Batman: The Animated Series’ animation department had a standing order from the show’s co-creator, Eric Radomski: Instead of working on the industry standard of dark colors on white paper, backgrounds would be painted using light colors on black paper. This formed what the show’s producers called “dark deco,” a unique aesthetic drawn from Tim Burton’s Batman films, detective noir, and art deco. When I think of Gotham, it is this Gotham that comes to mind.
When Rocksteady created its Arkham games, the developer drew from this episodic masterpiece. Not only did the trilogy pull from the animated series’ brilliant voice cast, but modeled its version of Gotham on the dark deco style: the Gothic architecture, large moon, art deco interiors and exteriors, noir mood, and lighting. This depiction is at the crux of Arkham City and Arkham Knight.
It’s a pity, then, that in the latest open-world game set in Gotham, WB Games Montréal’s Gotham Knights (which I did somewhat enjoy), this kind of rich characterization of the city, as a unique character unto itself, is dimmed, along with the villains therein. Gotham, Batman, and his rogues’ gallery are inexorably tied together: All the great Batman stories are woven out of these three threads. Thinning any one of these will lead to a less rich tapestry of whatever Batman story is woven.
[Ed. note: Spoilers for Gotham Knights follow.]
Gotham Knights sees you take on Batman’s mantle as the defender of the titular city after his death, in the shaky boots of four proteges: Batgirl, Nightwing, Robin, and Red Hood. Every night, the four patrol an open-world Gotham. This is a city flooded with fog that clings to buildings in the distance; multicolored lights punch through the dark; gentle rain cascades down walls and latex suits; gargoyles hang omnipresently on various buildings. It is, at least on the surface, striving to emulate Gotham. However, I found it to be completely bereft of character: Its homogenous, lifeless districts are only different in name, and it doesn’t evolve at all over the course of the Bat-family’s campaign in Gotham Knights. This Gotham feels like a flat plane of monotony rather than a patchwork of personality.
Arkham City and Arkham Knight dealt directly with Gotham itself as character and space: You experienced permanent alterations of architecture or landscape. (In Arkham City, Joker blows up a tower; in Arkham Knight, Batman often “redecorates” buildings and roads with his tank.) In Arkham City, Two-Face’s minions, prominent in their two-toned wardrobe, break into banks and cars; Joker’s henchmen in clown makeup hang around carnival-like sets. Tailored events occurred in specific neighborhoods, giving Gotham depth, and thus, identity. Rocksteady’s takes on Gotham, along with WB Montréal’s own in 2013’s Arkham Origins, to a lesser extent, achieved a strong tie to the deeper aspects of Gotham, since they treated Gotham as a rounded character. The Gotham of Gotham Knights, however, is static, monotonous, and boring. Where is the lasting damage of Mr. Freeze changing the weather? Where is the structural damage after Clayface’s escape?
What makes this worse is that Gotham Knights mishandles a group of villains who, throughout their runs in the comics, are compelling, insidious embodiments of the city’s lurid history: the Court of Owls.
Despite being one of the canonically oldest entities in Batman’s universe, the Court was only introduced to the Batman mythos in 2012. The Court comprises the richest and most powerful families in Gotham, who maintain control through espionage and assassination. They are cultish and creepy, they work in the shadows, and they’re an actual threat to Batman because they are also a threat to Bruce Wayne.
The Court has only ever been featured outside of the comics in the excellent animated film Batman vs. Robin, and in the TV show Gotham. Naturally, the prospect of butting heads with them was one of Gotham Knights’ biggest initial draws. My love for all things cultish and creepy meant I had high hopes for these new villains.
Unfortunately, Gotham Knights abruptly sidelines the Court after an extensive massacre by the League of Shadows, another recurring group of antagonists in the Batman lore. All of the intrigue and eeriness surrounding the Court dissipates: While we do have minor side quests involving the Court, these are paint-by-numbers missions with little to no depth. They often involve a fight with a few stragglers, but nothing larger comes from these encounters. One of the principal threats to the Bat-family in the game’s marketing becomes little more than a chapter in the larger narrative. Gotham Knights wasted an opportunity to delve into the veins of Gotham, to root out the Court poisoning the city, the very group that sees itself to be a cure. Would Gotham crumble without the Court? Would the city irrevocably evolve? These are compelling questions. But in Gotham Knights, they’re asked only in passing.
With Batman dead, and its most interesting villains erased in the blink of an eye, the weight falls to the city to uplift Gotham Knights. But Gotham is undersold. The landscape does change, but only in closed-off main missions that leave no permanent scars on the open world.
Rocksteady’s Batman was constantly deteriorating, and its Gotham was no different: plants bursting from crevices, poison hanging in the air, the ocean finding purchase, and so on. This was because characters change and Gotham itself should be a character. That notion is absent in Gotham Knights.
Gotham Knights did Gotham dirty by making all of its districts and in-world activities homogenous; it had access to the Court of Owls, one of the Batman canon’s most compelling actors, but discarded it like Batman might discard a loaded gun. There is no growth in this world because its world is mere backdrop. Gotham Knights makes a big show of killing the Dark Knight in its opening moments. The greatest tragedy? It killed Gotham as well.