Batman and the B word

A week or so after Batman Arkaham City was released the Internet started buzzing about the use of “bitch” in the game. There was this piece on Kotaku, saying the game has a “bitch fixation”. And then there was this one by the always entertaining FilmCritHulk, which called the game “super duper sexist”. The guys at Giant Bomb mentioned it in one of their podcasts, and if you google it, you’ll find an absurd number of message board posts scattered across a variety of sites complaining about it.

Now that I’ve played a few hours of Batman, I can confirm that, yes, the word “bitch” pops up a lot. Would I have noticed it if it wasn’t for the articles I read prior to playing? I’m not sure, but I think I probably would. So far every female character that has shown up has been called a bitch by someone--be it a major villain like Two Face, or just some random thug on the street. It’s off putting, but I’m not sure it’s sexist. I think it’s lazy.

Maybe it’s because of Christopher Nolan’s stellar films, but people seem to like the dark, edgy and brooding version of Batman. Developer Rocksteady has cooked up a dark and edgy version of the hero that’s unique to its games, although you could question whether he’s truly unique, or just a unique amalgamation of other versions of the hero.

For example: The character of Batman, his gadgets, and the overall tone feel like they were pulled from the semi-realistic world of the Nolan films. Architecturally, the city looks like a spin on the Tim Burton-designed Gotham from the first two Batman movies in the late 80s/early 90s. The voice actors for Batman, Joker and Harley Quinn also voiced those characters in the beloved mid-90s Batman cartoon. The list of villains is deep, featuring cameos from bad guys only true comic book nerds would know. And the plot is split into obvious arcs, like a multi-issue comic story, filled with melodrama and cool fight scenes.

So mix all that together and what do you get? Something quite silly actually. The Nolan films work so well because they don’t really feel like superhero movies. You could replace Batman with a rogue cop in the Dark Knight and it would still work as an interesting crime drama. You know how Nolan made Two Face work (besides casting the likable Aaron Eckhart)? He never called him Two Face. When you mix in over-the-top villains, with literal (and punny) names like The Mad Hatter and Poison Ivy, it’s hard to maintain that realism.

But this is a video game about Batman. People don’t want strict realism; they want to punch The Penguin in his face! So how do you maintain Nolan’s tone when you’ve got campy villains skipping all over the place? Cursing. Lots of “T for Teen” cursing. The ESRB says you’re allowed to get away with mild cursing with a T rated game; you can drop just about everything but the F-bomb. The T rating doesn’t allow a ton of gore, so it’s perfect for Batman’s no-kill policy too. So now you have a campy comic book world, but it’s still edgy because Batman says “damn”, the villains say “ass” and every female character is a bitch.

But that backfired. The cursing just feels out of place, and the overuse of bitch made a lot of people uncomfortable, and some very angry. I don’t think the writers had some sexist agenda, I just think they did a lazy job capturing that dark and edgy tone they were hoping for. Go back and watch the Dark Knight, you can count the number of curse words on one hand. The language plays a small part in setting the tone. There are so many other things—the dark blueish hue, the off-screen implied violence, the excellent casting and acting—that contribute to tone.

I know it can’t be easy to work with a license like Batman. As a character he’s gone from grim psychosis to ludicrous shark punching and back. How do you please those that prefer him dark and edgy and those that like his goofier villains? I think Rocksteady found a great balance in their first game, Arkham Asylum, but they lost it with the sequel. They expanded everything—the map, the gadgets, the number of villains, the side missions—and then tried to reign in the cartoonish “this is clearly a video game” feeling by peppering the dialog with PG-13 language. And it would have worked, but they went too far. In other words, the characters didn’t need to curse that much. In fact, I think if they cursed less, chose their words, it would have had more of an impact on tone.

I wrote a book about superheroes (still looking for an agent…sigh) with some mild cursing. I made sure to use the words only when it was necessary and only if it fit the characters. There is one F word in the entire 300 plus page book, and when it comes, it packs a punch (that was my intention). I’m trying to imply that my way is the right way, just saying that bad language, like all the tools in your storytelling toolbox, should be used in moderation when crafting a tale. Rocksteady overcompensated, and the result is a forced, inconsistent tone.

You ever been around a young kid when he discovers an inappropriate word? Something like “butt” or “fart”? When his parents aren’t around he’ll say it like crazy, even if it doesn’t make sense. It’s an inappropriate word, saying it is exhilarating, it makes him feel like a grown up. At first it’s funny to see the kid enamored with his new dirty word, but eventually, it gets annoying. That’s what Batman: Arkham City is like with bitch, uttering the word every chance it gets because it thinks saying it will make it look hip and edgy. It’s funny at first, then off-putting, and then just dumb. If you thought about skipping Batman because you thought it was sexist, don’t, it’s not. It’s just a little lazy.