Sympathy for the Devil – From the Shadows

Not so long ago, I discussed how games are in love with the ‘Hollywood ending’, and how villains rarely get their chance to shine. How much more impressive is it then, that developers Rocksteady Studios have stood tradition on its head, and turned their back on ideas that many seem to believe are unbreakable rules?

pure evil
Pure evil

Normally a game’s set-up is so routine, we barely even have to be told. There are cardboard cut-out enemies to fight, and they represent the epitome of evil. Nazis maybe, or the Hordes of Hell, or perhaps Simon Cowell, but some great evil anyway. It removes all those nasty moral questions about killing them by the thousand.

And then there’s the villain. We recognise him because he’s the one with the over-the-top laugh, twirling his moustache (because moustaches are evil obviously), and trying to destroy/take over the world. He will then insult the hero’s hair, maybe chat up his girl, or inflict various flavours of manufactured pop on the world; so we know it’s ok to hate him, and we can be mean to him when we get to the final level, without feeling bad about it.

At this point, the player steps forward as a lantern-jawed, steroid-abusing behemoth with perfect teeth, and sets about unlocking all those achievements for “10,000 decapitations in a level”, or “Skewered 300 maidens in 1 minute!”, or whatever.

And all is right with the world.

moustaches are evil
Moustaches are evil

But wait… what is this? From the very start, Batman: Arkham Asylum defies expectations. The lantern-jaw is still there. And more muscles than you’d see on your average Governor of California. But by stepping into the shoes (and cape & cowl) of a psychotic vigilante instead of the game’s hero; traditional roles are reversed.

The game begins, as many do, with the hero imprisoned, and needing to escape before he can begin to save the day. But when he makes his move, it’s the player who tries to stop him. Before we have a chance to come to terms with this shock, we’re almost immediately set to attacking unarmed psychiatric patients. Armed with a host of (mostly handheld) weapons, they offer little but sport for the Batman. The player is even encouraged to consider the violence as a score attack game, with multipliers and bonuses for successful attacks. Later, combat can be reminiscent of Manhunt from Rockstar Games. It even includes the silent one-hit takedowns from behind, that were so common in Rockstar’s grisly opus. And that’s not all; the player is given a device which registers the heart-rates and anxiety levels of his victims. We’re encouraged to take enjoyment from the very fear we create.

During all this, corrupt (presumably), or possibly terrified police and security forces do nothing to stand in the Batman’s way. All so the player can try to stop the hero from doing what he does best – rescuing the citizens of Gotham from lives of boredom, trapped as they are by society’s limits.

Joker locked up

Some concessions have had to be made, in an effort to appease outraged parent/tabloid editor. A back story, for example, is presented for our clearly insane, rodent-obsessed protagonist; filled with tragedy and the deaths of loved ones. He wasn’t always a monster, we are told, once he was just a lonely child. And (in the PlayStation 3 version of the game) there’s a mode that lets you play the hero in a more traditional way. Yet portraying such a complete villain in the game will clearly horrify and upset many people. And setting back any hope of treatment, or recovery, for some of society’s most unfortunate citizens (as an armed and armoured vigilante), never feels like anything less than a crime.

Despite this, I believe the game is a triumph. Both Rocksteady, and publishers Eidos Interactive, deserve to be commended for taking such a bold new direction with the game. Not since Manhunt have gamers been given the chance to consider just how violent their hobby has become; and how that violence reflects on us as individuals, and on society as a whole. Let’s hope that other developers will be inspired by what they’ve done, and find the courage to try bold experiments of their own.







7 responses to “Sympathy for the Devil – From the Shadows”

  1. Van-Fu avatar

    My enemy is clearly befuddled. This, people is a manifestation of the 755 prophecy. Do not fall for it.

  2. John avatar

    See, now I’m intrigued.. what’s the 755 Prophecy?
    Having just finished Overlord 2, the whole ‘good to be bad’ thing does certainly have a significant appeal!

  3. Jake avatar

    Aww man, going to have to edit John’s comment so it looks like he never asked about the 755 thing.

  4. van-Fu avatar

    John, you asked about the 755 prophecy? It is bad. Check this:

    And this:

    And also this:

    It will bring you up to speed. A dark hour in Ready Up history.

  5. MrCuddleswick avatar

    That’s a brilliant piece of writing there Darach – really, really top notch. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Not much I can add…….

  6. Laura avatar

    That put a big smile on my face, nice one Darach! 🙂

  7. Ramsden avatar

    You seem to have put a lot of thought into this, but really? It’s just a game. Why so serious?

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