Monday, January 30, 2017

Rocksteady's Arkham Games Are All About The Joker

Batman is arguably one of the most popular, if not the most popular, super hero properties around. Mr. Wayne and the legacy of the Bat have traversed various mediums, from comics to novels to television shows to the blockbuster films with more success than any other vigilante out there. Though there are some less than great adaptations, Batman as a franchise has arguably been successful moving between mediums on every front, including video games, and none of the Batman games are as iconic as the Arkham franchise, and for good reason.

In 2009, with the release of Batman: Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady did what many thought was the impossible: the studio put players into the shoes of Batman in a way that made them feel like the Dark Knight. Powerful enough to take on 10 men at once, but not impervious to bullets, with access to a plethora of wonderful toys on the utility belt that felt like natural extensions of the character for not only combat, but environment traversal and puzzle solving, Asylum set the standard for all super hero games going forward. It wasn't just the gameplay though. Rocksteady came into the world with a large respect for the mythos of the character and his world, with a strong story that was accented by the familiar voices of Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy that not only added quality to the project, but a heavy dose of nostalgia for anyone who grew up with Batman: The Animated Series. Hell, even writer Paul Dini jumped on to help flesh out the story. Asylum made everyone a believer again. There can be a good comic book game, and Batman can make a great setting for games. Though I could gush all day on the mechanics of the series, or the world that is set up in the franchise, what I really want to talk about today is the overarching narrative of the Arkham universe. Specifically the story of Batman and the Joker, because the Arkham games cover this relationship so well.

SO this article is a more in depth analysis of this relationship as it grows across the games, and, as such, will be spoiler filled. If you have not played the games before or are still trying to get your hands on a PlayStation VR headset to play Batman: Arkham VR, you may want to hold off on reading this.


We good? Good.

The Beginning of it All

Though Asylum is the first game to be released in the franchise, it is not the starting point of the story that defines the relationship that the Joker and Batman build. To learn about that, we have to go back to Batman Arkham Origins. Origins is one of two games within the Arkham verse that were not developed by Rocksteady themselves and is the story of Batman in his seconds year of wearing the Cowl. This isn't Batman: Year One, in which he's taking on corrupt cops and struggling with his identity. This is Bruce in the swing of things, but still learning how to tackle the constantly escalating battle for Gotham. Gordon isn't the commissioner yet, and Bats is still working on purging the city of organized crime. To throw a monkey wrench into his best laid plans, Black Mask puts out a Christmas hit on Batman to the tune of $50 million. Eight assassin's take on the offer, leaving Batman with one very busy Christmas Eve.

The story starts to deviate a bit though when we find out that Black Mask is in fact the Joker in disguise, using the Black Mask's organization and wealth to put together this little game with Batman. The evening's events have all been a setup because he is bored and wants to test the Bat. So Bruce spends most of the evening tracking down the Crown Prince of Crime in an attempt to remove the bounty from his head and stop Joker's master plan, whatever that is.

Bane is also there, as one of the assassins, which is really important when you take into account how the story and the characters are structured. While attempting to stop Joker, Bane decides to intervene so that he can have the Batman to himself, and is fairly successful. He is stronger than Bats, but also incredibly intelligent and strategic, which allows him to gain the upper hand on the vigilante. While Batman is off saving Joker from falling off of a hotel building and dying, Bane is working his way towards Bruce in ways many villains fail, including the Joker himself. Bane knows who Batman is, which is disastrous to Batman's strategy in fighting crime.

Part of what makes Batman so successful is the fear he puts into criminals because he seems so powerful. He may be a man, but he takes bullets to the chest and knocks out 15 guys at once. It seems unfathomable that one person could be capable of all that he does, yet it is one man. This entire facade could come crashing down if Bruce's identity is known to the thugs he protects Gotham from. And now, a very intelligent, very powerful villain knows who he is. He even comes to the Batcave and cripples the entire system, bringing much of what Bruce has worked towards over the past few years crumbling down. This is a HUGE piece of information and a drastic departure of the typical story that could easily formulate into a very deep and disturbing relationship with Bane, one that would be intimate and deadly than the current, well known relationship established between the two in pretty much every other piece of cannon.

