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November 11, 2013

Of Batman and Prequels

Once upon a time, I hoped that when Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy came to an end, we could all shut the hell up about Batman for a while.  Not forever.  Just long enough to give the guy a rest.  Long enough for the public conscious to focus on someone else.  Something else, either canonically or stylistically.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case, seeing as how the question of “How do we make a good Superman movie?” has been answered with “Add Batman to it.”  Riveting. 

I’ve wondered before if the presence of the Dark Knight Trilogy has had a negative impact on games (or media in general), but that’s all guesswork, and I don’t want to dive into that discussion anytime soon.  That said, the release of Batman: Arkham Origins has gotten me thinking about the character and his mythos in general, and how he’s portrayed in whatever he may appear in.  By now I’d hope you know what I prefer, but I want to make it clear that I don’t hate Batman.  I just hate it when he -- or any character -- isn’t used well.  And indeed, I was under the impression that this so-called prequel game would give me a fresh perspective on the caped crusader, in a way that only a prequel can.

Then again, that only raises its own set of problems.

I admit that I haven’t played that much of Origins, so if you’re looking for an in-depth judgment on that game, you should probably look somewhere else.  I have a few impressions of it, though, based on my early forays and watching my brother punch his way through several hours of content.  I don’t want to say the game is good/bad until I’ve had more time with it, but  there are things that I like about it, and things that I dislike about it.  So for now I’ll just say this: I ran into a glitch that glued Batman to a wall in the first thirty minutes of the game, forcing a restart.  Take that as you will…besides the implication that walls are Batman’s one weakness.

What I find supremely interesting is that for a “prequel” -- for a game with “origins” in its title -- at its outset it doesn’t seem too eager to set up the origin of Batman.  It’s possible, and probably likely that the stuff I’m after is later in the game.  I’m actually interested in seeing the transformation of a mere man (albeit one empowered by ridiculous wealth, resources, and opportunities) into a symbol of dark justice.  And the reason I’m interested is because of the promos that I’ve seen almost non-stop on YouTube.

It’s easy for me to poke fun at that promo -- “Oh no!  He’s becoming a generic space marine!” -- but it did suggest promise.  Potential.  One of the problems I’ve had with games in the past and present (and to some extent in Nolan’s trilogy) is that the balance of power is too-far skewed.  It seems like too many games are trying too hard to make me feel like a badass, or a predator, or an ultra-skilled ninja, and it’s long since stopped being rewarding in the way devs intended. 

Little wonder, then, that I take issue with Batman and Batman games; the Arkham series has always felt more like games that are more fun to watch than they are to play, because flailing at goons trying to pin me in a circle and effortlessly countering their attacks has never felt compelling for me.  (Then again, I could say the same about the Assassin’s Creed games.)  The stealth is more intriguing, sure, but even that stacks the deck in a way that just leaves me dissatisfied.  So my hope was that with Origins, I’d get that overwhelming power stripped away so I could learn about and understand Batman -- because as it stands, being Batman is as much fun as dusting the Batcave.

I wouldn’t have minded seeing a young Bruce Wayne going on a journey to become the Bat.  They didn’t even have to make that the crux of the whole game; Uncharted 3 had young Drake and his quest for general tomfoolery, after all.  I just expected a step back that would change the franchise in an unexpected, but incredibly-welcome way.  Shame on me for setting my expectations so high; Batman starts off with all his technology, all his skills, and in the span of a single night gains the better part of his rogues gallery. 

In fact, the game feels more like an installment of Mega Man than a full-on prequel; Batman has to take on eight assassins (playing their roles as Robot Masters) in an effort to thwart the plans of Black Mask (Dr. Wily…or would Joker be Dr. Wily, since he’s probably the game’s real bad guy?).  It’s too early to say if I’m going to get anything out of the game that I want -- character development doesn’t tend to happen in the first couple of hours -- but for what it’s worth I don’t feel like I’m going to get a cure for what ails me for a while.  Even if there’s a slight chance I’ll get my hands on Electrocutioner’s gloves after beating him.

I’m willing to give the game another shake, though, but I’m more than a little concerned.  The less-than-flattering reviews haven’t made me too eager to see what lies around the Bat-Bend, and that rough start with a less-than-charismatic hero isn’t making the trip any more enticing.  What REALLY worries me, though, is that even my brother -- whose love of Batman is only rivaled by his love of Spider-Man -- told me one day that Origins isn’t as good as he hoped.  Bear in mind that that statement came from a guy that doesn’t obsessively over-think and nitpick whatever comes his way, and is willing to overlook the flaws of nearly every game set before him.  (Though The Bureau was where he drew the line.)

