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    Batman: Arkham Knight

    Game » consists of 11 releases. Released Jun 23, 2015

    Developer Rocksteady's return to the Batman series takes place one year after the events of Arkham City. It expands the open world from the previous game and allows players to finally drive the Batmobile throughout Gotham City's streets.

    Superheroes, Cities, and Empty Streets

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    austin_walker

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    Edited By austin_walker
    The interior of Pauli's Diner might not look like much, I bet their burger's alright.
    The interior of Pauli's Diner might not look like much, I bet their burger's alright.

    I’m about seven minutes into Batman: Arkham Knight, and all I want to do is go outside. I’m playing a police officer on his dinner break, and I’m standing in Pauli’s Diner, a busy little greasy spoon in Gotham City’s theater district. I’m supposed to go confront a stranger in the corner booth who is smoking, but I know that the second I do, the game will shift: Scarecrow will release his fear toxin and we’ll jump cut ahead to a Gotham evacuated of all its civilians, turned into (as a few reviewers have called it) a “playground for Batman” to try out his acrobatic and martial skills. So I’m doing everything except confronting that guy smoking in the corner.

    I’ve heard jokes about Gotham all week from people playing Arkham Knight: “Who would even live in this town!?" “If you were smart, you would’ve evacuated after Arkham City!” “A supervillain is plotting mass murder? Just another Tuesday in Gotham!” (The best of this style of joke came in the form of Adi Robertson's “A goon grows in Gotham”).

    But if you look beyond the Arkham games and the “Nolanverse,” you’ll see that that Gotham’s problems exist alongside its virtues. From the campy, vaguely Bostonian Gotham of the 1960s Batman TV Show to the art deco retro-futurism of Batman: The Animated Series, Gotham has as many interpretations as it does intersections, and a number of these match the crime and anxiety of urban life with culture, warmth, and community. As former Batman writer Grant Morrison once said, “Gotham needs as many faces as Batman--it should be the loudest, sexiest, jazziest city on Earth. It has the best restaurants, the best theaters, the best art, the best criminals, the best crimefighters etc etc. People put up with the weird crime for the sheer buzz.” And he’s right: It’s when the good and the bad of Gotham are both on display that I care most about the city and its caped crusader.

    So, looking for proof of my Gotham, I drain all the character and life I can from this restaurant. I pace up and down the aisles of the diner, eavesdropping on conversations and reading the headlines on discarded newspapers. I spend some time staring at the bulletin board, scanning the mish-mash of concert flyers and travel brochures. At this point, the only thing I haven’t done is try to open the front door. I consider the possibility that Rocksteady might just let me open it and walk away. But in my lifetime of playing games, I’ve run into enough invisible walls and permanently locked doors to know that my chances of leaving this place behind are remarkably low.

    And then the handle turns, and for a brief moment I can see Gotham alive. A city bus rumbles by in the rain. The ambient noise of the diner--spoons clinking in coffee cups, friends bickering--mixes with the low hum of the city. The lights of the signs across the way… and the door closes and I’m cut off.

    I’m happy that developer Rocksteady anticipated my desire enough to let me open the door, but I can’t help but wish they’d given me more. There are lots of different kinds of Batman fantasies--and I’m not looking to invalidate any of them--but throughout this four game series, the developers have largely given me the same one over and over. For once, I want a Batman game where I’m compelled to save the day not because of abstract threats, damsels in distress, or a desire for personal vengeance, but because the beauty of Gotham City compels me to protect it. Instead, I’m left for the fourth time with Batman and his playground.

    “Scum, criminals, and worse.”

    It's easy to forget how moody and enclosed the titular Arkham Asylum felt.
    It's easy to forget how moody and enclosed the titular Arkham Asylum felt.

    In the first game of the series, Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, this barely chafed against me at all. Asylum’s dangerous hub world connected separate levels filled with combat and stealth challenges. The whole thing had the plotting and pacing of a (good) Die Hard film. And while the detective mode challenges aren’t as developed as they would become in Arkham Origins and Arkham Knight, Asylum’s narrow focus ensured that the player still got to feel like the ever-observant Dark Knight. Over the course of the game, the player passed through the courtyards and tunnels of Arkham Asylum, watched as new threats appear and old ones were cleared away. Asylum’s version of the Batman fantasy highlighted how the hero’s intelligence and resilience let him win out against overwhelming odds: First, infiltrate a dangerous place. Then, survive long enough to learn its ins-and-outs (architecturally, historically, and socially). Finally, use that new knowledge to masterfully take down all of your adversaries.

    With the shift to an open world in Batman: Arkham City, Rocksteady did tap into some other elements of Batman but they still offered up the same basic fantasy. By giving you the ability to glide across the city, grapnel-boosting from one rooftop to another, Arkham City lets you try on Batman’s legendary mobility. By dividing the prison city into sections run by different adversaries, Rocksteady gave the player the thrill of taking on established rogues instead of just recently freed bad guys. And by filling the open world with conversations to eavesdrop on (and to interrupt with sudden violence), Arkham City puts you in the shoes of Batman the vigilant do-gooder, ready to arrive in the knick of time to dispense justice. But this is where the fantasy begins to fall apart.

    Scenes of Batman descending from the shadows to save the day are common across the franchise’s comics, films, and cartoons. But because there are no civilians to rescue, no living Gotham to protect, when Batman swoops down into a crowd of Arkham City’s goons it isn’t to save anything. It’s just to bust some skulls. To stop someone from shit talking him. To have a little fun.

