For the most part, Batman Arkham Knight is a game that lacks confidence. It can't quite commit to a representation of Batman that feels unique, and its Gotham is drawn from so many sources that it feels more referential than essential in and of itself. But there is one place that Arkham Knight feels not only confident, but genuinely innovative and interesting. Arkham Knight has some of the most interesting camera work I've ever seen in a game, but at every step it leaves me cold.
The role of the camera is usually a distinctly utilitarian one in games. It needs to display the most efficient angle for action at all times, and these days, should really have control of it handed over to the player, to ensure they can actually see the game they're trying to play.
Looking back at earlier polygonal games like Super Mario 64, simply getting a 3D camera to work was more important than having it be used to further a game's storytelling capabilities. Nowadays though, when having a functional 3D camera is considered to be as standard as breathable air, it's strange that more games don't take advantage of the fact that, unlike movies, games give their audience full control over what they see and what they don't.
Like a lot of modern games, Arkham Knight has a slow, almost sticky camera. It whips around fluidly and perfectly in combat, but when you're just walking around, it always seems to be too tight, or too slow for anything but getting a cinematic view of Gotham. It's that very exacting control though that let's Arkham Knight's camerawork be so dynamic.
There's one scene in particular that sticks out to me, relatively early on in the game. Batman slides into Oracle's clock tower hideout right after her death, and instead of being greeted by her familiar computerized base, you instead find yourself in Barbara's apartment from when she was still Batgirl. Admittedly, it's a weirdly sparse apartment, and Babs is sitting in a chair in the middle of an empty room, but whatever, Batman wasn't there, he doesn't know about her impeccable feng shui.
You'll stand there for a while before spinning the camera around to get a better look at the room. Once you finally turn it back to the door, the doorbell rings, Barbara gets up to answer, and the Joker is on the other side. The scene quickly turns to a recreation of the part of Alan Moore's the Killing Joke where the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon in the back, paralyzing her from the waist down. As she lies on the floor, bleeding, the game once again waits for the player to turn the camera back to the door, which has been replaced by a brick wall with a message spray painted across it. The message is unimportant. What matters is that it only shows up when you turn the camera back to it, and when you turn away, your back in Oracle's clock tower base.
It's not an isolated moment either. There are plenty of scenes, including the now infamous "Press R2 to even the odds" scene, that set up cinematic camera angles, just to let the action continue until the player actually presses a button and does something. It's a great reversal of the usual tack cutscenes take, which is to give player characters abilities and powers they don't have under player control, stripping away some of their agency as a participant in the world.
It's an interesting middle ground between stuff like Half-Life's totally non-committal cutscenes that don't lock you in place or change the camera at all, and the usual, movie-in-a-game style of cutscene. It also adds an element of interactivity and forces the player to stay aware during cutscenes without springing QTEs on them.
That's not to say this is wholly unique and makes Arkham Knight some sort of cinematic masterpiece. Most of the ways it uses those dynamic angles involve setting it up to make Batman look like the world's biggest badass. They're exclusively used to make the Batman power fantasy more immersive and dynamic looking. The game's tagline is "Be the Batman," so it's not like they're hiding the fact that it's a power fantasy.
But I have to wonder if "Be the Batman's sweet camera man" wouldn't have been a more appropriate tagline. The game's increased emphasis on cinematic camera angles and player control gives me less the feeling that I'm seeing something, and more that I'm directing Batman to see something. It rips me out of the game and makes me feel more like I'm directing a Batman movie than I am playing his part.
In that way, much of Arkham Knight feels like the Dark Link fight in Ocarina of Time. An empty room with distinct visual cues to lead you through an environment set up to make you feel like you, the player, is affecting it. Directorial trickery and clever obfuscation that make something feel like the player has more say than they really do. It's a uniquely game-y thing. It has a lot to do with the fact that the player has control over everything in frame, but always ensures that the designers' intentions of what you should be seeing at any time, and how you should be seeing it, shine through. Specifically in Arkham Knight, it wants you to see how cool Batman is.
Every angle oozes stylish action, Batman slamming his elbow into a thug's face, Batman doing a sweet flip into his Batmobile off a guy's skull, Batman gliding into a man's throat to choke him out and terrify his allies. There's been a lot of writing on how the Arkham series' Batman isn't necessarily everyone's Batman, and I fall into that same disenfranchised (disenbatised?) camp. My Batman isn't constantly mired in the question of whether or not he's just like all his villains because he brutally beats the shit out of every criminal in a 10 mile radius of him. My Batman is a family man, working with allies and trying to fix how much of a broken person he is. I’ve seen a thousand stories about how Batman is just like the crooks he faces, and not nearly enough stories about the kind of person he is, or how he relates to people that aren’t his dark reflections.
The strongest part of Arkham Knight is when you team up with Robin. Again, the camera is always angled specifically, even when you move it, to give you a good look at Both Batman and Robin stalking their enemies. In fact, when you move the camera, the character you aren’t controlling with automatically swing into frame, to constantly remind you you’re working together with someone else. It’s mostly more fun from a gameplay perspective, but it’s also the only part of the game where the camera emphasises more than how amazing Batman is. It emphasizes that teamwork, that relationship between two characters. I’m sure it doesn’t do anything for people who aren’t Batman fans, but the same is true of the whole game. It’s fan service for people who like the characters, not just the slick action.
Personally, I would have wanted an entire Batman and Robin game (preferably based on the Joel Schumacher disasterpiece, but I’ll take what I can get), or even a game based on Grant Morrison's run on Batman where he founded an international cadre of Batmen and women around the world. Or a Brave and the Bold game, where each mission teamed you up with a different DC superhero. Obviously, it’s silly criticize a game based on what it isn’t, but I think those preferences speak to the fact that Arkham Knight’s Batman doesn’t really speak to me. Kicking the crap out of criminals isn’t as fun as seeing character interactions for me at this point. My favourite parts of Arkham Knight are the brief segments that give you control over Nightwing and Robin. Sure, they’re still primarily about the action, but there’s something about having both characters in frame that makes the narrative less about how incredible Batman is, and more about how cool the pair are as a team, cracking more jokes than skulls.
That's not to say Arkham Knight's Batman is bad or anything, it's a totally valid reading of that character, it's just not mine. And every angle the game forces me to shoot of Batman gloriously crushing a guy’s spine in slo-mo just reminds me of that.