Home > Essays > Welcome to the Madhouse – Batman: Arkham Asylum

Welcome to the Madhouse – Batman: Arkham Asylum

September 10, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Tom Dann

The mind is an interesting thing. There are seven billion people in the world, and everyone’s mind is unique. The mind is capable of beauty or ugliness, simplicity or complexity. Most importantly to Arkham Asylum, the mind can also be damaged. Whether by a significant event in the persons life, or by anger from a perceived injustice, whether the mind was fragile in the first place or whether the person was literally born broken, Arkham Asylum probes these possibilities with fascination.

The first clue to this preoccupation with madness is the setting for the game. Arkham Asylum is home to many of Batman’s villains, and is where they end up once they’re caught (though they will, inevitably, escape again to cause more havoc.) This location provides the perfect excuse to gather a group of Batman’s nemeses and explore their characters. The Batman comics have always contained strong psychological elements: very few of Batman’s villains have actual superpowers, and thus it’s their psychological profiles that make them unique.

These villains don’t just make appearances in the game – there are collectable interview tapes scattered across Arkham Island. These tapes, five for each villain, combine to build a thorough portrait of each character, and demonstrates the importance of this complexity to the Batman mythos. Discover how Victor Zsazz was gradually driven insance by a series of tragic events, how Harleen Quinzel fell in love with her patient, The Joker, or how Bane never had a chance, spending his early life in jail. Arkham Asylum doesn’t shy away from the complexities of these characters’ psychological profiles, instead it emphasises them.

Despite The Joker being the star of the show, it’s Scarecrow who adds the psychological complexity that elevates the game beyond it’s genre. Arkham Asylum, unusually for a game, gives the player a keen insight into Batman’s psyche. Multiple sequences involve Scarecrow, and the affect his poison gas has on Batman. This powerful hallucinogen causes Batman to live some bizarre experiences, two of which are particularly notable. The first sees Batman relive the murder of his parents. This is the single defining moment of Bruce Wayne’s life: the event which left him parentless, with a hatred of all criminals, thus starting him on his masked vendetta.

The vital second sequence is a cutscene, a replaying of the opening scenes but with a major difference: Joker and Batman’s places have switched. The implication of this, as elaborated upon by the Joker later on, is that Batman is just has mad as any of the inmates. The fact that Bruce Wayne was traumatised as a child to the point of dressing up as a bat to catch criminals is, as career choices go, quite mad. And The Joker has a valid point: why is Batman not locked up in Arkham Asylum with the rest of the madmen and women? The fact that this sequence is Batman’s hallucination also suggests that, somewhere in his subconscious, Bruce Wayne is wondering the exact same thing.

Copyright Tom Dann 2010

Categories: Essays
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