Archive for 2021

SHCD: Garden Path

I said previously that the structure of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, and the static nature of the text, means that the basic resources available in all the cases can never answer questions you didn’t have at the very beginning of the case. I should have said “shouldn’t” instead of “can’t”. It took until case 4 for me to encounter out-of-sequence information, but it happened.

The first four cases have something of a progression in Holmes’ involvement. In case 1, he’s active for the entire introduction, handling the initial questioning before sending you out on your own. Case 2 is similar, but Holmes talks less — admittedly, mostly because Inspector Lestrade spends most of the scene delivering monologues. In case 3, he actually rushes out the door before the intro is over, trusting you to handle things while he pursues a completely different case. (I wish his trust were more warranted!) And in case 4, he doesn’t show up at all, just leaving you a note indicating that there’s something of interest in the day’s newspaper.

This leaves some ambiguity. There are two articles in the paper that present apparently separate mysteries: one involving a pair of dead lions that appeared in Hyde Park, the other of a sailor who fell dead in the street for no obvious reason. Now, the case is titled “The Lionized Lions”, so it’s obvious to the player which is item is the important one. But the player characters sometimes express confusion about it, and will ask the people they question about either or even both mysteries, as appropriate. And if you pursue both investigations far enough, you can find a suggestion that they’re connected. So I felt somewhat cheated when Holmes’ analysis didn’t involve the sailor at all, and none of the end-of-case questions had anything to do with that side of things.

I feel like this entire extended red herring is the game turning up the difficulty, on the assumption that you’ve got the basics down now and need more of a challenge to keep things interesting. But of course I haven’t got the basics down. This is something that a game on a computer can deal with a lot more easily than a game made entirely of paper. A truly interactive mystery can test you and make sure you don’t progress faster than your ability. Heck, even Pandemic Legacy slows things down when you fail.

SHCD: Scoring and Progression

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective doesn’t simply expect you to solve cases for the pleasure of figuring them out. No, that stuff is gamified. When you’re satisfied with your investigation — and only you can say when this happens — you turn to the back of the case booklet and answer a series of questions, including “Whodunit?” but also including other pertinent details. Each correct answer scores a number of points indicated with the question, with tangential questions scoring lower. Then you subtract five points for each location you visited over par. (Equivalently, you could say that every location costs 5 points, but you get a certain number of points for free.)

In three cases, I have yet to score above zero, and have not once correctly identified whodunit.

It must be said that this may just be the result of a solo attempt at a game intended for a team. More eyes means fewer details go unnoticed, right? Except that the one time I did attempt the game with a team, it didn’t make a lot of difference.

There’s another factor, though. The text casts the player(s) not as Sherlock Holmes, but as sundry unnamed Baker Street Irregulars, former street urchins led by the now-grown-up Wiggins, studying under Holmes to learn his methods. When the optimal solution is presented, it’s presented as the solution Holmes came up with. His solution is always worth 100 points by fiat; it is this that establishes par. So, you can see the player’s failures as an essential part of the Holmes story. The point is not to equal Holmes, but to stand in awe of him. To get it wrong so he can impress you by getting it right. The main difference from conventional Holmes stories, then, is that a conventional story presents you with all the information the author wants you to have, while SHCD lets you miss crucial data entirely, and what’s worse, implies that it’s your own damn fault. Someone will make an offhand mention of going to the theater, and if you don’t take this as a cue to visit that theater yourself, you won’t see the thing that makes sense of the whole case. Sometimes the questions at the end will reference characters you’ve never heard of.

So it’s something of a guessing-game, and something of a maze — each node leading to other nodes, some of those nodes being dead ends. But it’s a peculiar sort of maze, in that there’s no exit, no definite goal. And yet, I do have a sense of progression.

In case 1, I failed because I went for the solution too soon, hoping to maximize my score by minimizing locations visited and falling for what I now see as a fairly flimsy red herring. In case 2, I corrected and even overcorrected that mistake, but still failed to interpret the clues correctly. In case 3, even though I missed a crucial turning, I at least managed to see the significance of all the physical evidence at the crime scene, figure out one of the story’s major revelations, and answer fully half of the questions at the end correctly. The points from those questions were entirely wiped out by visiting too many locations, but I’m less worried about that: once I actually solve a case, I can start thinking about maximizing my score. The point is, I’m learning how the whole thing works. If it’s still too dependent on reading the author’s mind for my liking, at least I’m getting better at reading the author’s mind.