This really elevates Bane as a powerful foe for Bats, but Origins deviates to reminds us that this is, at it's core, a story between Batman and Joker. The final battle, though physically between Bane and Bats, is still a moral battle between Batman and the Joker. Joker gives Bane a heart monitor that is connected to an electric chair, with each beat of his heart charging the chair. And sitting in that chair is Joker himself, testing The Caped Crusader: kill Bane, or kill me. This is a no win scenario for Batman, one in which Joker is hoping to either test the limits of him or see just how far he is willing to go for his mission.

So when he prevails by stopping Bane's heart (and then restarting it), Joker is elated. There's more to this, to the relationship between himself and this masked vigilante. This dance isn't over for both of them, but more importantly, Bane has been taken out of the equation. His overdose on Venom (which happens shortly after his second coming) has brought him down mentally and taken away his memory of Bruce's secret identity. He is more powerful physically, but ultimately loses his strategic cognitive faculties. By stripping Bane of his knowledge, the power he holds over Bruce has been stripped as well. Bane, though physically a threat, is no longer the villain he once was. But Joker is still there, still smiling and plotting and planning his next move. The entire game is the establishment piece of the Arkham story and the story of the relationship between Joker and Batman.

It is also important to note that this is the third game in the franchise released and the game after Joker's iconic death in City (more on that below). It was the perfect time for a clean slate and to leave the Joker behind, considering his death would create a giant hole to fill. However, the developers and designers of the series (yes, I know Origins is made by a separate team, but there are still creative leads pulling strings in the background as to how the story should progress)  actively chose to keep the Joker in the story and the forefront of the players mind. From Asylum to City and then to Origins, Joker is important and shouldn't be forgotten. Origins acts as a reinforcement of the importance of him. He is once again structurally the last boss and the big bad, as if to remind players, "don't forget about me. I'm important. You'll see."

Now, I know there is Arkham Origins: Blackgate, but considering that the story has little implications (negative or positive) on this idea of Batman and Jokers relationship in the Arkham-verse, I think it's safe to skip over it. I may come back and write a smaller piece as to why I enjoy the story ideas in Blackgate, despite the game not doing a great job of actually using them in a meaningful way.

Back to the Asylum

The next story on this timeline takes place five years later, with Batman escorting Joker to Arkham Asylum. Once inside, Joker unleashes his plan to escape and take over the mad house. While inside, Batman discovers Joker's plan to release Titan, a more powerful, yet dangerous, version of Venom, to power up his thugs. He eventually takes the drug himself before the Dark Knight takes him down, leaving the Joker badly mangled and reverted back to his normal physique.

Though there is more to the story than that, what is more important in Asylum is the way the game is put together. The overall structure is designed to focus on the Joker/Batman relationship. Joker is constantly talking to Bats, giving him encouragement as well as breaking him down and goading him on. The most dialog comes from the Clown Prince of Crime himself, and he is also the character that Batman interacts with the most, aside from maybe Oracle.

Not only that, but the actual plot structure of the game itself, in which Joker has taken Batman essentially hostage and leads him through a portion of the rogues gallery, only to be the final baddie that Bats must defeat re-emphasizes that this is about the two of them: Joker and Batman. This is classic game flow structure, but seeing this structure as the establishment of the Arkham series is important when discussing Batman and Joker's relationship within the games. Compare this story structure to Origins, in which the big bad who gathers everyone together is supposed to be Black Mask, and we, the player controlling Batman, believe this. This structure is flipped when we find out that it was actually Joker all along, taking us back to the original structure of Asylum and reinforcing to those of us whom have been playing the games that, yes, this is indeed another tale of Joker and Batman.