    Throughout the series, developers have tried to assuage this disconnect in a few ways. First, they sprinkled the groups of enemies with special targets that will divulge info on side objectives, like Riddler trophies. And in Arkham Knight, sometimes the criminals are menacing a civilian: A lost and wounded firefighter. But these efforts feel mechanical and soulless. I’m not anyone’s hero. That firefighter would lay on the ground and wait to be saved forever. None of these threats are real. I’m just checking off a box and moving on.

    Underlying this problem is a disconnect in the way that criminals are depicted in the Arkham series from the way they are shown in many of the best examples of DC’s storytelling. In the intro to Arkham Knight, Police Commissioner Jim Gordon explains that the “only people left on the street are the kind that enjoy the chaos. Scum, criminals, and worse.” This free license to take out whoever, wherever misses one of the most interesting, recurring elements of Batman stories: Criminals don’t just arrive from the ether, fully formed and wholly evil. Like Batman himself, they have origin stories and sometimes even noble intentions.

    The Penguin and Two-Face, who made sure the camera caught his good side.
    The Penguin and Two-Face, who made sure the camera caught his good side.

    There are lots of ways to read Batman’s rogues gallery, but one of my favorite ways is to see them as a collection of people who’ve taken good things a little too far, sometimes even mirroring the history and traits of the Dark Knight. The Penguin has his own complex (and, because of how comics work, changing) history with Gotham’s class of elites--but unlike Bruce Wayne, he pursues wealth at any cost. Poison Ivy would certainly believe a Wayne Enterprises-funded report about irreversible climate changes, but her proposed solution to the problem would likely include the death of the scientists that did the research. Edward Nigma’s devotion to knowledge is admirable, but his desire to be the smartest person in the room often leaves everyone else in it dead. Bruce Wayne may don a second face when he fights crime, but unlike Harvey Dent, he keeps his identity solid and unified. While some Batman stories simply prop up Batman as defender of the status quo, the best ones explore the way these villains reflect the hero's own attributes back at him.

    It isn’t just the super-villainous bad guys who have origins, though. Carmine Falcone, Rupert Thorne, and the rest of Gotham’s mobsters all come from a place, too. And even the “scum, criminals, and worse” that work for these criminals tend to reflect some failure of Gotham City: Poverty, failure of education, a lack of opportunity. (It’s for reasons like this that Grant Morrison’s version of Batman doesn’t just beat the hell out of thugs: He hires former convicts, operates charities, and attempts to buoy the cultural value of Gotham.) All of this is why Gordon’s line sits so ill at ease with me. It says “If they’re in a place like this, they must be criminals. And if they’re criminals, go to town on ‘em.” And given the world we live in, invectives like that will never make me feel heroic.

    It isn’t only that Arkham Knight fails to humanize these villains, it’s that because of the way the game presents Gotham--empty of life, stuck in a state of emergency--it actually can’t. Those other Batman stories demonstrate the history, humanity, and purpose of the bad guys through scenes of Gotham alive and filled with people. Those stories offer us orphanages in disrepair, villains going on dates, ex-cons out of work and out of options, and criminal brilliance put to surprisingly moral use.

    Don’t get me wrong, every Batman story isn’t The Wire, nor does it need to be. But this deep into the Arkham series, I would like to have seen some of that angle represented in these games, especially as they transitioned further into Gotham proper.

    Perhaps what really stings for me is that so many other games have at least attempted to approximate the vibrance of cities. And some have been very successful.

    Other Worlds, Other Cities

    CD Projekt Red fills the world of The Witcher 3 with interesting people and places, and then doubles down on that in Novigrad, the game’s largest city. After hours spent in the no-man’s-land of Velen, where the player interacts mostly with scattered villages, woodland hermits, and the occasional military fortress, Novigrad feels like it overflows with people. Geralt’s presence as an outsider gives him unique potential in this cosmopolitan city, so he’s as important as he is in the wilderness. And yet Novigrad always seems somehow bigger than him. It is a meeting place for cultures, and the stories told in the city’s quests often address the tension and potential caused by Novigrad's diversity.

    Los Santos is packed densely with pedestrians (even if many of them are walking stereotypes).
    Los Santos is packed densely with pedestrians (even if many of them are walking stereotypes).

    Players are anything but heroes in GTA V: The game encourages us to make havoc in the faux-SoCal sprawl of Los Santos. We knock over convenience stores, chase rival criminals along the ocean-side highways, and rob bigger and bigger banks during increasingly spectacular set piece heists. And yet Los Santos feels “alive.” I say that knowing how silly it is. It’s not like the AI civilians of Los Santos have homes, or intricate routines built around “needs” or “desires,” or even the pulled-from-a-hat identities that Watch Dogs’ inhabitants did. It’s not like the cityscape grows or changes over time. But there’s something about the way pedestrians mime out their lives, eating hot dogs, absentmindedly checking their phones while they cross the street, glaring at you when you bump into them... And all of this is set in a world filled with posters and advertisements and music and suit shopping. So no, Los Santos isn’t actually alive like Los Angeles (or even Skyrim or The Sims 3), but it does live the way the waves do, in a collection of small motions that add up to mean something more. (And it is interesting that a game focused on explosive, illegal chaos better offers the joys of a city than a game that puts you in the shoes of a hero.)

    Superman Returns took a much more blunt-force approach to rendering Metropolis “alive”: It gave the city a health bar. It’s… Okay, listen, that game is bad. From the weightless combat to the repetitive structure to the fact that the last boss is a giant tornado... it’s bad. But the designers at EA Tiburon at least attempted to incorporate the notion of superhero-as-city-protector into their game: Superman couldn’t die (he’s Superman!), but he could be temporarily knocked on his ass. And when that happened, the bad guys went to work on Metropolis. It’s the lesson every comic book villain seems to know: When you can’t hurt the hero, hurt what’s important to them.