Part of that likely comes from his personal biases.  In the same sense that I’ve got a strong…well, let’s call it distaste for stupidly-gritty fare, he’s said several times before that prequels are awful.  Even a Batman prequel wasn’t enough to sway him, even if it didn’t stop him from buying.  His reasoning is something that I agree with in a lot of ways.  Rather than advancing the canon in a meaningful or appreciable way, they’re content with stepping back, undoing the developments (story-wise or character-wise) that made the earlier installment worthwhile in the first place.  It’s a story that would rather wade around in the shallow end -- the status quo -- under the pretense that it’s a safe bet, but paradoxically run the risk of either A) adding nothing but a stopgap for something that actually matters, or B) hurting the canon it’s trying to stand in front of.  Hell, just saying the word prequel (or reboot, in some cases) brings with it some serious negative connotations

It’s not a problem limited to movies, of course.  2013 saw the release of both God of War: Ascension and Gears of War: Judgment, both prequels to blockbuster franchise, and both failing (by and large) to meet either fan expectations or sales prospects.  It’s easy to blame the problems of both games on the fact that they’re prequels that apparently don’t add anything to their respective canons, and in some ways I think that’s a real issue…though given my time with Ascension, that’s not the only problem.  I was under the impression that stories are supposed to move forward, not backward; I want to see what Sera is like now that Delta Squad has saved the world, or the ramifications of Kratos’ actions in his quest for revenge.  I don’t want games that just dribble a little spit from the corner of their mouths, and rained upon us filthy gamers while we wait for Gears 4 and GoW 4 to ACTUALLY continue the story.

It’s enough to make me wonder if the prequel model as we know it is broken.  From a story perspective it’s got the potential to cause some real problems -- but for games, it might be even worse.  It creates problems for the scale and threat of the enemies in the game, as well as the characters mucking about within.  How do you create a distinct and perceivable enemy in a game without taking away from the challenge established by previous games, BUT without making them more dangerous than anything ever faced in the later parts of the canon?  How do you justify their existence, and how do you explain away their presence once the main story starts?  How do you make a player character -- or any character, really -- distinct from his/her future incarnation?  How do you give a character new tools and powers in the prequel without making the player wonder why said tools never get used again?  There are a lot of ways to create a nasty disconnect, and I can’t shake the feeling that before my time with Origins is done -- assuming I even get that far -- I’m going to be left with questions the devs probably didn’t want me to ask.

There was an episode of Extra Credits a while back that talked about the potential of prequels and reboots; the idea was that when the level of spectacle and one-upping the last installment got too high, the devs could hit the reset button (reboot) or step back into the past (prequel) to give themselves a new foundation to work with.  If that’s the case, it’s entirely possible that Origins, Ascension, and Judgment aren’t going to be the last we’ve seen of prequels.  All things considered, those three games aren’t even the first we’ve seen of prequels; Devil May Cry 3, Snake Eater, Resident Evil Zero, Birth by Sleep, and the ever-beloved Metroid: Other M are just a few examples we’ve seen over the years, each of varying quality.  So let it be known that prequels can be good.  They can contribute something meaningful as well as fun.  They can be not terrible.

So will Arkham Origins prove to be not terrible?  I’m hoping so, and the fact that I’ve still got some optimism for it has to stand for something.  I do like the detective aspect of the game, and I hope it gets utilized well.  The city may have been reused, but I do like its aesthetic, and exploring it reminds me of the grand old days of Spider-Man 2.   And of course, I want to see what kind of juice the story’s got in store.  I don’t want to believe that the game is just a triple-A cash grab that was bred for sale simply because Batman is in it.  And the best way to gain proof of that for myself -- to gain a new perspective on this character -- is to have a look for myself.

But let’s set aside that game for now.  I want to use the rest of this post to open the floor for discussion -- see where some of you weigh in on the subject of prequels.  I’ve played my fair share of games, but not nearly enough to be an all-knowing authority.  Nor do I have the variance in opinion and taste that even a party of four might hold.  And that’s exactly why I’m calling upon you for a response: what do you think of prequels?  Can they be used effectively for games?  Or by nature are they destined to be filler at best?  What do you want to see out of them?  What don’t you want to see?  Who would win in a fight, Batman or my dog if he doesn’t get his daily helping of cheeseburger pellet dog food when he demands it?

Let me hear your thoughts in the comments.  Till next time, then, I’ll see you soon.  Same blog time, same blog…uh…blog.

Whew.  Nailed it.  Now then, let’s see how Arkham Origins turns out.

Yeahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…this isn’t gonna work for me.  


  1. I am not digging Origins. It's so soul less and unoriginal. I just want the game to end.

  2. I hate to admit it, but I was thinking the exact same thing as soon as I hit the thirty-minute mark. I don't know enough about the Arkham games' "formula" to comment, but Origins just feels so wrong to me. Just all these intangibles that keep me from getting what I want out of the game.

    Such a shame. Though I guess I shouldn't be surprised; I get the feeling they added Bane because of The Dark Knight Rises, not because he'd fit in the game's story. It's possible he does, but I can't bring myself to find out how.