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Pulling a Batman: Gritty Re-Imaginings Are Unimaginative

/ Mar 20th, 2013 No Comments

Batman: Arkham City screenshot
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of The Shadows

Four Batmen!

It is a tough gritty world out there. To cope, people need a tough, moody protagonist in all video games, apparently, forever and ever (or until the fad dies). This has become a trend in games that gamers may have noticed. Tons of new titles today seem enamored by Christopher Nolan’s popular reinvention of the Batman franchise, it may be about time game designers started to try something new instead. Whether on the record or unofficially and whether in a stylistic or commercial approach, Legendary Pictures’ take on the Caped Crusader has infiltrated most of what people are playing. It is about time to shine the Bat-Signal on exactly why and how this has happened and if and when it will end.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Batman

Let’s start with something new, Activision‘s recently revealed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of The Shadows. The new game sees our ‘heroes in a half shell’ take on eerily humanistic features in their fight against crime within the dark and grimy perpetual midnight of the city. This time it appears the target audience isn’t children. It is Turtles meets the Dark Knight.

Now of course, it can be argued that the Turtles franchise evolved from a fairly dark comic to a hit children’s cartoon to live action film franchise. Yet the turtles are not dancing around behind Vanilla Ice anymore. The franchise has since become a CG animation film and cartoon series, pretending that these characters are retracing old ground to darker days seems a bit of a stretch. Even if that was the case, then it is worth questioning why that would be. The short answer is because Batman is in right now. The Turtles have had their fair share of reboots in video games as it is. Back in 2009, A Turtles In Time remake (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:Turtles in Time Re-Shelled) and the Smash Bros inspired Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Smash-Up were released. Neither game performed especially well, however is this new ‘edgier’ take on turtles really in any way a better or more original idea? Michael Bay is the director charged with bringing Turtles back to the big screen (yet again). Mr. Boobsplosions himself says the TMNTs are aliens now, but Activision thinks they are Batman now. A sample quote from the Out of The Shadows trailer exclaims (and I’m not making this up); “Turtles will rise”. Quick! Phone Hans Zimmer and get some orchestral “BRRAAAHHHMMM(s)!” on this ASAP!

Meanwhile the bright and far less serious Nickelodean kids’ cartoon series is performing well. But enough about Turtles, that’s just the tip of the shell (Yes, just room there for one more lame turtles pun that doesn’t really work).

We’re Doing a Darker Reboot like Batman Begins.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate

Heartfelt sympathy to anyone working at a video game company that has heard a ‘creative mind’ say something to this effect. Gloomy reinvigorations taking cues from the Batman Begins’ trilogy and Bourne-style Bond films are now commonplace. During a recent BAFTA Q&A, Crystal Dynamics studio head Darrell Gallagher, expressed that the Tomb Raider reboot was in part thanks to seeing the effective re-imaginings of the Batman and Bond cinematic franchises. Gallagher is not alone, the producer behind the re-imagined Castlevania franchise, Dave Cox has also cited the Batman Begins’ trilogy as an artistic influence on the Lords Of Shadow saga. Now, I have written enough about reboots and such, there are far more franchise re-hashes that have a less publicly announced debt to the Batman reboot formula (*cough DmC cough*). All that needs to be noted is that Tomb Raider and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 are just two of this year’s big releases to catch the Bat bug, but they are far from alone.

Gotham City Games – Crisis on Infinite Reboots

Although Tomb Raider and Castlevania are darker takes on their own long established respective universes, there are plenty of games that take place in worlds suspiciously close to the Caped Crusader’s own. Forget the obvious choices, the actual Batman games. Clearly, Arkham Asylum and Arkham City have surfed so high on the crest of that Christopher Nolan branded-Batman wave, they have not even smashed into a jagged Gotham beach yet. And why not, those games actually feature Batman as a central protagonist and obviously the brand is strong, so it is not worth focusing on those games. However, it is kind of strange that Injustice: Gods Among Us is also boogie boarding on that wave also. Yep, the grimy and dingy feel of the Batman films make that take on the Dark Knight a good fit, but seeing Superman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and all these brightly painted mascots pulled into that art style just seems a tad desperate. Like it did in Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.

The Gotham style games are those that have nothing directly to do with Batman yet have more than a few passing similarities to his familiar world. The last 5 years or so have seen a rise in games starring the ‘urban vigilante’. It can be argued that the dark anti-heroes of the InFAMOUS and Prototype games take up the mantle of the Batman archetype, their success forces the trend to continue. This year sees the release of the much anticipated Watch_Dogs and Remember Me. These city scaling crusaders operating outside the law and fit the demand for games in this gritty vein. A demand established by a chart eclipsing film franchise installed within the collective consciousness hungry for more media like it.

Why So Serious?

infamous second son

Someone’s got an eye on your every move in inFAMOUS Second Son.

So why so many Batman-esque games and why now all of a sudden? There’s been failed attempts at moody rehashes before the bubble (such as Bomberman: Act Zero, a misguided effort from 2006), so what makes today’s grayer games work? To dig a little deeper, It can be said that the gritty dark revamps are a reflection of our current un-optimistic social and economic climate. We want to see our Laras and Leonardos flourish in a darker world than we’ve seen them in before because our own world has declined very rapidly and very recently. The only things ‘rising’ are unemployment figures, taxes and city bankers Christmas bonuses, it seems.

Politics aside, it’s worth mentioning the obvious and more likely. It is easy to follow the crowd. If studio A is making great gains with their dark depressing action game then studio B knows where the money is at. As simple and uninspiring as it seems, games are a business and everything is incorporated these days, even Batman.

Olly Jones
Olly Jones is a contributor to the editorial team at Gaming Illustrated. As an artist, Olly has created artwork to publicize games for Capcom, Ubisoft, Arc System Works and Grasshopper Manufacture.
Olly Jones
Olly Jones

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