And sure, it could easily be hand waved that Rocksteady picked the most iconic and popular villain for the game and nothing more, but I beg to differ. The very foundation of the Arkham-verse is built on the idea that this relationship, this constant back and fourth between the two is the single most important aspect of the games. The distinction of Joker as the main villain is also important. As I said above, it sets a specific precedent in games, when a character is the final boss. However, this precedent is something that Joker continues to break as the games continue forward.

To the City

We jump again in time, though this time only a year, to the opening of Arkham City by Mayor Quincy Sharp. Once inside the prison city sector, Bats proceeds to figure out that Dr. Hugo Strange is attempting to enact his secretive 'Protocol 10.' While on this journey to discover what Protocol 10 is and how to stop it, Joker lures Batman in with the promise of revealing the truth of Strange's plans only to capture the Caped Crusader and give him a blood transfusion of his own blood. Apparently the Titan formula did quite a bit of damage to Joker's body and he is now dying, with his blood acting as a contagion. Now that Batman is infected (as well as various individuals in Gotham hospitals that Joker left his blood at), it is up to Bats to now also find a cure for this illness while attempting to stop Hugo Strange.

This small side story with the Joker grows to encompass the entire game, eventually taking over the story as the finale rushes forward. Strange is defeated alongside the Demon's Head Ra's Al Ghul and Protocol 10 is stopped, but the story isn't over. Joker gets the last battle with Bats again. This is important, as it shows how this relationship allows Joker to circumvent expectations set in place by the classic video game structure that these stories are told in. We know that from the get go Hugo Strange is the big bad guy of the game. He's the one who brought together the villains that Batman has to battle, similar to Joker's role in Asylum and Origins, and he is the individual with the evil master plan that needs to be stopped. According to convention, he should be the final boss. However, Joker still ends up with the final confrontation with Bats. (Technically, the final battle is with Clayface, but the driving force behind Clayface being there is the Joker.)

He murders Talia and once Batman defeats Clayface Joker attacks him for the cure. In the scuffle the cure is destroyed and Joker is left to die as Batman reveals he had planned to give the cure to the Harlequin of Hate all along. And then, silence from the Bat. Gordon demands to know what happened, but Batman gingerly carries his corpse out of Arkham City without a word. He doesn't carry Talia, with whom we have seen he had a previous romantic relationship with that was not cleanly severed. He could have easily left the Joker's corpse behind for others to clean up. Instead, he himself feels compelled to bring Joker out of the rubble. Without a word, Batman places the corpse on the hood of a police car and walks away, and then we are left with the Joker singing 'Only You,' a not so subtle reminder to the player that this relationship is two-fold, with each individual needing, and wanting, the other.

One More Knight

Once again we move forward one year in time to find that Batman has driven himself head first into his work, despite the death of the Joker leaving Gotham safer than ever. He has a new suit, a new Batmobile, and yet everyone close to him hints at the fact that he has been so disconnected and disjointed from them recently. In true Batman fashion, Bruce's unease and paranoia pay off as Scarecrow launches an assault on the city during Halloween, bringing together all of the rogues whom before hand were too fearful of the Joker to combine forces. Scarecrow also brings in a mysterious newbie, the Arkham Knight, with his militia and mechanical drones to take on the Dark Knight one last time.

But before the game starts and the story kicks in, we are treated to a small clip in which we watch the Joker's body prepared for cremation. This little touch is a great way to tell fans, "don't get your hopes up. The Joker is dead. You will cremate the body, just to make sure." And with a press of the button, the player does. By putting the player in charge of the destruction of Joker's body, Rocksteady is forcing the player to rid the game world of him for good, or at least to make the player think that.

Though the overarching narrative of Arkham Knight follows this thread of Batman taking on Scarecrow and discovering who the Arkham Knight is, the big twist, and really one of the more important plot points in the game, is that Batman is still infected with the Joker's blood. In fact, he has spent the past year tracking down everyone whom was given some of Joker's blood and has found that they have all slowly slipped into the same madness that plagued the Crown Prince of Crime. Going even deeper though, Batman himself is starting to slip and is hallucinating his greatest foe talking with him everywhere he goes.