This kind of progression also fits the narrative frame well. You are, after all, supposed to be learning. I’m not sure I believe any of this is entirely deliberate — it seems to me quite possible that the author(s) intended each case to be solvable but underestimated the difficulty and didn’t do enough playtesting. But the possibility makes me wonder what else today’s narrative designers could do with the format.

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders & other cases

I’ve had an unopened copy of the first volume of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective on my board game shelf for some time now, and decided to finally give it a solo try during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. This isn’t really my first experience with the game, though: the 1991 FMV game based on it was one of the first CD-ROMs I purchased, back when CD-ROMs were new and exciting. Apparently the cases in that overlap somewhat with what I’m currently playing, but it’s distant enough that I remember nothing. Also, I played one case from a later volume with a board game group a few years ago. The group failed to solve the case, and, on reading the solution, declared it to be basically nonsense, full of suppositions that didn’t really follow from the evidence, and so we didn’t do any of the other cases. But the fellow who had brought the game told us that the earlier volumes were better in that regard, and that’s why I bought the first.

Although it’s packaged like a board game, and the instructions describe it as an activity for multiple players, it’s fundamentally more like a gamebook, a work of semi-interactive fiction like a Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy book, based around reading text passages in a nonlinear, reader-determined sequence. The closest thing it has to a game board is a map of London, marked up with numbers for all the locations referenced in the cases, but this just a reference tool, and hasn’t even been useful in solving the two cases I’ve gone through so far. Structurally, the main thing that separates it from other gamebooks is that the passages aren’t even partially ordered. Instead of each passage linking to its own set of what-happens-next, each passage corresponds to a location (most locations being linked to a person) that you can visit any time you want. (In other words, it’s more like Her Story.) This does not mean there’s no sense of progression whatever: gating is done through player knowledge. You start a case knowing that A, B, and C are persons of interest; you look up A’s passage and he mentions person D, who you didn’t know about previously but who you now know to also visit. (Passage lookup is mediated through a lengthy address directory, shared by all the cases, to maintain secrecy about what things each case makes available.) It does, however, mean that, as the game state is in your head, it cannot affect the content of passages. There are certain resources that are always available from the beginning — public records, informants, contacts at Scotland Yard and the Foreign Office and so forth. It’s tempting to consult them about things discovered late in a case, but due to their position at the head of the discovery tree, you can only ever ask them about the very basis of the case.

Although the game is clearly part of the same lineage as the Dennis Wheatley crime dossiers, the emphasis here is, as I say, on deducing from things described in text, rather than on examining physical evidence included in the package. In that regard, it’s a lot like reading the stories that inspired it and trying to solve the mystery as you go along. The closest thing it has to feelies is the enclosed single-sheet newspapers, which are still text-based, but are nonetheless artifacts from the world of the story that you can hold in your hand, providing physical proof of the fiction’s reality. Most of the articles in the newspapers are irrelevant to the cases, giving an impression of a larger world of which the cases are only a part. Best of all, though, they provide interlinking. The cases occur on specific dates, in sequence, and can use information from not just that date’s newspaper, but also all the newspapers from all earlier cases. One of the best moments the game has delivered so far was in case 2, when I speculatively looked back at the news for case 1 just to see what I could find, and learned that a man I wished to find and question, as he had been corresponding with the deceased shortly before his murder, had been declared dead several months earlier.

I’ll have more to say about the experience tomorrow, after I get another case or two under my belt.

Baba Is You: New Adventures

A Monster’s Expedition wasn’t the only sokoban-like to get an update with a whole lot of new content recently! Baba Is You got its first truly major update a couple of weeks ago, including a level editor and two additional campaigns designed for people who completed the original. One, called “Museum”, is a collection of unused levels (although I don’t think they can really be called unused now that they’ve been published) and new variations on familiar ones, and it uses the same collections of words and concepts as the original game, except for one addition: signposts containing developer commentary. The other, “New Adventures”, introduces a number of exciting new concepts, and this is by far the more interesting part to me.

