riddler did not intend to leave behind.
* I eventually decided that the Batman Arkham game saga really deserves an Inception ending:
Bruce’s psychologist (A particularly rational Hugo Strange) posits the crux of Bruce Wayne’s psychosis, specifically his refusal to come to terms with the death of his parents. Bruce Wayne ultimately blames himself for their death, and every night goes out as The Batman seeking to enact an intervention on a tragedy that cannot be undone. Ultimately, unable to let go of Batman, Bruce loses his mind.
But wait! Master Bruce is woken up by Alfred. He’s ten again! He fell asleep in the movie theater, and his dad carried him back home. His parents are alive, and it was all just a horrible, horrible dream! (Somewhere in Wayne manner, maybe among Bruce’s toys, maybe in a display case are Commedia Dell’arte masks and figurines, Pantalone, Momus, Harlequin, Pierrot, Pulcinella, Columbine, Il Dottore… conspicuously suggestive of Batman’s rogues gallery).
If done right, the very same ending could serve as the best possible outcome and the worst, with the player ultimately deciding for himself which narrative is real (if either…).