Batman: Arkham Origins (adamantius)

Hey there! This is the second in a two-part series on Batman: Arkham Origins. If you haven’t read the first part, you might want to do that. It lives over here:

https://goingthroughthewash.wordpress.com/2016/01/30/batman-arkham-origins-is-the-new-black/

So last time we talked about the theme of justice in Arkham Origins. We talked about how there was some really interesting potential, and how the game didn’t use any of it, which was disappointing. In this post, I’d like to look at some of the ways that that potential could be used.

So when you’ve got a theme like justice, the big question is always ‘What are you going to do with it?’ In Arkham Origins, the answer is ‘Squander it’. Anarky raises the theme of justice, and asks Batman what justifies his particular methods, and Batman goes “Shut up, bitch, I’m Batman”.

As I see it, there are two ways of dealing with these conflicting methods for the application of justice. The first option is to take a particular position on which method is best. You could argue that AO has done that by making Batman the hero, but in those cases addressed in the previous blog, most of the attacks on the other philosophies consist more of ad hominem, which is to say that the characters using those philosophies are dismissed as crazy proponents. The philosophies themselves never get a fair hearing.

Let’s give an example. Take Shiva, and the League of Assassins. They’re basically on the same page as Batman, in that they’re vigilantes working outside the law to bring criminals to justice. Unlike Batman, however, the League is quite happy with capital punishment. If we wanted to portray Batman’s philosophy as the best one, we could do it by showing the downsides and pitfalls of Shiva’s philosophy. For example, Shiva might accidentally execute someone who was later revealed to be innocent. This is better than just making Shiva out to be a crazy person, because we’re actually showing how the philosophies work (or don’t work, as it may be). If Batman catches someone who’s actually innocent, and they get thrown in jail, that’s a reversible process. It’s less reversible if it’s capital punishment.

Another example might be Anarky. He’s running around blowing up corporate scumsucker buildings – maybe he could accidentally kill some innocents in the blast. Then you’ve got this really interesting opportunity for development – you’re asking the question of which type of anarchist Anarky is going to be. Did these innocents die for the greater good, or is their death unacceptable, as it violates the very people he’s trying to save? There’s an interesting character development there, and it’s a great way to explore this theme of justice through civil revolt. You can show what civil revolt looks like, how it works when it goes well, and what it looks like when it doesn’t.

I think the main thing is that we need to have some sense of how these different philosophies might be good. Is there an upside to executing hardened criminals? Well, if Joker died in the first issue of Batman because Shiva killed him, there’d certainly be a lot less trouble in Gotham. Batman might become really boring, but that’s not the point. The point is that if Batman just killed these villains, they’d never hurt anyone ever again, and that, arguably, is a good thing for society. Similarly, what if Riddler did whistleblow on corrupt politicians (as, in fact, he did in the Cold, Cold Heart DLC for Arkham Origins)? In that situation, the corrupt figures resigned, and better people took over. There are actually upsides to all of these philosophies – it’s what makes the conflict so interesting.

In the same way, there are clear downsides to Batman’s approach. The capital punishment issue is the most immediately apparent: because Batman refuses to kill these career criminals, they get out and do more bad things. Sure, there’s the moral imperative about not falling to the level of the criminals, and that’s very noble, but it must be acknowledged that one of the consequences is that the criminals inevitably get out and do more bad things.

So in order to maintain that Batman’s philosophy of justice is the best, the narrative needs to engage with these other philosophies that have been raised, and bring serious points against them. By being honest about some of the upsides of these other philosophies (and some of the downsides of Batman’s own), it’s possible to make the narrative richer without compromising the overall argument. In fact, by being honest about the specific pros and cons, the narrative presents itself as more balanced and reliable – which makes the argument seem stronger. Obviously this isn’t necessarily within the scope of Arkham Origins, and it’s not intended to be a roadmap as to how the game ‘should’ have been made. It’s just an example of how this great potential could have been utilised to say something important about what justice is and how it works in society.

This is, of course, assuming that the narrative wants to put forward a cogent position on the nature of social justice. It might be that it would rather sit back and allow players to nut things out for themselves. This seems to be the second option for dealing with a theme – rather than creators putting their own spin on things, place all the apparatus in the hands of the players and let them build their own conception of justice.

I’ve got a hypothetical example here, but we’re going to deviate quite far from the structure of AO. Imagine a multiplayer game where you’ve got a city full of criminals and corrupt politicians, and you can play as one of the five characters discussed in the previous post – Batman, Shiva, Gordon and the GCPD, Riddler, and Anarky – each with their own distinct philosophy of justice. Now, very crudely, imagine Hungry Hungry Hippos with criminals and Batman. Each playable character would obviously have their own skills and abilities, and each would overcome criminals in different ways, according to their particular philosophies, and the game would be to see who ends up dealing out the most justice. You could have a ‘Justice Meter’ – it’d be great! (/joking)

So Riddler’s strategy might be to illegally locate incriminating files, get corrupt figures expelled, and install honest figures in government/police who’ll go after the criminals. Alternately, Shiva might just run around killing criminals, which means she could move faster through the numbers. There would have to be a counter-balance – maybe she doesn’t immediately know who’s a criminal just by looking, so she has to do homework and study people for a while – and if she gets it wrong she’s just killed an innocent person, which means she hasn’t impacted the number of criminals (and maybe the family of her victim turn to crime in order to scrape a living or something).

Players could attack each other and interfere with how other characters are trying to do justice – and so without spelling this out in great detail, we’ve got a situation where different philosophies of justice are in direct competition with each other. The ludic conflict mirrors the ideological conflict, and the person who wins (that is, unseats the most criminals) isn’t necessarily the person who’s right. It’s a way to encourage players to explore and think about these different philosophies without throwing around big unwieldy textbook-terms. It also means that the designers don’t have to take a particular ideological position – they can just present the conflict, with all these different strengths and weaknesses, and allow players to explore. It’s not really tailored as a linear narrative experience in the same way as the previous option, but that tightly scripted campaign-type story isn’t the only way to explore a theme. As a point of comparison, consider a game like Greed Corp, which has a really great critique of capitalism in that same multi-player-focused arena.

So there we go – there’s a couple of possible ways of exploring the theme of justice. The main point, the really big point, is that the designers have to be willing to engage with the philosophy and explore how it works – and then to put that exploration into gameplay terms. Nobody wants to sit around scrolling through miles of tex- hang on.

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