New Adventures introduces quite a few new object sprites, including simple geometric shapes (Circle, Square, Triangle), animals (Dog, Cat, Bird), food items (Banana, Donut) and even a couple of new friends for Baba and Keke: the shaggy Fofo, the llama-like Jiji. I haven’t really warmed to these interlopers. Somehow the new “characters” feel like they go against the grain more than all the other objects, even though they’re exactly equivalent in gameplay terms: like all sprites, they’re just empty containers for properties assigned by rules. The only new objects that really have special properties of their own are a set of musical instruments, which can be made to play notes, a pure amusement that doesn’t affect the puzzles.

No, the interesting part is in the new attributes and relations. There are many. The relation EAT, for example, lets one type of object consume a specified other type, which is elementary enough that in retrospect it’s a little surprising that it wasn’t in the original — the closest it came is probably the OPEN/SHUT rules, which were considerably less direct. Another example: BROKEN, an attribute that cancels out all other attributes. This has obvious applications as both a tool and a hindrance, which is always a good sign for a puzzle game element. Sometimes a single BROKEN rule can even be both in succession. I think my favorite addition so far, though, is FEELING, which makes a rule conditional on an attribute — for example, FLAG FEELING MOVE IS WIN would grant flags the WIN attribute when and only when they also have the MOVE attribute. This not only enables all sorts of wacky conditionals, it also makes a place in puzzles for attributes that would otherwise have no mechanical effects. The original campaign had one room with the attributes RED and BLUE, and all they did was change the color of sprites; now, you can have rules where changing an object’s color also changes how you can interact with it.

The main disappointing thing about the game has always been that, because the designer doesn’t like re-using tricks, a lot of concepts are introduced, used in a small number of levels, and never seen again. The new content happily gets some extra mileage out of previously-underused words like GROUP, but the newly-introduced words can fall into the same pattern. There are a few cases where I consider this positive, though. There’s a new attribute that can make turns advance automatically, transforming the game from turn-based to real-time — useful for those musical amusements, but irksome elsewhere, because it transforms it into a different kind of game, one that it’s not well-suited to being. The attribute that shifts you into a first-person 3D view has this problem even worse. It’s a 3D view based on the same blocky and abstract sprites as the regular game, creating a sort of Bard’s Tale-but-more-primitive look, which means it’s difficult to judge distances and you essentially have to memorize the level layout while it’s still 2D and comprehensible. Also, this won’t be a problem for most people, but in my current circumstances, the concept of YOU2 is troublesome. With my right hand still sore from injury, part of the appeal of the game is that it can easily be played left-handed, just like A Monster’s Expedition (and for the same reasons). So what does YOU2 do? It gives you a second player-controlled entity, one controlled by each hand. Here’s a feature request: Provide an option to toggle between controlling YOU and YOU2 with a button press. First-person mode already has a similar ability to switch between YOU instances. Consider it an accessibility feature.

Anyway, if you haven’t started on the new content yet, I can’t fully recommend doing so, because it’s still receiving frequent updates, often more than one per day. I recall the original levels had a similar problem when they were new: some levels even got renumbered, replaced with simpler versions and shifted into bonus levels, or even removed entirely. (You can now play the removed levels through the Museum.) Back then, I ultimately restarted the game just to make sure I saw each level in its final form. The new stuff seems a bit stabler than that: levels change internally, but they don’t move around the map. Or maybe they do and I just haven’t noticed.

Still, there’s gobs of delightful new stuff. The New Adventures could have been released as a standalone sequel, and I would have paid for it, and it would have been worth it. Instead, it’s a free update.

Why I Haven’t Been Reviewing Comp Games This Year

Today is the end of the judging period of the 27th annual IF Comp. I have not been posting about it. What’s up with that?

Last year, after playing over a hundred entries, I said that I’d probably skip the Comp if it kept growing at the rate it had been. By September, I even had an alternative in mind, for people who want IF reviews: earlier in the year, the talented and prolific IF author Ryan Veeder announced “club wooby“, a metagame, rewards program, and attention-getting scheme where you earn “buttons” by playing and producing transcripts of his games, and trade them in for Veeder-branded tchotchkes and/or one-of-a-kind handmade felt dinosaur dolls. Although I ignored this at first, dedicating a month to it seemed like a good Comp substitute. I may still do that at some point.

