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Batman Begins Again

Steve Watts | 25 Oct 2013 12:00
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An alley. A gunshot. Pearls shattering. Batman's origins in murky Gotham have been told and retold. That moment, in which a child lost his innocence and decided to forge himself into a weapon, is a potent one. However, it's far from the character's only formative moment. From Batman Begins to Year One to the currently running Zero Year series, various authors and auteurs have tackled the Dark Knight's adolescent phase. Batman: Arkham Origins represents the first time a video game has tackled that part of the tale. In doing so, it has a unique chance to present a level of interactivity that other mediums cannot hope to match. For the first time, we may take an active role in making the Bat.

The tools of empowerment are not just a gameplay element tucked away in the menu, but rather the driving force behind the narrative.

The countless revivals of Batman's origin have been primarily for the sake of giving us context, helping humanize the character, or bringing additional emotional drive to new story elements. But the idea of active participation is natively suited to games. In a medium often driven by empowerment fantasies, Batman stands out as a prime candidate. Video games are often about bettering yourself through new abilities and leveling up. While other Batman games have inhabited the character after he's achieved a certain level of crime-fighting finesse, they've ignored the formative years most closely comparable to the progression path of video games. Arkham Origins is the first instance in which the tools of empowerment are not just a gameplay element tucked away in the menu, but rather the driving force behind the narrative.

Warner Bros Games has signaled this in its own promotional materials. A recent trailer, taking clear tonal cues from Grant Morrison's famously simplified Superman origin story in All-Star Superman, strips the character to its component parts. In less than a minute, we see the young Bruce Wayne go from a carefree child to cold, bullied, scared, angry, and, finally, defiant in the face of danger. The message is unmistakable: this is meant to be a game about transformation. That metamorphosis is central to the character. As Chris Sims noted: "Only a child would think it was possible for one man to end crime, but because he's a child, that's exactly what he decides to do."

And by most indications, he succeeds. Batman: Year One focuses largely on the character learning how to fight ordinary street crime. It's a clear reaction to his parents' victimization at the hands of a faceless thug. He states in Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth: "Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot." The boy that spent years feeling afraid of the criminal element decides to instill that same fear in them. As he digs deeper in Year One, he realizes larger forces are at play. Those hoodlums are often pawns in larger schemes from organized crime. In a Gotham City before characters like Joker and Two-Face, these were the highest order of villainy, and Batman had no qualms about taking them head-on.

Crime itself rises up like it has a life of its own.

Both Year One, and Batman Begins that was heavily influenced by it, end on the same note: escalation. Once Batman has wiped out the usual criminal threat and even sent organized crime running, a new form of villainy rose in its wake. The comics often portray Batman as an element in the creation of his own worst threats, albeit in an indirect fashion. In Year One, we see a hint of the Joker. In Nolan's trilogy, that hint at the end of Batman Begins leads directly into The Dark Knight. We see this new form of super-villainy overwhelm and ultimately compromise the police--the standard, real-world tools of crime-fighting. Just as Batman wiped out normal crime by becoming more powerful than it could handle, crime itself rises up like it has a life of its own.

Arkham Origins has shown hints of this as well. It seems no coincidence that the main antagonist is Black Mask. He's a half-breed of sorts, bridging the gap between old and new crime. His own origin certainly seems fantastical, with a mask grafted to his face, but he has no powers like Killer Croc or Bane. He's a mob boss, the very kind of criminal we saw Batman frighten to compliance in Year One. He is more responsive to Batman, however, so rather than quietly whimper and skip town, he hires a cadre of assassins to kill the Bat. This, too, is a very typical "mob boss" solution, albeit overkill considering that he hires eight of them all at once. Then again, it is Batman.

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