[3 September 2009]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
I was just finishing up writing a piece on how Bioshock was an influence on recent games, especially in showing other developers how to allow the details and ambiance of a world to tell a story. I was also complaining a bit about how recent attempts at doing this sort of thing hadn’t quite gotten it right. Then, I played Batman: Arkham Asylum.
You may have heard of this guy called the caped crusader, his parents were killed by a criminal, he decided to dress up like a bat, filled with vengeance, blah blah blah. Well, all that blah blah blah becomes meaningful and palpable as you take on the role of the Batman in Arkham Asylum. It is the little details that make being Batman feel right. In the opening scene when you follow the Joker through the halls of Arkham Asylum where he will only briefly be incarcerated, the game allows you to do nothing but stalk slowly and calmly behind the cackling idiot. Batman will be able to jump and punch later on but mashing buttons here yields nothing. As a result, the walk feels authentic, moody, and focuses your attention on observing. There is no idiotic leaping around because you are messing with trying to learn the controls; the Batman acts like the Batman. Thus, the narrative is not disrupted by the sorts of things that usually distract and break the versimilitude of the world and its characters.
Observation is, perhaps, the most central focus of the game. While Batman is tasked with getting the Joker locked back up in the asylum (and stopping a bunch of other shennanigans that the clown prince of crime has gotten into), which requires a lot of combat sequences, a series of riddles posed by the Riddler become a secondary but almost central occupation for the dark knight detective. Essentially, solving the riddles is a matter of collecting various objects—a common enough video game activity. However, given the sheer variety of ways that Batman has to locate them, scanning the environment with the aid of verbal clues, matching up puzzle pieces via the camera system, or just walking up to them the old fashioned way, much of the game is spent in the mode of playing detective. As a result, the standard mechanic of collecting things for the sake of doing so that has become old hat in most other games, actually becomes relevant to the character that you are playing and becomes a theme of both narrative and gameplay. In other words, unlike when I collect coins for Mario, I actually felt like I was doing something that Batman, as a detective, actually does.
The fact that the game draws your attention to studying the environs of Arkham Asylum is additionally rewarding, though, since, as already noted, the game understands a great deal about atmosphere and ambiance. The Asylum is masterfully generated with countless fascinating details alluding to the lives of the prisoners and guards that inhabit its halls. The scrawlings of a madman on cell wall tell you something about the twisted mind that previously occupied this space, and since madness is so often a theme of the Batman mythos, drawing conclusions and attempting to figure out the histories of the costumed villains (and, of course, the costumed crimefighter, himself) is such a focus of the comic books, this makes sense in a game replicating the ideas that make up the Batman mythology. The previously mentioned collectibles further support this idea (and again, seem to take on a greater value than a mere collectible) because they often unlock character biographies and tapes of psychotherapy sessions with many of the Batman’s rogues gallery. “Investigating” as collection then becomes an actual investigation where clues, motives, and causality are actually explored through the physical objects that the detective seeks. The collection mechanic takes on a legitimately forensic occupation.
All of this proper simulation of the mental exercise of the Batman, though, is likewise well simulated in the authenticity of the combat system. While a seemingly simple combat system supports the gameplay (press one button to attack and continue pressing the same button to generate combos), combat becomes a fascinatingly tactical and visually compelling affair. Because combos are largely generated by switching opponents, Batman is forced to fight by moving acrobatically from one combatant to the next. As a result, really authentic comic book-like battles ensue because the Batman is almost always fighting four or six or a dozen foes at once. Armed combatants, especially those with guns, are to be feared. They kill quickly and efficiently. However, a clever stealth mechanic that allows Batman to creep around and take foes from behind or lower himself from gargoyles adorning the ceiling in order to snatch a foe quickly into the dark eaves of Arkham make such ugly, quick deaths (hey, it’s Batman, a thug with a gun shouldn’t easily kill him!) necessarily extremely unlikely and again feed into an authentic representation of the character. You must fight as Batman really fights, striking from the shadows in order to survive. That the game makes you play authentically as a recognizable character would feels not like being artificially forced into playing the way that the developers wants you to, but instead, like a successful effort to allow the player to feel like they are the Batman. It is a great homage to the character that the developers seem to understand how to make the player feel like they inhabit his skin.
While a few stumbles mar the game, a really silly end boss that violates some of the authenticity of the mythos that I have been talking about and some occasionally cartoonish (cartoonish, not comic bookish, which is the problem) dialogue from Bats himself, this is an extremely well crafted game that captures the spirit of its source material in an undeniably accurate and authentic way. Players troubled by enforced play styles may balk a bit at the game, but honestly, it is a testament to Rocksteady’s design skill that they have been able to achieve a comfortable and completely accessible way of slipping into the cowl of the Batman.