By Neil Merrett
Batman Arkham Knight on Playstation 4 – released 2015, Rocksteady Studios
One of the tragically few literary techniques to stick with me from English classes was the idea of an unreliable narrator – the concept that a hero or protagonist the audience has a stake in may not be entirely factual or understand what is happening to them.
In getting older and crotchety, the sense that we may have a very warped or skewed sense of our place in the world and others around us feels increasingly inescapable in the story of our own lives.
As the nature of how games use their stories to engage us becomes more sophisticated – driven in part by technical advancements – narratives that make us question the protagonist and our own place as the player are becoming increasingly common across a number of genres.
Titles like Spec Ops: The Line in 2012 have led the way with a morally ambiguous take on the standard cover and run Modern Warfare-style shooter by setting up and then totally trashing our pre-built illusions of goodies and baddies.
As with many modern shooters, the player is charged with killing enemies marked with a red target reticule, but Spec Ops looks to question who decides when a target is red and deserving of annihilation and why we follow such guidance. Does a player automatically do as they are told, and what choice do we really have to decide who is a villain.
Nintendo also took at stab trying to incorporate more psychologically manipulative elements into their games with 2002’s Eternal Darkness, which was critically lauded for its attempt to take on fear and how it makes us react. Building on a third person survival horror template, the game incorporated a sanity meter that disorientated players with random screen cut – as if a TV had been shut off – or an error occurred with the console to simulate losing one’s mind at times of great stress.
Both games sought to blur the certainty a player has about their role as part of an attempt by the developers to try and remove the barriers around immersing gamers into a world when they are stuck on the other side of a glass screen from where the action is happening.
Take Rocksteady’s Arkham Knight, the third in its blockbuster series of games built around the character of Batman. It is probably one of the most well polished, mainstream games to be released during 2015 with its more open world, bullet proof car-led action and highly cinematic visuals.
It might surprise some to find a superhero game looking to use the unreliable narrator trope, to varying degrees of success in a Batman game that attempts to explore the dual premise of a car/tank hybrid and the idea of losing one’s mind to their greatest fears – Bubble Bobble this ain’t.
Ultimately there remains a challenge in trying to effectively convey the notion of a hero struggling to fight off his darkest primal urges as he wrestles with his sanity. It is one the game never fully succeeds at.
As a player we are theoretically of sound mind and therefore take decisions that cannot be reckless, should we kill Batman or break off the shackles of a character’s dogmatic training to become a true protector of Gotham City? Even at his weakest, the player can still kick, punch and jump on people to their heart’s content.
Without having been consciously brainwashed by a Jesuit ninja cult – there is limited dramatic weight to the decision beyond pushing the square or circle button on your controller.
Internal struggles in the game often boil down to cinematic, and breathtakingly presented quick-time battles, with the player hammering the square button to try and regain their senses against psychological trauma, manifesting itself as a homicidal clown trying to strangle the life from you.
The player controls a Batman who is drugged and poisoned for almost the entirety of the game, struggling with hallucinations and brutal visions from his past as his mind appears to be succumbing to something cruel and sadistic within himself.
Some of the more interesting concepts in the game come as the hero, at moments of duress, finds himself experiencing long buried traumas and re-enactments of his great failings – bad news for the people he loves.
Falling back into his memories, the level around you shifts into near darkness except for the muffled cries of a man in pain.
Watching powerlessly as former companions are tortured and killed with the player only able to walke around the scene and either watch in gory detail, or turn their back to try and escape the horrors unfolding. However, you approach the game, Batman is unable to change previous events, a passive spectator and victim of his own past.
The game also looks to challenge notions of identity with the player as Batman’s own alter ego Bruce Wayne for one brief moment of the game, or so we think.
With the player suddenly unable to access secret files, it is uncertain as to what is happening and to whom we can trust?
If the player isn’t Bruce Wayne then who are we playing and what is their purpose?
These moments are only briefly sustained, but hint at something happening across the wider industry as we look for games to not just make us embrace stories, but more directly feel the choices we make, or fail to enact.
At the game’s opening, a grotesque murderer’s corpse lies in a furnace ready for cremation.
The player is given full control of the furnace, taking the brief role of an unseen crematory operator.
By simply holding the X button, you blast the oven and watch as as the villain is burnt to oblivion. Yet by releasing the button, the process can leave the corpse charred by still intact, providing you the opportunity to permanently torture as a form of posthumous punishment – all while listening to a Frank Sinatra soundtrack.
I sometimes worry what games might tell us about ourselves in the coming decade.
Despite its narrative and graphical flourishes, the title never truly makes you feel you are in charge of a man losing all sense of reality as chaos descends.
Yet with even the biggest blockbusters of recent years looking to incorporate notions about the fragility of the mind and how we perceive ourselves and others, what might the burgeoning era of high definition virtual reality come to tell as about ourselves and how we think?