February 26, 2017

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Arkham Knight and the Paradox of Scope

July 2, 2017


The Arkham Series from developer Rocksteady is special.  I think we can all agree on that.  If nothing else, it's hard to think of a successful marriage between a singular franchise and carefully-crafted game design that worked quite so well.  And it has Batman!


The series means a lot to me, both as a fan and as a game developer.


There’s so much to love about the games: graceful combat, tactical stealth, clever puzzles, thrilling traversal, worlds ripe for exploration, and well-written – if somewhat convoluted – storylines voiced by the best actors in the business.  I even love the humiliation of being mocked by a villain after failing to Batman well enough (yes, I used Batman as a verb just now, it won't be the last time).


 This hurts. I want more.


I've beaten every entry in the Arkham series, and all the DLC missions, on Hard Mode (just Hard, I'm only human).  I've gotten every Riddler Trophy, and completed every spec of narrative content that the series has to offer.  


Playing these games has even coincided with key moments of my life as a game developer.  Arkham Asylum was inspiration encouraging me to pursue a Game Design education.  Arkham City was a shared joy with fellow indie developers/roommates.  Arkham Origins was... another game that I played... 


And then there was Arkham Knight, a game I played as a personal reward for landing a new game dev gig.  I ended up doing this not once, but twice.  


So, by the time I got around to actually finishing Arkham Knight (and I mean finished – I did ALL the things), I was at a point with the series where my motivation to play wasn’t just about desire.  It was about duty, obligation.  What kind of fan would I be if I didn’t finish the game?  Didn’t I owe that to the developers after all this time?


Maybe that explains why I was so relieved to be finally done with it all.


You see, Batman: Arkham Knight was utterly exhausting.  When I put down the controller for the last time, I was grateful to have experienced such a finely-crafted piece of content, and perfectly content to never play an Arkham game again.


And that doesn’t feel fair.  This is one of the best games of this console generation.  I mean, it has to be, right?  It ticks all the boxes…


The world and characters never looked better in a Gotham City glistening in the night rain (such graphics!), the gigantic world was full of missions, challenges, puzzles, and more (such content!), there were more gadgets and options to use in combat and stealth gameplay than ever (such features!), and the storyline featured all the best characters from Batman’s rogue's gallery and the ending was surprising and satisfying (such narrative!).  Everything I wanted was there, plus more.  And more.  And more.


And yet…


I mean, I loved the game, but I sort of had to force myself to play it.  I remember my experience as doing the work of Batman until there was no more work to be done.  There were moments where I was fully immersed and truly enjoying myself, moments of confusion where I wished the game had less going on, moments of zen-like contentedness as I mindlessly explored Gotham, and moments of agonizing frustration where I cried out to the gameplay gods about why, WHY, do these Riddler Challenge Races have to be here?!


 I hate my life right now...


In the end, Batman: Arkham Knight ticked every box and delivered an impressive, satisfying Batman game, but I never felt the pure joy that I was hoping for.  It's as if the act of adding so many features and generally making everything in the game bigger and better only served to make the final experience a little bit worse.  Playing Arkham Knight often felt like a grind, and it’s a shame. 


But it made me think about big games like this in a more general way.  It feels like this happens to every successful franchise, doesn’t it?


The series begins with an inspired, creative title that surprises the audience, and then the developers try to recreate their success by making everything bigger and better.  It as if a series can become so big and so successful that it doesn’t know what to do with itself - except to try to become even bigger and even more successful.  Every new installment is greater and more ambitious than the last, but at a certain point the games stop getting better, just bigger.


More money, more effort, more time, more features, more content, more scope… worse game.  It’s a trap.  It’s a paradox.


One game developer put it this way:


“It's easy to see how people fall into the trap of having so many features. It's natural to equate features with quality, because that's all you've got to go on at the beginning of the project. I think what you need is confidence, and it can be hard. It's harder for publishers to give developers that confidence when you're in a catch-22 situation."


I don’t want to overstate it, Batman: Arkham Knight is an incredible game, but its vast feature set and shallow monotony of its gameplay nonetheless represent the paradox of scope.


