Arkham City: Moral Confusion

You’re only allowed to go so far in the side-quests before you start reaching stuff that requires equipment unlocked by progress the main story. So I’ve more or less switched over to advancing the plot for a while, only collecting Riddler Trophies when they’re right in front of me. Let’s talk about the plot.

The main striking thing about it is that it isn’t the simple good-vs-evil story we normally associate with Batman. For one thing, the bad guys are spending a lot of time fighting each other: there’s a big gang war going on between Penguin, Joker, and Two-Face. I haven’t really been following the details, but the goons on the street talk about it a lot, in incidental chatter you can eavesdrop on. The very first thing that happens in the game is that Catwoman, under the player’s control, tries to rob Two-Face. Penguin has a couple of other villains locked up in display cases in his museum-fortress. I suppose this is what happens when you isolate Batman villains from society. They turn on one another because there aren’t enough innocent victims to go around.

This may well be the point of the prison. It’s all something of a big social experiment, run by semi-obscure villain Hugo Strange, an outwardly-respectable psychologist with ulterior motives and schemes involving hypnosis and mind control. You hear Strange’s voice over the facility’s PA system once in a while, being sanctimonious and authoritarian, informing the inmates that they bear sole blame for their own presence here and that the he relies on the criminals and sociopaths of the city to distribute food fairly and the like. He’s clearly set things up to fail, and the big question is: Why? He’s gone to a great deal of effort, and expended massive municipal resources, to turn an entire district of Gotham City into a pressure-cooker of social unrest run by the very worst. It’s worth noting here that Strange is among the few people to have figured out Batman’s secret identity, and that he most likely threw Bruce Wayne into Arkham City specifically for the effects Batman would have there. What’s it all for? All I know is the words “Protocol Ten”.

Putting a bad guy in charge of Gotham’s big open-air prison puts Batman himself in an unusual position. Normally, he’s all in favor of incarceration. For the most part, the major villains are here because he facilitated their capture. Some of the goon chatter expresses puzzlement over why Batman is there at all — what’s the point, when they’re already being punished? And it’s a fair question. The system is clearly a mockery of justice, and he’s there to end it. But the people he’s rescuing by doing so aren’t just the sort of people he normally beats up, they are in fact the very same people he spends his time beating up for large portions of the game.

And to add to the moral confusion, he repeatedly forms alliances with the bad guys. It starts with him rescuing Catwoman from Two-Face, which is sort of a gentle introduction to the theme, considering their relationship. But then the Joker, who’s dying from the aftereffects of the Titan formula from the end of Arkham Asylum and desperately looking for a cure, infects Batman, along with a number of other random innocents, with the same substance to force him to help in the endeavor. The only person close to developing a cure turns out to be Mister Freeze, so Batman has to rescue him from the clutches of the Penguin. Freeze then needs a blood sample from the unique centuries-old biology of Ra’s al-Ghul to finish his work, and that’s about where I am in the story. I don’t know yet if Ra’s is going to be another temporary alliance, but given their history, it seems likely. He’s not going to pass up an opportunity to make Batman fight on his side.

I mentioned how Lego Batman let you make any two characters fight together in Free Play mode, so that Batman and the Joker could be punching cops side-by-side (or, for that matter, punching the Joker’s own henchmen, which isn’t really out of character for the Joker). But that was clearly outside the story. Arkham City winds up in a similar place, and it does it meaningfully. I had expected that a story where nearly everyone is a criminal would simply be one where Batman is free to treat them all as enemies, but instead, the writers use it to make the “enemy” label less important.

At least, for the named characters. The goons on the street are still basically there for you to beat up.

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