When Locomotion Becomes an Obstacle

'Arkham Knight's Worst Design Decision, the Batmobile

by G. Christopher Williams

10 August 2016

Arkham Knight actually features sequences in which Batman has to get his car somewhere and not the other way around.
 
cover art

Batman: Arkham Knight

I’ve never really felt that strongly about the Batmobile. In comic book worlds full of flying men, who shoot lasers from their eyes, and men and women who are masters of seven different forms of martial arts and are also probably the world’s greatest detectives, a car is, well, a car. It gets you from point A to point B.

As a man who doesn’t swing from webs or leap hundreds of feet into the air, the need for a Batmobile makes some sense though. In the comics, Batman’s use of a “super” car seems strangely quite practical. Having some form of very efficient locomotion in a world where you’re competing with people who can fly seems like a means of evening up the odds. In video games about super heroes, or more specifically in an open world video game about a super hero, it also seems useful to have an efficient means of moving through a large world.
  
However, throughout the history of the Batman: Arkham series, game developers have actually found a different means of creating successful, practical, and fun “super” locomotion for Batman by allowing him to glide through Gotham City, which may be why the addition of the Batmobile in Arkham Knight feels a little tacked on.

The Saint’s Row franchise began as a Grand Theft Auto clone. It was all about cars, which works for an open world crime story. As the game grew away from mimicking the satirical world of Grand Theft Auto into spoof and caricature, the game would eventually become a super hero open world game with a lead protagonist that leaped through the world like the Hulk. This, of course, made cars pretty much irrelevant in the game. Such mundane travel seems banal in the context of an overblown comic book-like caper. Plus, seeing the world vertically as well as horizontally opens up possibilities in such a game.

Which is, again, kind of why the Batmobile of Arkham Knight feels tacked on. Yes, it is a “super” car, but it forces an airborne protagonist to the ground, sometimes limiting options in a space that is intended to be as open as possible.

However, the strangest thing about some of the design choices with the Batmobile is the way that a means of travel ends up becoming an obstacle to traversal itself.

Arkham Knight actually features sequences in which Batman has to get his car somewhere and not the other way around. See, the Batmobile is a means of solving puzzles in Arkham Knight, not a mere means of conveyance (which might justify its addition to the game, despite already having a means of Batman getting around in these games by gliding everywhere). In particular, one gadget, a super winch that Batman electrifies in order to power up machines in the world, is used a fair amount. At various points in the game, a part of solving puzzles requires getting the Batmobile in position to hook up this winch and jumpstart various electronic devices. This leads to these weird moments when Batman has to get out of the car and rearrange environmental elements in order to get his car somewhere.

This isn’t very much fun. Frankly, I would rather see carry around a car battery and jumper cables than play through these scenes.

In video games that focus on cars, racing games and open world games with fairly modern settings, like Grand Theft Auto, the focus on cars is on their dominate purpose, moving forward. These are machines that can be fun, that one can compete with, but the goal of a race in its most reduced form is the purpose of a car: to get from point A to point B.

Arkham Knight‘s Batmobile is at cross purposes with itself. Batman’s “wings”, his cape, is a better car than his car is.

And this is the inherent design problem with the Batmobile. It is an example of redundant design. It provides something that the game already provides, an option for faster traversal (though flight is still more versatile). Additionally, it serves as a gadget, a tool to solve puzzles with. Ironically, though, in at least one of the game’s expanded DLC missions, Batman retrieves a gadget used in a previous game, a gun that can jumpstart electrical devices, which is essentially the Batmobile’s other function, just one that is more efficient, since it is much more portable than dragging a car around behind you.

I actually like Arkham Knight, what I don’t like is redundant design. The Arkham series had already solved the problem of how to create a fun and compelling way to traverse the world as Batman. There was no real reason to recreate that particular wheel. By creating something that the series lacked, Batman’s signature vehicle, they ending up solving a problem that already had a solution, hardly a moment worthy of a game about the World’s Greatest Detective.

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