In just a few weeks, gamers will once again step into the boots of Gotham’s top vigilante in Rocksteady’s upcoming Batman: Arkham Knight. And oh, does he have a lot of boots to fill.
At last count, there are at least ten different skins in the game. I’m having a hard time keeping track but aside from the regular Batman, gamers can look forward to playing as Adam West Batman, Justice League 3000 Batman, First Appearance Batman, Gotham Knight Batman, Batman Beyond Batman, Dark Knight Returns Batman, and three New 52 Batmen.
While I have no problem with developers creating and segmenting cosmetic content, I’m left questioning whether players actually care about dressing up in different costumes. Is the Batman parade something people care about, or is it an artificially created revenue stream that gamers don’t actually use?
Making it Personal
Personalization and appearance are important to gamers, particularly in multiplayer games. Players strive to acquire rare armour and helmets in Halo and meticulously work to craft badges and unlock camouflage weapon skins in Call of Duty. In Destiny, armour choice went beyond aesthetics and affected player abilities, stats, and character level. Even fighting games give us options, even if it’s just a palette swap. These characters are our online avatars, and we want to look our best whenever we deliver that killing blow.
Characters in open world games are similarly dolls to be dressed up. In Sleeping Dogs, my Wei Shen wore tank tops to show off tattoos that I don’t have, or biker jackets so I could envision myself as a kung fu motorcyclist. In GTA V, my Franklin was styled after Ice Cube in Friday, while Trevor was in the dirtiest, goofiest getup I could find because that’s how Trevor rolls. And in Watch Dogs… well, Aiden never wore anything but trench coats, baseball hats, and bandanas, so maybe that’s not the best example.
That brings us to Batman.
Costume in Context
While growing up, I only owned a couple of Batman action figures because I was well aware of the ridiculous nature of the Batman line. In an effort to sell more damn toys to kids, we were inundated with a Batman for all seasons, from Arctic Freeze Batman to Swamp Attack Batman, Deep Sea Batman to Night Vision Batman, as well as Batman on jet skis, Batman with skates, and Batman with Urban Camo. The list went on, and with each iteration, the Dark Knight became less dark and mysterious and more of a billionaire man-child with questionable taste in costuming.
That’s the source of my resistance to the skins in Arkham Knight. Artists and creators like Jim Lee, Frank Miller, Bob Kane, Kelley Jones, Greg Capullo, Bruce Timm, and many others have shaped the characters and molded the living city of Gotham in their respective takes on the mythos. Arkham Knight should do the same, sticking to a version of Batman that works in context with the world around him. I don’t really care to see an out-of-timeline Terry McGinnis taking up the Batman Beyond mantle in a modern setting. I don’t need to see a paunchy, campy Adam West Batman delivering a 30-hit chain to a group of thugs (unless the entire gameworld was remade in that 60’s style with zany POWs and goofy OOFs). And I sure as heck don’t need to play as a bloated, geriatric Dark Knight Returns Batman, who should be more at home in a dystopian-era Arkham, or at the very least, in the next Expendables flick next to Sylvester Stallone.
That’s the problem. In Sleeping Dogs I can make a Wei Shen that fits my version of the world, but Arkham Knight doesn’t give me that level of customization. The skins are just different costumes from different timelines that don’t make sense in Arkham Knight.
One of These Things is Not Like the Others
The Batman skins may be a minor value-add for fans, but it raises a few questions about the nature of gaming and marketing. Rocksteady is in an advantageous place right now in that it can do no wrong because of the runaway success of the Arkham franchise. But quality aside, is the industry too reliant on cosmetic gimmicks to sell early copies? Do gamers pay attention to the skins being released? And if so, do they actively decide to play through the game using these skins, or are they just novelties to be experienced for a few minutes and then forgotten?
More to the point, who do we play as while playing through the campaign? Are we actually playing these games as the Caped Crusader, or are we experiencing the meta of playing as one of the many versions of Batman on TV? I know I fall squarely into the former camp. I’m Batman. I’d rather be the real thing than a Batman that doesn’t belong.