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Game Design Review: Batman Arkham Asylum

An in-depth [spoiler-including] game design review of Batman Arkham Asylum, from storytelling to the multiple game mechanics that shape one of the best games of 2009.

Batman Arkham Asylum has been one of the best games in 2009, so it’s worth trying to discern how game mechanics have been implemented and what makes the game so funny and compelling. I hadn’t played a game for 7 hours in a row since Resident Evil 4. In my opinion this means Batman Arkham Assylum has many gameplay elements excellently combined to produce this engaging experience.

The game provides an atmosphere similar to Deus Ex, Half-Life or Bioshock, even it’s not a FPS (First Person Shooter). Batman takes from these games its key elements [game spoilers follow]:

A clearly defined setting: action takes place in both hostile open spaces and connected oppressive, half-abandoned rooms of an asylum. This self-contained, visually stunning graphic setting helps to give a sense of continuity and realism that adds to the player’s immersion. Even though, Batman Arkham Asylum innovates broking this sense of continuity introducing nightmare stages when he inhales venom (more on this below). 

 Dark, oppressive corridors and rooms help to immerse the player on a clearly defined setting.


Storytelling: cinematic scenes, predetermined and interactive voiced dialogues help to immerse the player in the story. Batman Arkham Asylum goes great lengths in this regard.     

Gadgets Arsenal: Batman has many gadgets wisely provided as the game progresses to overcome specific game situations. This helps in recycling the map setting, as now the player has access to some places inaccessible before. Eventually, the game offers new attacks and improvements for already learned attacks or acquired gadgets, gently ushering the player to update his skills, helping this way to keep up a dynamic gameplay.

 Using a gadget to pass through the abyss.

  

Some interactive storytelling books say that to immerse a player in a game is necessary evoking in him a suspension of disbelief, meaning the player should unconsciously feel the game fiction as a credible reality.

 Batman Arkham Asylum achieves immersion from many sources:

  •   Amazing GFX and animations not only thanks to the Unreal Engine 3, but to the extreme care to detail of Rocksteady’s Artists. The dark atmosphere is homogenous throughout the game. It’s important to notice that the game character starts in lighted rooms and goes darker as the game progresses.
  • Interspersed cinematic sequences in key points throughout the game.
     
  •  In-game character dialogues with excellent voiceover, specially Joker’s, who constantly talks through the asylum speakers addressing to Batman or his treacherous bunch. Joker is actually the main conductor of the story. It’s either worth noticing that Joker addresses Batman throughout the whole game, but besides action-packed moments, he remains silent during some points of the story, such as:

       

    1. When Oracle contacts Batman through the headphones to give him indications on what to do next, usually at the start or end of a chapter. 
    2. During Batman’s nightmares. 
    3. Sometimes in open spaces that act as transition paths to an asylum building where the ‘important stuff’ is to happen in the current chapter.  
    4. When Batman faces Joker’s girlfriend. 
    5. The shore cave where the Crocodile giant dwells. 
    6. When plants grow uncontrolled and Batman faces Hydra.

On Point 5, Batman must walk slowly over wooden plaques on the water to avoid making noise and being detected by the Crocodile. Having the Joker speaking here would break the tense atmosphere that silence mixed with the Crocodile’s cries alone generate. This chapter has been nicely conceived gameplay-wise (even it has a glitch to discuss on a next post).

 

 Ups, the Cocodryle guy is approaching fast and furious


On Point 6Hydra chapters are the ones where you almost forget about Joker, as the subset of chapters is entirely related with Hydra. This has much significance because after defeating Hydra you face the Joker himself, so it seems this prolonged Joker’s silence is purposely sought to give more relevance to the last and most important encounter in the game.

 

 Hydra poses a great challenge, specially for left-handed people with extended keyboards, but that’s another story =)


These examples show that all dialogues (and the lack of them) throughout the game have been carefully devised to help the immersion factor. 

Enemies dialogues are scripted, being triggered depending on what happens at every moment. so when Batman knocks out some enemy, the enemies left talk to each other and wander nervous looking for Batman when he hides, or taunt him depending how ‘hard’ Batman hits, for example. Even though, one thing that no videogame has solved yet is the dialogue repetition. Enemies repeat some phrases in later stages of the game, or when the same action is performed upon them (ie. hanging them from a gargoyle). Even this breaks a bit the suspension of disbelief, it’s only a small glitch in the game.

 Enemies taunt Batman and adapt their shoutings to what’s going on, specially in gargolyes rooms.

 

It’s important to notice that the in-game sound, besides helping the player’s immersion, acts as a gameplay mechanic, as it sometimes warns  the player in advance he’ll have to perform a specific action. Without these sound alerts, Batman would otherwise die. 

 

How got Batman Arkham Asylum to be unanimously acclaimed among players and game critics? One is immersion, but we’ve talked summarily about that in earlier entries. Let’s delve now into the gameplay elements that shape the game.

