[This piece was written as a part of Critical Distance‘s April 2013 Blogs of the Round Table feature]
Throughout Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, Batman is assisted remotely by Barbara Gordon, a computer genius and the former Batgirl. Oracle, as she now calls herself, analyzes information, tracks down keys to the locked doors standing in Batman’s way, guides him to his next destination and sends him his bat-luggage whenever he needs it. When Batman tracks down Ra’s Al-Ghul in Arkham City, Talia Al-Ghul warns him that when he faces Ra’s he’ll be completely alone.
“Like always,” Batman pouts before descending deeper into the League of Shadows.
“Really Bruce?” I couldn’t hold back the outburst, “you’re always alone?”
Barbara, apparently, was able to show more restraint than I was. Next to Batman, Oracle is the most important character in the series. The Joker is just a face waiting to be punched; who in the meantime behaves in a way that warrants punching. Oracle leads Batman through the maze of smaller face-punches en route. More than that though, she humanizes the Dark Knight, she shows concern, she provides levity, she reminds him what the stakes are should Batman fail to punch the right faces before time runs out. As a character, Batman is hilariously flawless, but Oracle keeps him grounded and as close to relatable as an increasingly awkward Mary Sue can be.
When Oracle questions Batman, he doubts himself; when she warns him, he rises to the challenge; when she worries about him or the hostages he’s trying to rescue, he reassures her. The relationship Batman has with Oracle makes him more than a thug in rodent-themed spandex: in their interactions we’re reminded who the hero is supposed to be.
And Oracle doesn’t even get a second of screen time across two games. Anya Stroud in the Gears of War series eventually shows up as Machine Gun Barbie, The Prince’s second personality in Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones takes charge of their shared body in a series of playable sequences, EDI splits her consciousness between a world-class warship in Mass Effect 2 and a spry femme-bot in Mass Effect 3. Poor Oracle, though, remains a disembodied voice.
She is completely passive. Oracle’s role in the game is to update the player’s objective list and help establish a context for who Batman is and what he’s doing. If she were to be likened to a mechanic—and, if those esteemed graduates from the school of formalism are to believed, everything ought to be—than she would be one removed from the game. She would be part walkthrough, part spectator. If the Arkham games were a match of tennis, Oracle would be Batman’s coach; if the Arkham games were a staged play, she’d be the stage manager. But since the Arkham games are video games, Oracle is a member of the audience watching Batman play.
If you were to sit next to someone while they played Arkham Asylum or Arkham City and say something to them, you’d be Oracle. Whether you’re encouraging them, warning them, expressing concern or providing levity, you’d be doing for them what Oracle does for Batman (so we’re clear, if you’re mocking or distracting them, you’d be a jerk). The point, though, is that even if you aren’t interacting with the game, you’re still a part and a subject of the experience by interacting with the player.
Last summer, my partner and I picked up a used copy of Tomb Raider II from a record/video place in the heart of the city we live in. We’d both played the game when it first came out but the underwater levels were too clausterphobic for her and I liked cheating too much to give the game an honest go. So, for $2, we decided it was worth reliving. One of us would play Lara, the other would play Oracle. When Lara got stuck, Oracle would deliver a helpful piece of advice. If ever something stumped both Lara and Oracle, than Oracle would pull up a walkthrough and map out the next few steps for Lara. We’d swap the controller and the laptop every level, changing our interactions with the game and with one another.
Video games offer a unique space for critical interaction that other media does not. Even lengthy single-player affairs (such as Jade Empire, my most recent outing as Oracle) offer a chance to connect with another person. Visual art can be absorbed in the literal blink of an eye (Houlden, Sophie. “Can Art be Games?” Sophie’s Blog. Nov 30 2012) and literature and film can only really be discussed after they’ve been taken in entirely. We both took a literature degree, so we can book-talk with the best of them, but I read a snail’s pace and, while we both enjoy movies and TV, she’s less interested in seeing a film on the small screen and it takes time to dig into a new, mutually agreeable series. But video games aren’t like that. Video games are constantly interactive even without playing them.
I can, for instance, play Shining Force II with the sound off right next to her while she plays Lord of the Rings: War in the North. One of us can pause when we reach a difficult spot and consult our Oracle. She can turn to me and fill me in on how well War in the North draws on the history of her beloved Lord of the Rings while I comment on how much my own game is influenced by Tolkein’s primordial fantasy. We can have a conversation around our games while playing them. We can engage with our games, with one another and with one another’s games all at the same time. We can be Batman in one game while being Oracle in another. And that’s only for those of us that play.
This is pure speculation, but I have a feeling that there are plenty of “non-gamers” that love games so long as they don’t have to play them. A few years ago, my partner and a friend of ours participated in a podcast on this subject (“Moving Pixels Podcast: The ‘Girlfriend on the Couch’ Edition.” PopMatters. Nov 28 2011.). There are plenty of Oracles being dismissed because they have no interest in being Batman. It’s not uncommon to enjoy games for their spectacle but those that do are actively discouraged from exploring games because they don’t or can’t play them. They’re not Batman; they’re just Oracle and games are designed for Batman. Conventional wisdom seems to be that if you aren’t playing a game you aren’t experiencing it properly.
There’s a deeply ingrained idea in criticism that games are purely interactive and that any passive enjoyment one might get from them is artificial, even detrimental to the medium. Furthermore, the assumed definition of interactive refers to the person holding the controller, not the people sitting with player 1 just enjoying the game as a viewer. I’ll never forget an old roommate of ours squeezing her knees to her chest and yelling “oh shit, oh shit,” while a sea monster dragged Link through the bottom of Twilight Princess‘s water dungeon. Sometimes, to some people, a game is better without ever touching a controller. Sometimes the best player is the patient, encouraging, conversational adviser offering another perspective. Or even the bug-eyed spectator cheering on player 1.
Without Batman’s influence on Arkham Asylum there’s no doubt that the whole region would have spiralled into unpunched villainy; but where would Batman be without the influence of Oracle?
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Further reading: Coberly, Bill. “Dwarf Fortress as Spectator Sport.” Nightmare Mode. Mar 18 2013.
Sirlin, David. “Spectating in Games.” Sirlin.net. Nov 29 2011
Williams, G. Christopher. “Horror in Video Games: There’s Seeing — and Then There’s Realizing What You’re Seeing.” PopMatters. Feb 24 2011.
Bowler, Steve. “A Narrative Trumping Mechanic.” Game-ism. Aug 16 2010.