And then it went completely off the rails and became a racing/tank game, that was just crazy.




Remember, back in the day...

So long ago, I was so innocent then...


Let's go back a few years to talk about how revolutionary the first game in the series felt at the time.


In 2009, The Dark Knight wasone year old, and developer Rocksteady released a new Batman game.  Instead of basing the game on the Nolan movies, this unknown studio does better than that.  They reach further back, to Bruce Timm's celebrated Batman: The Animated Series with it's unique "dark deco" visual style and unforgettable voice acting, and to Tim Burton's live-action movies that had brought a dose of surreal, Gothic humor to the franchise.


More importantly, Rocksteady developed a set of game mechanics that was a perfect match for the license.  Nearly everything about the gameplay, from the combat mechanics (which went on to become the new standard for 3rd-person action games), to traversal, to gadgets, to stealth, brought variety to the gameplay and was an ideal fit to the character and world of Batman.


With the likes of Paul Dini writing the story, Carlos D'Anda reimagining the characters, and Sefton Hill directing the design, they crafted a narrative where Batman had to contend with a prison break in Arkham Asylum, and face his greatest nemesis - the Joker.  They brought the same voice actors from the cartoon to bring the characters to life (Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill), and they kept the game’s pacing and feature set tight.  The final product was considered to be the greatest Batman video game ever made.


Comics writer Grant Morrison, who wrote the comic that had inspired the game's storyline, put it best in an interview with WIRED Magazine:


"When I played that game, it was the first time in my life where I actually felt what it is like to be Batman. It was very involving. The way the game and Paul Dini's story was created, crafted and shot made you actually feel like Batman."


Needless to say, the game put Rocksteady on the map, and set up incredibly high expectations for the sequels to come.



An Open-World, Linear Experience

 It is kind of a small map.  I don't mind.


Before moving on, let's take a second to examine one of the more unique aspects of Batman: Arkham Asylum -  its unique combination of linear and open-world design.  


What do those terms mean?  Here's an overly simplistic definition.


Linear World Design - The player experiences gameplay beats in successive order.  The player completes Challenge A, progresses to Challenge B, and so on.  The game world is set up as a long, winding corridor pushing the player forward to the end.


Start > A > B > C  >>>  End



Open World Design - The player freely explores and encounters gameplay beats scattered through the area. Different challenges can be completed in any order.  The game world is set up as a large, open space.




D    <  Start  >    B   





Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses.  In a linear game, it's easier to tell a single story and carefully craft each moment of gameplay.  Designers always know where the player will be and when, and this helps create a focused experience.   Designers can ramp up the tension during moments of climactic action, slow things down for poignant narrative beats, or just switch up the gameplay to keep things from getting stale.  Linear games are great for telling a story, but don't allow for much choice.  Most games of this category don't allow players to direct their own experience through agency, and as a result linear design is often criticized for being restrictive.


In open-world games, players are free to explore the environment at their own whim.  They can choose their own goals and literally go their own way.  This creates a more open-ended, player-driven experience.  However, designers don't know where the player will be or when, so they have to design their interactivity to be generalized and spread over a wide area.  Gameplay events are often instanced duplicates of the same challenges over and over again.  The criticisms of open-world games are most often shallow gameplay, incoherent coherent narratives, and inconsistent pacing.


These simplistic definitions can't capture the subtleties of each genre, and the truth is that most single-player games combine these two approaches to a certain degree.  However, Batman: Arkham Asylum was the first game (at least that I remember) that really felt like it had gotten the best of both worlds.  The secret was in careful pacing.  Specifically in the clear focus of the narrative, and the way that the world opened up as the player progressed.


The world of Batman: Arkham Asylum was divided into three outdoor zones with eight interior environments.  Each of these areas unlocked one by one as the player completed gameplay challenges and narrative beats.  The process of opening up the world followed a specific pattern:


1) Narrative Beat

2) New Area Unlocked

3) New Goal - Go to a new area
4) Explore Area

5) Gameplay Challenge

6) Narrative Beat

7) New Area Unlocked

8) New Goal - Go to the new area


In Batman: Arkham Asylum, if Batman entered a building, it was because a story beat took him to that particular place.  Batman had a clear idea of why he was there and what he needed to do.  Entering a new space would then lead to a gameplay challenge, such as a stealth sequence or combat encounter.  Completing the challenge would lead to another narrative beat that gave Batman a new goal.  New areas of the game world would be made navigable, and the player was off to repeat the process.