The writers working on the Arkham-verse have once again pushed Joker into the forefront as the most important relationship Batman has. Hell, Joker isn't even alive and he dominates screen time and plot threads in Arkham Knight. Similar to City, he has once again subverted the video game tropes and becomes a form of final boss for Batman. The main through line of Arkham Knight is the fact that Scarecrow has brought all of foes together to break him, and yet it is the Joker whom Batman must defeat last.

During his final confrontation with Scarecrow, Batman slips even further into madness, with the Joker side of him finally grabbing hold and taking over the Bat's body. However, this isn't the end, as the game shifts so that we can see the inside of Batman's mind from the Joker's perspective. Wielding a shotgun, we control Joker attempting to kill Batman once and for all. Joker has risen to the top once more, outclassing villains despite being dead for over a year. Arguably, he's come closer than anyone else to breaking the Bat in this one sequence.

This point is emphasized even further by the lack of actual confrontation with Scarecrow. Despite being the Big Bad of the game, Scarecrow is given nothing but a cutscene that wraps up in roughly three minutes. Sure, he manages to show the world who Batman is, but that isn't the defeat of Batman. Bruce is still Batman after the scene. The game continues on, allowing you to take on all the side quests after the fact. The final cutscenes and the secret ending show us that Batman is still around. So once again we see that Joker's interactions with the Bat lead to a strong final show down between the two yet again. Every game has ended with the two of them battling it out.

Though this is considered by many to be the ending point to the story of the Arkham universe, Batman: Arkham VR still has some more talking points to address about his relationship.

The Final Chapter

And now we reach the final, most controversial, chapter in the Arkham story. The story is officially canon, and though there's lots of evidence to support that the entire sequence is just a dream, there could be another, far more sinister explanation.

The story follows Bruce as he solves the murder of Nightwing and the abduction of Robin. Moving from set piece to set piece, he finally finds the Boy Wonder trapped in a cage with Joker cackling over the loud speaker, which obviously makes no sense because of the fact that Joker is dead. While trying desperately to save him, Bats watches as Killer Croc eats Robin right in front of his very eyes. But then he wakes Arkham Asylum, where the games all started. Batman is trapped in a small cell with nothing but a mirror and writing all over the wall. Joker is taunting him in his head as he looks into the mirror to reveal Joker's visage staring back at him.

So, what does it mean? If this is all a dream as some evidence points to, then this game probably takes place before the Arkham Knight story line and could be a glimpse of Bruce seeing his mind slip from Joker's maddening blood for the first time. This would reinforce his fears of losing himself and explain why he was so against teaming up with anyone during Scarecrow's assault unless he absolutely had to.

But if this isn't a dream, then could it possibly be the epilogue to Knight's story, one in which Bruce continues as Batman and has truly lost himself to the Joker's madness? It's twisted and despairing to think of this outcome, but it also brings together this perfectly dark ending to the core relationship between Batman and Joker. It's a scenario in which, despite death and Batman's own perseverance, the Joker is still there. Bruce gives into him, needing the Joker to be there and justify himself, to the point in which the Joker side of him takes over and murders those close to him. It's the only way the two can be together forever, and ending on that note is the perfect way to bring this fractured and unbreakable relationship to a close.

What it All Means

Rocksteady and the team of writers and producers have crafted one of the best adaptations of Batman's universe to hit gaming systems period. But beyond that, the team has also put together one of the single best love letters to the relationship between the Dark Knight and the Crown Prince of Crime. By using video game tropes both to emphasize this relationship in ways we expect and in ways we don't, the team has slowly and intricately crafted together this tale of the evolving battle between the two.

And, sure, this is probably not the end to the franchise, as WB would be crazy to just stop creating Batman Arkham games, but that doesn't diminish nor take away from the story that we know today. No matter how you look at it, the Arkham games covered in this article showcase just how important Joker is to Batman in a way that is emphasized by it's story and it's medium, not despite it.

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