Wednesday, September 09, 2009


Arkham Asylum

I'm intrigued by this Seth Shiesel of the New York Times. He's awfully literate and smart . . . and he likes video games. This is what he looks like.

You know, I have an pretty Waspy sounding name myself, so it goes to show you can't always have an idea of what someone will look like based on a name.

I am feeling a touch of fall in the air here, which makes me happy because it means I will most likely stop collapsing from the heat. It also makes me feel sort of cozy. Like, in addition to hot cider and hot chocolate and a book . . . I want to play a video game. A good one. Usually I go to Game Stop and ask a nice fifteen year old what he recommends, but lately that strategy has not been working. Enter Seth Shiesel and his very literate video game column in the New York Times . . . and a strong recommendation for Arkham Asylum. The review opens thus:

Playing the new Batman: Arkham Asylum game, I couldn’t stop thinking about Walker Percy’s foreword to “A Confederacy of Dunces,” John Kennedy Toole’s posthumously published masterwork. Recounting his profound reluctance to read a barely legible carbon copy by a dead, unknown writer, Mr. Percy writes: “In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good. I shall resist the temptation to say what first made me gape, grin, laugh out loud, shake my head in wonderment. Better let the reader make the discovery on his own.”

Get it? Mr. Shiesel can evaluate games on the level of serious entertainment. Art, even. He gets the whole high-low culture thing. But then he goes on to write:

Arkham Asylum’s visuals, sound design, combat and exploration are all engagingly realized, but it is the superb writing and acting that propel the game from good to great.

I am one of those people who believes that it's only a matter of time before we stop thinking of games as pulp and as art--much in the same way that the novel is held in such high regard now, or that "graphic novels" have suddenly gained a certain kind of cachet. And let's not forget animated movies which in some cases are now considered "film." So I was curious to play Arkham Asylum, in which Batman and Joker play starring roles, to find out how good the writing actually is. And . . . it's excellent. Wonderful dialogue. The game design is good too--you actually feel like Batman because you have to rely on his particular super powers--stealth, combat, boomerangs--to complete quests. Not for you some super-charged weapon or ultra-heavy armor to facilitate combat. You actually have to think a bit. I liked that.

But more than anything, it is the story and pacing which make the game so engaging. And the writer is none other than Paul Dini, creator of "Lost" (which I have to confess, I've never seen) and who bizarrely seems to have gone to my high school! I'm still only 10% of the way in the game, but already recommend it most enthusiastically. And as for the writing--it's a reminder of what can happen when a talented writer is involved in the development of a game; it becomes something greater than a time killer. I was thrilled, and very quickly put away the disappointing and boring shooter game which required absolutely no strategic thinking whatsoever. I do still have a pile of books to read and have to be careful of just how I waste my time . . .

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