    Superheroes don’t only protect cities, though, they also represent them. Batman represents all of the qualities of Gotham, just as Superman does his home turf. Sucker Punch went even further than that in Infamous: Second Son, going so far as to give that game’s characters powers that reflect the physical makeup of the modern city: Smoke, Concrete, Neon, Paper, Video. It was a surprising move after the classic elemental powers of the previous games, but that innovation was honestly my favorite thing about Second Son. That isn’t the most interesting thing about the way the Infamous games frames superheroics, though.

    The forecast this weekend is, uh, pretty grim.
    The forecast this weekend is, uh, pretty grim.

    While I’m not the Infamous series’ biggest fan, I’ve never been shy to recognize that Sucker Punch has always been tuned into something important: The relationship between superheroes, cities, and trauma. The first game’s Empire City gestured towards a “worst case” fear about post 9/11 New York. The city’s inhabitants were hit by an event so terrible and shocking that it resisted clear description, and then they were forced to struggle and scrounge to survive, cut off from the rest of the country. Infamous 2 follows suit, leveraging Hurricane Katrina in both setting and structure. Not only is New Marias based on Gulf Coast areas like New Orleans, the basic structure of the game mirrors a weather map. As Stephen Totilo said, "The Beast approaches New Marais like a hurricane," and everyone is rushing to prepare, and the infrastructure in place just isn’t enough to confront the impending disaster. Even Infamous: Second Son was positioned as a sort of reaction to a disaster. But instead of a terrorist plot or a force of nature, that game’s city was faced with a crisis of government surveillance and control that reads like a reaction to the Patriot Act, the Snowden revelations, and at least a little bit of the Tea Party’s perspective on Big Government. This connection between superheroes, their cities, and moments of crisis is not unique to Infamous, though.

    Over the last few years, as the Marvel film franchises have ascended and the DC movies try to find their footing, there has been a conversation about why we like superheroes and what the role of violence should be in their stories. Film reviewers and fandoms have discussed whether our superhero stories are improved or ruined when those films depict the loss of human life from super-powered collateral damage. There were many reactions to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, but none as loud as “Superman stories shouldn’t be so grim and brutal.” (A perspective that I suspect will be revisited in the future, if Batman vs. Superman's use of 9/11 imagery is any indication.) Two years later, Avengers: Age of Ultron pushed hard in the other direction, explicitly telling us that even one civilian death is too much to bear.

    But both strategies have missed the mark for me. Man of Steel luxuriates in the violence done to Metropolis (and its residents), and it does this about 30 years too late to provocative or subversive. Meanwhile, Age of Ultron issues a confused message: “(American) superheroics and militarism hurt people, except for when they're done very, very carefully, and then they hurt no one--except maybe for a brave hero lost in the battle, and some unfinished buildings, I guess?” If Man of Steel fetishized loss, Age of Ultron largely wants to tell us that it’s totally avoidable. Which is a shame, because loss (and the fear of loss) is key to the superhero myth.

    The Cities We Dream Of

    If I'm being fully honest, it's Starman's Opal City (and not Gotham) that is my favorite comic book locale.
    If I'm being fully honest, it's Starman's Opal City (and not Gotham) that is my favorite comic book locale.

    I write this just a month after moving back to the real Gotham. Or at least back to New York, one of the fictional city’s clearest inspirations.

    New York is as diverse and storied as the Caped Crusader’s hometown. And like the fictional Gotham, New York is a city that has suffered through its own trauma, something so horrific that it is still hard to put into words that don’t feel somehow reductive. There is always something else to say, forever. And to live here, to talk to the people who lived through 9/11 (and all that followed), is to understand where the fantasy of the superhero might come from. To see something so vivid come under a threat so large and so nebulous, so much greater than any individual person or even any single human institution, creates in many a desire for something or someone to save us. And in a city, there is always something large and nebulous biting at your ankle, trying to convince you that the place you love is broken.

    Our heroes reflect our cultural anxieties, and this isn’t unique to the heroes that wear capes and fly around. Think of the tall tales told about the people (fictional and real) who conquered the frontier with (nearly) superhuman acumen. Or consider the huge collection of suburban protagonists in our TV shows, movies, and novels who are just a little more checked-in than their high school rivals, or a little more dedicated to escaping the sprawl of identical neighborhoods. These places have their own anxieties and traumas, but superheroes are not rural or suburban as often as they are urban.

    This is because cities have their own, unique anxieties. Sometimes, maybe over Thanksgiving dinner, the residents of cities have those anxieties (which they are keenly aware of) explained to them by their dismissive, suburban uncles. In practice, it sounds a lot like what people say about the fictional Gotham: “Why would you live in New York? It’s so cramped and busy and expensive! Do you ever feel unsafe? What about muggers? What about terrorists? What about… taxes?” There is anxiety that, in becoming a nexus for millions of people, cities like New York are breaking at the seams. A fear that our societal infrastructure cannot keep up with the needs of our collective social ambition, of the ambition of our cities.

    And so superheroes symbolically fill the gaps that we fear that our infrastructure, no matter how well designed and managed, cannot. They save us from burning buildings, they protect our museums, they pull us from floods, they prevent the power plant from exploding, they stop ricocheting bullets from killing innocents, they help troubled kids to get out of shitty life situations. Superheroes sometimes even emerge directly from these anxieties--from the violence or infrastructural failure. And sometimes they work to address our fears even when the mask is off. If they happen to be rich, they’re philanthropists. If they happen to be reporters, they write about social injustice. If they’re lawyers, they work pro bono. Sometimes, superheroes even remind each other that they're not the only ones working long hours to keep things working.

