Analysis: Batman: Arkham Asylum's Sophisticated Story

Writer-designer Emily Short praises Batman: Arkham Asylum's narrative and notes where it falls short, examining how commercial demands on a triple-A game challenge storytelling.
[Writer and designer Emily Short praises the narrative of Batman: Arkham Asylum in this analysis for Gamasutra -- and also discovers where it falls short, examining the ways the commercial demands on a triple-A game challenge storytelling.] I got an Xbox 360 for Christmas, and the first game I rented for it was Batman: Arkham Asylum, about which I'd heard great things. And I really enjoyed it: the gameplay was smooth and fun, and the narrative was engaging throughout. As I played, though, I found myself thinking that Arkham Asylum is a case study in the way that the commercial demands on a triple-A game work against storytelling. In order to explain why, I'm going to include extensive story spoilers for the game, including a detailed discussion of the ending and mention of several boss battles. Please don't read on if you have not played the game through and still intend to. Firstly, Arkham Asylum starts with certain advantages over a game with fresh IP. The audience is likely to come into the game with at least some prior knowledge of Batman, which means that some sympathy for the characters is built in: we start already knowing who the heroes and villains are, and rooting for the right ones. When it comes to exposition, the gameplay doesn't have to explain Bruce Wayne's backstory fully, either. The passage that treats it can afford to be allusive rather than didactic. A player who really doesn't know the mythos can look at character biographies, but this is supporting material not folded into the plot of the game itself. Even better, the narrative designers clearly knew what was thematically interesting in the Batman story, and built gameplay and narrative episodes around that theme. Batman is uncomfortably like the supervillains he defeats; in a world where traumatic childhood events mostly lead to adult psychosis augmented by fiendishly clever tools and toys, what should we make of the billionaire who spends his time hanging upside down in a cape? The passages of the game that handle this are very effective. When Batman falls into Scarecrow's clutches and is forced to live through his nightmares, those nightmares are about the loss in his past and the ambiguity of his present. There are scenes that aren't exactly cut-scenes, but in which the player's interaction is narrowed so that he can only walk forward, experiencing the environment that Scarecrow has created for him. In one especially riveting passage, the game screen appears to glitch, and then the opening sequence of the game replays -- only with the positions of Joker and Batman reversed. For a brief period, the player actually controls Joker before the focus shifts back to Batman. Following each of these episodes of nightmare and memory, there's a level of fighting against Scarecrow. The villain becomes super-sized, and the landscape is broken down into a surreal structure of half-ruined buildings floating in space. A single glance from Scarecrow is enough to kill, sending the player back to the beginning of the scene. Direct confrontation is impossible, and it's necessary to sneak around, crouching behind shattered brick walls and damaged crates, ducking Scarecrow's lamplike gaze. To facilitate this, the camera moves back from the action, so the player can see more of the terrain at once; but this also means that he is playing an absurdly tiny and nervous-looking Batman. Batman's relative helplessness in facing his own past and questioning his sanity are all the stronger because of his freedom and commanding power in other portions of the game. For most sequences, he is the predator, dispatching guards with silent takedowns, stalking from above or below. The contrast is what makes the victim mode so powerful. The end of the game just misses cashing in on this skillful development. Joker injects both Batman and himself with the Titan serum he's developed to cause monstrous growth and aggression in his minions. There is a moment of choice here: should Batman accept the change in order to become more powerful in his anti-Joker fight? Or should he struggle to remain human, risking his life and his quest? This is a terrific dilemma to have, because it brings the thematic material (is Batman savior or lunatic?) into play in the main plot problem (will Joker be able to develop Titan fully and then inflict it on Gotham?). With iron will, Batman resists the physical change long enough to inject himself with an antidote, choosing to fight the Titan-enhanced Joker in his own weaker (but at least human) form. It's a cool story moment. It's also a cut-scene. After participating in Batman's nightmares and coming to understand his motivations, we're excluded from the vital moment when he acts on them. We don't get to make the choice ourselves (which would have required implementing two versions of the final fight), we don't have to struggle against the change (though there