With new places to explore, the player could choose to immediately proceed to the next goal, or take some time to look for Riddler Trophies, experiment with new gadgets, or just glide around.  The entire world was a single, cohesive entity where every area (once accessed) was open for free-exploration.


This was the key to the Batman: Arkham Asylum's game world.  Exploring a new area was a nice reward for completing a scripted, narrative beat, and allowed players to find their own path even as the game gently led them to the next stage.  However, the free-exploration was secondary to the core progression.  It was more like a palette-cleanser than the main dish.


This made perfect sense with the way that the narrative was presented.  After all, Batman doesn't just fly around looking for collectables - he's always got a purpose.  The narrative and main questline always drove Batman (and the player) forward.  The result an intimately-paced, narrative experience that was somehow able to feel like a linear and open-world game at the same time.  


Unfortunately, that careful balance would prove difficult to replicate in the sequels.


That part with Venom Joker at the end was a little silly, too...



Bigger and Better

You want to turn part of the city into a prison?  Of course!  That makes total sense.


The next game in the series was Batman: Arkham City.  Many consider this to be the best of the series, and its hard to disagree with that.  It's an incredible game.


Unlike its predecessor, this Arkham City gave the player free reign to explore the entire game world from the beginning.  Gone was the tight pacing between linear and open-world gameplay, it was more of an open world game featuring well-made linear sequences in the city's interior environments.  Every subsequent game in the series would follow suit.


In addition, the game introduced the concept of side quests, called Most Wanted Missions, that added optional narrative elements to the game's story.  This open-world trope added flavor and depth to the world, but took away from the urgency of the main storyline.  In this case, it didn't feel overly harmful, but the precedent was set. 


The game world of Arkham City of was several times bigger than the tiny island from Arkham Asylum.  This time, the navigable area encompassed several of Gotham City's neighborhoods. The conceit was that a section of the city had been cordoned off to create a makeshift prison. Whether or not this made logical sense, it was a good enough excuse to fill a large area with convict enemies to battle, but with no civilians to get in the way. 


In Batman: Arkham City, the player was encouraged to explore the environment to find side quests, collectables, special challenges, destructible objects, puzzles and the next storyline quest.   It was impressive, and a little overwhelming.


The pattern of gameplay had shifted – and it never shifted back.


1) Narrative Beat

2) New Goal - go to building interior

3) Traverse to new goal area

4) Be distracted by collectibles, puzzles, and side quests on the way

5) Get to new goal area

6) Gameplay Challenge

7) Narrative Beat

8) New Goal - go to the next building interior

9) Be distracted again


The exterior environment itself was packed with things for Batman to do, and as a result the experience went from the scripted narrative beats of a linear game to the exploration, collection, and discovery of an open world game.


Some critics missed the specific pacing of Arkham Asylum, here's Andrew Yoon writing for ShackNews:


"Two years ago, a great restaurant opened in your neighborhood. It was, oddly, called Arkham Asylum. You had your doubts--previous Batman restaurants just haven't been very good. But critics and fans agreed: Arkham Asylum was terrific, and the three course meal it offered was one of the finest meals you've had in a long time.


Now, Rocksteady Studios has prepared a follow-up. Batman: Arkham City offers so much more--it's not a restaurant, but a ritzy casino buffet.


At first, the options presented to you are entirely overwhelming. Where do you even begin? You gorge yourself on everything laid out in front of you. As you lie down, you unbuckle your belt, thinking "maybe I've eaten too much." Yes, you're a bit sick. You're happy--but you fondly recall Arkham Asylum, and realize that as decadent as this buffet was, it wasn't the chef-prepared experience you had years ago."


