Excited for the upcoming Batman: Arkham Origins? We sure are. It’s not everyday that comic book character licenses are given the respectable video game treatment that they deserve. We could give you some bad instances, Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects, Fantastic Four and that awful Catwoman game from that equally awful Catwoman movie.
Batman though, seems to have been pretty lucky, especially his gaming hit in the form of the Arkham series. Heck, its combat and open-world gameplay has influenced other sandbox and superhero film tie-in games (we’re looking at you, Amazing Spider-Man).
So how did the Arkham series nail it, while most other comic adaptations got it so wrong?
No Adaptation Baggage
Comic canon can be extremely convoluted. With all the ret-cons, weird story veers and time travelling insanity, there’s no way a developer can cram all of that into a series of games, much less a single game.
With the Arkham series, Rocksteady Studios took the smart approach.
The series owes no adherence to film and comics. Yet somehow, it manages to borrow and improvise upon the familiar themes of superheroism, grittiness, and detective know-how that is associated with the Dark Knight.
There are elements from the comics and movies that can be seen in the game and these add a touch of familiarity to it. That’s why the Arkham games have an endearing quality to both comic book readers and mainstream players alike.
For most of the comic book fans, there are bits and pieces from established Batman stories like Batman: The Long Halloween and Batman: Arkham Asylum - A Serious House on Serious Earth. Rocksteady even had Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, the voice actors of the highly-acclaimed, long running animated Batman shows, represent their characters in the games and got the show’s writer Paul Dini to pen the script.
Most mainstream players will recognise that the Batsuit our millionaire playboy wears in the Arkham series, is a combination of the Christopher Nolan outfits and recent comic book redesigns. As a result, everything about the video game adaptation is fresh yet familiar with a story line that allows the game to stand on its own. Nothing feels forced and neither does it come with the smell of corporate marketing taint; it’s a game made out of pure respect for the character and mythos.
Sticking By The Bat-Book
If you’re going to make a game adaption of a comic book character, you better get it right. Not only will you be under scrutiny by general and mainstream players, you’ll also have legions of fans breathing down your neck. We’re pretty sure Rocksteady knew the pressure.
Rocksteady has taken the essential bits of what made the Dark Knight work, and designed its two sandbox games around it. The Detective Mode for example is not only a feature that’s appropriate in the series, but also a well-done gameplay mechanic that immerses gamers in the mind of the world’s greatest detective. By turning on a view mode that’s part X-ray and part clue-giving scanning machine, it lets you piece evidence and clues together, find suitable spots to lay traps and hide, as well as figure out where your adversaries are and their conditions.
Since the Dark Knight works best in the dark, the game rewards players for taking the stealth route. With dark corners, crawlspaces, vents, and gargoyle statues to take advantage of, the majority of the game focuses on players taking their time experimenting over how to dispatch their opponents without triggering any alarms. The Metal Gear style of gameplay just fits with Batman’s nature of handling volatile situations.
Even the way Batman levels up fits well into context of the series. In Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, Batman starts off in a situation where he’s caught with his tights down. Be it being under-equipped or in his Bruce Wayne guise, he has to periodically go to hot spots to get new equipment sent by his butler Alfred, and unlock prototype functions of his existing items. Hidden passageways and previously closed-off points of interest will then be accessible as Batman unlocks more of his gadgetry throughout his crime-busting journey.
These mechanics established by action adventure fares ala Legend Of Zelda give players a sense of escalated accomplishment. As they uncover bits and pieces of the whole Arkham-laden landscape, they get rewarded with new skills, toys and combat tricks. At the same time, it keeps in context that Batman’s still the same millionaire ass-kicker from the comics and films.
A common way to start off a game’s design during pre-production is to look at all the different interpretations of the franchise. With so many game adaptations stemming from way back in the 80s, the trick is figuring out how to create a game that stays relevant to current entertainment trends without alienating its core fans.
Batman for the NES was arguably one of the best action platformers based on the 1989 Tim Burton film, even though the majority of the game’s content had little to do with the film. Michael Keaton’s Batman certainly never fought with a cyborg beetle or a supercomputer while balancing for dear life on a conveyor belt. Neither did he wall-jump like an 80s video game ninja in the film.
But you know what? Gamers didn’t care.
Why? Simply because it was a good game. Albeit being a bit of a tough platformer, it came with stellar production values, at least in its day, and the platformer genre was the most popular and safest to cash on. The audience at the time were craving for anything along the lines of that tried-and-true genre and having the Batman film license certainly helped companies like Sunsoft, Konami and Sega.
Like the old Batman platformer from the 80s, Rocksteady focused on making their Arkham series game fun. Take away the Batman license, and you’d still get a really entertaining open-world action game with stealth elements.
Still, it is possible that many of the old Batman game titles led to this Rocksteady's design decision.
Batman: Dark Tomorrow for the original Xbox and GameCube was one such template that probably inspired the developer. While not exactly a great game, developer HotGen and publisher Tecmo Koei had the best of intentions to be as authentic to its source material as possible, while delivering an action adventure game that focuses on gadget use and combat.
Despite their best efforts, the game bombed, to say the least.
Inspiration is the key word here because Rocksteady made way more improvements to the action adventure genre. The Batman: Arkham series' free flow combat system may have been an extension of past beat-em-ups like Batman Returns (SNES version), Batman Forever: The Arcade Game, and Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu.
To their credit, Rocksteady built on the good elements of those games while solving the genre’s repetitive nature by making Batman handle crowd control with the grace of a ballerina. Well, a ballerina that has hands and feet that hit like a Mack Truck.
With so many different digital game interpretations of the Dark Knight, it’s hard to pinpoint which of these games were the biggest sources of inspiration for Rocksteady. What we know though, is each, whether successful or not, contributed to what the Arkham series is today.