Not Crazy About the Arkham Asylum Premise

I finally got back to playing some games this week, after a busy few weeks preparing to launch TGEN. With no real desire to jump into an MMO, I fired up a game that’s been sitting in my Steam library for several months: Arkham Asylum. I haven’t played any of the Arkham games before, and I must say, being Batman is really fun. It reminds me a little of Assassins Creed, except with cooler gadgets. My favorite part of the experience is grappling around a huge room, from gargoyle to gargoyle, waiting for a thug to wander down a dark hallway alone – and then BAM! Silent takedown and back to the rafters to watch the other thugs panic when they discover his unconscious body. That type of stealth and fear action really brings out the “Batman experience”, in my opinion.

One thing does bother me a little bit about the game. While the setting of a decrepit old mental hospital being run by the inmates does create a sufficiently dark and creepy environment for the game, there’s something else that makes me uneasy about this aspect of it. Perhaps I’ve become overly sensitive, but in this age of heightened awareness of the problems facing those with mental health issues, I am surprised by the number of references and inferences to the “crazy” or “insane” state of the antagonists within the game. Likewise, the patients you encounter resemble the inmates from the final scene of Amadeus: slobbering, wailing and flailing. I just completed a level last night where I had to walk through a large room full of these poor souls, and the voice acting was quite disturbing. Worse yet, mental instability is typically associated with the super villain while the most stable tend to fall on the side of good. Of course, Batman is the notable exception to this rule, with his childhood trauma being constantly revisited.


So, to that end, I suppose the internal struggle (and, I’m assuming victory) of the caped crusader to maintain his strength and even draw from his past experiences despite being surrounded by those with similar struggles makes for an interesting sub-plot. But the overwhelming feeling that this entire setting was pulled from a place in the past, where sensitivities and understanding of mental health issues were much lower than today, seems to permeate the entire game. Joker is “an insanely homicidal supervillain”. Zsasz (above) is a sociopath. Clayface “goes mad” and goes on a killing spree. Harley Quinn becomes “obsessively fixated” on Joker. The Riddler has “an obsessive-compulsive need for attention”. Even more disturbing are the “tape reel” interviews with various patients of the facility that you discover as you work your way through the game. They allow the player to “listen in” as one of the asylum psychologists tries to get into the head of the villain being interviewed. In essence, it puts a real voice to the illness.

Even the word “Asylum” conjures up a certain feeling of division between those unstable enough to be placed on the inside and the normal people allowed to stay on the outside. The Dark Knight Returns seems to recognize this, as the name of the institution has been changed to The Arkham Home for the Emotionally Troubled. Which, I’m not sure is much better considering the clientele, but at least they recognize the problems with sticking with “Asylum”.


I’m not usually one to nit-pick the political correctness of each and every leisure activity. Truthfully, I probably would have never noticed this had the game designers not decided to use the sights and sounds of the asylum inmates to create such an environment of uneasiness. But once I noticed, I realized it was everywhere. It permeates the entire story line to the point that it cannot be ignored.

I’ll play through the rest of the title, but I do hope that Batman’s victorious struggle with his own mental health issues is able to overcome any negative feeling left by the somewhat whimsical and careless treatment of these issues that I’ve witnessed so far. tags:

#Arkham #Batman #MentalHealth


7 thoughts on “Not Crazy About the Arkham Asylum Premise

  1. tsuhelm October 10, 2014 / 7:43 am

    Have had this experience quite a few times in game where suddenly the RW ramifications suddenly hit home…then get back to the slaughter…

    I had to explain “kill” to my youngest (3n a bit) yesterday after I said quite glibly that we should kill the mosquito buzzing around his head!

    That we can do so to an insect is one thing, to an enemy character in a game another, to the bear cubs in LOTRO… starts getting tricky!

    That killing is wrong is a undeniable truth.


  2. Randark (@Randark_CGC) October 10, 2014 / 8:22 am

    The Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane was added to the Batman story line back in ’74 (according to Wikipedia). I think to change the name in a game that pulls so much from that universe, would have been a determent to it.

    I can’t say I felt the same way about the atmosphere of the insane when I played the game. I tend to let a story be itself and don’t apply it towards real life.

    I found the tapes made the game quite immersive and added to the general atmosphere of the game. The transformation of Harley Quinn from doctor to psychopath was especially well written to me.

    If the game used the full name of the institution more often, would it have softened your feelings for the undertones? That is the “Criminally Insane” part vs just mentally disabled?


    • Braxwolf October 10, 2014 / 8:39 am

      Good questions, but I’m not sure if I can answer them. My intent was to record an observation, not necessarily to be critical of the choices made. I have very little experience with mental illness. I openly do wonder that if I noticed these undertones, how does somebody with closer ties to these issues feel about them? Or is the setting so unlike real life that it’s easily compartmentalized into a different world, as you’ve been able to do? I do find it interesting that in comics, they tend to go out of their way to address certain social issues, but choose to not address others.


  3. Elyse (@cableknitdragon) October 10, 2014 / 8:55 am

    I never played Arkham asylum much passed the first hour so my views pretty limited on this. Batman series in particular with DC has usually gone one of two ways in how it’s portrayed: fun and campy (example: Lego Batman and the animated series) or very dark (Arkham Asylum games and the Killing Joke and No man’s Land story arcs etc)

    For me, I think video games designers nowadays rely on making the bad guys so out of top on one spectrum (in this case so very insane) to “justify the means” the protagonist does, which is often overly excessive too. I prefer my Batman in comics, so Arkham Asylum didn’t really appeal to me but now I have an urge to pick up Heavy Rain again despite how that game freaks me out.


  4. Jestro of Windfola October 27, 2014 / 5:12 pm

    Of course Arkham was first coined by Lovecraftian in the 1920’s when the term Asylum was the appropriate name and picked up by DC for the Batman universe, the name sticking, for the most part.


  5. Capacitive Screen December 13, 2015 / 10:25 am

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