Arkham Asylum, and the space of traumatic memory

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Batman: Arkham Asylum holds many surprises. But most surprising of all is its thematisation of trauma.

(Beware considerable Arkham Asylum spoilers.)

Batman: Arkham Asylum was not a game I was looking forward to. Rarely is there much to be said for licensed tie-ins, and so far, the Dark Knight has lead a rather forgettable life through digital media.

Yet Arkham Asylum is more than a good use of a license. In fact, it’s more than a treasured Good Game, all in capital letters, with the twin stars of solid mechanics and decent storyline pinned on its chest.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is that rare beast: the game that has something to say.

Throughout Batman’s all-brawling and all-stealthing battle to restore order to Arkham Asylum and save Gotham, there are three confrontations with villain, The Scarecrow. As in Warner Bros.’ Batman Begins, Scarecrow uses his fear toxins on the caped crusader to great effect. But this time, instead of vicariously showing us Batman’s fear through the medium of cinema, it forces us, the players, to relive it, to be scared by it, and to overcome it.

By manipulating the design and the spatial strengths of videogames, Arkham Asylum dares us to step into the gaze of traumatic memory.

All three of the Scarecrow ‘dreamscapes’ begin without clear indication. They creep up on the player, slowly suturing them into regular play and the regular spaces we traverse as Batman. They all revolve around Batman’s fear of failure; the one fear that haunts him and possibly, the fear that has created him as a vigilante. This fear manifests itself in the protection of Police Commissioner Jim Gordon and Batman’s own death: but most importantly, it embodies Bruce Wayne’s traumatic failure to save his parents – the failure that inspired him to become The Batman.

The first two encounters with Scarecrow directly lead us through this failure. In the first, we approach it obliquely: we see the Waynes at the morgue in body bags. They talk to us:

“You should have stood up to him, son, like a man!”

“Help us, Bruce! Don’t let us die!”

Yet we already know that Bruce has failed. As a child, he could have done nothing, yet as an adult, that is irrelevant: the memory of failure haunts him, and creates his strength as a vigilante. It is how he deals with this memory that differentiates him from the criminal inmates of Arkham Asylum. The third interview recording of the Joker found at Arkham is illustrative:

“What are you scared of? There’s obviously something that made you what you are.”

Almost all characters in the Batman universe, and in particular, in Arkham Asylum, are “made” by a traumatic history. According to the game, Killer Croc was “raised by an alcoholic aunt and was bullied relentlessly for his appearance”. Bane was “imprisoned from birth to serve his dead father’s sentence”. We hear the long and traumatic story of Amadeus Arkham, who founded the asylum after euthanising his mother for dementia; eventually, he was admitted to his own institution.

The key to these characters, and to Arkham Asylum, lies in their response to trauma. Killer Croc, Bane, and Amadeus all allowed their traumatic memory to become them.

Bruce Wayne, the game suggests, forces himself to become his trauma.

The surprising thing about Batman: Arkham Asylum is that this is not merely a theme running through the game’s narrative elements (as indeed, it is a theme running through the Batman franchise as a whole). It is the game.batman2

In their encounters with Scarecrow, the player runs through a series of platform-esque environments, timing movement to avoid the Scarecrow’s burning gaze. These segments of the game are meant to be metaphorical; the real fight, as we see in one cutscene, seems to be a more usual brawl. The player is instead playing out Batman’s mental battle against the fear toxins.

“Dare to step into my gaze,” taunts Scarecrow. In this case, the metaphor could not be clearer. You must avoid the light, the danger, the power of memory to become you. You must make your own way through these spaces of traumatic memory, facing your own (literal) demons and overcoming them.

Finally, you must shine your own light, your own gaze on memory. Just as Batman becomes his own trauma, your gaze must prevail over that of memory’s. Arguably, this may be a simple restatement of Freud’s theories on failure to cope with psychological trauma, as in Mourning and Melancholia (1917). Pop culture has been restating this for decades: dating all the way back to Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), which sees Ingrid Bergman bring Gregory Peck back from a traumatic abyss, saving him from his own failures.

Simple as it may be, it is the utilisation of the medium of the videogame that allows it to work in Arkham Asylum. It is the creation of these spaces of memory, the literalisation of themes within gameplay without being overwrought that allows it to work. But it is the final interweaving of the player’s own trauma – however slight that may be – that allows Arkham Asylum to stand apart.

Sigmund_Freud_LIFEThe final Scarecrow instalment is perhaps the best, though it is least involved with Batman’s traumatic memories. Instead, the designers move the space of trauma, for a handful of fleeting moments, out of the console and into the player’s space.

My own memories of the sequence illustrate it best. I knew I was nearing the end of Arkham Asylum. Walking down a regular hallway, I swiftly defeated two enemies with ease. I was proud of my achievements and my skills: I took down both enemies without taking a single hit. I had progressed from the skill-less button-basher that began the game.

But then, disaster. Arkham Asylum glitched. Batman froze in place as the game gave an awful scream of console error.

Then, nothing.

My Xbox 360 was dead. At best, two weeks of waiting while Microsoft repaired my white box lay flashed before my eyes, and as I had waited impatiently the last time my 360 red-ringed, I would wait impatiently again. My 360 and PlayStation 3 lay side-by-side, equally pathetic in their uselessness (my in-warranty PS3’s drive had died many months ago, but as it was an import console, was refused to be treated by Sony). No games for two weeks.

Then the game restarted. The opening cinematic began. I was certain my progress was lost, although I was somewhat relieved my console appeared to be okay again.

