Are We There Yet, Batman?: The Trouble with Telling the Story of Travel

Nobody needs to know when a hobbit goes to the bathroom. Even Tolkien knew that.

Despite my preferred genre of book at the time being largely mystery, somehow I ended up reading The Lord of the Rings when I was fairly young. I want to say that I was somewhere between 12 and 14 when I first journeyed with Frodo from the Shire all the way to the foot of Mount Doom.

The initial part of the journey was a fairly good one. Despite hearing that the prose of The Lord of the Rings is fairly off putting to younger readers, I read through the first book in the trilogy, Fellowship of the Ring, at a pretty good clip. While Tolkien’s pacing is often slow, I found the formation and breakdown of the fellowship to be pretty page turning stuff. Then, I got to The Two Towers.

Now, the first half of The Two Towers felt similar in style and tone to Fellowship, the second half… well, wow. Sam and Frodo wander through the forest for a long time, a long, long time, or at least that’s how I remember it. In fact, I put the books aside at that point and began reading something else, probably more Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie, finding myself occasionally returning to The Two Towers with the intention of finishing it, but that forest seemed endless.

Fantasy novels, with their tendency towards the structure of a quest, a long term end goal, whose full narrative is then linked up by minor encounters on the road to get there, tend to avoid the pitfalls of Tolkein’s seminal text. Usually, fantasy novelists recognize that every step of the journey isn’t interesting and that a “several hours later…” is sufficient to let the reader know “what happened” and get us back to the good bits.

Indeed, Mark Twain rather infamously sent up the lack of romance of the journey itself by featuring a rather extended description of a knight on a quest who rides his horse for hours at a time, sweating all the while in his armor and struggling with the insects that manage to get into his armor all along the way in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain’s realistically banal questing speaks to the often uneventful and uninteresting nature of “some parts of a story,” parts that many writers are smart enough to omit. Nobody needs to know when a hobbit goes to the bathroom. Even Tolkien knew that.

Which brings me to storytelling in video games, a medium well suited to the quest story, as games have goals, a win-state, something that one can easily represent through the structure of a quest. Like novelistic fiction, the fiction of games very often is all about telling a long term story with a goal that is reached with the exciting bits being the encounters along the way. Of course, if a game is to be a journey, then that also means that travel is necessary to get from encounter A to encounter B. In a lot of older more linearly designed games, this usually was handled in a manner not dissimilar from the way that novelists handled and recognized the boring nature of travel itself. Something of the “several hours later…” sort existed in video game cutscenes, often creating breaks between the action of the story that transitioned the player to the “next chapter.” You know, the exciting bits.

Then came the advent of the open world game, the game that really didn’t jump-cut the player in time. Open worlds are about occupying a world, “living in it,” and suddenly it became necessary to concern one’s self with what the player did between the exciting bits.

Now the Grand Theft Auto series that largely popularized the genre excelled at figuring out what to do with a player’s down time. Frankly, it did what people do in real time to kill the banal moments of getting from point A to point B. It provided a radio for distraction, some good tunes or some satirical radio talk stations allowed the player to move from one place to another while being entertained. Of course, additionally, just the more unrealistic ability to drive your car without worrying about the rules of the road also allows for some suitably entertaining distraction from the banal in GTA. It may not be entirely reasonable from a realistic perspective, but blowing down a street plowing through pedestrians while blasting Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” is anything but a banal way to commute. It is ecstasy.

Which brings me to my most recent playthrough of an open world game, Batman: Arkham Origins — a study, I’m afraid in tedious travel. I have complained about the evolution of the Arkham series in the past. The first game did feature something like an open world in miniature. While in Arkham Asylum a story of Batman unfolds in a fairly linear way with Batman moving from building to building on the relatively small world map of Arkham Island to participate in scripted encounters in each location that advance the plot, the player is also set loose on the grounds of the asylum to explore and investigate minor matters that might interest that player.

The claustrophobic hallways of the asylum building,s which each essentially represent each chapter or “level” of the game, are nicely complemented by what is essentially a similarly claustrophobic open world, which while allowing opportunities for distraction from the overall plot seems designed to continually funnel the character back to those aforementioned “exciting bits.”

In my estimation, the mistake that that game’s sequel made was in abandoning this minimal approach to travel and a minimal approach to an open world in general:

Arkham City‘s open world approach enlarges the game and as a result broadens the focus of the player from the most interesting details of a world inspired by the comics to a dark city that is quite busy with things to do and see — probably too busy.

What results is a game that has great moments and great environments spread out more thinly throughout the map and story themselves, leaving the density of well crafted detail more diffuse and more difficult to fully appreciate. Side quests and an explosion of Riddler quests in a much larger world tend to distract from these moments and places, rather than enhance and encourage the player to explore through them. (G. Christopher Williams, Batman: Arkham City, PopMatters, 10 November 2011)

While some open world games like Grand Theft Auto are successful at creating a large world to play in, Arkham City and now Arkham Origins fail to do the same thing. Like Arkham City, in Arkham Origins Batman is once again set loose in what is a richly detailed environment to deal with a richly detailed plot that is diffused by the sheer scope of the world and how little there is to do in it but just move around in it.

Ironically, the new game seems to recognize that merely gliding around city streets from one location to the next (where the “real” plot advances will occur) grows deadly dull eventually. It provides fast travel points spread across the much larger open world of Gotham City. And, yet, the developers have chosen to lock down those fast travel points with quests that require unlocking each point by traveling around an area on long and tedious collection quests. Inconvenient travel for the sake of more convenient travel.

Batman doesn’t listen to tunes (and well he shoudn’t), so there isn’t much to distract from trom or accompany the experience of travel. Instead, he has a couple hundred Riddler collectibles to pick up in the city or any number of street crimes to stop and resolve, which involves beating up a whole bunch of thugs – an act that will comprise much of his missions when the player is finally back on track with the “real” plot. So, why, oh why, would I want to spend my time doing more of the same over and over again, just on a random basis and for no clear reason (given that these moments do not advance the plot in any way)? Save the action for the times when it matters.

Gotham City becomes an endless forest, featuring what is essentially Batman’s downtime rather than his adventures and rather than the real interest here, which assumedly has something to do with learning about Arkham Asylum’s origins. At least, that’s what I was promised in the game’s title. Grand Theft Auto may also require a lot of time on the road, boosting cars to get from place to place, but, hell, I also knew that when getting into that in the game. They told me that in the title, and it was a far more specific explanation of a world, rather than what Arkham Origins implies, which is a plot.

If I had any wish for this series, it is simply this one: that any developers that try their hand at an Arkham game again would return to the narrow focus of Asylum. Narrow the world again to focus the player on the story that the game wants to tell, rather than on a world that is too diffused to appreciate and too boring to endlessly traverse.