A game set among the mentally ill has the potential to be lots of things — eerie, revealing, maybe even funny. A game with the dark, stylized Batman aesthetic set among the mentally ill has the potential to be, well, great. Unfortunately Batman: Arkham Asylum, for all the respectability it’s garnered for the series, is not great, or revealing, or funny. It’s not even eerie — unless you count its belabored character rendering, in which case ooooooo, quake with fear.
Insanity, the classic gothic trope of cinema and literature alike, makes our spines tingle specifically because it hits close to home. Those we see as “crazy” in art are not monsters, not impossibilities from beyond the grave, but flesh and blood human beings who vary from the norm in plausible and thus unnerving ways. Arkham Asylum‘s first and biggest failing comes in the missed opportunity to spook us out with (putting aside the possibility of making us think meaningfully about) with the uncanny. Instead we’re confronted with familiar Batman villains, inhuman goons, and the generically committed.
Also not doing the game any favors in the uneasy ambiance department: the game’s graphics. I would have much preferred a simpler, more stylized aesthetic, perhaps influenced by Batman: The Animated Series, which would have allowed the atmosphere to remain ripe for stealth without the over attention to detail, which is currently derailing the visual experience of navigating Arkham. Batman does earn points for one type of uncanniness: the uncanny valley of its stilted, “realistic” characters. I could go on a boating expedition up the Congo in the creases in the Dark Knight’s face. And who thought it was a good idea to have us watch 90% of the game from behind a rippling black cape, an impossible feat of rendering?
At its brief, best moments, Batman: Arkham Asylum reminds me of Bioshock — as voiceovers from the Joker flood in through padded walls. At its worst, or I should say its most mediocre, it feels like an excellent game that could have been. Maybe other players, less eager to turn a corner and see deranged doctors performing sadistic cosmetic surgery, will be content with the gameplay. I for one was let down again and again by the lack of insanity in this house of the insane.