Batman: Arkham Joke(r)

With the recent release of Batman: Arkham Knight – we are now officially four games into the Arkham series (yes, Arkham Origins counts). Through the years, audiences have been following Rocksteady and Warner Bros. Montreal and their efforts to tell a series of interesting stories around the Batman. Well, four games and six years after the release of Arkham Asylum and one thing has become clear: Batman has only one villain worth talking about… at least according to these two developers.

Batman has truly met his match, in terms of popularity at least.
Batman has truly met his match, in terms of popularity at least.

Yes, in their efforts to expand and expound upon Batman mythology, Rocksteady has instead created a world that feels ironically small. It seems like nothing happens in Gotham without the clown prince of crime playing at least one of (if not the only) significant roles. While no one would argue that the Joker is Batman’s best and most iconic villain, I think quite a few people would disagree that he is the only interesting one.

Wow, that's a lot of villains who are only fit for side roles.
Wow, that’s a lot of villains who are only fit for side roles.

Yet this was the narrative told over and over again throughout the course of these games, and it was not told simply by having the Joker take central spotlight. It was cemented by the developer’s shrugging off of every other villain’s development. Let’s look at Two-Face, for instance. The former district attorney with dual personalities first appeared in Arkham City – where he was all about putting Catwoman on trial… for some reason. Probably because she’s the worst villain around since she’s kind of a good guy. Batman and Catwoman stop him and Two-Face spends the rest of the game… occupying museums until captured. Don’t worry! He’s back in Arkham Knight with a grand plan to… rob banks… really… how devious.

Justice is one of the interesting stories to explore with Harvey Dent. At least figuring out his identity would be more interesting than "guessing" who the Arkham Knight is.
Justice is one of the interesting stories to explore with Harvey Dent. At least figuring out his identity would be more interesting than “guessing” who the Arkham Knight is.

Granted, the most interesting thing about Two-Face is his origin (an origin skipped in Arkham Origins – cause we needed more Joker time). Still, Harvey Dent has not fallen quite so far as to be an ordinary thug. His dual nature can be used in interesting ways, and a slew of stories exist around the character that bear exploring.
Dent is one of many characters that Rocksteady appears thoroughly unimpressed with. A villain who is worth a quick punch and nothing more. After all, who can measure up to the Joker’s insanity, his genius for evil plans, and (spoilers) his ability to be the main villain in a game where he is already dead. Yeah, the main villain of Arkham Knight is… the Joker… again.

Nice trying to look cool Two-Face, but you can't fool me. You're no clown.
Nice trying to look cool Two-Face, but you can’t fool me. You’re no clown.

Scarecrow is the villain all over the game. Batman hears his voice every few minutes, telling him over and over again that he will lose. On the surface, Rocksteady tells the player that Scarecrow is to be feared, that he is a threat – but that is all it is: telling. There is never a moment where the player feels that Scarecrow is, well, scary. It’s never shown. The master of fear appears to be doing little to frighten Batman, other than creating visions of the Joker… or is it the Joker disease doing that? Honestly, the story in Arkham Knight is as hokey and full of holes as any Adam West led sitcom.

The Scarecrow sequences in Asylum may have had control issues but they were at least interesting. No such luck with Arkham Knight.
The Scarecrow sequences in Asylum may have had control issues but they were at least interesting. No such luck with Arkham Knight.

So the player is told how Scarecrow must be stopped, all while trying to stop the Joker. Scarecrow stands instead as a straw man (get it?), a plot device waiting to be fulfilled at the end of the game to signal that the main storyline is over.
But wait, what of the Arkham Knight, the titular villain of the game? Without giving anything away – let’s just say that the Arkham Knight’s creation and defeat both revolve entirely around – you guessed it – the Joker.

Never has a villain tried so hard to be cool and failed so completely. At least he is faithful to his secret identity.
Never has a villain tried so hard to be cool and failed so completely. At least he is faithful to his secret identity.

