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.
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.
The 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.
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.