As it turned out, the Comp didn’t grow this year: there were only about 70 entries, a number I would have considered huge a few years ago but which now seems modest and manageable. Aim at playing two a day and you’d easily get through them all within the deadline. So I had a choice to make — or I would have, if I hadn’t suffered a fairly severe wrist injury at the end of September that prevented me from typing or using a mouse with my dominant hand. Playing any form of IF, let alone writing reviews, became too difficult to consider.

I still haven’t fully recovered. Obviously I’m typing now (with both hands, even!), but my capacity for using a mouse right-handed is limited. This has hampered my ability ability to play games, but not eliminated it. I just have to be selective.

One thing I’ve been playing a lot, if you can call it “playing”, is the seminal idle game Cookie Clicker: I’ve made a few goes at it in the past, but its recent Steam release put it back on my radar, and it’s gotten a significant amount of new content since the last time I paid attention to it. The title of the game is a bit misleading: it is not, for the most part, about rapidly clicking on things, and never requires it. Mostly it’s about waiting to afford upgrades to your passive income. It can be played in a more active style, where you’re waiting to click on randomly-appearing “golden cookies” that only last a short time, or it can be played more passively — there are mechanics that reward choosing one play style or the other and sticking to it. And passive mode is basically perfect for satisfying one’s craving for numbers-go-up while other games are unplayable.

I also got back into A Monster’s Expedition, which has the virtue that it can be played perfectly adequately with just the left hand, requiring nothing more than WASD plus Z for undo and R for reset. I had already reached the ending, but I hadn’t found my way to all the optional islands, and in addition, there was an update that added even more islands. This was a little consternating, as I had no way to differentiate the new content from the old-but-unsolved. It’s all just mixed together in the same map. Now, I posted before about how the retreat of the clouds aids completion, showing exactly where the remaining islands are. The new content makes this less of an issue: islands are basically everywhere! I’ve actually found it easier to start over from scratch, carving the cloud cover out of only the immediate vicinity of where I’ve been, as this makes it easier to see which unvisited islands are close enough to bear consideration. Possibly re-solving everything has helped me relearn how the game works, too. Whatever the case, I got severely stuck when just trying to continue from my old save, and have easily outpaced it from the new.

To some extent, I’ve been able to use a controller: unlike keyboards and mice, you essentially operate controllers with your wrists in a fixed pose. In this way, I’ve managed to play most of Teslagrad, a rather good puzzle-oriented Metroidvania themed around magnetism in a Russian-ish steampunky setting. However, as your range of actions increases over the course of the game, eventually it gets to the point where you’re using chords of face buttons and shoulder buttons that would probably be a little awkward even when they’re not actively painful. I want to finish it at some point, but it’ll have to wait until I get my grip strength back.

At any rate, I’m getting better. In fact, over the last two weeks, I managed to do a two-part stream of Return of the Obra Dinn, a game that I had completed before, but which I wanted to solve better. The whole game is about figuring out the grisly fates of the crew of an abandoned Regency-era sailing vessel, using observation and deduction. The game has a way of letting you know you when you have enough information to know someone’s identity, and I wanted to see if I could find the necessary reasoning as soon as the game thought it was possible. (I mostly succeeded, but not entirely.) You can still see the recordings on Twitch if you’re interested. Anyway, this is a first-person game, controlled via mouse and keyboard, and I realized after the first stream that it had been a bad idea: even in a sedate non-action game where you can spend a lot of time standing still and going over your notes, and even using the mouse left-handed where I could, my hand was wrecked by the end. I went ahead with the second stream anyway, hoping that an extra week of healing would make it better, but I’m not doing it again soon.

Arkham City: What It All Means

At its broadest strokes, the story of Arkham City is about a supervillain committing crimes of a sort and scale normally only practiced by nations. He separates out a subset of the population that he holds in contempt, ghettoizes and deprives them of adequate food and warmth and legal recourse, and goads them into retaliating as a pretext for massacre. In his villain rant at the end, he talks about repeating the experiment in other cities, but he needn’t bother. At its core, it’s already a fairly widespread practice.

