Video game novelizations: the best thing since fanfiction.
Folks, I’m going to start this review off by removing the cowl and talking a little bit about myself, out from under the superhero identity of “video game journalist man.” While I love video games, they’re far from my only passion. I know that for a lot of video game enthusiasts, the medium is kind of their one-and-only. If you’re one such person, and are happy with being so, then that’s fine. For me, though, games have but one item on the list of media forms for which I feel a deep love, a list that actually starts with books. While I love writing about video games, I also always thought it would be really cool to write a book review.
Never, though, did I expect my first review of printed work to be of a novel containing passages such as Batman telling Alfred “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” I wonder what other phrases he’s picked up from coffee mugs at tacky gift boutiques? I bet “instant human, just add coffee” and “my dog is smarter than your honor student” are some top choices that he’s just itching to roll out on the first baddie weird enough to give him enough context to work with. That’s right, everyone, video game novelizations are still a thing. More specifically, a Batman: Arkham Knight novelization is a thing. As one might expect, though, those who want the superior version of the story should probably shell out the extra cash and just buy the game instead.
Just like the game of which this novelization has been novelized, Batman: Arkham Knight tells the story of Gotham City under siege. Following the death of the Joker, mad scientist supervillain Scarecrow has led a takeover of the city, armed with a militia force commanded by a mysterious figure known as the Arkham Knight (subtract “mysterious” if you’re at least moderately familiar with Batman’s comic book history, as you will know his identity real quick). The narrative does its fair share of hopping around, but mostly follows the Dark Knight himself as he fights to liberate the city. Other focal points for some of the book’s many short chapters include Commissioner Gordon, various other members of the city’s civil service, and even Scarecrow himself. In fact, this shifting of the third-person narrative’s focus throughout the book is one of its strong points.
To talk about the story Batman: Arkham Knight tells, we must, of course, consider the story the game offers, as it is adapted very faithfully. It’s a story told moderately well in the novel, as a chronicle of Batman’s efforts in taking down Scarecrow while dealing with the growing psychological issues he faces. These issues are represented, as they were in the game, by Batman’s mind being plagued with visions of the Joker talking to and taunting him.
Unfortunately, instead of capitalizing on this as heavily as he could have, author Marv Wolfman instead decides to attempt character development through exposition more forced than the tension between Batman and the Arkham Knight. For example, at one point while in the middle of doing some pretty significantly important city-saving shenanigans, Batman takes the time to deliver a lengthy monologue to Alfred over his wrist communicator, all about how guilty he feels for his parents’ death. Having the character revisit the defining point of his childhood in this way could have been pulled off naturally in a slower, less climactic story, but when a bio-terrorist and a plain ol’ terrorizing terrorist have your city in their clutches, its streets evacuated of all but the criminals and scum, you may have more pressing matters than crying over your wrist-mounted cell phone to your surrogate father figure. It doesn’t help that the book is repetitive about all the worst things, in all the worst places; we don’t need to be reminded three times in ten pages about why Commissioner Gordon fears for his daughter’s safety, when the reason is established just fine the first time around.
The one saving grace of Arkham Knight‘s writing is in its characterization of certain characters. One of my major complaints with the original game, and the whole series of which it was the final chapter, was how bland Batman was as a character. He had one vocal tone, one I think of as “gruff, angry robot cop.” Even when he was supposed to be showing fear for someone’s life, or for his own sanity, he spoke in the exact same commanding tone as always. The dialogue he delivered was equally bland, feeling oddly akin to what we’ve seen so far of the character’s portrayal in next year’s Batman V. Superman film. Apologies to anyone who’s excited for that film, but I do not mean that in a positive light.
In the novel, however, Batman is a little more human. He delivers a bit of that dark humor that reminds us that he is more than just a grim figure. The points where we do really get inside his increasingly fear-addled head are easily more interesting than they were in the game, where the spectacle of his breakdown was far more engaging than its actual effects on his psyche. Also pleasantly surprising was the writing of his character’s relationship with Barbara Gordon, aka Oracle, who acts as his voice-in-ear sidekick throughout the first third of the book. The two come off quite genuinely as old friends, better than do Batman and the current Robin, when he shows up later on, let alone with just about anyone in the original game. Marv Wolfman does a pleasant job of reminding us that there’s a man in Batman.
Sadly, one other giant flaw mars this novel and keeps it from rising above the ranking of generic adequacy. To reveal a bit more of my secret identity, I’ll take a moment here to explain that I’m a trained English tutor. I help college students in lower-level English classes with assignments on which they struggle, and I know what to look for when reading just about anything. All that established, it must be said that the editing in Batman: Arkham Knight triggered a flare in my tutor-senses quicker than an ESL student accidentally placed in advanced English courses. The most egregious sin in the proofreading (if there was any) of the book would have to be the rampant loss of commas. Improper punctuation plagues this thing, and in such predictable patterns that I find it hard to believe it was published in the state that was. Other problems include the occasional run-on sentence and even a good comma splice, which are, to be frank, as basic as grammatical issues come. Poor Marv can’t be blamed for this entirely, though; editing and proofreading is not entirely the writer’s responsibility in print media, after all. That falls on his editor.
Batman: Arkham Knight was a more-than-mediocre game not because of its story, but it’s gameplay; strip that away, and this is what you get. Characterization is the novel’s one strong point, a lone attribute of strength surrounded by needless repetition, gaudy and shoehorned exposition, and a lack of much competent editing. If you can’t afford the game, or the console on which to play it, the Batman: Arkham Knight novelization is certainly one alternative way to experience the story. If that’s what you want, though, your time might be better spent watching the whole thing on Youtube.
Batman: Arkham Knight, written by Marv Wolfman, is published by Titan Books. It is available now. MSRP: $7.99.
Full Disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Batman: Arkham Knight provided by the publisher.