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.
Black Mask’s hired rogues’ gallery is mostly composed of Gotham’s C-list villains. As opposed to Year One and Batman Begins, which had villainy immediately give rise to supervillainy, Arkham Origins seems to be aiming for a smoother transition between the two. Each assassin sports his or her own unique science-fiction gimmick. That makes characters like Electrocutioner and Deadshot more than mere hoodlums, but something less than the super-powered threats Batman will have to overcome by the time we see him in Arkham Asylum.
As players defeat these villains, we’ll be taking an active part in Batman’s transformation. Any Batman origin story features a less experienced crime-fighter, more rough around the edges and vulnerable than later iterations of the character. By putting us into that role, Warner Bros has an opportunity to make us feel more connected to the myth of his creation. Rather than seeing him invent gadgets, we’ll see their necessity to his current tasks. Instead of the hyper-competent superhero he becomes, he’ll actually feel threatened by standard crime.
Batman himself is the catalyst for supercrime.
But clearly, Batman won’t cut his teeth entirely on mundane thugs and mob bosses. Joker is present in the background, representing a much more serious shift in tone. As in Year One and the Nolan trilogy, Joker in the Arkhamverse is a force of nature: uncontrollable, unyielding chaos to counter Batman’s stony efficiency. Warner Bros Games hasn’t given much indication of the Clown Prince’s role in Arkham Origins, but his presence in this formative stage of Batman’s creation seems to indicate that same theme of transformation. Many comics have implied that Batman himself is the catalyst for supercrime. One episode of the lauded cartoon Batman: The Animated Series even has the villains taking Batman to their own kangaroo court for his role in their creation. An earlier glimpse into his career, as gimmick-based villains are starting to come into their own, could reinforce that narrative.
Zero Year, a currently-running series, has hinted at elements of later stories always waiting for Batman, just under the surface. The retroactive continuity has added a much more personal background to villains like Edward Nygma (The Riddler) and Oswald Cobblepot (Penguin). These characters are not only present earlier in Bruce’s life, but serve as key players in the business politics and family drama that surrounds Batman’s first encounters with organized crime. Inasmuch as Arkham Origins promises cameos from characters like the Joker, it could also offer groundwork for villains that will pay off much later.
Arkham Origins seems utterly uninterested in building villains with detailed backstories of their own.
On the other hand, Arkham Origins seems utterly uninterested in building villains with detailed backstories of their own. All of the villains we’ve seen simply are as they always were: Black Mask is a crime boss, and his hired guns were always assassins as far as Bruce is concerned. This is a marked change from many comics, which have gone to great lengths to explore the villains’ backgrounds in detail.
Joker, in particular, has received conflicting origin accounts, both as the leader of a gang called Red Hood and later rewritten in The Killing Joke as patsy strong-armed by Red Hood into cooperating. Recently, Zero Year partially resolved the conflict by painting a scenario in which Batman was left unsure which possibility may be the truth. We’ve seen no indication that Red Hood appears in Arkham Origins, so it seems unlikely that WB is keen on navigating that canonical minefield. It is named “Origins,” but that word appears to apply strictly to the Bat himself.
And maybe that’s for the best. The Arkham series has been hailed as one of the best superhero video game franchises, largely for its uncanny understanding of how to put players into Batman’s black boots. Rocksteady understood that the appeal of a Batman game lies mostly in feeling like the Bat. At the same time, we’ve always been playing toward an objective. We know what Batman is supposed to be, and so anything we’ve done is a reflection of that image. If this one hits the correct tone, it has an opportunity to be less reactive to Batman’s mythos, and more proactive in crafting our own. The video game medium could allow for something that hasn’t been possible in the myriad retellings: the ability to not just inhabit the character, but to make him.