Devil in the Details: A Postmortem on Batman: Arkham Asylum
"Criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible... I shall become a bat!"
In Detective Comics #33 of November 1939, these words from Batman's origin story explained the motivation for Bruce Wayne's nocturnal disguise. From the very beginning, the Dark Knight was designed as a psychologically complex hero who would intimidate lawbreakers. But the various videogames starring the Caped Crusader over the decades haven't done justice to this aspect of the character.
All that changed when Batman: Arkham Asylum came out earlier this year. I've been stalking the British-based Rocksteady Games for weeks to get it to open up about just how it crafted Arkham Asylum. I finally got my chance to talk to Game Director Sefton Hill, Lead Narrative Designer Paul Crocker and Paul Dini, the animation and comics writer who wrote the game.
Crispy Gamer: I wanted to start out with congratulations on the game's sales success and critical success. I absolutely love the game. As a longtime Batman fan, it's something I've been waiting for a big chunk of my life.
Sefton Hill: Thank you very much.
Paul Dini: Arleen Sorkin [who plays Harley Quinn] called me up to say how much her kids love it.
Paul Crocker: It's great to work on something you love and have people actually like it.
Crispy Gamer: A lot of people called Arkham Arkham a Batman simulator. They meant it positively, but that seemed overly reductive to me. Putting a player in Batman's shoes seemed to be a secondary goal to what you guys set out to do?
Hill: I take that as a real compliment. He's such a complicated character, and that's what makes him so fascinating. We felt there was so much we could do with him, and not only physically. There's the whole psychological angle that we could bring to the game that's perhaps not so often represented in games. He's a tremendous character with so many fascinating sides to his personality that have kept people spellbound for nearly 70 years.
Crispy Gamer: The game came out somewhat unheralded. My first thoughts were that it could be good, or it could fall in line with every bad superhero game I've ever played. How did you deal with those kinds of negative expectations?
Hill: In a sense, it is a negative, because people are skeptical about superhero licenses. On the other hand, we saw it as an opportunity to surprise people. And once people got the chance to play and see it for themselves with the demo, we got really good feedback. The demo helped change a lot of opinions.
Crocker: We were lucky because we were given enough time to do it properly. Warner Bros. and Eidos were quite keen to make a good game. Because we weren't committed to a movie, we also weren't obligated to fit everything -- like plot elements or artistic direction -- around things that wouldn't be great for a game. We could cherry-pick the best part of 70 years of Batman.
Crispy Gamer: Some of those older Batman games were impossibly difficult or just crap to play. How did that make you feel as someone who was involved with that intellectual property, Paul?
Dini: It kind of made me feel like I did when I got into animation in the early '80s. Now it's my turn to see if I can do something about this. When I started writing cartoons, they'd fallen into a malaise, and it was kind of an art form that was on its way out. As I was breaking in, I met a lot of great animators who had the same passion for classic animation, and they all wanted to do them the right way. These guys then went on to Disney, Pixar, or onto "The Simpsons," and they produced some of the best animation from the last 15 years.
So when the opportunity came about to work with Eidos and Rocksteady, we were all of one mind to make the coolest Batman game we can. I learned very quickly what the parameters were, but I also learned that we broke a few of them [with regard to] the entertainment level that we can bring to a videogame. I wanted there to be some complexity, and DC Comics and the Rocksteady team agreed.
Crispy Gamer: How did you adjust to working in a different medium?
Dini: I have worked on other games, but nothing to the extent of Arkham Asylum. It was very fast education for me, as far as what needed to get told in cut scenes or in gameplay. It's not a movie, not a TV show. It's a cousin to those things, but you can't stop the action and have a lot of yakking. In a Batman movie, there's a deeper texture that involves other characters like Alfred, Commissioner Gordon and whatever romantic interest Batman might have.
A game has to be a lot leaner. But we were able to show some different sides of Batman, with the flashbacks and his dialogue with Commissioner Gordon and Oracle. So in some ways, it did feel more like a movie than some other videogames. Also, having the game set inside a fixed location put me in the mind of, say, "Die Hard" when we were coming up with the story.
Crispy Gamer: Did you come to the table with any gameplay ideas?
