The video games Arkham Asylum and Arkham City are two of my absolute favourites but I didn’t get round to playing Arkham Knight, the third in the series (we do not count Origins), until recently. When I did, I enjoyed my time with the Dark Knight back in Gotham but it paled in comparison to the vastly superior City which is the the jewel in the crown of that series, inspiring many games and their mechanics that came after it as it did. Though Knight wasn’t as good as its predecessor overall, it was actually better in some places. The one area Knight excelled in was its ancillary dialogue.
You see, as Batman swoops around the city of Gotham, on his mission to physically assault and incapacitate as many people as possible, his cowl picks up on the radio chatter, or merely amplifies random conversations, between the many cannon-fodder enemies that populate the streets below. This dialogue is non-essential and can be missed or skipped without any detriment to the story or gameplay, they are purely there to bolster plot elements, develop world-building and occasionally offer hints to a stuck player looking for a path to an objective. For instance, in Arkham City you can overhear a ‘street thug’ explaining how he saw a corpse without a face down an alley nearby and if you investigate you’ll find the body and an entire side quest, or if you are already on that side quest it acts as a hint to where you can find the next body. Other than that it can be as simple as one guy explaining how he ended up there in the first place. Essentially it’s flavour text but was also an example of the depth the developers would go to not just for the sake of gameplay but story and character too.
This mechanic was present in the first two games but reached new heights in Arkham Knight. One of the biggest differences in the third game is that the common enemy type roaming the streets of Gotham are private military contractor soldiers and not ‘street thugs’. There are a lot of implications around this choice, given that the enemies you beat to a pulp in the first two were not in those prisons voluntarily, that you stomped around bringing ‘justice’ to and they were also not given the same level of character detail we see in Knight. But the detail we are given in that game is remarkable and a testament to the writing team’s ability to humanise groups of normally dispensable people.
Alongside the usual boasting and bragging of the soldiers that they aren’t scared of Batman (which is always fun to hear right before you jump-scare them and grind their bones to dust), you get details like the latest security measures you have to plan around or how many of them there are. But it’s their interactions when they standing idle that can suddenly bring these henchman to life. One of them is sad because a gun turret shot a seagull (“I just like Birds”), many of them are veterans who criticise their treatment after serving in the military, one talks about their PTSD, one cites Batman as the reason they enlisted, and in one particularly memorable exchange a pair lament the cost upon their relationships of working in a militia, one of them casually revealing he’s gay by saying he lied to his partner that he was on a business trip. They’re also just plain funny. One pair you encounter behind an unbreakable wall were goading you but upon seeing you in the flesh chicken out and apologise, two get into an argument about whether Two Face has two faces or just one, while another group crowd round their smartphone to laugh about a plot point in the game that is trending on social media. It’s all largely unnecessary but all paints an oddly human picture of people you’re about to smash into a wall. Many of the characterisations of faceless, nameless combatants are more interesting and surprising than the main characters of the game. Where once there were the colourful and lively villains like Joker and Penguin they are now grim, tortured and dull individuals in the modern era. Many was the time in this game where I would just swoop around the city waiting to hear what the next group of no-name bad guys were idly wondering about as they patrolled the street below.
Of course the need to characterise a militia group, even if it is usually to paint them as amoral thugs who go where the money is, and not develop the prisoners who served the same function in the previous games does reveal one of the many, many problems with the Batman universe (and the superhero genre in general), and whilst I praise the writing and voice performances of these entirely arbitrary pieces of dialogue, it is pretty problematic at the same time. But in spite of those implications it has reminded me that good writing and good characters don’t need whole arcs or backstory dumped on us, you can find a good character just by showing an audience what that character thinks about when walking a rain soaked street or talking to a friend while bored. In the same way Austin Powers took the time show the life of a henchman, I feel it is better to be reminded that the ‘enemies’ in any fictional world are humans too. Except when they’re crocodiles, of course…