Months after GamerGate first set video game culture ablaze with unbelievable resistance to the idea of feminist perspectives in the gaming industry, we have a new title that features some of the most compelling female characters in pop culture. "Batman: Arkham Knight," which came out Tuesday, spotlights Poison Ivy, Catwoman, Oracle and Harley Quinn in major roles. But while these women are often represented as strong, independent and able in other media, their featured roles here often tell a different story: They are damsels in distress.
Many, many people will play this game, if previous entries are any indication. The last main title in the series, which has a couple of spinoffs, sold over 5 million copies. And that aside, "Arkham Knight" is actually an exceptional game taken on its own merits: It is devoted to a cohesive aesthetic and narrative in a way few other games are, the set pieces are compelling and it's brimming with things to do. One moment you'll be studying the microscopic details of a crime scene, and five minutes later you're dodging drone fire in the middle of a populated city street. It all feels crunchy and good.
"Arkham Knight" will likely earn accolades as one of the standout titles of the year -- it already holds a 91 on Metacritic -- and that is precisely why its sins should not be ignored.
(Note: The text that follows contains some spoilers for the storyline in "Arkham Knight.")
It's really no big secret that gaming and tech are male-dominated industries, even if consumers are split basically down the middle in terms of gender. Plenty of people will play "Arkham Knight" and probably ignore its oftentimes troubling presentation of women -- perhaps that's simply because the game is exciting, and as soon as you settle into a moment, something explodes and you're off to something else.
But others will play the game and feel offended. Or disgusted. Or threatened. Or simply unwelcome. Even if those people were outnumbered 100 to 1 in a population of 5 million customers, it would be worthwhile to examine why and do better next time. Because here's the trouble with "Arkham Knight": It is a great game tarnished by its dreadful depictions of certain characters and situations.
The baseline problem with "Arkham Knight" is that instead of taking opportunities to depict strong women, the game makes them weak. For the most part, the female characters suck.
When you first come upon Poison Ivy early in the story, she has a gun to her head. You rescue her, and then you lock her in the back of the Batmobile and drag her to police headquarters. Later in the game, Batman determines that Ivy can communicate with -- literally -- a big old tree that could counteract the effects of a chemical weapon that Scarecrow intends to detonate somewhere in Gotham City. So Batman hauls his way back to lockup and drags her back to the Batmobile like she's a petulant child. Poison Ivy is basically a power-up for the player to collect, like a mushroom in "Super Mario."
She is barely wearing clothes throughout the entire ordeal.
Catwoman, often portrayed as Batman's equal, fares no better. Like Ivy, her storyline begins in custody. Her outfit is unzipped enough to show a massive slice of cleavage. Why? Because Catwoman is "sexy" and it's apparently hard to portray sexiness without showing boob?
The Riddler has strapped her to a chair, and Batman is called to rescue her. You arrive on the scene and find that there's an entire ordeal required to free her: Riddler has fitted her with a choker that will explode unless you deactivate a number of locks. The gameplay sometimes has Batman and Catwoman working together -- you can switch between them at points -- but the pattern almost invariably requires Batman to complete some feat of cunning, force and reflexes while Catwoman bums around in a locked chamber. Her liberation is essentially a prize for you, the player.
Things are absolutely worst for Oracle, a hero in a wheelchair who assists Batman remotely. To detail her storyline would reveal much about the largest plot points in "Arkham Knight," but things do not go well for her. An incredibly problematic storyline from the comic books is retread in vivid detail: She is abducted and maimed and exists almost entirely in this context to stir angst in the featured male characters. Batman, Robin, Commissioner Gordon and Alfred fret over her like a baby missing from the crib.
These are not failures from a gameplay perspective. But they are artistic missteps, awful quirks that will make this game -- and perhaps all video games by extension -- seem incredibly stupid to any critical thinker who may have thought to give "Arkham Knight" a try.
This game does not exist in a vacuum. It arrives at a moment when women are still being shut out of the gaming and tech industries to the point where many are even looking for work elsewhere. It is bizarre that "Arkham Knight" both includes many women and diminishes them so plainly.
All of that said, there are some important caveats. First: Harley Quinn -- Joker's deranged on-again, off-again girlfriend -- is actually kind of cool this time around. Her character design in "Arkham City" (NSFW) was incredibly sexualized and seemingly intended purely for the male gaze. (For an interesting discussion of this very topic, listen to episode 58 of the lovely "Isometric" podcast.)
Here, Harley Quinn's decked out in a pretty serious tutu and barks orders at a bunch of armed dudes. She's more covered than not. The whole thing struck me as fairly whimsical and a step in the right direction, even if it's not a perfect representation.
And no one can argue that the comic book source material is free from cheesecake. There are, in fact, many comics featuring these characters that are several orders of magnitude more sexist than "Arkham Knight." Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn in particular are often exploited for sexy fluff, as this page from "Harley and Ivy #2" shows. It's by the great Paul Dini and Bruce Timm:
But there's a major difference between this comic and something like "Arkham Knight" -- something that maybe isn't so obvious. This Poison Ivy could be appealing to men and women alike. The entire miniseries is devoted to Harley and Ivy wreaking havoc on their own terms -- it's "sexy" more than "sexist." They actively and successfully strike back against the forces that oppress them. They aren't seeking the approval of men, and they certainly don't need a player to rescue them.
And not that we need an eye for an eye, but the two ladies also take a second to objectify some dudes in the third issue:
It's ostensibly fun for everyone. And that's what we could use a little more of in these games.