    And the best superhero narratives do more than offer bedtime-story assurance that these anxieties will be addressed and that we will be okay. They confront these fears directly, and ask, “What if even superheroes aren’t enough?”

    Cities attract both those down on their luck and looking for work, and those on a hot streak, looking to celebrate. They attracted the naive urban planners of the early 20th century who believed a more symmetrical city grid could undo poverty, and at the same time they attracted those who aimed to exploit the poor and disenfranchised through predatory housing schemes. For every art gallery there is an underserved community. For every park, a shelter barely able to serve the people it was built to protect. The truth is that cities offer us a promise that is not always kept. But the promise is vital.

    And Gotham and Metropolis are our own cities extended to their most ambitious and precarious. They are the cities of our dreams. Brighter, cleaner, fairer; darker, more historic, more complex. And so the promises of these cities must be “more” too.

    At the core of it this is my problem: this is why I want to see Gotham alive with people and culture and museums and parties and schools and celebrations and life. Because superhero stories make the most sense to me when the promises of their cities are made clear. The promise is vital, and Rocksteady’s Gotham promises nothing.

    No Caption Provided

    In the middle of writing this piece, I find this video clip. Someone’s modded Arkham Knight so that they can leave the diner and explore pre-evacuation Gotham. And what a sight it is.

    As the trucks and buses pass through the player like ghosts, you can tell that these poorly textured civilian vehicles were not meant to be closely examined. In "detective mode," which gives him a sort of X-Ray vision, he can see the skeletons of the diner patrons subtly mimic life--a gesture here, a shift there. But the people outside the diner have no bones. They're solid, just a mass of what looks like red clay, frozen in strange, debug poses: Arms out in a T shape; hovering in the air in a seated position, arms resting on an invisible steering wheel.

    Despite all this, I love it. The ambient rumble of cars passing by and the glow of the neon signage of the theater district. The way both sound and light are filtered through the rain. It is a shadow of a shadow of the game I want, but I love it.

    At about five minutes in, the player in the video grapples up to the Gotham skyline, and heads towards the bridge connecting this island of Gotham to mainland. The neon lights disappear behind him. You can just barely hear the trucks charging by back near the diner, in their eternal, circular route. And up ahead, even though the city hasn’t come under Scarecrow’s attack yet, the cars have already piled up, halted in their pre-emptive evacuation of Gotham City.

    The player leaps past them, and starts to cross the bridge on foot, but the gates are down. He grapples to the bridge’s gothic pillar and attempts to launch himself over the gate, but comes up shy. Maybe I’m seeing things, but I think there’s a frustration in how he moves. In one last try, he climbs up to the lamp-lit steel cables of the bridge, aligns himself outwards, and jumps from that slender line. As he tumbles toward the water, he aims to find another grapple point on the other side of the gate. He wants to go where the people of Gotham have gone. But he doesn’t get to follow them.

    So he swings back towards the neon of the theater district, towards that objective in the corner, towards the cause of the evacuation that he paradoxically already hovers above. He runs under the light of the cheap motel sign, past the prop-like vehicles, swerving around the locked bodies in this lifeless world.

    He makes it back to the diner, and pauses just outside the window. A couple of seconds pass, and then a man inside looks to check his watch. The player moves in a flash, as if this idle animation was a sharp, personal insult. He rushes up and slams into the glass window separating these two worlds, but it won't quite break. No amount of violence will bring the diner's simple but effective imitation of life out into Gotham City. And however clever the mod that let him out of the diner is, it doesn't fill the world with the humming activity of what's inside. So until Rocksteady (or someone else) figures out how to bring these two worlds together, I'm hanging up my cape and cowl. There are other "playgrounds" and other virtual cities. And while none of them glisten like Gotham at night, many of them blare out vibrantly, loud and alive.

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    billymaysrip

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    #1  Edited By billymaysrip

    When ever this was brought up on the Beastcast, I always thought back to Danny's video on Assassin's Creed and organic game worlds.

    Loading Video...

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    KowalskiManDown

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    Great article, Austin.

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    Moonshadow101

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    I was hoping you'd dive into this after the Beastcast segment. I'm not a huge fan of the Batman games at all, but a more grounded game that takes place in a more organic Gotham would be 100% up my alley. Dark alley. Dark alley where my parents were killed.

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    TechnoSyndrome

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    Scenes of Batman descending from the shadows to save the day are common across the franchise’s comics, films, and cartoons. But because there are no civilians to rescue, no living Gotham to protect, when Batman swoops down into a crowd of Arkham City’s goons it isn’t to save anything. It’s just to bust some skulls. To stop someone from shit talking him. To have a little fun.

    There were "political prisoners" around Arkham City you could save from thugs, but they basically amounted to collectibles like the fire fighters in Knight.

    I'd also love to see a Batman game with an actually populated Gotham City. After Arkham City I really wanted a bigger Arkham game set in Gotham City where you could use the Batmobile to drive around. On paper Arkham Knight should've been perfect, but in execution both the city and the Batmobile were not at all what I'd wanted. I wonder which came first, the decision to not have civilians in the city or the decision to put guns on the Batmobile.

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    johnnymcginley

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    All the broken NPCs in that 'Outside Pauli's Diner' video have been spending too much time in Jeff's Game Room.

    (Enjoyed the article.)

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    LavenderGooms

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    This was a good read, thank you Austin.

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    Entreri10

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    Super interesting article Austin, great read.

