Gotham Knights Didn't Just Kill Batman - It Killed Gotham, Too

Gotham Knights Didn’t Just Kill Batman – It Killed Gotham, Too

Batman: The Animated SeriesThe animation department had a standing order from the show’s co-creator, Eric Radomski: instead of working on the industry standard dark colors on white paper, the backgrounds would be painted using of light colors on black paper. This formed what the show’s producers called “dark deco,” a unique aesthetic drawn from Tim Burton’s Batman movies, detective noir, and art deco. When I think of Gotham, it’s this Gotham that comes to mind.

When Rocksteady made its Arkham games, the developer was inspired by this episodic masterpiece. Not only did the trilogy draw inspiration from the animated series’ brilliant voice cast, but it modeled its version of Gotham on the dark deco style: Gothic architecture, the big moon, art deco interiors and exteriors, the dark atmosphere and lighting. This representation is at the heart of Arkham Town and Arkham Knight.

So it’s a shame that in the latest open-world game set in Gotham, WB Games Montreal Gotham Knights (which I somewhat enjoyed), that kind of rich characterization of the city as a unique character in itself is faded, along with the villains within it. Gotham, Batman and his gallery of rogues are inexorably linked: all of the great Batman stories are woven from these three threads. Thinning any of them will lead to a less rich tapestry of any woven Batman story.

[Ed. note: Spoilers for Gotham Knights follow.]

Image: WB Games Montreal/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Gotham Knights sees you take on the mantle of Batman as the titular city’s defender after his death, in the trembling boots of four proteges: Batgirl, Nightwing, Robin, and Red Hood. Each night, the four patrol an open-world Gotham. It is a city flooded with fog which clings to the buildings in the distance; multicolored lights pierce the darkness; a gentle rain cascades over the walls and latex suits; gargoyles are ubiquitous on various buildings. It strives, at least on the surface, to emulate Gotham. However, I found it completely devoid of character: its homogeneous, lifeless neighborhoods differ only in name, and it doesn’t evolve at all during the Bat Family’s campaign in Gotham Knights. This Gotham feels like a flat plane of monotony rather than a patchwork of personality.

Arkham City and Arkham Knight dealt directly with Gotham itself as a character and a space: you experienced permanent alterations in architecture or landscape. (In Arkham City, Joker blows up a tower; in Arkham KnightBatman often “redecorates” buildings and roads with his tank.) Arkham City, Two-Face’s minions, prominent in their two-tone wardrobes, break into banks and cars; Joker’s henchmen dressed as clowns hang out in carnival settings. Bespoke events happened in specific neighborhoods, giving Gotham depth and therefore identity. Rocksteady takes on Gotham, as well as WB Montreal in 2013 Origins of Arkham, to a lesser extent, made a strong connection to the deeper aspects of Gotham, as they treated Gotham as a rounded character. Gotham’s Gotham Knights, however, is static, monotonous and boring. Where is Mr. Freeze’s lasting damage that changes the weather? Where is the structural damage after Clayface’s escape?

What makes the situation worse is that Gotham Knights mismanages a group of villains who, throughout their runs in the comics, are compelling and insidious embodiments of the city’s sinister history: the Court of Owls.

Key Gotham Knights art of several members of the infamous Court of Owls - all three have ornate masks and luxurious costumes on

Image: WB Games Montreal/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Despite being one of the canonically oldest entities in the Batman universe, the Court was not introduced to the Batman mythos until 2012. The Court includes the wealthiest and most powerful families of Gotham, who maintain control through espionage and assassination. They are bigoted and scary, they work in the shadows and pose a real threat to Batman, as they also pose a threat to Bruce Wayne.

The Court was never featured outside of the comics in the excellent animated film batman versus robinand on the tv show Gotham. Naturally, the prospect of running into them was one of the Gotham Knights‘ largest initial draws. My love for all things cult and spooky meant I had high hopes for these new villains.

Unfortunately, Gotham Knights abruptly sidelines the Court after a massive massacre by the League of Shadows, another recurring group of antagonists in Batman lore. All the intrigue and weirdness surrounding the Court wears off: while we do have some minor side quests involving the Court, these are paint-by-numbers missions with little to no depth. They often involve a fight with a few stragglers, but nothing greater comes from these encounters. One of the biggest threats to the Bat Family in game marketing is becoming little more than a chapter in the larger narrative. Gotham Knights lost an opportunity to dig into the veins of Gotham, to root out the Court poisoning the city, the very group that sees itself as a cure. Would Gotham collapse without the Court? Would the city evolve irrevocably? These are unavoidable questions. But in Gotham Knightsthey are only posed in passing.

Concept art for Gotham Knights, in which Red Hood and Nightwing sit on the edge of a building in the foreground, looking up at the belfry

Image: WB Games Montreal/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

With Batman dead and his most interesting villains obliterated in the blink of an eye, the weight returns to town to rise. Gotham Knights. But Gotham is undersold. The landscape changes, but only in closed main missions that leave no permanent scars on the open world.

Rocksteady’s Batman was constantly deteriorating, and its Gotham was no different: plants sprouting from crevices, poison hanging in the air, the ocean finding purchase, and so on. It was because characters change and Gotham itself should to be a character. This concept is absent in Gotham Knights.

Gotham Knights Gotham smeared by making all of its neighborhoods and activities around the world homogeneous; he had access to the Court of Owls, one of the most compelling players in Batman canon, but threw it away like Batman might throw a loaded gun. There is no growth in this world because its world is just a backdrop. Gotham Knights puts on a great show by killing the Dark Knight in his first moments. The greatest tragedy? He also killed Gotham.

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