First thing to notice is that Batman, even being a 3D game, is not a FPS. It stays away from a fast-paced tempo where you have to kill everything that moves. Batman is a slow paced-game, but even though, it has achieved an excellent sense of progression without falling into boredom. The key points for this smooth progression are:

  

  • Casual approach:

  • Batman is in almost its entirety a casual game. It doesn’t require from the player high skills with the mouse and keyboard, and usually never asks for a fast control execution. An intelligent, visual contextual help indicates the player how to perform the action needed throughout the game. This is important, as if the player is not able to memorize the control keys, the intelligent contextual help will be displayed every time to remind him how to perform the best action at any moment.

    Actions are almost always one-key, except for some fighting combos and when using some gadgets. Combat is easy, but spectacular visually. Only one mouse button is needed to knock out average enemies, plus the movement keys.  When it’s time to use a more difficult combination with the Left CRTL Key and Alt, it seems code-wise that enemies don’t attack for a moment so you can perform those mouse+ key combinations. The rest 2 mouse buttons can perform specific actions but are not much used until advanced stages. The space bar is used to run or jump (Batman will only jump automatically if there’s a nearby enemy or a wall to cling on, so designers have been clever in economizing the use of keys to perform different actions). The same easiness applies when using gadgets or other specific actions.

  

  • Stealth:

  • Batman likes attacking without being seen. Specially from heights. There are many rooms with enemies that have gargoyles on the ceiling, where Batman can land on so he can jump over enemies or hang them with a rope attached to the gargoyles. Batman can use those gargoyles to escape enemies when he is detected in lower heights. He can also approach an enemy from behind to silence kill him not to alert other enemies.

     

      Waiting hidden to silent kill the sniper


    Not only gargoyles, but many situations have been devised by the designers so Batman can cling onto building roofs to avoid being detected and kill enemies from an advantageous position, specially snipers that detect Batman from a far position.

    The best exponent of stealth games since has been Metal Gear  since its first version on MSX more than 20 years ago.

    There’s a special mode, the x-ray vision, that can be used all the time, that allows Batman to notice where enemies are, if they have weapons, and their mood: calmed, nervous, etc. This mode allows to plan how to overcome difficult situations, so it avoids the player’s frustration of being put in a bad situation without being warned before.

 Using the X-mode you can guess what evil is awaiting you… 

  

  • Intelligent camera movement:

  • The player can see all the time his surroundings and Batman himself. Ther’s no First Person camera except when you go through air extraction pipes. The camera is easily rotated with the mouse movement, much like in World of Warcraft. The only difference with WoW is there’s no manual zoom in/out in Batman. The camera adapts to the manual rotation and the environment Batman is in that moment. For example, if you stay near a wall at your left and you move the mouse to the same left, the camera will automatically zoom in to position the camera just behind Batman’s head. This transition doesn’t feel awkward, and avoids graphic issues displaying transparent  walls.

  

  • Chunked Chapters:

  •  One of the best things Batman has done to avoid progression boredom is adding subgoals for every chapter. Once the player completes a subgoal, some kind of feedback is displayed, usually a CGI animation showing what’s happening with Joker or other events within the asylum, or sometimes focusing in Batman’s personal history. This way, the player has both a sense of accomplishment for having finished that subgoal -and immediately rewarded with the visual feedback of the ongoing story-, and afterwards introduced the challenge of the next subgoal. Each subgoal is a save point, so the player can assimilate the progression without much suffering or frustration.

 Example of subgoal completed feedback: Oracle contacts you to inform you what’s going on

 

 In the previous entry, we talked about some elements that help the progression feel, let’s widen the list:  

- Recurrent nightmares chapters: 

 The first time Batman enters the morgue he’ll start hearing deads’ voices. There are some sacks that when unzipped show Batman’s deceased fathers, whom tell him to defeat the monster who did that to them… After a brief cinematic, the morgue has changed. Now it’s half-destroyed, suspended in the air, there’s rain and wind. 

 

As Batman progresses through this onyric setting, he’ll find a big monster that’s his unconscious mind. Nightmare stages, even 3D, behave in its most as a 2D retro platform level. A big monster keeps rotating (even in an organic and much human way, so animators did a great job) and looks for Batman with his flashy eyes. Batman has to advance the level hidding in the shadows to avoid being noticed by the monster. 

 Nightmare chapters provide pseudo-2d mechanics 

 


 - Final Bosses: 

 There are plenty of final bosses in Batman AA. Mechanics are quite simple, and if the player doesn’t realize them, once he’s killed he’ll be given hints in the retry screen so he can know what to do to defeat any boss (this also shows the game’s casual approach). 

 

- Gadgets and Improvements: 

When you start the game, you’ll see some blocked doors, glass windows that contain items that you can’t access to. The game will provide Batman gadgets has he progresses, so those places first inaccesible now can be visited. Batman can deactivate security systems, use a rope to cling on and travel a long path suspended in the void, use an explosive gel to break weak glass walls, etc. Gadgets enrich the gameplay by providing new, easy mechanics along the way. 

 Gadget used to explode security systems. The explosion is cool! 