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    l4wd0g

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    Scenes of Batman descending from the shadows to save the day are common across the franchise’s comics, films, and cartoons. But because there are no civilians to rescue, no living Gotham to protect, when Batman swoops down into a crowd of Arkham City’s goons it isn’t to save anything. It’s just to bust some skulls. To stop someone from shit talking him. To have a little fun.

    I take a bit of umbrage at the phrase " to save the day." Superheroes never save the day. They best a superhero can ever hope to do is keep the status quo. It's up to the people in these cities, real or fictional, to actually make a change for the better. Think about it, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, or any other superhero couldn't pass marriage equality laws by themselves. They can influence people, but it takes the people to actually make something better, to raise the bar of the status quo.

    Great article though. I just wanted to add my inane thoughts on superheroes.

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    Ravelle

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    #9  Edited By Ravelle

    Arkham always looked more like Star City with it's light shows, LCD screens on every corner and wide roads, Gotham as I remember it from the comics is an old city with a lot of history, old architecture and dangerous ally's where people get stabbed and robbed.

    Also there's no excuse for not having the citizens roam the streets, City of Heroes which is an MMO did it way back in 2002 and it was amazing. Cities felt like cities with multiple things going on, it felt alive. Instead of a an empty play ground with the same couple of dudes coming for you. As someone had said before, Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis system should have been in this because even though SOM was a big empty play ground, you at least had something do in it when you were not doing missions.

    One other thing is that although it's a good Batman game, it was not really a good Batman story, it's always way too straight forward.

    Batman's a detective, he needs to figure things out and he's not doing that when every villain broadcast's himself or jumps forward going IT WAS ME BATMAN, I CAPTURED ORACLE. Hell, even The Witcher has more detective-ing than the Batman games. Batman stories are also usually way more about the mind of batman and psychology and ideals instead of fighting dudes mano o mano.

    I also quite missed emotion and expressions in the characters, I hate to compare games but coming from The Witcher Batman was a mannequin in a Batsuit compared to Geralt, when talking to someone only his mouth moved standing as stiff as a stick. Even when angry he barely showed any mannerisms or body language.

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    conmulligan

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    Well, this is exceptional. I don't know that I have anything else to add.

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    cooljammer00

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    I think it was someone on GB who said how odd it was that they've had to justify why there are no civilians for 4 games by this point.

    Asylum was set entirely indoors in a prison, City was set in a walled off prison colony (and had to have story reasons to have non prisoners in there, aka the political prisoners you save), Origins is set Christmas Eve/the coldest night in years and there's a curfew, and Knight has had the city evacuated due to Scarecrow threat.

    It's all a bit silly at this point, especially if they're gonna lean so hard into the "Batman doesn't kill" thing. Fuck it, have him run over civilians and blow up buildings and have the civilians walk away, like in LA Noire. They already have him doing unbelievable things anyway.

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    BrianP

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    This is a really great piece, I can tell I'm going to enjoy your writing for a long time to come

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    jiggajoe14

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    Fantastic article. The city was fun to fly around, but left me wanting more. It felt so hollow and lifeless that I didn't care about the world I was inhabiting much. It was like 808's & Heartbreak. It sounds good, but is ineffectively dull to me.

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    Colonel_Pockets

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    While I disagree with you in some respects, I think you are spot on about a fully populated Gotham City. Arkham Knight escalates the action and danger so much, that it needs to evolve to something closer to a Grand Theft Auto game in terms of world. That escalation should be brought down to smaller crimes where you get to know the villains better. Even though Scarecrow was killer in Arkham Knight. Arkham Knight is my game of the year so far, but it isn't without its issues.

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    hassun

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    Linking the Batman wiki instead of Comicvine? Holy lack of Brand Synergy™ Austin!

    Making (open) worlds feel alive is definitely one of the hardest things to do in (open world) games.

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    RedManiac

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    Great article, especially when talking about how these fictional cities reflect on our human anxieties. That's a huge part of what makes superhero fiction so compelling and immersive.

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    deactivated-5e49e9175da37

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    This is the best article I've read by you, Austin.

    Your commentary on the 'people on the street' being necessary to make a city into a setting rather than a location reminds me of the little asides Alan Moore would sprinkle throughout Watchmen. The conversations between the working class guys selling papers next to the homeless bum with an "END IS NIGH" sign humanized that city more than any of the backstory or deep referential dialogue. In a lot of ways, those guys on the street represent the modern Greek chorus.

    At the same time, I have some dissonance in that I can't help but think pop culture's obsession with moral ubermensch hyperagents is getting to be a bit much. Second Son's allegedly "Tea Party" depiction of a surveillance state asks for far less soul-searching and presents far less grey area than the surveillance state and philosophical questions of Deus Ex.

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    blakdeth

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    Another excellent article. Thank you.

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    Knale

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    @austin_walker Absolutely fantastic piece. I think bringing up Skyrim, albeit briefly is super interesting. That game feels alive in some very crucial ways, but the way your character starts the game as an outsider, and never really feels like a product of the environment is a bit of a disconnect. Obviously by virtue of it being the game that it is, creating your own character etc, this is difficult, but it goes to show that your point is sound. You want your character to hold up SOMETHING of a mirror the the place that they inhabit, that produced them.

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    Dryker

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    That would be cool...

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    Longstaff

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    totally agree. dont know why they effed it up so bad. such contrived crap

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    altairre

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    #22  Edited By altairre

    @l4wd0g said:

    Scenes of Batman descending from the shadows to save the day are common across the franchise’s comics, films, and cartoons. But because there are no civilians to rescue, no living Gotham to protect, when Batman swoops down into a crowd of Arkham City’s goons it isn’t to save anything. It’s just to bust some skulls. To stop someone from shit talking him. To have a little fun.

