With the release of Batman: Arkham Knight this week, Samuel Brace takes a trip back to the Asylum…
This week, as Batman: Arkham Knight hit consoles and PC’s across the globe, I sat there unable to refrain from hearkening back to years past, 2009 in particular and the series debut game that so many of us still hold dearly. Batman: Arkham Asylum, the game that started it all, was released that summer only one short year removed from Christopher Nolan’s seminal superhero feature The Dark Knight, and I very much remember the excitement I felt at that time, the thirst to consume anything and everything Batman, the hunger to put myself into the world of that movie, of that franchise, how desperate I was to put on the virtual cowl and become the Batman.
It didn’t matter that the aesthetic of Asylum was quite different from that of Nolan’s movies, or that the Batman of this world wasn’t identical to the crusader that Bale portrayed so wonderfully. Those details were immaterial, inconsequential, all that mattered during those days, weeks and months was that he was Batman, that this was a Batman game and that I was going to play the shit out of it.
As we all recall, The Dark Knight ended with Joker being defeated, captured by Batman, his plans of anarchy foiled, so when Asylum started in a similar vein — with Batman driving the captured Joker to Arkham — I was already in. The game, right off the bat, started so smartly but also so simply, tying into the very movie that the world was still very much in love with. It didn’t even matter if the game was good, it could have been average, a forgettable experience, I would have played through it regardless. The game didn’t suck however, it was truly special and of course this only fueled my immense enjoyment of the game, and the now such fond memories I have of it.
Bioshock was a big part of my childhood, of my latter teenage years, its environments etched so fiercely into my very being. The two games aren’t immediately comparable, Asylum was of course a third person action adventure, and Bioshock a first person horror, but something about Asylum instantly reminded of me of what had become one of my favourite games ever. The singular location of the asylum, being trapped inside those foreign and dangerous environments with no way out, the character driven experience, all reminding me of my time spent in Rapture and just added to my excitement and enjoyment of this exceptional Batman adventure. My only other experience of a Batman video game was the Batman Begins tie in. That was a game I loved, mostly I will admit because of my passion for the film, but also because of the fun I had while playing it. I remember well the time I spent all night at my friend’s house, how we took playing Begins in turns, swapping in our respective memory cards, and also the fun I would later have showing it to my younger brother, someone who was just being introduced to this world, to games, to superheroes, to Batman. We loved that game, my brother and I, so when finally we received another chance to play as the Caped Crusader, we couldn’t have been happier and couldn’t wait to experience it together.
The villains of Nolan’s Batman films had a certain amount of realism to them, as much as is possible for something of this nature, they were grounded in a reality that was tangible for someone like me, for someone who always appreciated when I could feel like this might actually happen. I liked the cut of Nolan’s jib, and so when playing Asylum for the first time — and not really being the biggest Batman/DC fan boy, knowing more than most but not as much as some — the way the villains were portrayed in this new game was at first a little startling, the disparity was quite real between this and what I was used to, to the world in which I had been drawn so deeply, but none of it mattered in the end. Killer Croc, Ivy, Joker and the rest were so expertly depicted, so finally realised, that the fact that they were perhaps more fantastical, more comical — as they were always intended — didn’t put me off in the slightest. This was a fresh world for me to dive into, a new story to savour.
These were all the components that made Asylum the special game it was, the characters, the myriad of villains, the story, the contained area and the promise of a larger world beyond the games prison. I remember vividly standing atop Arkham’s highest points, looking out across the water, the moon bright in my periphery, Gotham taunting me with its close proximity, its lights reaching out, calling out with that same promise, the promise of more to come in the future, but not yet, that night at the asylum wasn’t over. Joker had to be stopped, Batman had to finish the fight.
At that time of course I didn’t know there was to be a sequel or a trilogy, all I knew was the world that I currently inhabited, the story that had me in its clutches. As I was swinging from rooftop to ledge, fighting off enemies, battling bosses, I couldn’t help but spend my time hoping that there might be more to come, but that’s all it was at that time, hope, the dream that this wasn’t going to be the end. Maybe one day there would be more to this story that had resonated so strongly with me. It was all conjecture back then; I didn’t know that I would be looking back on those moments of wonder six years later, halfway through 2015, while playing Arkham Knight on the next generation of consoles with the whole of Gotham as my playground.
Is Arkham City the game that Asylum was? Does it still have that same magic as the original which spawned it? No, it could never, I was at a different place in my life back then and sequels rarely ever capture that fresh ingredient that make series debuts so memorable, but there is an undeniable nostalgia that runs through me whenever a new game in this series lands, and Arkham Knight has been no different. I’ll never forget Asylum and the untold hours I spent there. I’ll never forget the excitement of watching Batman drive through those gates. I’ll never forget the awe I felt while standing tall over the facility and I’ll never forget the story that gripped me so tightly. This is a game that will never stay dead; this is a game that will be resurrected in my mind every time a new sequel arrives. So while the world devours all Arkham Knight has to offer, battling to stop Scarecrow from bringing our hero to his knees, I will be remembering the night that started it all. I will be taking a trip back in time, back to 2009, back to the Asylum.