Really, this wouldn’t feel so tired if it wasn’t the fourth time. While every game after the original has claimed to split the villain billing, it has become truly boring to climax every adventure with a Joker fight. Arkham City did the best job creating a world of multiple villains, but even that still ultimately failed to create a world larger than two people. The game was Joker centric enough to make the climax a scene of Batman carrying the Joker’s lifeless body, despite the fact that Talia, Batman’s “beloved,” was just murdered.

Sorry Talia, Batman evidently follows the Bro Code.
Sorry Talia, Batman evidently follows the Bro Code.

Arkham Origins was able to bring Bane to the table in a way that Rocksteady never cared to do, but that only lasted until Bane felt compelled to take memory-erasing, mentally-debilitating drugs in order to physically beat Batman. I’m not kidding, Rocksteady had created such a stupid, uninteresting version of Bane that, in order to reconcile Arkham Origins as a prequel, the writers had to invent a way to make him dumber. Wow.

So it has been the Joker, and only the Joker, who has occupied the Batman games… and that needs to change. With Rocksteady hopefully exiting the Batman market (at least for a game or two to recharge) and the Arkham series reaching its “end” game, the time is here to reflect and examine how to make future Batman games better. The answer is simple. Make it bigger. I don’t mean the city this time – I mean the world. Explore these characters and give gamers a story without the clown prince pulling all the strings. It may take a little bit more work, but the results will be worth it.
Also no more Riddler trophies. I’m not kidding; collecting those has become the opposite of fun.

The Ultimate Mixed-Bag: Dragon Age II

The release of Dragon Age: Inquisition is upon us. Bioware‘s third in its series of medieval fantasy role-playing games looks impressive, and has already amassed a slew of favorable reviews before its release.  This is the first Dragon Age game since 2011. It is odd in this day to find such a high-budget video game release being given so long a development schedule. To put it simply: four Call of Duty games have been released in that time. Of course, the counter argument could be that EA lets Bioware take longer to develop their games but… that is not true.  Mass Effect 3 was released just over two years after the initial release of Mass Effect 2 (not including the dlc release dates), and that title was delayed. Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s long development time might have a lot more to do with the reaction to its predecessor, 2011’s Dragon Age II.

Dragon Age II received positive reaction from critics, but to look at the game’s user feedback is a different story. Many fans of the series condemned the sequel, calling it a rushed, cheap cash-in attempt on the first game. While not all the response was that critical, it came as a personal surprise to me. I am a big fan of Bioware, I love their games and quite enjoyed playing through Dragon Age II when it was released. That said, the game undeniably has weaknesses. While video game taste will always be a matter of perception and personal taste, there are a few areas where it is very possible to be objective. Let us examine the definite negatives and positives of Bioware’s most controversial release.

Level Variety

This is the first and largest negative aspect of Dragon Age II. The first game, Dragon Age: Origins, was known for its sprawling world and massive amount of dungeons. Last night, my friends and I tried to remember all the different dungeons in Dragon Age II. We concluded that their were basically six… in a game that took at least twenty hours to beat. The number is not the problem, if each dungeon was vast and took a lot of time and felt unique, that would be one thing. Dragon Age II recycles the same six small dungeons over and over again for its quests. The player better enjoy each dungeon’s design, because they will be seeing them a lot. True, there are a few others that are called in for special occasions but really it is difficult to overlook the impression this leaves. Reused dungeon design gives the definite feeling of a rushed game and chips away at the feeling of immersion. “Let’s go into this alley? Oh, you mean the alley that looks identical to every other alley in the city? Sure… why not.”

Get used to the one cave outside of Kirkwall that you revisit over and over again before the game is done.
Get used to the one cave outside of Kirkwall that you revisit over and over again before the game is done.

Glitches

Glitches can make or break any game. The best video game’s can be tarnished and company’s reputations ruined over releasing products full of bugs. Unfortunately, Dragon Age II is such a game. Having completed multiple play-throughs, I personally encountered multiple glitches both times. These were not simply graphical errors either, where the models and textures go wonky. On several occasions, the game encountered errors which prevented quests from being completed or even attempted. In a game where going on quests is essential (the main drive of the entire video game), this is unacceptable. What made it worse was that Bioware and EA put out several expansions of paid dlc… without ever fixing the bugs in the main game. Don’t worry, the downloadable content contains errors too. It is a tough sell to continue to support a game that its own maker can’t even be bothered to fix.