    I take a bit of umbrage at the phrase " to save the day." Superheroes never save the day. They best a superhero can ever hope to do is keep the status quo. It's up to the people in these cities, real or fictional, to actually make a change for the better. Think about it, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, or any other superhero couldn't pass marriage equality laws by themselves. They can influence people, but it takes the people to actually make something better, to raise the bar of the status quo.

    Great article though. I just wanted to add my inane thoughts on superheroes.

    Well, they do save the day in a way but you're right in the end they're only maintaining status quo, more so they're actively supporting it. I think AK did a good job highlighting that aspect of it (Dark Knight tried it as well). A lot of the shit that happens in Gotham at the point AK is at happens because of Batman. It's a cycle and it's hard to tell who is responsible for what because it always reinforces itself.

    Batman knows the guys he puts away will get out eventually, he knows the consequences his presence can have on the people surrounding him, or the city he's trying to protect but he still does what he does because he doesn't see another way. Going from Arkham Asylum to Arkham Knight it feels like he's less and less the hero in the story. AK really shows what a crazy person he is and there are a few moments where he is completely powerless despite his physical and mental strength.

    I just wished Rocksteady would have gone all the way with it (the presence of civilians would have probably helped too) but overall it's a nifty way to frame the story and the reason why I enjoyed Arkham Knight as much as I did despite some of the glaring faults.

    Edit: It's also why I really liked how they fit Joker into the narrative because he often acts as a mirror that reflects on Batman's actions and despite the fact that he exaggerates and twists words, he brings up valid points more often than not. The best interactions between them are those were you can see yourself siding with what Joker says because it shows how flawed the idea of Batman really is.

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    LegalBagel

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    #23  Edited By LegalBagel

    Agreed in full Austin. While a city with actual inhabitants would create more difficulties in terms of maintaining a credible world no matter the player's actions, I think tackling those difficulties would make for a more interesting experience. As is, the game tends to live on its solid mechanics in terms of fistfights, flying, and stealth combat, along with a sprinkling of Batman lore and characters. I move from story beat to story beat more to experience the next combat scenario than to actually stop the supposed horrible thing that's going to happen or has happened. And I think the credibility gap in terms of a disconnect between a believable world and the story or player's actions is already, it's just awkwardly sidestepped instead of addressed head-on.

    In Knight they stretch things to the breaking point to leave only a fun Batman playground, filled with tanks you can blow up because they are only drones, streets you can ramble around in destroying things in your car, "incapacitation" missiles you can safely fire at cars, the ability to apparently run people over with impunity because you're just electro-shocking them, and assurance that everyone in the city is a Bad Guy you can beat up. Not to mention after serious shit goes down, you have Alfred in your ear reminding you to just have some fun on some sidequests of little consequence.

    I know games paper over disconnects all the time in service of gameplay, and everything I noted is just there to allow fun, consequence-free car and personal combat, but Knight just went overboard. It's fun, but wholly unbelievable in terms of creating a real Gotham or actual motivation for Batman beyond rampaging around the city taking down bad guys.

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    PBalfredo

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    #24  Edited By PBalfredo

    As others have pointed out, there are civilians to rescue in Arkham City: the political prisoners. I point this out not to nitpick, but to relay a personal anecdote from my time with the game that goes with what Austin is saying here. Arkham City has a ton of great moments, but my favorite was the time I came across the easter egg in the alley where Batman's parents were killed.

    There was a single rose placed at the crime scene and a prompt to let Batman kneel down in silent remembrance. I let the scene play out, but just as Batman came out of his moment of mournful reflection, a cry of help rang out from one of the political prisoners who was being menaced by a violent inmate. I instantly switched into full "Batman mode", grappled up to the nearest rooftop, located the assailant, dived unto the scene, dispatched the assaulter with a single blow and before the political prisoner could thank me, grappled back up to a rooftop gargoyle overlooking the neon cityscape and feeling on the edge of shouting out "I AM THE NIGHT!".

    It allowed for a perfectly captured moment of what being Batman is suppose to be, better than any of the cutscenes or scripted boss battles of the game.

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    AlejanSolo

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    I was half expecting them to pull a Spider-Man (the 2000 PS1 game) & fog the whole city...

    ...and then they fucking did.

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    FLStyle

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    Excellent article Austin, I agree completely!

    When ever this was brought up on the Beastcast, I always thought back to Danny's video on Assassin's Creed and organic game worlds.

    Loading Video...

    I miss AC1, 2 and Brotherhood, or rather games like them as Danny described.

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    Shindig

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    The status quo is something Batman secretly strives to maintain, right? Look at the Gotham police force and their inability to arrest these criminals. The best they can do is lock them up ... presumably for short sentences and then they're out. Batman could stop this. Batman could kill and I genuinely don't know if the populous or authorities would care. Batman's an arsehole with too much money and time on his hands. He does this out of boredom. He lets them live to give him something to do tomorrow.

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    ildon

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    #28  Edited By ildon

    So, I was a tester on Superman Returns. I specifically scrolled down through the article to see if you gave it a mention because to me the way Arkham treats civilians feels almost like a reaction to Superman Returns' failure to execute on its concept.

    I saw the design documents. It was an interesting concept. I honestly can't remember the difference between the mechanics in some of the early versions I tested and what actually got released to the public, so my post is going to be a little nebulous and might not reflect the game as released.

