Wow, that was a long hiatus. No excuses, I totally fell off the wagon there for a bit. Trying to climb back on on and get things moving. Hope you’ll come along for the ride.
All video games are heavily dependent on the world that they operate in, for tone, narrative, and a host of other things. Super hero games, however, are sufficiently more dependent on the City/game space in which they live and operate in and that is worth looking at in a bit more detail. The most recent modern super hero games that I think reflect the points I want to make are the Arkham Series by RockSteady and Warner Bros Montreal (Remember them? Arkham Origins? No?)
We won’t be talking much about Arkham Asylum. That game works well enough because so much of it is confined to a small island and the series of events that occur on it. The game space works because the world is completely tuned for the purposes of the game. Asylum isn’t trying to make you the hero of the city and the game benefits for that narrower scope as a result. This is a huge problem that a lot of sandbox games fail to make work.
When Arkham City came out, the game felt very flat. Literally flat. You had your rooftop level and your street level. Each area spread out before you in a haze of muted blue. The bad parts all hyper-highlighted in bright reds and oranges, but all details sanded away as your only objective becomes to turn everything blue again. A whole city of sights and sounds all wiped clean and muted at will. Where bad noises are elevated to chainsaw levels of annoyance, reminding you of the lose of your serene quiet and driving you back to it. Even the lightening over your head is blue and learning to respond to it is the game’s ultimate test. Succeed and you become the master of your domain, the Ultimate Batman.
Maybe it worked for Asylum because it was a smaller setting. You weren’t turning your whole world blue in Asylum. Just using your skills to help you learn more about the hidden things in that space. Maybe it felt better because you couldn’t turn to the horizon and with the push of a button empty out the whole world. It felt smaller and that was it’s saving grace in Asylum.
In Arkham City, it felt worse because the blue stretched on forever. Like taking a sedative, the blurry, messy, vibrant, and contrasting world of the city all melts away. All color and noise drained out for just the “important parts” for you to take notice of. It’s a cheat. A way to take the big open world and make it smaller. Nevermind the myriad number of game mechanics Rocksteady et. all were already employing to do the same thing. Missions, side missions, and side characters, none of them meshing together in any way that formed a coherent whole. Mostly just there as a game design by numbers exercise. Only the calming blue keeps it all together. It’s where all the answers are and going there always makes sense.
The city becomes just a big backdrop and a waste of potential. Dump a mountain of Riddler games in it, fill the streets and rooftops with thugs and then let the player “choose” what to do. Nevermind that there’s no actual choice. It’s especially frustrating given the flight mechanics in the game were super awesome, and easily the highlight of the whole experience. But again, wasted potential. Go from Point A to Point B and do the thing. In a City where you can fly, the only thing the developers can think of for you to do with it is the equivalent of taking the bus.
The city itself becomes not so much a place as instead an obstacle that has to be overcome. If you can’t give your city a life of it’s own, then there’s no reason really to include it. In a city filled with skyscrapers and gargoyles, churches and monuments, there’s no artistry anywhere to be found. Everything is there. The grid lines all conform. There’s streetlamps and power lines and this connects to that and it all makes perfect sense. And it’s sterile and empty and emotionless. Art as made by programmers, who reduce everything to a problem to be solved. Add this alley here to make room for spawns, put the flagpole here to allow for grappling with. Art reduced to problem solving. Solve the problems but don’t give anything any meaning. There’s no time for that.
I do understand the problem they face. To call the game Arkham City you need the whole thing. You need it to be big for the flight mechanics to work. And when it’s big you need to fill it with stuff. The problem is that after they made it big, they couldn’t fill it with anything other than the same parts that they had used everywhere else. And that just wasn’t enough.
Interestingly, I think that Arkham Origins is a better super hero game than Arkham City. City is a Joker story with Batman along for the ride, inside a giant obstacle course. Origins is much the same but made better use of the city, both narratively and mechanically. Origins narrative is tighter than City’s, and as a result the side quests and optional content feel more like actual options and help to expand the space and fill the city more significantly. It still has the great quieting blue going against it, but because the main narrative isn’t trying to suffuse itself into every element of the game, there’s more space to operate in. There’s more time to make the city more than just what the narrative is for. Anyone who’s played Origins will know what I mean when I mention the Bridge. For good or for bad, I can speak to locations in that version of Gotham City and I can evoke memories, and feelings with it. I cannot do that with Arkham City.
Is the city still there after I turn off the game? Does it feel like an actual place. Can you feel the history or the artistry of it when you see it and when you do remember it, can you see it in your mind clearly, or is it just a series of lines on a screen, bisected and pock-marked with pins and glowing dots? Is every thug in the game working for the big bad or do they have their own wants, desires, and dreams? Can a generic character ever have character? Is there space to even allow for the possibility? Because for the city to feel real, it can’t just have a sense of continuity, but it also must have a sense of indifference.
“Oh look, it’s Batman!”
“That’s nice, did you get those eggs I asked you for from the store?”
Heroes make a difference. Heroes change the story from bad to good. Heroes are catalysts for a better tomorrow. But those actions must be reflected back by the world they live in and operate upon. If you can’t make the City a character, or even just a mirror, than flatness is all that you’ll ever achieve, and you’ll drown in the quiet blue.