I encountered a glitch in one play-through that prevented me from completing any of Fenris' side missions. An entire chunk of the game was removed due to this error.
I encountered a glitch in one play-through that prevented me from completing any of Fenris’ side missions. An entire chunk of the game was removed due to this error.

These are the only two clear failings of the game but – they are large failings. Whether a player liked the story is subjective. Whether a player liked the companions is subjective. Not being able to complete quests due to poor design – that is a very objective complaint. But anyway, about those companions…

The Companion Archs

Not to say that Dragon Age: Origins had poor companions, it did not. That said, certain mechanics of the system felt tacked on and were easy to manipulate. Companion loyalty simply came down to gift giving, it served to undermine the organic nature of forming a party. This was thankfully no longer true in Dragon Age II. While still not perfect, the companion system felt more natural this time around. Everything came down to how the player protagonist interacted with the companions. Gifts still played a role but it was reduced. The resulting effects caused the player to more carefully consider their options, especially given that companions could turn to enemies given the right circumstances.

Like its predecessor, each character had their own personality. Unlike its predecessor, there was no magic way to make them instantly all your friend.
Like its predecessor, each character had their own personality. Unlike its predecessor, there was no magic way to make them instantly all your friend.

The Art Style

Like it or not, there is no denying how much more creative the art style appeared in Dragon Age II. Each race became more distinctive looking. Quanari, for instance, became much more easily identifiable. While Origins was not weak on design, Dragon Age II did a lot to improve it. The game is definitely stylish.

Each race grew more distinct in 2.
Each race grew more distinct in 2.

Ultimately, Dragon Age II is bizarre in the fact that it is exceptional in both respects. What works in the game works very well and what does not fails miserably. There was no middle of the road in Bioware’s second fantasy epic. At the end of the day, however, this game might be one of the finest mixed bags ever made. It is certainly one of the few I can honestly say I would recommend to people looking for high quality… just watch out for the low.

Through the Eyes of a Child: The Triumph of Telltale's Walking Dead Season Two

When Telltale completed Season One of its The Walking Dead in mid 2012, the clear question emerged: how could the sequel be better? The Walking Dead: Season One was heralded as one of the best games of the year, with many people dubbing it the greatest adventure game ever made. Now, whether that second part is true or not is a debate for another day. Regardless, Telltale had set the bar high. The company had successfully rebounded from the edge of collapse (remember Jurassic Park: the Game?) and had climbed into more mainstream gamer attention. Unlike the original, which came out of nowhere, The Walking Dead: Season Two would have expectations. In meeting these exceptions, Telltale had to create something both incredible and unlikely: a zombie story that did not sound too familiar. The succeeded with a simple twist in the traditional story-arch. An idea that has never been fully utilized in the genre before: a child protagonist.

Marketing quickly established that this would be Clementine's story.
Marketing quickly established that this would be Clementine’s story.

This is not to say that children have not played a large role in the stories of zombie apocalypse before. From Carl on AMC’s The Walking Dead to Ellie in The Last of Us, children have been playing important supporting roles for sometime. Yet the main protagonist remained an empowered adult, with the child either functioning primarily as the embodiment of innocence, conscience, or some other ‘pure’ element of humanity. At eleven years old, Clementine breaks the mold that she had served in Season One.

Of course, a child protagonist poses problems – namely in the aspect of perspective storytelling, or point of view. Children do not experience the world in the same way that adults do. They live different lives, are ignorant of many issues, and concerned with priorities that not all adults would relate to. It was the triumph of Season Two‘s storytelling (headed by Nick Breckon and Andrew Grant) that allowed Clementine to be a relatable protagonist, while still maintaining the believable personality of a child. In discussing Clementine, the strengths and weaknesses of her portrayal must be observed.