In the cinematic, instead of Batman, the Joker appeared. They’d switched places. This was no console error. This was design.

This was the final Scarecrow segment.

Judging by the reactions of friends who’ve played the game, by the comments from the YouTube videos of that section, and from forums, I’m not alone in my reaction. For what seems like the vast majority of players, this sequence conjured up the memories and fears of dead consoles past, or at least a shared memory for gamers lucky enough to have so far escaped console illness.

It is a stretch to say that this is trauma. The break down of a gaming device does not prompt clinically-diagnosable mourning and melancholia. But it is hard to think of a different example that would effect all gamers in such a way: console breakdown is, for now, embedded in our consciousness.

This is why Arkham Asylum works. For an unforgettable instant, it embeds the themes of the game in your own life, reaching past the controllable, dismissible space inside your widescreen television and into the room you play in. By using the cultural signs and symbols common to videogames in 2009, Arkham Asylum steps beyond simple restatement to thematic experience.

It’s this that videogames need to do more often. Not the individual experiences the game gives you, and not even the meta-approach of reaching past the limitations of the game itself. It’s building themes throughout the whole game that is Batman’s lesson. It is building them through every inch of code and design that is Arkham Asylum’s strength.

It is this that means Arkham Asylum will remain, just like the trauma it thematises, unforgotten.


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Daniel Golding

Daniel Golding is a Melbourne-based writer and PhD student, and a founding editor of RedKingsDream. You may follow Daniel on Twitter, or view his online portfolio here.

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14 comments

  1. It’s a real treat to find something meaningful in a game that’s trying to be all things to everyone. As a fan of the Nolan films I assumed the darker themes would be underplayed, with a stronger focus on the bubblegum batman.

    The unfolding nightmare sequences stand out as that rare example of interactive storytelling over controller resting cut scenes, and I hope it’s something that shows up in more big budget games.

    It’s what good licensed tie-ins should be, a simulation of what it feels like to be the hero, warts and all. That I feel like batman in combat & movement is one thing, that I’m able to share the same mindset as the hero is another thing entirely.

  2. I played the game on PC. The glitch was not some horrifying hardware failure that made my heart stop, but a familiar aspect of playing games on a PC I had built myself. I’ve recently been trying to play MW2 and STALKER, but something about the graphic settings I’m using causes my video card to overheat and restart my computer. Batman’s glitches just made me raise my eyebrow for half a second before I realized what was happening.

    I guess you have a point, but we’re now talking about the metagame. Batman: AA on Xbox 360 in front of a flatscreen TV, as you say. Batman: AA on my randomly restarting PC is another thing altogether.

  3. uhhh..Not MW2, obviously. I meant GRAW2. Anyway…

  4. @enwandrews: Yeah, to me, the most effective, and even most important type of media is the mainstream type that has a message or a meaning hidden underneath barefaced appeals to a huge audience. Arkham Asylum fits in here, though perhaps the message isn’t hugely important, but it’s only one of a handful of games that does so. I’d like to see more.

    @Michael: Thanks for dropping by – I did wonder how someone on PC would respond to the ‘glitch’, as it brings far less of the baggage over. I wonder if Rocksteady Studios could have incorporated something more specific, like the blue screen of death? Or would that have been too hokey/obvious?

  5. [...] Kings Dream: Arkham Asylum and the space of traumatic memory Daniel Golding suggests there’s a moment in Arkham Asylum where Batman’s trauma becomes [...]

  6. Eternal Darkness on the gamecube has also done the whole ‘screw with your head’ thing. I beleive at the time one of the best ‘glitches’ was that when I tried to save my game it gave an error and then the screen started a progress indicator for ‘deleting game save files’

  7. @Gbrut: Yeah, actually, fellow RKD writer Harry Milonas made the exact same point prior to posting this article. It’s certainly an interesting approach. I never played Eternal Darkness, but I meant to at the time. I guess though the only difference, as Harry pointed out, would be that I would expect that sort of thing from a game like Eternal Darkness, given that the whole thing is about insanity, whereas Arkham Asylum never displayed this sort of tendency before release. It’s only when you start to play it that the theme of trauma (and borderline insanity) starts to shine through.

    Thanks for dropping by!

  8. @Gbrut: I hear you – I knew it was coming, and yet it *still* caught me by surprise. Whether that’s a comment on the degree to which we internalise the fourth wall, even when we know better, or on my own my magpie-like ability to focus for long periods of time, I’m not entirely sure …

    @Daniel: I’d debate whether or not it’s Arkham Asylum specifically; Miller’s take on Batman was pretty grim and focused fairly heavily on mental and physical trauma. In that sense, the game remained true to the ethos on which it was based. I’d argue that the execution is excellent, but on the same token they’ve been lucky enough to have drawn from one of the richest veins of graphic novel material.

    Of course, seeing as so many others have utterly failed to do anything worthwhile even when presented with excellent source material, you can’t exactly undersell what they delivered. Watchmen, for example?

  9. Oh yeah, certainly Arkham Asylum isn’t doing anything new with the franchise in developing themes of mental trauma. The comics have been there for decades. But it’s certainly doing something new in the videogame world; the extent to which the game is bathed in the themes of its source material is pretty unusual.

  10. [...] “Arkham Asylum, and the space of traumatic memory” This is why Arkham Asylum works. For an unforgettable instant, it embeds the themes of the game in your own life, reaching past the controllable, dismissible space inside your widescreen television and into the room you play in. By using the cultural signs and symbols common to videogames in 2009, Arkham Asylum steps beyond simple restatement to thematic experience. [...]

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