Batman: Arkham City was Game of the Year for many publications, and it deserved the title.  It had a great story (admittedly with a little too much going on) and plenty of memorable moments.  One could easily argue that, despite the looser pacing and unfocused narrative, it was simply a more fun game to play than Arkham Asylum. 


The transition from a linear design focus to an open world design focus with more characters, more features, and more content had worked- this time.  


But the ambitious scope of Arkham City made some doubt that the series could continue to surpass itself.  Stephen Totillo put it this way in his review for Kotaku:


"At every turn of plot or sub-plot there is a fun new or returning villain. But by the main storyline's final hours, the breadth of the cast does feel excessive...


... Those other villains become plot devices or, in a manner that may harm the series in the future, unnecessarily played trump cards...


... But the series' corner-painting problems are worries for another day and don't detract the excellence of Arkham City..."


Another day, indeed.  Batman: Arkham City was "bigger and better" than its predecessor in a way that worked to its advantage, and raised the bar even higher for the sequels to come.  


Two years later, the next installment in the series, Batman: Arkham Origins, would be released. Developer Splash Damage (UB Montreal) would take the reigns from Rocksteady, and tell a story of Batman’s first days in the cowl.  That sounds interesting, what's the worst that could happen?



And then the next game came out

Hey, where is everybody?


Two years later, the next game in the series, Batman: Arkham Origins, was released.  It was a pretty solid game, but the high expectations set by Arkham Asylum and Arkham City made it feel like pretty big disappointment. 


Arkham Origins was pretty much the same game as Arkham City, but you know... bigger.  


Splash Damage had doubled-down on Arkham City's open-world design philosophy.  They added features common to the genre such as procedurally-generated challenges, collectables, destructable objects, and towers that Batman had to "reclaim" in order to unlock Fast Travel (another common open-world feature).


Unfortunately, this time around, the larger scope of the game did not work toward its favor.  Expectations were high, and the game's reception ranged from extremely harsh to merely lukewarm.  Some even kept the food metaphor going...


Adam Smith, RockPaperShotgun


"The dish is recognisable but it’s fast food rather than gourmet. Add a sprinkle of glitches and upcoming DLC that will continue the story, which feels incomplete, and you’re left with the sort of meal that leaves a bad taste in the mouth."


To be fair, there are many aspects of the game worth noting.  Arkham Origins contained some fantastic linear narrative content, and brought some new features to the table: martial artist enemies, new gadgets, a new crime scene investigation mode, and the not-so-interesting addition of Shock Gloves (that completely broke the combat system).  However, the most significant “improvement” of Arkham Origins was the sheer size of the world.


Developer Splash Damage took the same game world from Arkham City, doubled it, and added a bridge to connect the two sections.  This time, instead of an open-air prison, the narrative opted for the conceit of "it's midnight on Christmas Eve and the villains are out!" to explain why the streets were empty of civilians, but full of criminals.  It didn't work as well.


The game world Arkham Origins had more space, but less flavor. Reviewers started to notice.


Carolyn Petit, Gamespot


"The most noteworthy difference between Arkham Origins and its predecessors is a significantly larger open world. But that larger world has little meaning when the things you're doing in it are the same things the smaller world of the previous game accommodated perfectly well. Grappling up to rooftops and gliding through the air still feel great, but they don't feel any better here just because you have more rooftops to leap from."


Dan Stapleton, IGN


"What constantly nagged at me, though, is that I spent the first few hours searching every corner of Arkham Origins for the DC Comics-themed Easter eggs that Rocksteady (the developer of the previous games) liberally stashed around the environments of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. But the most I ever saw outside of the Batcave was a Flying Graysons poster. That’s not to say there’s no incentive to explore – Gotham is, as ever, littered with collectable items, some of which are locked behind puzzles you have to gadget your way through – but they’re nowhere near as much fun as finding a hint that Scarecrow was here. Some of the love is missing here."


I should note that Arkham Origins did open up areas of the open world alongside key narrative beats, and this did help to create a feeling of progression.  Unfortunately, the narrative impulse just wasn’t as strong or successfully-executed as in Arkham Asylum.


