“Some idiot is running around the asylum, dressed like a bat…! I know! Crazy!” While the Joker’s words could be viewed as – and admittedly are, if you’re sad like me – funny, there is something unsettling about them. 2009’s Arkham Asylum is, at the very least, one of my favourite games of recent times. Everything it excels at is there in a neat package: graphics, storyline, script, gameplay, voice acting – but there is something else that makes it so masterful. It’s a head fuck.
*As a retrospective, this article is intended for those who have played through and completed Arkham Asylum. While spoilers are not my bag, there are moments referenced here that can only be described within context. As such MILD SPOILERS AHEAD!*
Paul Dini’s script for Asylum goes hand in hand with the locale and atmosphere Rocksteady’s studio has created. You can’t help but feel tension when you first lead the captured Joker into the asylum’s bowels. You know something bad is going to happen, and you know the clown with the fiendish grin is behind it.
Going deeper into the game unravels more of Batman’s psyche, which is done so fantastically with the Scarecrow sections. ‘Fear gas’ separates Batman from the real world, entering him into a bad acid trip of inner demons with the aforementioned Crack Fox of Gotham:
In both a poignant and disturbing scene, a corridor transforms into Crime Alley, and we see Batman fall to his knees beside his parents, transforming into a very young Bruce Wayne. It is very clear at this point that Batman is as damaged as any of the inmates running loose in the asylum.
Another moment borrows from games such as Eternal Darkness and Metal Gear Solid, blurring the boundary between reality and fiction. The opening credits roll again – and something isn’t right… you realise that it’s not Joker being incarcerated but Batman himself. And after you are supposedly killed, a gameover screen appears (and yes, I was stupid enough to think my console was screwed the first time around).
But it’s not just Batman who provides a dark setting for Asylum; there are several aspects that add a touch of insanity to the game.
The audio reels, which are scattered throughout the island, reveal conversations between the inmates and the asylum’s doctors. A truly unsettling revelation is discovered after picking up the last reel for Victor Zsasz. It appears that Zsasz (who makes Ted Bundy look like a Samaritan) has escaped the asylum; when one of the doctors phones a colleague marked as Zsasz’s target, they are cut off by the sound of a doorbell on the other line, only to yell frantically not to open the door. It’s a powerful piece of writing that puts me in mind of such films as Silence of the Lambs.
One of the most disturbing references in the game involves scanning a Riddler clue: a statue of a woman, her head at its base, above the scrawled name ‘Mad Dog.’ That’s not too bad, right? Until you realise the character of Mad Dog (whose physical presence is left out of the game) was responsible for raping and killing Amadeus Arkham’s wife and daughter, decapitating said wife in the process.
Most violence in videogames has no emotion attached to it – after killing your hundredth pedestrian in GTA IV, you really shouldn’t be feeling empathy for your victims. But Asylum brings horror to the violence, whether it is watching guards claw hopelessly at a window as a room fills with poisonous gas, being pulled into the water in Killer Croc’s lair, or having an escaped mental patient jump on you from the ceiling.
After playing Asylum frequently – and moving on to Arkham City – I still view the sequel as slightly inferior. Sure, most gameplay elements were vastly improved upon – it still has great graphics, a storyline, script, voice acting – but something is missing. It was only upon returning to the first game that I realised what that was. Arkham Asylum is a dark and psychologically powerful game. It’s a head fuck. Even more so than Batman and Robin.