Warning: The following is going into a gigantic spoiler for Batman: Arkham Knight. It’s a big story point and if you haven’t played the game, you probably should not read the following. Even my set-up will give you a pretty good idea of the spoiler, so tread carefully.
Before I start, I do want to say the first hour of Arkham Knight is intense and fun. The Batmobile takes some getting used to, but its a pretty good addition to the Arkham game play, which is otherwise mostly remains unchanged. The combat mechanics are familiar and quickly racking up a 35 hit combo felt good. The setting is massive and though the Batmobile makes it easy to get around, I still like gliding above it all. Gotham has never been more beautiful. New missions, like fighting off drone tanks, are challenging and fun. Foiling Two-Face’s bank heists are a highlight. Overall, it is quite an accomplishment (at 43% of the game played & 50% of the main story). But like so many other games these days, Arkham Knight contains an unfortunate story point that has marred the proceedings …
Just going to add some spoiler space for emphasis.
And, as it happens, it just hasn’t been a great week for Barbara Gordon. In the most recent issue of Batgirl, she’s hounded by the new Batman, who turns out to be her own father. Her fun adventures in the Brooklyn-esque Burnside have been pushed aside for what’s happening in the main Batbooks and though it makes sense that Barbara would have to have some reaction to Jim Gordon being the Batman, I just don’t need it in this title. Batgirl is supposed to be about Batgirl.
But that’s better than what happens to her in Arkham Knight. She gets fridged.
In case you weren’t reading comics in the bad old days of the early 1990s, fridging, as shorthand for a cheap writing choice, began when new Green Lantern Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend Alex was murdered by Major Force and stuffed in a fridge to antagonize Kyle into a fight. Simply put, fridging occurs when a female friend of the hero is murdered to given him a reason to fight or, on occasion, to intensify his stakes. If you’re playing along at home, you’ll note the possessive pronoun in play here.
When you arrive at the moment in Arkham Knight, Barbara Gordon’s fridge is pretty big, a vault in which Scarecrow uses some of his newly reformulated fear toxin to convince Barbara to shoot herself … while the Batman watches. To quote Bruce, “He did it to punish me.” Again, note the pronouns. I get the impression the makers of the Arkham games are terrified to make a game without Joker — funny since they killed him in Arkham City — and by making the Scarecrow the marquee villain, Barbara was sacrificed on the altar of their nervousness … or dare I say fear. “Oh, Scarecrow used to be a lightweight, but now he’s super serious, dudes,” they might say. “He did something Joker couldn’t do to hurt the Batman!”
Fridging, beyond being sexist, is incredibly lazy writing. It’s an emotional shorthand to get a cheap and easy reaction from the players.
Barbara, the strong, fan-favorite character who came back from her near-fridging at the gun of Joker is carried off — literally — early in the game and played as pretty much nothing but the victim (granted, we see one valiant attempt to escape her captors through the lens of Batman’s detective vision) and callously (on the part of the game makers) tossed aside so the Batman and Jim Gordon can get the feels.
It’s supremely ugly and cheap. But, oddly enough, I thinking killing her would have been redeemable if Barbara had been a player character for a portion of the game and not locked away off-screen like a princess in another castle.
Which, oddly enough, is a recurring aspect in the game. Catwoman is also locked up as part of Riddler’s scheme. While the Batman slowly solves riddles to free her, she’s apparently treated to endless hours of “Eddie” Nygma mansplaining to her. Early in the game, Batman finds Poison Ivy and she ends up — you guessed it! — locked up at GCPD. Meanwhile, Harley’s completely missing and only alluded to thus far. If you buy the game new, you can play a special DLC “Arkham Episode” featuring Harley as the player character and it is, without question, the best treatment of Harley in the entire damn Arkham series. Which, I think, brings me back to the Barbara becoming the player character; her death would actually be about her.
Now, let’s say it was Tim Drake (the acknowledged Robin in the game) or Dick Grayson (making his first in-series appearance as Nightwing) who ended up in that vault. Would Batman still get the feels? Yes. But, by simply putting either of those characters in the situation, there would be an almost instinctual move to have them be playable and add scenes that show Tim or Dick struggling to get free. Thematically, it might even be more resonant considering who I suspect to be behind the mask of Scarecrow’s accomplice, the self-titled Arkham Knight. But in either case, their deaths would be about them, their relationship to the Arkham Knight and their stakes.
But Barbara is collateral damage. The end result of the infamous “they’ll hurt you to get to me” canard of superheroes. In her usual tech support function, Barbara has no part in the stakes. Her death, viewed from Batman’s POV, has nothing to do with her.
Now, there is the possibility that her death is a hallucination; Scarecrow’s fear toxin is in use, after all. But, I think, even if she does turn out to be alive, her apparent fridging is a serious case of tone-deafness on the part of the game writers. But let’s say they had chosen to dramatize it differently. Let’s say every so often, Batman gets a signal from her and the game gives us a mission where we play Barbara attempting to escape from Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight. Let’s say in the key scene, the POV switched and now you, the player, are Barbara. You’re struggling against the effects of the toxin and frantically hitting X (or Square) to keep it at bay. You are Barbara Gordon and your mind won’t allow you to be swayed so easily. This is no longer about hurting the Batman, this is about saving your own life. Even if you fail at this, at least you fought to the fear-induced end against the pricks…
Then, at least, the scene would mean something for her. But who am I kidding? Barbara’s been fridged for decades. Ever since Joker shot her to get at Gordon, she’s been collateral damage and it’s just too damn easy to put her in that role. Meanwhile, a handful of writers gave her more character, ambition, smarts and personality in the wake of her ordeal, but meh, let’s just brush that aside because Batman needs to be hurt.
It was an unfortunate turn of events and, as a a consequence, I have only completed one more story mission since. It’s a shame that the game has the technology to do so much, but a short-sighted writing decision mares and otherwise impressive visit to Gotham.