    The idea was that Superman is basically invincible. So instead of giving him a health bar, the city would have a health bar. And this wasn't just about physical damage dealt to the city, but about the city's faith and trust in Superman as its protector. So you could actually interact with civilians as Superman and affect the meter. You could punch civilians, and the meter would go down. You could wreck cars and street lights and newspaper stands, and the meter would go down. You could pick civilians up and drop them from the top of a building, and the meter would go down. But you could also save civilians. I forget how the mechanics were supposed to work, but if you saw someone on the ground injured, you could pick them up and move them somewhere else and it would save them, or something. I think there were ambulances you could drop them near. This would make the meter go back up.

    It was a little bit like a primordial version of how you can grind good/bad karma in inFamous. Except as a DC licensed character tied to a major motion picture, they couldn't exactly have Superman go full renegade. Being a jerk meant an eventual game over.

    The idea that the failure state was Metropolis no longer trusting Superman to be its protector has merit, and is something that has been explored in other stories about Superman, but isn't one I remember being covered much, if at all, in the Superman Returns movie specifically. From what I vaguely remember of the movie, the city already trusts him pretty implicitly. It feels like an idea that would have fit into a Man of Steel movie game.

    It's also way too nebulous and imprecise of a concept in the Superman Returns game. It's like losing because Superman loses faith in himself. He only loses because he believes he has failed at a personal standard he has set for himself about how much of the city he can allow to be destroyed. The karma system in inFamous, for all the criticism its received for being too ham-fisted and black-and-white, communicates the gameplay idea of either helping or harming citizens and gaining or losing their trust a lot more effectively.

    Unfortunately, they were making a movie licensed brawler masquerading as an open world game that was supposed to launch on the same day as the movie's release, on a relatively new console, and they were trying to make it back-portable to the previous console generation. Oh, and the studio had only ever made Madden and NASCAR for like the past 10 years. Basically, it was scoped way too big, was trying to be too many things at once, and was extremely limited by the license.

    The 5 month delay it got was required just to make the game run, basically. A lot was cut that didn't make sense or was counter-productive to the core gameplay of "being Superman", which was mostly punching robots and scripted boss fights. When I played inFamous, I remember feeling a bit like "this is the game the Superman Returns devs wished they could have made."

    So, the point being, when you have a licensed character that has to be a good guy all the time in your story, it just seems ridiculous (and potentially a violation of your license) to have him going around punching civilians, or putting them in harms way. Making invulnerable civilians (which is what Superman Returns did) is greatly immersion-breaking, and makes it seem like the citizens are actually more powerful than the hero (since the hero can be defeated but the civilians can't). The Arkham devs just didn't want to deal with it. So they come up with a reason to get the civilians out of the game. inFamous had a lot more freedom because it was an original character and story, and they leveraged the presence of the civilians as part of the game's mechanics and story.

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    MisterEyeballs

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    I would love to see games like this explore the actual effects the player has on the city and its people, or at least contextualize what's happening by showing the "normal" aspects of the city. This is something GTAV did well, and something Fallout 3 did very well in its own way. Of course, this does not mean every game should have to do this, or that Arkham Knight should have done it. It just would be nice to see once in a while.

    The obvious reasons not to do this are that 1) it would be really difficult and expensive to do well, and 2) most people who want to play a superhero game probably just want to stop some nameless bad guys and some more significant villains. A superhero game is as much of a power fantasy as can exist, so it makes sense that people don't want that fantasy to be broken by making you face the consequences of your actions and really have to worry about the city's well-being on any level other than "stop the impending absolute doom so that things can get back to normal."

    I would love a superhero game with the world of GTAV and the moralization of The Witcher, but that's asking for something ridiculously difficult to execute, and it would probably miss the mark in many ways. And if you try to ground something in reality too much, at some point it all but totally exits the realm of "superhero game."

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    AssInAss

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    Bloody great article! Articulated well what I've wanted too, but was resigned to keep as wishes.

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    huser

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    Tend to agree. I'd accept smaller, less perfectly mapped "open" worlds worlds that were denser. More stuff happening and more of it relevant or not, but there. Buildings that weren't just large blocks to climb on (if you can even do that much with them) except for the odd room or two that matters and often times not accessible from the bigger world outside anyways. Maybe someone could put together that combo of Sim(s) City that actually works and use that as the city your hero is saving.

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    AMyggen

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    #32  Edited By AMyggen

    @ildon: That's a really interesting comment, thanks for sharing!

    Also, have to say I agree with this article.

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    Maluvin

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    Superb article on a really important design choice.

    The Arkham series is Batman the power fantasy. Nothing wrong with that and Rocksteady deserves a huge amount of credit for delivering on a number of aspects of being Batman in a very engaging and visceral way.

    I think one of the problems with Batman and civilians in a video game context is that we have a sense what the youtube videos would look like as soon as a Batman game with civilians was released. We either have a bunch of videos were we see the game artificially restraining player action against civilians or you'll have a player using Batman to run around murdering civilians left and right. Either result is problematic with a superhero.

    Would probably be interesting to see an article about depictions of civilians in video games in general.

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    mrsmiley

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    Damn fine writing as always, Austin, and I agree 100%. As much as I enjoyed Arkham Knight, I was always looking for something more. I realized this when I heard a specific line from one of the "bad guys" who was driving around. Most of the lines are pretty dumb "I could beat the Bat!" type of stuff, but this one stuck with me, and it's something along the lines of:

    "Let's swing by a toy store, I promised my kid I would get him a present."

    This tiny shred of humanity made me actually stop playing and ponder the fact that these nameless thugs were actually real people. Some had wives. Some had kids. Sometimes I heard regret or fear in their voices while I listened in on their private conversations. But when all was said and done, they are simply punching bags on the receiving end of Batman's torture techniques.

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    austin_walker

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    @ildon: Yo! Thanks for the insight into the creative process there! Much appreciated.