And it’s fairly significant that the story pits Batman against this system. There’s always been a bit of a fascist streak to the character, surfaced most clearly in the works of Frank Miller, but it’s never simple. The mere fact that he wants to be tough on crime but doesn’t like guns makes him a political anomaly in America, and the story here emphasizes conflicts of that sort. Hugo Strange and Batman have the same goal: a city without crime. They only disagree on the acceptable means toward that end. Batman’s judgment is that the ends don’t justify the means, but he’s still perfectly willing to brutalize the same people as Strange, stopping only at actual killing. 1In the peculiar world of comics and videogames, anyway. Batman is routinely beating people so severely that they’re still lying on the ground unconscious a half an hour later. In real life, this would definitely kill some of them, and cause permanent brain damage to the rest.

The themes are a little confused — or, to be more charitable, they’re not didactic, and let things be fuzzy and complicated — but they’re strongly reiterated, and they culminate in a satisfying confrontation, Batman finally climbing the central tower to confront the man looking down on everyone else. So it’s a little consternating that the story swerves away at the end. The final chapter is a twisty one, with revelations of schemes on the part of Ra’s al Ghul, Joker, and Clayface. Clayface’s mere presence is a surprise — he didn’t seem to be a factor in earlier chapters, but turns out to have appeared in multiple cutscenes previously without the player knowing it was him. I described the Joker previously as trying to steal the spotlight from Strange, and in the end, he succeeds, albeit by dying for it.

Or appearing to die, anyway. It’s hardly the first time. Even the inmates comment on it in their idle chatter, if you go back in after the story’s end to finish off side-quests. They also question why they’re still there now that the facility’s officially being shut down. They really have quite a lot of dialogue where they say things the player is thinking, or could be thinking — there’s even a bit where a thug says “Arkham City’s worse than the old one. I should get a refund.”

Anyway, any woke points the game earns from its distrust of the carceral state are to some extent canceled out by the way Joker is kind of gay-coded, outright flirting with Batman and even singing a love song to his voice mail over the ending credits. Arguably, he only does it to get under Batman’s skin. In fact, he does this literally at one point, injecting Batman with his own blood — although to those of us who remember the AIDS crisis, having the bad guy deliberately infect someone with a bloodborne disease looks a lot like familiar gay fear-mongering. Regardless, flirtation is of course useless against Batman, at least in this incarnation. His will-driven stoicism makes him completely unflirtable, as well as making him easier to animate.

I’ll say this for the final chapter: It has one of the best tactical sequences in the game, one that finally uses the geometry of the city to its full potential. Throughout both this game and Arkham Asylum, there are “predator” sequences, where you’re in a large but confined room with a bunch of heavily-armed baddies, and the best way to take them all out is with stealth, sneaking up on isolated individuals in places where the others can’t see you. The approach to the final fight is essentially a predator sequence spread out over the city, subduing snipers on the rooftops in just the right sequence.

One last thing. I’m a little surprised at one Chekov’s gun that never fired: The “mechanical guardians” in Wonder City never come to life. Why are they even there? Just as a relic of an abandoned subplot?

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1. In the peculiar world of comics and videogames, anyway. Batman is routinely beating people so severely that they’re still lying on the ground unconscious a half an hour later. In real life, this would definitely kill some of them, and cause permanent brain damage to the rest.

Arkham City: Flight

Arkham City is the same sort of open-world game as GTA3: a sculptural artifact, where the player becomes intimately familiar with the details of a space that they cross over repeatedly. Such a game succeeds or fails on the basis of how enjoyable it makes the act of traversal. And that’s where Arkham City really shines — not in the story or the fighting or the puzzles, but in the way Batman moves, the way he vaults over fences and grapple-guns to ledges, the way he flies.

