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Arkham Asylum Handled Lore Better Than Most Batman Stories - By Ignoring It

Push past lore dumps and get to the plot, first.

Arkham Asylum doesn’t begin with a lore dump. It doesn’t ask the player to relive the tragedy of the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne — perennially dead parents of young Master Bruce. We don’t get an elaborate scene that shows the rise and fall of the criminal Joker, or his transformation from a small-time schlub into a big-time clown. We’re plopped right down into a world in which Batman and Joker are at odds with one another, the rotting Gotham already exists as a living, breathing supervillain factory, and Arkham Asylum works as a trap to filter out the most devastating among them. There’s no buildup. There’s no elaborate construction. We’re given brute facts and asked to adapt to them. This, I think, is the best way to create a story in a video game.

Of course, Arkham Asylum gets to cheat a little bit. Batman is one of the most widespread and popular pieces of intellectual property on the planet. Chances are that anyone booting up Arkham Asylum will know a thing or two about The Greatest Detective On Earth. The plot was penned by Paul Dini, creator of Harley Quinn and scribe of Batman: The Animated Series, and even transplanted much of that show’s voice talent. You could easily picture this first game as a continuation of that particular canon.

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But I still appreciate its move straight into plot, with the intention to backfill everything else later. That’s because it fundamentally relies on evocation — of calling on information from another place for which you don’t have full context. Arkham Asylum relies on you rolling with the punches and accepting that what is happening all makes sense within itself, and in doing so it gets right to the heart of punching and kicking and hollering and all the other gruff stuff the Batman does.

This is in stark contrast with so many other games. The Witcher 3 needs you to understand complex geopolitics and a fascinating set of interpersonal relationships… that might not register clearly until halfway through the game. Death Stranding needs you to sit and listen to a relentless avalanche of information to give context for yet more information that is occasionally punctuated by Tactical FedEx Action. And even my beloved Dark Souls, the game known for obliqueness and a lack of clear narrative, gives you a history lesson on the world and a knightly quest to follow in its opening cutscene.

What Arkham Asylum does with its narrative is something I find compelling across all media. When Fury Road drops us into a situation with a light and singular minute of context, before the plot spins up, we get this wonderful sense that there’s a whole universe spinning around these events — but they do not matter. What matters is what the characters can do. They’re not thinking about the far future and they’re rarely dwelling on the past. The things right in front of them take up all their vision, all of their mental processes, and we’re so tightly locked into their perspective that we can’t see the god’s eye view of it all.

Batman Arkham Asylum Lore

The Clown Prince of Wasting My Time

This is, I think, also part of the reason some DC Comics adaptations have been so successful where others have floundered. Films like Batman Begins and the more recent Joker lean into the fact that these characters are iconic for specific reasons. It’s not just that we have a sunk cost, culturally, in all the weird hours we’ve spent reading and watching these figures smash into each other like cheap plastic toys. It also has to do with their mythical and one-dimensional quality.

A man uses a lot of money to dress up like a bat and beat people up. He’s doing it for vengeance. Another guy has had it up to here with the world treating him unfairly. He’s going to dress up like a buffoon and show them the cruel reflection that (he thinks) they so justly deserve. It’s cartooning as a narrative method: a thin slice of characterization that justifies a focus on fast-moving plot.

In short, this lore-light approach is a way of more tightly aligning the viewer (or the player) with the character. Batman is the night, and we’re the Bat, living up there in his headspace with Joker and bombs and Poison Ivy, and all the other things lined up like dominoes in a plot that stretches from the first moments arriving at Arkham to the final boss battle.

Batman Arkham Asylum Lore

Unstoppable Forces

And this isn’t something that only works within the context of big intellectual property games. Smaller games that I love, like Trackless and The Last Door, find their strength in allowing you to think about how characters you embody will deal with the scenario right in front of them at any given moment. There’s no digging into the extensive backstory to find motivation. There’s no reference to a novel or a comic book or some kind of elaborate setup that you should have just known to check. There’s simply a gameplay relationship from which you develop a way of understanding how everyone is making decisions.

It’s not that a thousand years ago a giant orb made people do things. It’s not that there are some extremely ancient scrolls that matter. It’s that here’s one thing — one evil clown in a crumbling hospital — and it will smash into something else so spectacularly that you cannot help but want to follow the resonance of the impact.

Maybe I’d prefer everything to be this way. Never thinking about stars or their wars again, or how that powerful ring came to be, or about stones of power and the time heist that rewards us for having sunk a hundred hours into franchises… And even if I have to live with those franchises for the rest of my days (I will), I’d at least like to get Arkham Asylum-style stories out of them. Don’t tell me how Han got his last name. Just put me in his boots and let me start blasting Greedos. No explanation. No expectation of knowledge. Just. Clean. Plot.

About the Author

Cameron Kunzelman