Video Game Superheroes Aren’t Very Heroic or Super

Superheroes, at their very core, are power fantasies. They’re about empowering individuals with the ability of righting perceived or real wrongs in the world. Allowing them the ability to quite […]
Superheroes, at their very core, are power fantasies. They’re about empowering individuals with the ability of righting perceived or real wrongs in the world. Allowing them the ability to quite literally mold the individual’s world into a universe that makes relative sense. Most of these stories are centered on entirely heroic individuals who fight for high values against easy-to-distinguish crimes and attacks on society/humanity that we can all recognize as inherently amoral.

Yet, because of the growth the genre across the 20th century, superheroes and the milieus they populate have become more varied in morality breadth and thematically interests. Stories from The Boys’ anti-corporate screed to Hawkeye’s fascination with the (relatively) mundane populate the comic book medium and give readers of superheroes a huge variety of choice in regards to how they consume their favorite genre.
Unfortunately, video games have not been able to measure up to comic books’ variety of superhero stories. At the very core of it, the problem is that big superhero games seem to only be interested in enabling the power fantasy side of video games. The very few games that actually try to engage with the dark side of the power fantasy are often games that try to have their cake and eat it too. Games like BioShock, which center ideas of control and questioning the values of players who engage with their fantasies still fundamentally use the violent and powerful action of the game as their main system of communication with the player, effectively obfuscating the game’s intended goals of questioning the player’s predilections.

Of course, such ambition is preferred to the other approach, which is ignoring the inherent contradictions that permeate the interactive power fantasy. Games like the Arkham Series live and breathe for the notion of allowing the player to be an ultimate paragon for moral right, except that they constantly enable the player to use and abuse his power with a lack of moral consequence. In the particular case of Arkham, the game literally bends the rules of a universe that supposedly works on the same as our own to allow Batman to live with the way he fights criminals. As an example, Batman can use explosive gel in order to dispatch walls and guards a like. And yet, we’re supposed to believe he has never, at the very least, permanently maimed an individual across the run of these games.

This isn’t a call for realism in a game series about a dude who’s so rich that he can afford a one family crusade on crime with beyond-military-grade equipment AND who somehow doesn’t crumble upon the sheer exhaustion that involves leading this double life of his. Rather, this is a call for a moral recalibration of these games. Batman, at his very core, is not just about the fantasy of the common man (at least, in relation to people like Superman) rising among his peers.

Under different authors and across more than 80 years of stories, Batman has meant different things to different readers but I would argue Batman is about confronting tragedy and not letting it eat your soul. Asylum, which is basically the pinnacle of the franchise’s video game writing (not that that’s saying a lot) deals with this core aspect of Batman during the second Scarecrow sequence, a harrowing walk down Memory Lane’s intersection with Crime Alley. As bad as the plot of these games can be (which is mostly because of their need to tie in multiple Batman villains for the sake of fanservice/marketing) Asylum’s details and the various vignettes and scenes that made the game’s body suggested that Paul Dini fundamentally understood what made these characters interesting.

Arkham Asylum is a game where Batman is constantly confronted with his own fears, whether it’s his impact on Gotham City being harmful or a blessing or the notion that his trauma defines him to a dangerous degree. While the plot and story of Asylum leaves those confrontations unresolved in any level, it is only because these are conflicts that Batman has been implied to face so many times in this iteration that he doesn’t really get frozen or question his crusade all of a sudden.

Unfortunately, the brevity of Asylum was replaced with the sprawling nonsense that defines the franchise today. Arkham City, Origins and Knight put Batman in a much bigger playground devoid of civillians for increasingly hard to believe reasons as he’s forced to confront his rogues’ gallery continuously while building up an arsenal that allows him to navigate the world around him AND defeat his various enemies.

The formula has become stagnant and repetitive, without bringing much to the character’s lore or history. Effectively speaking, I would argue that none of the Arkham games are anything like The Dark Knight or Batman: Year One: Stories that bring a new understanding to the character or at the very least, easily galvanize years of writing into a powerful story. And that’s not even touching on the fact that the gameplay is devastatingly repetitive and requires relatively little thinking. The de-emphasization of Batman’s critical thinking skills and the overt focus on Batman’s fighting skills effectively make most aspects of the storytelling harder to be interested in. Watching Batman kick ass in a cutscene is aggressively redundant and watching Batman perform detective work separates the player from Batman to a point that he’s not allowed to effectively interact with the world and the problems it posits or, worse yet, it posits a challenge so simplistic it feels more like padding than an actual game (I speak, of course of Detective Mode’s “Point To Evidence -> Follow Trail” formula)

It’s a sad state of affairs when the best Batman stories in the medium are so easily dragged down by the perceived requirements of video game design. It’s even worse when in actuality, the games in question refuse to engage with the very core of a character who’s practically defined the twentieth century’s comics output and instead choose to reduce him to video game mechanics. And the problem takes full form when the games choose the worst version of Batman, which is the sort of stories that Hush or The Long Halloween are:  synthetic showcases of who Batman’s rogues gallery are who are then repeteadly punched in the face and interrogated menacingly by a one-dimensional detective.

The substantial problem that has plagued the series since the spectacularly crafted Asylum, I feel, is that every game since then has decided to pull the bulk of their game design innovation on the boss fights – and make those fights iconic characters from Batman’s Rogues Galleries. While there’s not a lot of affection for the generic Bane clones from Asylum, I certainly don’t feel a lot of love for the generic fights that reduce characters who are rich in personality and style to the same video game design tropes that often plague boss fights. There’s no world where a fight with Ra’s Al-Ghul should involve Batman dodging little sand tornados from a giant hallucination!God.

And at the core of it, it all comes back to the satisfaction of one aspect of the superhero fantasy. The one that, I would argue, matters the least: fighting the bad guys. Superheroes, like Batman, Superman and any other members of the Justice League, don’t only punch bad dudes and dudettes. They represent an ethical and moral paragon for our society. They offer their very best not just to save lives/fight evil and corruption but to showcase that you can survive this world without sacrificing your strong moral core.

And at the core of it, the fault might not be with the Arkham series but rather with video games themselves. It’s ridiculously hard to think of games with budgets that go out of their way to do something other than allow the player to enact power fantasies. And this includes even the benevolent kind, like Mass Effect’s diplomacy resolution challenges. There are very few games where we are asked to stay our hands unless it’s convenient to do so, either for the plot or for gameplay purposes, and the fundamental problem might just be that, as a culture, the West has focused more and more on the unbearable lightness of violence as an easy way of tapping into our collective lizard brain.
Not to say that the Arkham games should not be action games. But rather that the Arkham games manage to capture so little of what makes Batman an eternally enduring figure for people like me entirely because big budget video games are dedicated to not evolving past the necessity for action that drives up demand in most demographics substantially. And that the reason this is incredibly sad is because it’s the clearest representation of the problem that we have in our culture of adaptations, where our duty is not to expand but to reduce and simplify in order to amplify the market reach.