 


Also Batman will be given improvement points so he can have a better armor, shoot up to 3 batarangs simultaneously or new fighting combos. There are not many improvements, but so well timely given and useful that the player will feel a sense of reward. 

  

 Recycled Map 

Sometimes, after you’ve completed an objective, you are obligued to go back through the same corridors and big gargoyles rooms. For the corridors, the game designers have placed some Joke’s gifts that hide an enemy so the player is not taken aback by the monotony. For the gargoyles rooms, the mobs behave slightly different so the player has to use a different strategy to kill them, so this extra game design work pays off to maintain the player expectations when he revisits the same areas. 

It’s also curious to note that false teeth scattered elsewhere are used as a reference to indicate the player he’s on the right track. False teeth are like indicator arrows, even they have been camouflated as destructible gadgets you can destroy to get achievements. 

 False teeth like this will help the player know he’s on the right track 

 


Much effort has been put on the Hydra chapter. To avoid graphic monotony as you revisit this zone, big plants and roots have grown changing the environment, and the camera shakes from time to time to indicate plants are growing uncontrolled. 

  

 Plants have grown now and the environment radically changes 

 


 The Secret Recipe in Batman AA 

 

After all that said, it’s time to give the final verdict. Personally, what makes Batman AA such a good game is how it has intertwined all the aforesaid elements to achieve a consistent gameplay. The most important thing is that the player’s skills are always and progressively being updated. Now with a gadget, later with a new combo, afterwards looking for a strategy to kill a sniper, sometimes thinking how you can deactivate a bomb counter in less than a minute, also adapting the control movement to the retro pseudo-2D nightmare chapters, or walking slowly to avoid being detected by the Crocodile (and running fast when he detects you). 

The best of all these elements is using the bat-hook to cling onto places, be it looking for a secret entry to access a building, or to hide from enemies and looking the best place from where to kill them (or to escape from the line of fire when you’ve been detected). Also because the bathook allows Batman to travel a distance faster than he would do simply running, with the advantage that using the bathook almost always meaning moving without being detected. 

There are also many small details that add to this sense of ‘always there’s something new to see and do’, but for that I invite you to play the game and discover it by yourselves. ;)  

Some weak points 

In the con side, there are some game mechanics that are used in the same order, and that evokes a sense of repetition in the player’s feel. As an example, it’s usual to go through the assylum’s air tubes to exit in a big room with gargoyles on the top that help Batman go unnoticed and move over his enemies’ heads to plan the best strategy to kill them. Even the situation differs, there’s that feeling of ‘been there done that’. Luckily, the game offers new stuff to amend this repetition feeling. 

Enigma rewards look like an afterthought to include in Microsoft’s Live achievements point system, nothing else. The fact that all the enigmas are represented as a 3D question mark doesn’t help the immersion. Even there’s a voice mocking at you how late you’ve find a recently collected enigma, I think it’s a rough way to invite the player to discover new enigmas scattered throughout the map. 

 A question mark to pick up. Isn’t that cool? I repeat, isn’t that cool? 

 


Even combat is visually engaging and really funny, sometimes it’s difficult to avoid a feeling of ‘more of this again?’. Not because combats are frequent, but because as you progress and have to face an intermediate or final boss, mob numbers and waves go in crescendo. The reason underlying is that boss mechanics are quite predictable, so it would be very easy to kill a boss if there weren’t enemies annoying you. Only Hydra (even it has also mobs annoying you) poses a more hardcorish demanding skills to defeat her. 

 

 A bit too much maybe 

 


 Surprisingly, the final encounter with Joker is one of the easiest of the game, and it uses a far camera to show all the environment, which diminishes the visual impact it could have been given with another game mechanic formula. I would have liked, and actually was expecting, that once you defeat the Joker, he would have transformed into something bigger or done something else, introducing a second round fight to lengthen the combat and updating the player’s skills once more. 

  This is an in-game cinematic, actually this transformed Joker looks less dreadful with the so-far camera view 

 


Having said that, I would like to remark that there are more positive points than few negative, and Batman AA can be proud of having entered the games history and achieved something only a few games do nowaydays: providing real fun

 

Some curious and funny stuff 

  

 A rat menu… Did Batman go crazy? it’s in one of his nightmares actually 


 Somebody killed the guards and put them to read… 

 A party crown suspended in the air… actually it’s a recently killed enemy that’s not displayed  

 
 Shite, this arm looks a bit twisted… 

Other good Batman Games 

 

Most reviews say that this is the only game that makes justice to Batman. I don’t quite agree with that. There were two games that met and surpassed all expectations when released. The first one is a masterpiece, Batman the Caped Crusader by John Ritman (the same guy that made Match Day) and Bernie Drummond, released by Ocean in1986

 

The second one is Batman for the Sega Megadrive by Sunsoft, released in 1990. You can find a review in this link

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed these series of articles about Batman Arkham Assylum. Any comments or opinions about the game are welcomed. 

See you in another Game Design Review! =) 

If you are interested in game design stuff, you can also visit my other blog at http://stalyangames.wordpress.com

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