Which is a strange thing to say: I grew up in a time when one of Batman’s defining features was that he didn’t fly. But the Christopher Nolan films had him using his cape as a hang glider, so that’s firmly in the public idea of the character now. I have the impression that it was part of the character as originally conceived by Bob Kane, too, but like most of his ideas, it fell by the wayside — although every piece of Batman media has to have the words “created by Bob Kane” in its credits, nearly everything about the character we know was invented by Bill Finger. At any rate, Batman flying was definitely not within the budget of the 1960s TV show that defined the character for an entire generation. Likewise, the idea that Wonder Woman can fly always feels weird to me, because I grew up with the Lynda Carter version, which had similar constraints. It feels less weird to me with Batman, possibly because, being named for a flying animal, it always felt like he should fly. Or maybe it’s just because I’ve had more opportunity to get used to the idea, seeing how there have been more Batman games than Wonder Woman games.

At any rate, the flight in this game feels really good, and kind of flight-simulator-y. From a glide, you can go into a dive, pick up downward momentum, and turn that into horizontal speed by spreading your cape out again, or even swoop back upward to a certain extent. Some of the trickier Riddler Trophies require you to execute such stunts. There’s an “AR Training” side-quest consisting entirely of difficult swoops requiring precise timing. It’s one of the first side-quests you get, and it’s the most difficult thing in the game — so much so that I still haven’t finished it.

But most flight isn’t difficult. The main reason you use it is that soaring above the rooftops is the fastest and easiest way to get around town, keeping landmarks in view while passing over the heads of patrolling goons. You get used to doing this as a matter of course. And that gives Protocol 10 extra impact. Spoilers ahoy.

Protocol 10, it turns out, is simply an authorization to use extreme force against the inmates, essentially going to war against them, in the event that Arkham City becomes impossible to control otherwise. As I’ve already noted, the whole place is positively engineered to get out of control; it turns out that Hugo Strange was even secretly supplying the prisoners with guns to accelerate the process. Now, throughout the story, there have been occasional helicopters patrolling the skies above the city. (You can even grapple up to them to hitch a ride on their landing gear if you want, but there’s no way to control where they go.) Batman listens in on their radio chatter, and whenever a helicopter catches sight of him, it announces this fact using disquieting verbiage like “We have visual on the target” and “Target lost”. When Protocol 10 is activated, suddenly there are a lot more helicopters, firing missiles at anyone on the streets — and at Batman, if they spot him. Suddenly, the safest and easiest away around the city is fraught with danger. It’s a neat narrative gimmick, letting you come to rely on a convenience and then suddenly not letting you take it for granted any more as a way of letting you know that things have gotten serious. It isn’t even really about a spike in difficulty — that radio chatter effectively trains you in how to avoid being seen by helicopters long before you have any reason to do so. Rather, it’s about the removal of the sense of safety.

Arkham City: Villain Roster

I’m finding it interesting how the villains in Arkham City relate to the ones in Arkham Asylum. To an extent, you have the same gameplay roles filled by different characters, even when the original is still present.

The Joker’s role as the ultimate foe, the one who’s in charge of most of what’s going on and whose voice keeps making announcements over loudspeakers, is taken over by Hugo Strange — but the Joker keeps trying to play that role anyway. He doesn’t have access to the citywide PA system, but he does manage to get your batphone number. He’s on his deathbed, but he keeps making power moves all the same, both against Batman and against the other gangs.

Victor Zsasz was, in the first game, a tutorial on how to use stealth and batarangs: on multiple occasions, he’d take a hostage, and you had to take him down without revealing yourself. There’s a scene like that in Arkham City, but it involves the expert marksman Deadshot, and there’s no hostage — you have to avoid being seen simply because he’s capable of killing you instantly from a distance. (Deadshot wears a leather helmet, jumpsuit, and thin mustache that make him look every bit like an old-timey aviator.) More interestingly, hostage-taking is turned into a general mechanic. In any scene where you’re rescuing people from armed goons, the goons can decide to grab the people you’re rescuing and point a gun at their head, forcing you to sneak up on them. Meanwhile, as I’ve noted in previous posts, Zsasz instead uses the city’s payphones to issue race-against-time challenges, something that wasn’t really a factor in the asylum’s more confined spaces.

