Content Type: Gaming News
Date: October 25, 2022
Gotham Knights and Authentic Nostalgia
It is nothing new to suggest that modern media – video games included – has a tendency to try to use nostalgia in order to garner interest in a product. This, then, must be especially true for a franchise as big as Batman, whose popularity is so massive that even those who vocally hate the character typically have some nostalgic connection to something he is involved with (whether that be the Arkham Games, the Dark Knight movies, the animated shows, or even the actual comic books themselves). Batman is truly a universal, evergreen property.
It should be no surprise, then, that Gotham Knights makes plentiful use of that nostalgia. In fact, the entire story is built on it. Batman is killed in the opening cutscene of the game, and the characters are forced to grapple with that loss. Naturally, they do so in ways that call upon all the best memories they (and by extension the intended audience) have with the character. In Bruce Wayne’s stead, the four members of the bat-family (itself a nostalgic term) must interact with all manner of his former associates and adversaries, from ever-present mainstays like Alfred and the Penguin to B-listers like the Court of Owls and Clayface.
We’ve all seen this recipe before. Take a popular franchise, and throw things at the wall in order to satiate fans (and, therefore, sell to them). Cynically grab whatever you can, make a reference to it, and watch the click bait “Top 10 Easter Eggs!” and “Man-Bat Finally Made it Into A Batman Game” articles do your advertising for you. It is calculated and, at this point, tired. And people are tired of this kind of soulless weaponization of nostalgia. And so Gotham Knights should be no exception: it is another cheap plea for attention, using the rogues’ gallery of a famous superhero simply to generate free notoriety. Or so you’d think…
But, you’d be wrong. Because the fascinating part about how nostalgia is treated in Gotham Knights is that it doesn’t just exist to allow the players to point and say “I got that reference!” It doesn’t just exist for free clicks. There are no obscure comic-book-only character names thrown in just to generate curiosity and clickbait.
Rather, the nostalgia in Gotham Knights is purposefully baked into the story and world. The characters feel it just as strongly as the ideal player will. Because, in what I believe to be a masterstroke, the writers chose to make a Gotham that had already experienced Batman, in all his many forms. Just like how people in our world have. And, in this article, I really want to take a look at why and how this was done.
This isn’t the Greatest Game in the World, This is Just a Tribute
Gotham Knights, after all, is as far from an origin story as possible. Instead, it is a tribute, a love letter to Batman, as we all know him. It doesn’t hold punches, making big reveals out of things that you, the player, are already aware of. There is no moment where a villain shows up that you, the player, know, but the characters don’t. Gotham Knights takes place in a post-Batman world, and so all pieces of the Batman puzzle are already around. All the villains present are not only familiar faces, but also have goals and personalities which reflect changes they underwent through years of contact with Batman, trophies from dozens of previous battles hang around the Batcave, and characters regularly reference “the time that one thing from the comics” happened.
In short: Gotham knows as much about Batman as you do, and – by virtue of being created by obvious superfans of the character – often more. And that couldn’t be more refreshing. In a world where everything needs an origin story, and fan-service moments that reference things that fans have loved for decades are regularly brushed off by characters as new information, it is just excellent to inhabit a Gotham that knows and recognizes Batman in the same way you do.
And this doesn’t just extend to references. As mentioned previously, it is clear that this nostalgia-fueled past has had an impact on the world – whether it be villains with new arcs or the mere existence of the bat-family. It also extends to tone: while Gotham is literally dark and decrepit (as it always must be) it is also, paradoxically, vibrant. Villains ham up the scenes, delivering schlocky monologues while the protagonists retort with equally-schlocky one-liners. The sidekicks banter with a script that could’ve come straight from the Animated Series or the Golden Age comic books. And the setpieces throughout are cut straight from the cloth of the most bombastic, campiest moments in the Batman franchise. This game doesn’t just toss names out in hopes that you perk up like a dog (or a bat?) when you hear them: no, its nostalgia goes deeper, in a way that shows respect and reverence for the source material.
Again, in an era where most nostalgia is either leveraged to darken properties to make them more severe and gritty (see Matt Reeve’s The Batman), or else simply try to cynically mash as many recognizable things into a single entity as possible (see Warner Bros.’s Multiversus), it means a lot when a project like this actually seems to love the thing that inspired its nostalgia. There is no cynicism here, or at least not much: instead, Gotham Knights demonstrates a deeply genuine appreciation for Batman. And that should make any fan happy.
The Batman in Gotham Knights is Every Batman
Nowhere is this clearer than in how the game deals with Batman himself. Perhaps more than any other character in popular media, Batman has been interpreted in hundreds of ways. He is not one character, but rather dozens upon dozens of characters who all share the moniker. After all, Adam West’s super-campy Batman bears no resemblance to Christian Bale’s self-serious, subversive Batman. And each of these versions are some fans’ favorite, and others’ most hated.