The tacit philosophy of "bigger is better" applied to many aspects of the game.  There were more characters from Batman's rogue’s gallery to encounter, more side missions, and more features in general, but the game ended up spreading itself thin.  The large cast of characters from the previous games meant that that some villains from Arkham Origins were repeat appearances or deep cuts (who is Lady Shiva?). 


The game even had a multiplayer mode that I'm sure at least a few people played.


Despite the larger world, the cast of characters, and the addition of multiplayer, Batman: Arkham Origins was still criticized for being more of the same.  It’s easily the weakest entry in the series.


Evan Narcisse from Kotaku put it best with these somewhat foreboding words:


"Origins is an incremental installment, not a transformative one. It doesn't have the massive leaps forward that differentiated City from Asylum... Right here, right now, the result is good enough. But the very success of the Batman video game franchise could prove to be its biggest limitation. And decisions to ever so slightly vary the template could be a slowly contracting deathtrap that not even the Caped Crusader can escape."


In the end, like all games in the series, Arkham Origins wasn't bad .  It delivered the same solid experience as the previous titles -  just with a larger world and some extra features.   The result was another great Batman game, but one that started to show its seams.


Great Joker stuff, though.


At this point as a player, I was starting to wonder about the series.  I was left unsatisfied by this one, but that only made their DLC expansion all the more surprising.



So then this happened

Hey, look!  Less stuff!


The Initiation DLC for Batman: Arkham Origins surprised me.  Here we had Bruce Wayne before he became the Batman, and before he had all the tools of the trade at his disposal.  While most expansions had just padded the existing gameplay with more features, this one stripped them all away.


I was taken with this.  I was suddenly forced to engage with the series’ core features all over again.  No sonic boomerangs, no shock gloves, no freeze grenades, just me and ability to sneak around using my eyes and fists (or Bruce’s fists… whatever).


Like all narrative DLC in the Arkham series, this expansion was way too short.  It was essentially just a few challenge maps strung together, but that was enough for me.


The final combat encounter may have been one of the most difficult and frustrating gameplay sequences I have ever experienced.  I had no toys or tricks to rely on, just my ability to read the enemy’s movements and reliably respond with the right counter.  It was great!


What this expansion helped me realize was that less can still be more, and that going back to basics can revitalize a game experience and make it feel new again.


I had hope that Arkham Knight take a cue from Initiation and follow a similar pattern.



All Good Things

I have no idea what to do next...


It was another two years and a new console generation before Rocksteady shipped the final chapter in the Arkham franchise, Batman: Arkham Knight.


To say the game came with high expectations would be an understatement.  It may have been one of the most-hyped games ever made.


And for the most part, the final product delivered on all fronts.  Everything fans expected from a great Batman game was there: the world easily tripled the size of previous installments, the visuals and lighting set new standards for fidelity and detail, there were more characters, puzzles, challenges and side missions than ever, and for the first time players could cruise Gotham in the Batmobile.  It was one of the most polished AAA games of this console generation.


This time around, players were free to explore Gotham City proper for the first time – albeit a version of Gotham teaming of criminals and rioters running amok from the effects of Scarecrow’s fear toxin.  Batman was depicted as a man on the edge, juggling the fate of the city as he tried to keep his own sanity.  Being being infected with not one, but two, mind-altering agents (Joker Venom and Scarecrow’s fear toxin) will do that to you.


The game’s main storyline featured a complex and somewhat convoluted narrative, the specifics of which aren’t the necessary to discuss in this post. There were no less than three main antagonists, and more sudden twists and reversals than it had time set up or explain in hindsight.  Nearly all of our favorite enemies, allies, and frenemies were there – and nearly all of them had to be rescued at one time or another.  Put simply, there was just a lot going on.


Despite being a little overcooked, one thing that was clear from Arkam Knight’s story was that every line was rendered, acted and directed with a genuine love and passion for the mythos of Batman’s world.  Batman’s connections to his friends and family were continually tested, and throughout the game the character and player were challenged to question Batman’s code to never kill.  It was a narrative that had me both at the edge of my seat and scratching my head.  But it wasn’t until the finale that I appreciated the sheer volume of love that had gone into it.  The ending sequence of Arkham Knight remains one of the most unique and satisfying gameplay experiences I've ever had.


