Batman: Arkham Origins and why video games are good for the brain

A scientific study and a grumpy gamer.

We video-game lovers of a certain age belong to an emerging industry demographic: the grumpy gamer. Like Frank Underwood, the political schemer played by Kevin Spacey in the US version of House of Cards, grumpy gamers play in snatched moments of privacy in the short breaks of busy, stressful lives.

We buy consoles for our children, in part to recreate our teenage years, the good old days when we had to transcribe computer code from the pages of magazines before the satisfaction of a marathon all-nighter with a Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

We buy the games for the same reason my mum used to give me an apple, an orange and a sixpence every Christmas, or narrate “The Owl and the Pussycat” before I went to sleep. She did it because it took her back to her childhood.

So, I play Lego Batman with my kids, and when they go to bed I can play and review a darker Batman – this month, Batman: Arkham Origins, a cruelly unrewarding game, though not entirely without merit, as one would expect from this franchise.

The theme of Arkham Origins is assassination and survival. Eight mercenary assassins are hired to take out Batman. The Bat is supposed to glide through Arkham, picking up clues and solving problems as he works his way through the list of super-baddies who slug it out for the ransom on his head. Loyal butler Alfred, who dispenses advice to our solitary hero from the lonely Christmas batcave, assists him. I found Alfred a reassuring character – as one would expect from a Martin Jarvis voiceover.

Along the way, Batman meets old adversaries such as the Joker and the Penguin – the latter sounds like a Geordie, playing a New Yorker putting on a cockney accent. Victory requires the Bat to get into many fights with an array of thugs, some old, some new. By throwing old adversaries into the story, Warner Bros have given a familiar feel to its successful franchise.

That’s important because grumpy gamers are sentimental about old friends and foes. They talk about Mario, Zelda and Jet Set Willy as if they were the cast of digital friends reunited. When I press a fresh DVD into its console slot, there is always a parental impulse to lecture children about the artefact called audio tape recorder, the device that used to be the way we uploaded our games, back in the day. They look at me blankly, as blankly as they did on our first visit to Vinyl Revival in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

Grumpy gamers also like to win as easily as possible. Games that require persistence and attention to nit-picking handset detail have less of a premium than they used to. When I slump into that midnight sofa, I want to mash the handset and not worry too much about whether it’s an XXY or an XYY thumb manoeuvre. I just want to deal with the bad guys and clean up the city as quickly as possible.

Is any of this good for us? Scientists in Germany have recently claimed that playing video games augments grey matter in the sections of the brain used for spatial navigation, strategic planning and working memory. On reading this erudite study, my immediate thought was, in an Alan Partridge voice, take down for Mr Keith Vaz. Video games are good for the brain. Gamers win; Daily Mail lose.

Cognitive science may be rebalancing the argument in favour of video games being good for humanity but I’m afraid Batman: Arkham Origins is not. The stimulated grey matter that results from the latest offering by Warner Bros only applies to those sections of the brain usually associated with frustration, intolerance and, well, grumpiness.

The good news: the game, which is a prequel to the successful Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, contains all the old features we’ve come to love from this franchise. The combat system is as graceful as a ninja at the Darcey Bussell dance school. Batman’s tech is all there: batarang and grapple hook, smoke pellets and explosive gel. He gets some new kit too, enhancing but not significantly altering gameplay for loyal fans. If it were a second album, the game would be More Specials – still memorable and loved by fans but less edgy, raw and lacking the shock of the new.

And here’s the bad news: I couldn’t do it. I just could not get beyond the first proper boss level, a dual with Deathstroke. Not being able to kill Deathstroke after 20 hours on a single level says more about my ability than the game but there’s a lot of grumpy gamers out there. Boss levels are by their nature tough to get through but surely it represents a failure for the developers in making the level so hard that you just can’t get past it?

In the end, I reset the game and started from the beginning on “easy” level. This was irritating. Even on this mode, I could not deal with Deathstroke without the advice of Bruce, the teenage son of a friend, which was humiliating. I played it 70 or 80 times before grumpily seeing Deathstroke get his comeuppance. The last time I played a game this punishing to user error was Manic Miner on the Spectrum. Then, nothing could prevent me from being pixel perfect until victorious.

This time round, it’s different. Batman dies but the grumpy gamer is born.

Tom Watson is the Labour MP for West Bromwich East

No joker: 'Batman: Arkham Origins' is not easy.
Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party. He is also an avid gamer and campaigner for media integrity.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories