NOW I HAVE A BATARANG
Die Hard is mostly about a lone cop facing down the group of terrorists who have taken over a Los Angeles office building. But it’s also a Christmas story that sees Bruce Willis’ John McClane doing everything in his power to reunite his family by fixing the troubled relationship between himself and his wife. In that sense, stripped of the gunplay and explosions, Die Hard is about as traditional a Christmas movie as you can get.
Batman: Arkham Origins is, like Die Hard, about a lone hero out to save the day by taking on overwhelming odds . . . during the holidays. This is unusual for videogames even though it seems like nearly everything else about Die Hard, from its “boss fight” henchmen to its one person versus an army premise, seems to have found a place in the medium. This is a good thing because when judged strictly on its own merits, Arkham Origins isn’t an incredibly memorable game. While it’s still an awful lot of fun to cruise around beating up thugs and grappling across rooftops, much of Origins is a rehash of the formula established in its predecessor, Batman: Arkham City. This was the primary criticism leveled at the latest Batman game upon its release. It feels like more of the same; it isn’t innovative enough to have the same kind of impact on the medium that the two previous Arkham games had. All of that is fair enough, yet I’m willing to bet that Arkham Origins will remain in players’ minds far longer than it otherwise would have. And that’s due to one simple reason: its holiday setting.
It’s Christmas Eve and Gotham City is wracked with a snowstorm at the time Arkham Origin‘s story begins. This choice of setting means that the holiday influences almost everything about the world even though it’s never the focal point of the story. Batman may be trying to save the city from the nefarious designs of Black Mask while fighting off the eight assassins after his head, but he’s also taking the lead role in a Christmas story. This can be easy to forget at times. Arkham Origins‘ plot is, at heart, a crime mystery that is more concerned with homicide scenes and super powered villains than the meaning of the holidays. Just the same, like Die Hard before it, the Christmas setting works as window dressing to an otherwise boilerplate action adventure. The player doesn’t have to care that it’s December 24th, sure, but part of the game’s appeal is that it includes such an instantly recognizable event in its narrative.
Some of the most popular holiday stories are about much more than the celebrations themselves. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a tale of one old man’s learning to overcome selfishness. Miracle on 34th Street is about the preservation of innocence in a cynical world. Even Christmas Vacation only uses the holidays as a way to better illustrate someone fighting to maintain family traditions when nobody else seems to understand their importance. These stories are successful because their narratives are universal, the inclusion of an event like Christmas only serving to better sell a premise, offer an easy springboard for jokes, or increase the dramatic stakes.
Videogames are always looking for ways to create easily marketable settings, interesting visuals, and convenient ways to ratchet up tension. Arkham Origins shows that all of these criteria can be satisfied by simply taking an interesting enough story and making it take place during the holidays. Sure, the game could have been set during a summer heat wave, but it would have lost most of its charm. The fact that Gotham is strewn with twinkling lights, that a gun dealer character decks himself out in a Santa hat, and that the strains of familiar carols can be heard coming from abandoned storefronts gives Arkham Origins a special feel.
There are plenty of holiday themed albums, movies, and books — yet very few games belong to this category. This feels like a wasted opportunity. Of course not every title would benefit from getting into the season in the way that Batman: Arkham Origins does. But exploring one of the merriest versions of Gotham to date does show just how easily a lot of otherwise traditional action games could turn themselves into seasonal favourites by being a bit more willing to embrace the holiday spirit. After all, if a beaten and bloodied John McClane can make running barefoot through a series of vicious gunfights feel festive then just about anything can.