Can we move past violence simulators? Because Batman is boring.

So here’s the thing. Before we get any further, let me disclaim that I LOVED Batman as a kid. The Batman animated series was one of the best cartoons on television when I was growing up, and I watched a ton of it! I’ve also seen all of the Batman movies – yes even the George Clooney one with the weird nipple armor.) I also very much enjoy video games that are violent. I own no less than three Mass Effect hoodies, have played every Final Fantasy game released by Sony (even Lightning Returns), and have been known to conquer civilizations because they annoyed in Civilization.

Never the less, because of what I’m about to say, I’m sure some people will try to paint me as Jack Thompson-esque reactionary who hates Batman. Which, you know. Whatever. Nothing I say will stop that, so let’s kick some internet beehives, shall we?

Batman has gotten boring

The older I get, the less interesting Batman becomes. Kid-Me loved Batman and his awesome jet and cool techno toys! But Adult Me? Well Adult Me thinks that Batman is nothing more than a weird, traumatized sociopath with too much money and anger, who spends much of his time and effort punishing the people (street-level criminals) least responsible for actually creating the social problems plaguing Gotham City.

I get that in a lot of ways he’s intended as a sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy. He’s a kid who gets to grow up super rich, inherit billions that he doesn’t have to work for, use lots of cool techno toys to beat up people who piss him off, and sleep with lots of women in the guise of needing “cover” for his crime-fighting activities. But Batman is also a goddamn paragon of toxic masculinity.

Recently, my husband wanted to try watching Gotham – since several friends had been saying good things about it. But I can tell you the exact moment when I stopped giving a shit about the show. It came about eleven or so minutes in, when Alfred shows up to take Bruce home after his parents have just been murdered in front of him. And the VERY FIRST THING he says to young Bruce is to MAN UP SON. Of course, he doesn’t use those words, but he does tell young Bruce to stop crying. You know, stiff upper lip and all that. And for the rest of the episode, whenever young Bruce shows up, young Bruce struggles to choke back his feelings while Alfred hovers, scowling, in the background, the embodiment of the “proper” masculine reaction to grief. (Which is to say, to display no emotions other than looking grumpy or sort of constipated.)

…yeah. No. I get enough toxic masculinity hurled at me here on the internet. I don’t need to spend my free time watching a drama that’s basically TOXIC MASCULINITY: THE ORIGIN STORY.

The thing is, pop culture is increasingly starting to shift when it comes to portrayals of Batman. Finally, finally there is a recognition that Grimdark Batman is an inherently ridiculous character. From the Lego Movie’s take on Batman (which in my head has become the canonical Batman[1]), to the meme that spawned a thousand spin-off memes:

my_parents_are_deeaaaaaad

Unfortunately, when it comes to video games, it seems like Grimdark Batman is here to stay, simply because AAA game studios really aren’t any good at making games that AREN’T violence simulators – which necessitates a portrayal of the hyper-violent, emotionless, bastion of toxic masculinity version of Batman that has become so familiar from the movies and television series like Gotham.

Take, for example, the Arkham City games, in which you play Batman beating the ever-living snot out of… okay, out of really a pretty astonishing number of people:

darkness
Side note: I was a little uncomfortable with how easy it was to find screenshots of Batman beating up all, or mostly black dudes.

When “find the thing” and “kill the dudes” is the only sort of story that most game studios know how to produce, is it any wonder that Grimdark Batman is the only Batman we get in games made for adults? (I’m not including Lego Batman here.) The AAA game studios have put a lot of brainpower into innovating improvements in the area of graphics, UI design, and accessibility of gameplay – while putting pretty much no brainpower into innovating ways of telling stories that don’t center on violence.

How to make Batman actually interesting

The thing is, I think it would honestly take very little modification to make Batman an emotionally rich and compelling character. What if instead of telling young Bruce to MAN UP SON, Alfred instead teaches Bruce that it’s okay to express your feelings and be emotionally vulnerable? And what if, after that, Alfred became a real father figure to Bruce instead of being an emotionally distant butler/nanny? A Bruce Wayne capable of expressing a damn emotion, who dons the cape despite also knowing that systemic injustice is the real cause of the crime that he fights? Shit, that’s way more interesting than Grimdark “I growl all my dialogue” Batman.

batman
Click through for larger, more readable version

Heh.

…stupid jokes about Catman aside, honestly the Batman game I would love to play would be one in which Batman struggles to balance the philanthropic work needed to heal the damage caused by deep systemic injustice with his work as a hero who keeps ordinary citizens safe from violent crime. One where the social work of building community is actually part of the game and something that’s not glossed over in cutscenes.

It would be totally doable! One of my favorite RPGs for the PS2 was Dark Chronicle – a game in which there is a huge cataclysm, after which the two heroes have to go through dungeons and fight monsters to defeat The Big Evil while also helping various communities rebuild after their homes were destroyed:

dark-chronicle
Gathering resources to build buildings and deciding optimal placement is totally part of the game. It’s strangely addictive.

Modeling something like that and applying it to the Batman story would honestly not be too huge a task. This is a game design problem that I’m fully confident that game studios could solve… if they could be bothered to care. But the AAA game industry is hugely male-dominated, and largely guided by the pervasive (and inaccurate) myth that women don’t play video games in any significant numbers. So until the landscape of AAA game development changes significantly, which I don’t expect any time soon, I imagine that I won’t be playing any Batman games any time soon. I’ve got many more interesting games to catch up on.