WHERE THEY FALTERED

Since the flaws are so few, they will be highlighted first. As mentioned, problems can emerge with an 11-year old protagonist, namely: just how empowered are they? In a zombie apocalypse, why would the words of a child matter against bigger, stronger human beings? For the most part, Telltale handles this challenge well. Clementine is depicted as friendly and mature while having the all-important ability to keep her head in a crisis. The player sees the adult supporting characters appreciating these traits and trusting Clementine, which leads them to confide in her. Clementine is then able to use the influence she attains to either subtly or directly influence the group. She never brute forces any situation, and when a character does not want to listen to her – there’s little she can do about it.

That said, there was one event early on where the illusion of child protagonist is damaged. In the first episode, “All That Remains“, Clementine has an encounter with a grown woman named Rebecca. Here is the encounter:

There are several reasons why I personally do not believe this scene holds up at all with the nature of narrative perspective. It mainly comes down to the overly aggressive yet frightened attitude expressed by Rebecca. Clementine is a small, young girl who has just entered the group. She can pose no physical challenge and, at that point, it is very difficult to see her having a place of influence. Rebecca’s reaction is too strong and the lack of subtly causes the player to almost scoff at the encounter. This sequence would have fit much better if Season One‘s protagonist, Lee was still the player character. However, that reaction to a child is more laughable than tension-building.

The face of an adult's greatest threat in a zombie apocalypse.
The face of an adult’s greatest threat in a zombie apocalypse.

Quick note – that scene has another problem as Rebecca believes Clementine to be a spy for Carver, a man they are all fleeing. Yet, as Rebecca was a former member of Carver’s group… she would (and later does) know all his people. Another reason why this scene is more contrived than anything else.

WHERE THEY SUCCEEDED

Without spoiling the entirety of The Walking Dead: Season Two‘s plot, the writers at Telltale essentially made it a coming-of-age story. Throughout the course of the story-arch, Clementine is exposed to three (or really two) supporting characters who serve to showcase wildly different mentors. Each believes that Clementine must behave a certain way if she wants to live in a post-apocalyptic world. This style of character interaction allows the player a very clever way to look at the consequences of action, and how actions over time shape an individual’s identity.

Jane serves as one of Clementine's mentors in Season Two. She is also a reflection of who Clementine might grow to be.
Jane serves as one of Clementine’s mentors in Season Two. She is also a reflection of who Clementine might grow to be.

In addition to this, Clementine’s personality has already been greatly influenced by Lee during the events of Season One. There are many moments where the player, like Clementine, find themselves asking “What would Lee do in this situation?” It is a brilliant piece on the importance of influence and how no one grows up alone. Throughout most of the game, the player feels like they are making a human being. Clementine already developed significantly in Season One, but Season Two finishes her growth arc. By the end, it is very clear what type of person Clementine has become – and the player feels like they had a strong role in that act of creation.

Sarah is a character used to contrast Clementine. At 15, she is considerably older, yet far less adult.
Sarah is a character used to contrast Clementine. At 15, she is considerably older yet far less adult.

Yet through it all, Clementine’s innocence and childish ignorance is touched upon. There is perhaps no more memorable scene than one of the final moments of ease in Season Two‘s story. Everyone is relaxing around a fire and joking around (needless to say, alcohol is involved). The subject of conversation turns to sex and everyone suddenly becomes very cautious around Clementine, who defies them by saying that she knows they’re talking about “kissing stuff.” This is not only a great moment in managing tension but a wonderful reminder of who Clementine is. She has had to grow up a lot to survive in a harsh world, but still maintains her child disinterest in anything to do with sex.

The Walking Dead: Season Two surpasses its predecessor with a unique protagonist and a very well-structured storyline. Is it perfect: no, but it is close. There is now a new question to be asked: how is Season Three going to top this?

Regardless of player choices, Clementine grows into a powerfully strong protagonist.
Regardless of player choices, Clementine grows into a powerfully strong protagonist.