As a young adolescent I played a lot of video-games. Like many kids I loved escaping into a whole new virtual world to slide down pipes, unite the Triforce, blow up a Halo ring, or ‘thwip’ webs in Spider-Man 2. I didn’t quite realize it at the time, but what I know so clearly now is that I love a game with a tight, immersive, and intricately designed narrative. A game where you could see the world through the character you were playing as. To climb a radio tower as Lara Croft and have your stomach swim at the dizzying heights shown. To feel the highs and lows of Kratos and young Atreus as they strive to spread the ashes of their loved one atop the highest mountain. Some of the best storytelling has come to me through the medium of video games in this way.
At about the same time I began to realize this paradigm shift in my video game playing; I started to understand how truly cool Batman was. No longer was he the kind of hokey and cheesy man who dressed as a bat (though he is indeed that). To me Batman symbolized what a human could achieve and how to overcome their own fears. He had the most recognizable rogues gallery and some of the greatest stories and side characters in my mind at the time. With little knowledge of the character’s world, it meant a lot to know so much about a character with the limited exposure I had growing up not reading comics. All things came together at this perfect time in my life when I discovered the video game Batman: Arkham Asylum. I’d played Marvel games and I’d played other DC games, but this game enthralled me. A game where you could be the Batman in a completely original story which had garnered such high acclaim at the time. In many ways this was the gateway into my fascination and passion for superhero comics. Later Batman: Arkham City, Arkham Origins, and Arkham Knight would be released. I anticipated each new entry in the franchise and completely ate up every last ounce of story content, side missions, Riddler trophies, easter eggs, and secret rooms. The developers at Rocksteady Games had created a world; so succinct that I still go back to those games just to dip back into the universe and lose myself in the cape and cowl.
Having recently played through the games again I think it’s worth talking about what makes these games so amazing. With a recent uptick in superhero related games, the release of Sony’s Spider-Man and the upcoming Avengers: A-Day, let’s take a look back at a franchise of games that seemed to figure it out before a lot of other superheroes started getting their own story driven triple-a titles. Many other games have taken influence from what Rocksteady has produced here. The Batman Arkham Games revolutionized the way comic book stories are told through video games by creating a distinct atmosphere for the player to play in, building a unique world to set the events in, and making you feel like the character you are playing as. For these reasons have the games stuck so vividly in my mind.
Note, I will be drawing examples mostly from Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, and Arkham Knight. Though Arkham Origins is a great game in it’s own right, all in all it’s a re-skinned Arkham City set before the main trilogy. Certain aspects affect the series later on, but for a full analysis of the main Rocksteady team’s games and a look into the overarching story I will focus on Asylum, City, and Knight.
When you boot up Arkham Asylum and hit ‘start’ the atmosphere of the game is set immediately. Like A Link To the Past before it, there is rain. Dark and gloomy, just like Gotham and just like Batman. We see the Caped Crusader taking the Joker to Arkham Asylum in the Batmobile. The Joker, voiced by Mark Hamill, is cracking jokes as Batman, voiced by Kevin Conroy, stoically drives. Just before the chaos of the game ensues, you as Batman walk alongside Commissioner Gordon and other containment officers and escort the Joker further into the asylum. It’s suitably creepy, but bread crumbs are laid as you meet a possibly crooked cop, mentions are made of other villains, and then Killer Croc lumbers by threateningly. With all of this brief but powerful introductory groundwork laid the Joker springs his trap and takes over the Asylum. From then on you are taken from wing to wing of the deranged hospital. Through the gardens, in the offices, and along some craggy cliffs on Arkham Island. Every time you are not fighting or talking, to being a detective, you are silently walking through the halls waiting for what could come next. Every detail, every P.A. announcement from the Joker, and every character you meet sets an eerie and on-the-edge-of-your-seat tone for the entire game until the ending.
This is carried on through the rest of the games. Arkham City starts in a bleak interrogation room in the middle of Gotham. Hugo Strange grins his creepy smile at you as he tells you of what is to come and, just like every-other prisoner, thrown into the gated off section of Gotham, Bruce Wayne is shot into the lunacy of the worst criminals he’s had to face up till this point. The tone and setting is there from the beginning: lonely, bleak, and compelling. You want to find what secrets the city will hold. Much like this, Arkham Knight begins with a terrifying look at the Scarecrow dowsing the entire city in fear toxin leaving it up to Batman to find a way to stop the villains, without slowly losing his mind while dealing with the fear toxin and omens that emerge from his past. Say what you want about these games, they know what tone they are trying to set and they stick with it throughout the entire game. This consistency is what makes this game and the world it’s based in so engrossing.
I spoke to a friend recently about comics and Batman in particular. He told me that 90% of his knowledge concerning the Dark Knight comes from playing the Arkham games. Likewise, I too used the Arkham games as a jumping off point into further comics and learning their worlds. The game teaches you everything you’d want to know. Every time you meet a new character in these games, you get a sense of how unique each colorful comic book character is. With faithful portrayals, elaborate backstories to read in the menu, and clear relationships to Batman, you become ultra-invested in this world. To meet the members of the Bat-family. To see the moral ambiguity in some villains and love to hate others. These are the qualities that make these games so fun to immerse oneself in. Particularly in Arkham City, a huge emphasis is put on building up the villains not previously seen in the last game, and establishing clear motivations and relationship to the Caped Crusader. The Joker is outright evil, but there’s a bit of a twist here pulling Batman into having to play by his rules for a time. Sure Catwoman is technically a criminal, but you and Batman gotta love her. Mister Freeze is not all that bad of a guy, he’s just a bit misunderstood and his methodology is a bit out there. How Batman interacts with them and the adventures he has involving these characters creates the fulcrum for which the later games revolve around and the previous game is slightly enhanced by. You begin to care for Batman and the people that he deals with, making you feel like you are really there with him.
It is this kind of immersion that I think really makes these games extraordinary. The world is great, the characters are tried and true, and the story telling is fantastic. But what can be said here, and about the best of superhero video games is that you really feel like you are Batman as you play. The tagline of final installment is “Be The Batman.” Arkham Knight is the crowning jewel in this aspect. The progression of three games led to the penultimate final chapter of this saga. No longer were we confined to a small island. Gotham was ours, we could glide, dive, run, skulk, sneak, drive, and detect our way through the campaign. Not only this but Rocksteady developed one of the best free flow combat systems in the industry. By the time you get the hang of it in Arkham Knight you weave from thug to thug, countering, punching, grapple hooking, and knocking them out with the crack of lightning and bats flying. All elements come together here to deliver a satisfying and enveloping experience that any fan of Batman, comics, or video games should try. Every kid has wanted to become their superhero and with these games you begin to experience another world through the eyes of the Bat and that makes it even more special.
The elements that make the Arkham games so enjoyable can, and should, be applied to other superhero games. And it’s not about the mechanics, or the graphics, or the free flow system, or even the character that necessarily makes these games great. It is how well the creators know the material they are drawing from. If they know this than they can nail the hopeful and bright New York that Spider-Man needs to swing through. Knowing how to flesh out a world lends to an amazing cinematic and story driven experience, making you actually care if the city gets destroyed or not. And like all the best games, you want to feel like the character you are playing as. It’s not about a silent protagonist, or multiple characters, or VR, or a first person perspective. It’s about bringing all the aforementioned elements about storytelling, tone, and attention to detail; combined with intuitive and unique gameplay specific to the character you are working with, in order to create a wholly essential and defining entry into the legacy of the character that you are playing as.