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    nicktorious_big

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    A lot of good points were made here. Awesome article. Hope to see more stuff like this in the future.

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    MikeLemmer

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    #37  Edited By MikeLemmer

    @shindig: Batman does it because, let's be honest, the writers want the villains to survive so they can write more stories about them. The best writers give Batman justification to spare them, though. Two-Face, the Riddler, Mr. Freeze, the Penguin, and Harley Quinn have all had story arcs where they reform (albeit temporarily, because status quo...), where they're humanized and made more than just a card-carrying villain. Giving people a chance to improve themselves rather than just murdering them or locking them up is a huge theme in the Batman mythos, and just having Batman kill them would destroy that aspect of it (and much of what makes Batman a compelling, conflicted hero rather than yet-another-forgotten-90s-antihero).

    You can make a case for the Joker being irredeemable, but why is it Batman's responsibility to kill him rather than the state's? They've had the opportunity to execute him plenty of times. Why give Batman crap for following a guideline we demand of our own police? Why call Batman an idiot for realizing the middle of a fight or investigation is not the best time to make a life-or-death decision?

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    Dussck

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    They should've let some civilians stay in Gotham. Just a few that you could be rescuing from thugs (like the firefighters) or some that gave you a 'quest' to find something or someone in the city.

    It's an awesome game, but yea the total absence of inhabitants make the city not feel like a real city.

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    Jonny_Anonymous

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    #39  Edited By Jonny_Anonymous

    Batman is the John Cena of superheros

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    Pudge

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    Excellent writing, but I don't necessarily agree with the premise. Batman lives in the shadows of Gotham, alongside his enemies and the thugs they hire. It just wouldn't be right to wander around city streets filled with pedestrians in full regalia, or sail over them on a grappling hook in the same way that Spider-Man web-slings above taunting taxi drivers. This is why Asylum is still the best game in the series, it best represents the true dynamics of the character. He's trapped in his role in the same way that The Joker and Scarecrow are locked away in Arkham.

    There are certainly plenty of heroes that would fit into that role better on the DC side of things, even a few from the extended Batman family. A Nightwing game set in Bludhaven perhaps. But Bruce is a loner no matter how many times he joins the Justice League. Dropping him into an open world filled with civilians and then designing missions around them seems like a fools errand to me. I'd much rather the next team to work on the series scale back the open world and bring us something that is a bit more claustrophobic.

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    tuxfool

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    @dussck: Would have felt as artificial as the firefighters, to have token citizens.

    It should also be noted that the "city" itself isn't really structured like a livable place. It is more like a pastiche of a city in a playground format.

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    Homelessbird

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    Without a doubt the most poetic description of a guy showing off a PC mod that I've ever read.

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    porjos

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    #43  Edited By porjos

    Austin - you're a brilliant writer. I find myself looking forward to you articles!

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    Shindig

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    @shindig: Batman does it because, let's be honest, the writers want the villains to survive so they can write more stories about them. The best writers give Batman justification to spare them, though. Two-Face, the Riddler, Mr. Freeze, the Penguin, and Harley Quinn have all had story arcs where they reform (albeit temporarily, because status quo...), where they're humanized and made more than just a card-carrying villain. Giving people a chance to improve themselves rather than just murdering them or locking them up is a huge theme in the Batman mythos, and just having Batman kill them would destroy that aspect of it (and much of what makes Batman a compelling, conflicted hero rather than yet-another-forgotten-90s-antihero).

    You can make a case for the Joker being irredeemable, but why is it Batman's responsibility to kill him rather than the state's? They've had the opportunity to execute him plenty of times. Why give Batman crap for following a guideline we demand of our own police? Why call Batman an idiot for realizing the middle of a fight or investigation is not the best time to make a life-or-death decision?

    Because as soon as Batman loses his purpose he becomes just another one of the crazies. He does not want this to end, even in the face of a city in a perpetual state of chaos with authorities enveloped by corruption. The best thing he could do is off Joker. Send a damn message, Bruce.

    • Harley loses the love of her life (and her controlling influence) which gives the state incentive to rehabilitate her
    • Pengiun's all like, "Crikey, I want no part of that."
    • Riddler's not bothered because all he does is trophies and terrible puns now
    • Mr. Freeze is a man of science so whatevers.
    • And then Bruce takes his mask off allowing police to prosecute him. Dent takes to the bar and becomes a proper DA again. We can fix your face, mate.

    Consolidate all your villains in one easy lump sum.

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    vsharres

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    Great piece @austin_walker, that got me thinking...

    Maybe that is one of the reasons the games are named Arkham in the first place. If the name of the second and third games were, Batman: Gotham City and Batman: Gotham Knight we would naturally assume the games would have had a better representation of Gotham. By calling them Arkham games, they are already implying the games are set in an sterile environment dominated by "criminals" and devoid of everyday citizen, but I agree that is kind of a bummer, and a miss opportunity. I wish they went in the direction of having the full experience of Gotham, I would present more interesting mechanics/story lines.

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    ExK4

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    Smart points.

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    SnideInsinuations

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    I've always felt this way about the Arkham games - and a lot of other games that deal with cities. It feels like they've created the perfect environment to tell a story about a teeming, lively city, and then shoved a post-apocalyptic sense of emptiness into it that feels more suited to environments out of Fallout or The Last of Us. Hell, even those games feel a lot more alive. Where there should be a story about dealing with people, there's just a big arena in which to beat them up.

    Great piece as always, Austin.

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    NoneSun

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    My fav piece from Austin on this site. This is the kinda stuff I wanted to see.

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    Fredchuckdave

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    @austin_walker: This is what I did when I got in the diner, seems to have aligned well with your approach:

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