So, amongst these myriad versions, how did WB Interactive Montreal pick which to adapt?
Well, the game is about the death of Batman, so the obvious choice would’ve been to take Batman at his darkest, his most brooding (if not most serious). Gotham Knights is also a spiritual successor to the wildly popular Arkham game series, which saw a similar Batman, who was serious and grim even despite the over-the-top, filthy world he inhabited. If there was a Batman that would be the Batman for this game, surely it would be that one, right? Au contraire, but you forget about the tone! It is hard to celebrate a brooding, exhausted man, and that Batman stripes so much of the fun from the character. He might’ve been perfect for Arkham, but he wasn’t perfect for Gotham.
But, at the same time, he also isn’t that similar to any other Batmen. He isn’t as goofy as the Golden Age comics or Adam West, nor is his genuine compassion taken for laughs like the Burton or Lego Movie Batmen. He isn’t playing the edgy loner, like in the animated shows, nor even the heroic paragon from most of his comic run. In fact, Gotham Knights’ love of the character’s history is, ironically, exactly what separates its Batman from any before.
It recognizes that Batman, in all incarnations, is a symbol. And, in this case, that symbol is a synthesis, a combination of everything he has ever symbolized before. And thus, Gotham Knights’ version of Batman is born, symbolizing the perfect idea of Batman.
That sounds pretentious, but bear with me. This version of Batman is one who has lived all other lives of Batman. There are references that only fans of his darkest, most grounded iterations will recognize, and this version of Bruce was that version. But there are also connections to his most ridiculous moments, from the earliest days, and he was also, once, that version. He was Batman played sincerely, and Batman taken for laughs. He is a Batman Gotham loved, one that it feared, and one that it didn’t know anything about. He is every Batman, or at least all the best parts of each.
If a Character is Perfect, Kill Them
And this excellent, genius way of doing the character… is a terrible idea. If the writers did this, they wouldn’t end up with a real-feeling Batman, one that the player could connect to. Instead, you’d end up with a nonsense blob of vague personality traits without any concrete backstory that only exists as an amalgamation of cynical references. That is, you would… If Batman in Gotham Knights was a character. But he isn’t. Because he dies immediately.
A character who is alive has to engage with the world, and be a part of it. Interact with things. They have to, in short, exist. But a character who is dead? Well, they are well within their rights to just be a thought, an idea. Something vague, different to everyone involved, every time they are brought up. They don’t need to be consistent (after all, are our memories of real people who’ve died consistant?). A dead character gets to be a symbol. How perfect for this game.
Let’s summarize: Gotham Knights sets up an ideal Batman, one who is meant to symbolize nothing more than, simply, Batman himself. One who can be every version of Batman, at the end of his career, so that they can pull on nostalgia from as broad a base as possible. Then, they take this idealized character – one who would not stand up as an actual character, not upon interacting with any kind of concrete world – and they kill him. They make sure he doesn’t need to interact with anything but rather can be simply thought of, as an idea. In the same way people the world over think of, and have an idea of, Batman.
And so, with the ideal Batman dead and turned into a universal symbol, how can Gotham Knights use that to leverage his memory (read: nostalgia) in a meaningful way? One that doesn’t just reference the Dark Knight’s past, but celebrates it, and most forward beyond it?
A Gotham Changed by Batmen Past
With the perfect Batman dead, the Batfamily is free to think reminiscence about fond memories, or the many zany criminals Batman once encountered. Gotham is free to remember Bruce Wayne as a reclusive shut-in, as a philanthropic hero, and as a playboy billionaire. Villains are free to show off their accouterment of past run-ins with Batman, and to soliloquize about how he impacted their lives, and how they changed. And all of it can be drawn from anywhere in Batman canon, no matter if it technically “works”.
Let’s run through some examples, for the fun of it: Penguin gets to be a partially-reformed – if still untrustworthy – confidante (one whose trick umbrellas still litter his iconic Iceberg Lounge). Harley Quinn gets to reference a history that seems to pull from her original Animated Series appearance, to her time as leader of the Suicide Squad, to her backstory as a master psychiatrist, all without ever feeling inconsistent within the world, since she is doing this all through the lens of a dead, ideal Batman. Gotham itself hosts memorials for Bruce, the dialogue of which references events as far disparate as the Arkham Games are from Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
Every character, through their encounters with this symbol that represents all Batmen, gets to also be every version of themselves, and thus trigger nostalgia for whatever version of them will work for the player. All without ever feeling tonally, narratively, or logistically inconsistent. By killing off the ideal Batman, Gotham Knights is able to create a nostalgia in his wake that is authentic, while also being able to reach into all the deepest recesses of the franchise. Say what you will about Gotham Knights (including how its ending might’ve tainted this otherwise-great accomplishment), but it does nostalgia right. It manages not only to remind me of things that I love about the Batman franchise but also to remind me of the many reasons why I love them.