Dini: I threw some ideas out there, and it was kind of remarkable to see how close they were to stuff the team was already working on. At the time, I had been writing Detective Comics [one of Batman's flagship books], and I wanted to experiment with the idea of Batman being the World's Greatest Detective. If you're just going to do a game about someone leaping out of the shadows and beating thugs up, that could be anybody. That could be Spider-Man. Rocksteady was thinking along the same lines, and we worked on having the procedural, forensic analysis that wouldn't stop the action. I was happy with the way that came out.
Crispy Gamer: So you thought implementing the brains aspect was just as important as nailing the brawn?
Dini: Yeah, because that's something we never see in the movies. In the movies, Batman's kind of a traffic cop who stands in the middle of the flow of a bunch of different moving parts. He's got three or four villains to fight, a romantic interest and other things to deal with. He's most effective in the movies as an action hero who shows up in the finale and solves whatever the problem is.
In the world of the game, the detective element was something we could play with and have a lot of fun. You know, detective work is kind of a game already, and people like entertainments that make them figure things out. So, games are the perfect medium for that aspect of Batman.
Crispy Gamer: Paul, Sefton described you as being the resident Batman super-fan in the Rocksteady offices.
Crocker: Yeah. I'm the nerdy guy, basically. I used to work in a comic book store here. Who would have thought it would have been so useful?
Crispy Gamer: Your title is Lead Narrative Designer. What does that mean?
Crocker: I'm a designer by trade. All the games I've ever worked on have had a strong character slant. I've generally written most of the dialogue and done various things to make things clear to the player. When things started off on Arkham, I was doing design work as well. Working with Paul [Dini], it became clear that this was a much bigger story-based game. So my transition happened sort of naturally.
Crispy Gamer: Over at Crispy Gamer, the company's CEO bought the game and plays it in the office game room. But he always mutes the volume and mashes on the B button so he can skip the cut scenes as soon as possible. He's not taking in any of the story, but still enjoys the game. Does that offend you as the narrative steward?
Crocker: It doesn't bother me in the slightest. Everybody approaches games in different ways. It'd be worse if you'd worked on a movie and people watched it on fast-forward. But you obviously can't do that on a game. We're trying to please everyone. Being able to skip everything was a conscious design decision. We don't want to force people to play things in a specific style, or to watch cut scenes if you're not interested in them. I think ours are pretty good, though.
Crispy Gamer: You guys all talk about Batman's psychological complexity. I've been saying to people that the origin sequence in the game is one of the best retellings of his origin in any medium.
Hill: I'm really glad it resonated. We really saw it as a key scene, because any new Batman experience needs to contain that origin story. But we also wanted to play on the fact that most people would be familiar with it -- tell it from a different angle and not overplay it.
Dini: I wanted it to have the same feel as if you're reliving a nightmare, where you're witnessing past events that you can't stop. You know intellectually that they've happened and you know that they can't really threaten you, but in the realm of a dream they can hurt you. Batman's forced to relive every bit of agony that's associated with his parents' deaths, and I wanted the players to be right inside of that. Batman's enemies are borne out of damage to their psyches. Superman is science; Batman is psyche.
Crispy Gamer: I loved it more than the hundreds of other recapitulations from comics, movies or cartoons, because you really get to embody it. The game doesn't take control away from the player, and that just makes it more affecting. It could've just been a cut scene and still accomplished what it needed to, in terms of the narrative. Talk a little about what went into making that scene work.
Hill: I'm sort of obsessed with the idea of not taking control away from the player. That's always a challenge for us, when to use a cut scene. Generally, we only use a cut scene when we want to have an interaction between characters that we really couldn't do any other way. Cut scenes can bring along a lot in terms of the characters, but you want to use them sparingly. It's so important to keep the player engaged and playing as much as impossible.
Crispy Gamer: Speaking of balance, one of the game's triumphs is how its various different elements get woven together as a whole. In other games, sneaking around, hand-to-hand combat and exploration would've been walled off from each other. Was the idea to have them interlocked always there from the beginning, or did that come about as you were making the game?
