[Originally published January 25, 2016]
Over the holidays, Rocksteady released the Season of Infamy DLC for Batman: Arkham Knight. It included four new quests featuring iconic Batman villains, but one in particular stands out from the rest. It contains a moment that may very well be the best utilization of Batman – his character, the moral questions he poses, and the consequences of his actions – in any video game featuring our masked man in black, and I’d like to completely ruin it by writing about it.
One of the new quest lines centers around Ra’s al Ghul and his League of Assassins. After the events of Arkham City, Ra’s is in pretty bad shape. To give you the short and skinny – he’s basically on Lazarus-life-support. The quest culminates in a prompt allowing the player to either kill Ra’s, or heal him with a direct injection of Lazarus juice. It’s a euthanasia choice. You’ve played video games before – you know what this is. One character – or group of characters – makes the case for ending a life. He’s not even really living. They say. Then another character makes the case that killing is wrong – no matter the circumstances. In this case, Ra’s is the pro-life party, and his daughter, Nyssa, is the detractor. If you’re a fan of Batman, video games, or both, then this isn’t an unfamiliar argument. You know the drill.
But not this time. This is where the real spoilers begin, by the way.
You can destroy Ra’s life-support machine. He dies – not immediately, but at the pace of someone unhooked from the machines keeping them alive. Batman is no longer Batman – he has compromised the moral boundary between himself and those he fights.
You can heal Ra’s – stick him up good with that sweet, sweet Lazarus pit goop stuff – and he murders Nyssa in retaliation for her treachery. Not only is this real A+ dad material, it’s also a death that you, the player, are directly responsible for. Narratively, Batman has just lost another ally to his hardline non-lethal code, but – this time – you get to share that guilt and doubt with the man behind the cowl.
This is it. This is the best Batman video game content there is. It successfully incorporated the player into the moral and philosophical questions that Batman – and, surely, any writer charged with authoring him – struggles with.
Okay, maybe it’s not the most effective Batman video game content there is. The quest is short, the storyline isn’t deeply fleshed out, and you don’t get to really see or overcome any of the ramifications of your choice. Plop. You just killed/saved Ra’s al Ghul. Now you’re back in the open world, grappling onto more pieces of tall architecture than you can shake a stick at. Everything is the same.
That being said, what Rocksteady did with Batman and morality was something that could only be done in a video game, and – for that reason – I’d argue that this is still the best Batman video game content out there. Even if it’s not perfect, this is a Batman moment that video games will always own. Its form and function is intrinsic to the medium, and – for that – it deserves recognition and praise.