[WARNING: The following article contains spoilers to many parts of Batman: Arkham Knight, but not the ending.]
It begins with an uncomfortable feeling of nausea churning away in the pit of your stomach. Next comes disorientation, followed by discombobulation; reality twisting, warping and disintegrating, slipping through your fingers like grains of sand. The natural response is to try and resist, but there’s no escape. As the toxins crawl up your veins and into your brain, your mind is mobbed by your most malevolent of thoughts: panic, desperation, fury. The lunatics taking over the asylum. And then you’re left, laughing manically as you cry out in vain:
“WHAT! You mean you have to finish ALL the side content just to see the ending to the story? That’s insane!”
So I just saw the sun set on my time with Batman: Arkham Knight. A game riddled with puzzling contradictions.
Before the final reveal that the final reveal was only available to the truly batty, there was certainly a lot to enjoy. Gotham continues to ooze with dark charisma. A gargoyle of a town perched menacingly in perpetual blackness. The city that never wakes. It remains an enterprise zone for super-villainy. A working mens’ club for evil henchmen. Why anyone law-abiding would want to live there is beyond me? Perhaps they have really, really good broadband.
Also back was the franchise’s trademark combat, Rocksteady retaining their title as the premier punch-and-kick choreographers of the action game genre with more bouts of balletic GBH. And let’s not forget those clever detective sequences, assisted by the contents of a utility belt now groaning under the weight of so many gadgets it’s constantly at risk of dragging down the Caped Crusaders trousers and revealing his Superman underpants.
It would have been nice if everything in the game worked as well as the series’ usual suspects, but sadly, that wasn’t to be. Sliding around the streets like a cross between a tank and a shopping trolley, and shoehorned awkwardly into its leading role, the Batmobile made for an ungainly centrepiece. Amazingly though, despite having a giant cannon mounted on its roof, it still managed to do less damage to the surrounding environment than a Volkswagen.
Needless to say, this news went down like Mr Freeze in a tanning salon.
Even more disappointing than the Batman’s choice of wheels, however, was the tired pair of antagonists Rocksteady had selected to pit him against. For the most part, the Scarecrow was a psychotic mastermind reduced to the role of evil P.A. announcer and the titular Arkham Knight little more than a grudge-fuelled tech support assistant battling a corrupt moral code. Once again, it was left to the Joker to carry the show, this time as your sociopathic comedy sidekick working on the killer stand-up routine he has in mind.
And then we reached the end. Or, at least, the bit where the end should be. With my foes finally vanquished it was surely time for the grand finale. The Caped Crusader’s curtain call. The last chorus in the ballad of Bruce Wayne. The culmination of three super-powered games spanning a period of over half a decade.
Sadly, that wasn’t to be. As it transpired, finishing the main story here was in no way sufficient to earn me a finish to the main story. Instead, only by completing all of the game’s side missions would I be deemed worthy of the ending to the Arkham trilogy, or, because Rocksteady aren’t complete monsters, I could unlock a truncated version of the denouement on fulfilment of half the optional objectives.
Needless to say, this news went down like Mr Freeze in a tanning salon. I had paid good money for all three of Rocksteady’s Arkham titles, sunk tens of hours into each. I’d even had a bash at the ironically derivative Arkham Origins. Had I not done enough to deserve some closure?
I could have finished every task asked of me in the first two games, brought all the DLC and it would count for nothing here. And why were Rocksteady now insisting that, to see the conclusion to the central plot line, I needed to play through content they themselves had decided wasn’t worthy of displacing the forty-fifth Batmobile versus drone tank battle to actually make it into the central plot line?
Of course, I completely understand a developer’s desire to encourage players to stick with its game and offer a worthwhile reward to their most ardent fans. And, yes, if you’re thinking that if I really wanted to see the ending that badly, all I had to do was cruise on over to YouTube and check it out there, you’re exactly right. But, at the same time, that’s totally wrong.
In no other medium is narrative treated like this. I wasn’t barred from seeing the last five minutes of the Usual Suspects until I’d watched all the DVD extras. The final chapter wasn’t ripped from my copy of The Lord of the Rings and replaced with a post-it note informing me I could only claim the missing pages once I could prove I’d read The Hobbit.
Most triple-A titles these days attempt to justify their price tags by padding their running times with simplistic and attritional extracurricular activities. In an industry where value is still misguidedly equated far too closely with quantity, it’s an understandable, if slightly regrettable, tradition. Of greater concern, is the growing trend for access to narrative, or the positive outcome to a narrative, to hinge upon completion of a great number of these supposedly discretionary undertakings. That marks the clandestine transformation of the optional into the essential.
Game makers are regularly heard bemoaning the expense of producing story content relative to pitiful percentages of players who actually stick with their tales to the end. The cost of penning scripts, paying actors and creating cut-scenes is much greater, in terms of both time and money, than chucking together another multiplayer map pack. But if that’s the case, and story is a game’s most expensive commodity, why wouldn’t you want to try and craft an experience that fully harnesses its power rather than holds it to ransom. That way, everybody gets their money’s worth.
As always, balance is key, but the indispensable should never be subordinate to the peripheral or we all end up playing a game where no one wins. While most developers could never be accused of failing to appreciate the precious nature of narrative, it sad this has caused some to guard it with Gollum-like jealousy. That leads to the strange and disappointing situation where, by valuing story so highly, they’re actually devaluing it significantly.
As for Arkham Knight, while I don’t want to include any spoilers, I believe I can let you in on a little secret. Based on the way the ending to the story is structured, it turns out Rocksteady were the real jokers all along.