Hill: Well, the idea always was to have a cohesive experience, but initially we did start with a focus on the different areas of the game. We started with combat, building the history of the asylum, and the stealth. Once we'd done our initial prototypes on that stuff over the first five or six months, the team began to work on integrating them together. If you're not careful, that can feel very disjointed. That's why we spent a lot of time on things like no loading screens -- to give the feeling that the things in this world all exist at the same time together.
Stuff like that is so important to creating this fiction and the believability of the whole experience. Technically, it takes a lot of expertise to do that. I know it was a pain for the code team and the engine team to do that. We put a lot of time into making this a full, seamless experience, and not rely on fades-to-black or other transition tricks to hide the loading screens.
Crispy Gamer: Arkham Asylum is a game that's so centered on locale that the place becomes a character in and of itself. I really feel like it's up there with the best iconic game locales. What went into giving the environment such a unique disposition?
Hill: Early on, the art director Dave Healy, Paul [Crocker] and I really wanted to make sure the asylum had its own life and history. Every building on the island has its own history: when it was retrofitted and what the technology was when it was retrofitted. There's a lot of backstory that isn't explicitly told. Arkham provides such a great opportunity to explore the Batman mythos because it's been touched and scarred by so many key characters. Then you can bring some of those villains in and show how they've changed that world.
The final piece was having events in the game affect Arkham itself, which goes along with it being a key character. So, Poison Ivy showing up utterly transforms the island, and you can see things like the statue of the Warden changing over the course of the game, representing the shift in power. It's such a central part of the Batman universe that so many characters have moved through, and we wanted to convey its importance.
Crispy Gamer: Those freaky Scarecrow sequences were one of the things that kept the game from feeling like just another beat-'em-up. What went into making them so different from the rest of the game?
Hill: Usually when you're playing a game, you're playing a slice of the hero's life, which tends to involve him just shooting people for four hours. But we wanted to show the history and drive behind the character.
Crispy Gamer: My colleague Scott Jones feels like the game really works because Batman is kept in these claustrophobic spaces. Do you guys think there's any credence to that?
Dini: I think heroes are more effective when you put heroes in a box. Even with James Bond, who's the quintessential globe-trotting hero, things usually end in a villain's lair.
Crocker: Yes, there are lots of bits where you're indoors, but the game isn't all in tight spaces? We really built the game room-by-room and focused on what the player should be getting from each room. Some of those spaces are small and cramped, and you feel different than you do on the island's surface.
Crispy Gamer: Yeah, the contrast made those moments when you were gliding through the sky from building to building feel very freeing.
Crocker: The whole goal was to make the player feel powerful and like Batman.
Crispy Gamer: Those are the moments where you don't feel powerful?
Crocker: True, but that's another element of what Batman is. You feel like you're Batman, and the purpose of the Scarecrow levels is to dissect Batman psychologically. And even in the Scarecrow levels, he's strong enough to beat them. He's still clawing up to that Bat-Signal to banish Scarecrow.
Crispy Gamer: One of the criticisms that was lodged at the game was the repetitious style of the boss battles. Was that a purposeful design statement? How did that come about?
Hill: Looking back on it, the bosses were one of the last things we implemented in the game. In any game, you only have a finite amount of time and resources. I was really proud of the work the team did in the time that we had. Some of the criticism was fair, and we have to take that.
Crispy Gamer: On the opposite end of the spectrum, what were your favorite gameplay sequences?
Hill: The bit in the Penitentiary where you had to fight on the electrified floors. It split the focus between combat and movement. The fighting had been ramped up to the point where you had multiple enemy types yet you had to constantly stay aware of the changes in the environment to avoid taking damage.
Dini: It's not gameplay, but I really love the part at the end with the party. Every thug you've beaten up during the game is there to welcome you and Joker admits that the whole thing has been a game to get Batman to this point. In a weird way, I kind of think of Joker as Batman's best friend. Joker likes Batman an awful lot. He thinks they're frenemies.
Crispy Gamer: Since you weren't in the UK, Paul, how much hands-on time did you get during the actual development process?
Dini: I'd go into Warner Bros. Interactive and check in from time to time, and when I was in England, I'd get to see how things were going. I did a lot of watching, though, because I'm not very good. I have the final version of the game and I keep on getting beaten up.
Crispy Gamer: You haven't finished it?
Dini: No, but I know how it ends! [Laughs]
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