are numerous other parts of the game where the player must press A repeatedly to do something physically taxing), and we don't even get to perform the injection. Not letting the player make this choice fits with the narrative strategy of the rest of the game. The player really has never had the opportunity to define Batman's personality, only to help him act on it. Batman is a well-shaped protagonist already. But by making this passage totally uninteractive, the designers cripple what ought to be the most important scene in the story. We do not experience this as a difficult moment -- either in the sense that Batman might be tempted to accept the change, or in the sense that it is physically hard for him to fight. Even if they didn't want to give the player the option to make Batman act out of character and accept the Titan change, they could have used the gameplay to dramatize the scene, as they did successfully in many other places. Instead, the challenge comes afterward, in the form of yet another boss-level fight much like many we've fought before; there's a new gimmick for how to defeat the Joker, but the need to batclaw him to the ground at the right moment is not significantly different from the gimmicks (carefully-timed batarangs, e.g.) we've already used on plenty of other bosses. The story would also have been substantially stronger if the game were shorter. There are a lot of well-designed fights, but the majority of them are not thematically or narratively interesting in themselves. The game would accomplish the same set of story goals, for instance, if it had incorporated fewer of the supervillains at once, and this might also have spared us some boss battles with less-than-inspired play. I liked the transformations that Poison Ivy brought in the landscape, but defeating her was one of the most tedious and aggravating parts of the game, and from a story point of view, I didn't feel there was a lot of need for it. One might argue that Ivy's ecoterrorist impulses show what it looks like when vigilantism goes wrong, but there's not much in the game that effectively draws a comparison between Ivy and Batman. And Killer Croc brings even less to the development of the narrative line. He really is there only to make certain tasks more demanding. The confrontation with Croc is foreshadowed well in the earlier parts of the game, but that still doesn't make his contribution to the plot especially meaningful. The thing is, it's easy to understand why the designers made the choices they did. They need to accommodate a wide range of players. I'd be happy with a short game with a strong story, and would rather have had extraneous battles relegated to optional challenge levels, where I could come back and play with them outside the context of the narrative. That's not everyone's preference, though; some people are more interested in the choreography of combo-building fight scenes, and press B to skip through the dialogue segments. (Confession: I am terrible at combo-building; I didn't ever get to use a couple of my upgrades, and I played the whole game on Easy mode. My sister and I took turns on the bigger fight scenes because we found the gameplay there often frustrating and difficult.) Then, too, there's a need to make the game long enough to earn its price tag. Indie designers writing short games for a small price have a positive artistic freedom in this respect. So it comes down to marketing, but not in the way that marketing is usually blamed. Arkham Asylum is a well-thought-out piece of work; it deals in subtleties. The writers are obviously interested in characterization, especially for the protagonist. I never felt that the game had been written to be deliberately dumb, or to appeal predominantly to an adolescent mindset. While it may be using licensed IP, it is doing something imaginative and thoughtful with that material. I repeatedly had the feeling that I was playing something by people who understood that games tell stories in a different way than other media do, and who were familiar with their toolset. There's no cynicism, pandering, or incompetence here. But it is still hard to write a good story for an audience that includes people who are going to skip through the cut-scenes. It's even harder to write a focused narrative that remains compelling over 20 or more hours, especially without the explicit episodic structure and mini-arcs found in a season of television. And -- well, I don't know this for sure, but I would not be surprised to learn that the final scene of the game might have been developed differently but for scheduling concerns. Arkham Asylum is a good game and has a good narrative. Given prudent editing and a stronger ending, it could have been something much more dazzling: a potent, indie-like blend of gameplay and story, delivered with AAA resources and quality. (Disclosure: I played a copy of this work that I rented at full price. I have had no commercial affiliations with the publisher at the time of writing.) [Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]

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