Poison Ivy has a stronghold in one corner of the map, overgrown with unnatural vines, but has kept to herself so far and not participated in the plot. Killer Croc makes a cameo, but his main role, as an unbeatable monster that bursts up from the floor, is taken over by a shark owned by the Penguin. (Shouldn’t have left the bat-shark-repellent at home, Bruce.) The Penguin, incidentally, is the only one of the major gang bosses I’ve fought directly. His gameplay role is a new one: the physically unimposing one who’s challenging only because of how he exploits weapons and minions and monsters. He even has Solomon Grundy under his control. Grundy takes the role of Bane: the monstrously huge brawler who can only be beaten with special tactics. Bane, meanwhile, has shifted to quest-giver. He’s still seen exclusively in grotesquely-mesomorphic mode, which makes it a little weird when he just stands there and talks to you.

Of course, Bane does betray you once he’s gotten what he wants from you. The same is true of Mr. Freeze, and almost certainly of the Joker as well (although I haven’t advanced the story that far yet). Mr. Freeze’s boss fight is an interesting one: he’s too formidable to take on directly, but the environment is full of environmental features you can use against him. He learns, though. Most tricks only work on him once. However, he’s easy to lead around: whenever he can’t see you, he follows the heat left by your footsteps, and follows them straight into the next trap you’ve laid for him. It’s a satisfying fight, and I don’t remember anything like it in Asylum, so there is some new stuff here.

The Scarecrow was probably Asylum‘s most memorable villain. Every encounter with him was a bad acid trip. He’s nowhere to be seen in City, but I’ve been through two similar hallucination sequences: one at the hands of the Mad Hatter, one with Ra’s al Ghul. The Hatter is a pretty clear Scarecrow-substitute in character as well as function: both are mind-affecting madmen styled after characters from children’s books. Ra’s and his daughter, on the other hand, don’t have any clear narrative analog in Asylum. Indeed, they basically feel like they stepped in from a completely different story, which is fairly typical for them.

Mainly, though, this game seems to want to just throw as many Batman characters in as it can, like one of those sequences in epic poetry that goes into a long list of the local heroes that were there too. Robin (Tim Drake version) shows up in a cutscene at one point, delivering a new gadget, for no narrative reason other than to let the Robin fans know what his status is in Arkham continuity. Calendar Man is in a cell in the courthouse, delivering stories of his exploits, just to echo The Long Halloween. Sometimes I get the impression that they made all these character models before they finalized the story, and then had to come up with ways to use them.

Arkham City: Wonder and Collapse

Just before you reach Ra’s al Ghul’s lair, the game starts seriously cribbing from Bioshock for a while, in style and presentation if not in exact detail. The only way to get to him is through the abandoned subway system and into Old Gotham, AKA Wonder City, a utopia of Victorian-era automation that was ruined in a cataclysm, but still remains underground, with the Gotham City we know layered on top. An old recording extolling the city’s innovation plays in a loop as you cross the threshold, now decorated with hanging corpses, presumably as a warning to delvers.

Apparently all the work in Wonder City was done by retro-looking robots, which lie scattered about, inert but still just functional enough for Batman to scan some useable data from their mechanical brains. The same robots are depicted in posters all over the place, so the designers really want us to notice them, and learn their distinctive design. Which probably means they’re going to come to life and start fighting me at some point. This hasn’t happened yet, but hey, it’s only the second time the plot has sent me into the underground. There’s probably a rule-of-three going on.

For all that this expedition is motivated by a sub-quest, I feel like this is where I’m getting close to the story’s central secrets, the real reason for Arkham City’s construction. The city’s central panopticon tower is definitely an echo of the Wonder Tower that used to be on the site, and seems to have something of the same function: acting as a lightning rod, feeding electricity to some dire mechanism below. The mechanics of Wonder City’s fall are still a bit of a mystery to me, but foreshadowing and precedent make me think it has something to do with those robots and/or their power source: Lazarus. This is the substance in the Lazarus Pits that Ra’s al Ghul uses to resurrect himself, and its natural abundance in the ruins is the reason that he’s holed up there. Although the term “Lazarus Pit” has been part of Batman lore for decades, I think this is the first time I’ve seen it explained as “a pit full of Lazarus” rather than just “a pit that is named for Lazarus because it raises the dead”. I imagine the reason for giving these semantics is the influence of Bioshock again: like Adam, it’s using a biblical name for a chemical that forms the basis of a fantastic technology that brings a city to ruin.

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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