Near the end of Metal Gear Solid 2, one of Raiden’s AI antagonists explains that their purpose is “not to control content, but create context”. This is the core thesis of Kojima’s lengthy meditation on videogames and information control: being an elite commando hardly matters in the grand scheme when your role is constrained to the path plotted out for you. Individual power is nothing in the wrong context.
Conversely, a game may tell a story of empowerment by providing the player the tools to surpass their current context. In the classic Metroid-Zelda style of level design, tools are doled out that recast previously unassailable obstacles as minor hurdles on the way to glory. If we were being pretentious, we could say that this is an inspirational message of hope: no matter how lofty your goals and how far away they may seem, you can find the abilities and skills you need to get there.
At any rate, it’s a wonderful match for the ideology of human-turned-gadget-powered-avenger superheroes, and it’s a wonder that it took so long for someone like Rocksteady to come along and make a Metroid-styled adventure about the Dark Knight: Batman: Arkham Asylum. Laying it out as analytically as that sounds terribly patronising, of course, and Arkham Asylum isn’t merely the right idea applied to the right franchise. This version of Batman isn’t just about the gadgets, but about the brains and the brawn.
Rocksteady’s version of Batman is powerful from the outset, his hand-to-hand engagements driven by a rewarding counter system and his stealth enhanced by fluid grapple moves to, from and between cover. Unlike Blood Dragon's protagonist he's up against foes that can deal out damage every bit as quickly as he does, strengthening the sense that victory comes from one's own skill and wit and not from having the gameplay deck stacked in your favour. There's an intricacy to the sneaking and combat systems that rewards practice and attentiveness.
From such a solid starting point, they don’t need to turn Batman into Superman with his new power-ups as the game progresses. Simply giving him the ability to blow up walls or zipline across wider spaces tells the story that there’s nothing he can’t overcome with enough persistence. There’s even time to make a little thematic point by having Batman reject the Joker’s “Titan serum” near the finale: Batman must raise himself to the challenge, but he must never concede his fundamental humanity.
The larger context of all this is an island, the titular Asylum. It’s as old-fashioned an excuse for isolating the player as the Big Shell was, and ultimately the Dark Knight’s got no more of a choice to leave it than Snake’s protege did. Unlike Raiden, though, Batman is the master of this domain. All he needs is his tools, his wits, and a strong right hook.