[1] Whenever anyone mentions Batman, the first thing that pops into my head is DARKNESSSS. NO PARENTSSSS.

15 thoughts on “Can we move past violence simulators? Because Batman is boring.

  1. I am not a fan of Grimdark Batman but we love-love-LOVE “Batman ’66,” and read those comics to our 5 year old Bat-fanatic rather than any of the normal stuff. It would certainly be fertile ground for the gaming industry to plow. Regardless, it’s great (comic) fiction/storytelling.

  2. Grimdark Batman is the flanderization of just one of Batman’s primary character traits, stoicism/willpower (which is accessible for both genders and frequently considered a virtue in appropriate circumstances). It was utilized well and in reasonable measure in Batman The Animated Series. I agree the characterization is very thin in the Nolan movies.

    • One of the biggest ironies about the climax of Batman Begins is that Batman does the exact same thing to Ra’s al Ghul that Azbats did to Abattoir, on a train with almost the exact same line, that led to Bruce realizing that Jean-Paul Valley was a psychopath who really shouldn’t have been Batman.

      As an aside, a Batman point & click adventure/puzzle game would be badass.

  3. AAAAAH! Someone else who loves Dark Cloud 2! AAAAAAH!
    …Ok, I’m done nerding out. Batman thoughts time:
    Personally, I think that part of the problem with Batman in video games is that Batman decidedly works the best in the midst of detective-style stories, which have a tendency to fall apart completely when you allow any sort of audience participation whatsoever (because they’re not really about investigation as much as they are about a series of lucky breaks).
    TBH, I think that (between Cristopher Nolan’s movies, the Arkham games, and Frank Miller) we’d be better off writing off Batman as thoroughly corrupted by violence-fetishizing libertarians, consigning him to telling stories about how punching criminals accomplishes exactly nothing, and elevating or creating some other hero to take his place in media (maybe Green Arrow? I dunno what ‘Arrow’ has done with him).

  4. “punching criminals accomplishes exactly nothing” This is the leitmotif of virtually every Batman story I’ve read. The kicker is that the only way recurring villains can be justified in universe is by a failure of the mental health and criminal justice systems.

    One of my favorite Batman stories came from an old Christmas Special from Batman and the Outsiders. Geo-Force gets in a fight with Superman because Superman won’t let him murder a professor who has been sexually assaulting his students; Geo-Force and Supes are about to kill each other, when Batman shows up with a fistful of affidavits from over half a dozen women who will testify against the professor, all “This man will pay!”

  5. You hit the nail on the head with this post. One thing I liked about (some) movie portrayals of Alfred is that he has empathy for Bruce when it’s needed. In Begins, there’s a scene where it’s clear that Bruce is trying to keep the “stiff upper lip” in front of Alfred, but finally breaks down and cries due to his feelings of guilt. Alfred comforts him, and expresses his own sorrow at the loss of the Waynes, in what feels like a genuine but still subtle way. Granted, not every actor can be Michael Caine, but even in the ’89 Batman Alfred is shown to sincerely care about Bruce through a couple of small touches.

  6. Since Batman is getting old, what about…….
    A new, villianous, less gloomy but more hypocratic anti-hero ? I’m glad to see a protagonist who smiles and asks politely, while torturing target.
    I really like violent anti-heroes, no matter male or female.The only problem is that genders and skins of anti-heroes are too restricted as white dudes. You see, at least in fictional works, everyone has the right and wish to do something terrible for their own prupose.
    I’d like to see a female principle (as well as a single mother) who work as a part-time assassin for nothing but to get her money back from criminals, or a black trans-gendered male mercenary, or a rogue agent at large coming from central asia instead of USA.
    In my opinion there are more Walter White or Lou (from Nightcrawler), than Batman, in real life. That’s why I’d like to see less Batman.

  7. Great post. I will say that the Batman I really miss is Batman, the World’s Greatest Detective, which I think is a facet of his character that the Justice League and JL Unlimited did amazingly well. Especially in the JL, where he is outclassed physically by many other members, it’s his brains that are his superpower.

  8. How about a Batman expat as an open world game, only instead of fighting, you resolve everything with dance battles?

    It would even retain most of the same mechanics, since a good portion of fighting is hitting the right buttons at the right time.

    Sort of an insane cross between 68 Batman, a Bollywood Movie, and Elite Beat Agents.

  9. I always wonder how these Batman games get made without point-and-click adventure segments. Batman The Animated Series was practically a noir cartoon dressed up in a cape and tights. There were plenty of episodes where combat was either not used at all or used very sparingly, allowing Batman to solve the crimes with his brains. While I definitely would love to see a new Bruce Wayne that isn’t encouraged to “suck it up”, I would equally love to see a Batman that gets to use his brain. As buzz said before me, “I really miss…Batman, the World’s Greatest Detective.”

    • How about an Elseworlds game in which the Alfred character is an over-the-top feminist SJW? Young Bruce could ask why a man killed his parents and be told “it’s not my job to educate you”. He’d be trained to beat the snot out of D&D art directors who allow too much sideboob to be published. Cat Woman would be obese, reflecting the condition of many American house cats.

Comments are closed.