In addition to the main story, Arkham Knight included numerous Most Wanted side missions – each focusing on a particular gameplay feature.  Foiling Two-Face’s bank robberies required careful and efficient Predator takedowns.  Stealthy traversal was necessary to disrupting Penguin’s weapon’s shipments.  Stopping Firefly’s spree of arson meant extended Batmobile chases.  And of course the world was full of Riddler traps, puzzles and trophies.


But I think the majority of my time in Arkham Knight wasn’t spent completing missions, it was traveling to them or trying to find them in the rooftops or streets of Gotham.  This was a game that let you wander the open world more than ever before.  Players could do this as they had in previous games, by zipping from rooftop to rooftop with Batman’s gliding abilities, or by barreling through the city with the game’s key feature – the Batmobile.


The Batmobile… Arkham Knight sort of hinges on the Batmobile, doesn't it?  For better or worse, this feature defined the experience of Arkham Knight.



Let’s Talk About the Batmobile

Did I just run someone over?


The Batmobile is and remains the most controversial feature of Batman: Arkham Knight.  But it’s not as if no one expected its inclusion in the game.  Players, journalists, and fans alike had been asking about the Batmobile since the release of Arkham Asylum.


Here’s Kris Graft interviewing Sefton Hill for Gamasutra shortly after Asylum’s release:


Kris Graft:

… how hard was it to resist the temptation of throwing in Batmobile driving segments? .... Was there some debate whether or not to include those in the game? It would seem like obvious to have a driving or a flying segment.


Sefton Hill:

What we don't want to do is take on too much. Some of the things that we really wanted to achieve were for Batman himself, so we didn't want to overstretch with a driving section with its own mechanic and requirements, and take that development time away from the things that were important for Batman himself.


That was what really drove that decision. We had a lot of discussions about it, but at the end of the day, anything that is going to compromise the quality of what we were doing was something that we wouldn't take on if it was going to compromise the quality of the other components. We wanted to make sure that what we deliver and what you play is of the highest possible quality.


Asylum featured the Batmobile narratively, and Origins had used the Batwing as a (somewhat buggy) conceit for fast-travel, but it wasn’t until Arkham Knight that the series even attempted to feature a fully-functional bat-vehicle.  If they were going to do it, they had to get it right.


And they were going to do it.  After five years of Arkham games, there was no getting around the Batmobile.  It wasn’t just an extra feature, it was a requirement.  Without it, Arkham Knight would have been just another Batman game, and would have suffered the same fate as Arkham Origins.


Executing on this feature must have been a tremendous effort that forced Rocksteady to redefine many aspects of how they built their game and world.  Destructible terrain, wider roads, and a larger city all come to mind as obligations created by accommodating the Batmobile, not to mention the functionality of the vehicle’s own driving, combat, and puzzle-solving modes.


And as a feature, the Batmobile was well-executed and thoroughly polished.  The player could rampage through Gotham in the Batmobile’s squirrely vehicle-mode, steamrolling through destructible objects and scampering criminals alike. 


Make way for Batman!


When attacked by tank drones (that, conveniently, also exist) the Batmobile transforms into a fearsome tank with combat features slick enough to support their own game.  It’s empowering, chaotic, and pretty great. 


But does this feel like Batman?  Maybe.  Batman is a pliable enough character to allow for such a violent, destructive weapon in his arsenal.  With two psychological agents invading his system, a somewhat wreckless version of Batman does make sense.  There’s even a scene where he tortures a henchman with the Batmobile. 


However, the narrative of Arkham Knight did not stay consistent with this theme.  In fact, the game went to great pains to go in the opposite direction.  Arkham Knight’s narrative repeatedly reminded the player about Batman’s no-kill policy and the difficulties it brings.  This sense of restraint is hard to square with the Batmobile plowing through crowds of rioters, or firing multiple rounds of “rubber” bullets, missiles, and artillery shots in a populated area.  This is some textbook ludonarrative dissonance right here.