Quick disclaimer: This was supposed to be done and finished months ago, unfortunatly a little something called Bachelor’s Thesis got in the way. Anyway, its done now, sorry for the long absence!
Now, the original blog:
Before we start, just a little clarification: I really enjoyed Arkham Knight, both the story and the world! After all the fears that it would be buggy or run badly on my PC, the game surprised me in the best way imaginable, running wonderfully and being a ton of fun.
Also, there will be spoilers, duh!
But, just as the title implies, there are some problems that need addressing. Most notably of all, the fact that story and world, both being awesome on their own, don’t really fit together all that well.
Like, at all!
Looking around on the internet you probably already heard the argument that Arkham Knight went too far, and that the open world just doesn’t work well with the Arkham formula. If you need a refresher, Mark Brown made a very good video about it in his “Gamemaker’s Toolkit” series.
With this side of the argument being already established pretty well, allow me to offer a counterpoint:
It is the story of Arkham Knight that doesn’t do its open world justice!
In my opinion, one of the main problems is the spectacle creep caused by the story: Everything is super urgent and has to be addressed now or result in complete disaster. At least that’s what the story implies, or, in many cases, outright tells the player: Stop Scarecrow before he poisons everyone! Save Catwoman before the Riddler kills her! Disarm the explosives before they go off! Stop Firefly before he burns Gotham to the ground! Save the firefighters that could be killed this very moment! And so on and so forth.
But not only are there no changes or implications for taking more time, the game itself seems to want you to explore the open world and forget about the story and the pressure as well.
There are the small parts that are just really, really good game- and world-design: Fly over a part of Gotham after a few hours with the game and you are bound to discover something interesting. Smoke rising to the sky, leading you to Firefly. As soon as you got him you hear a siren blaring in the background. Following it you stop one of Two-Faces heists, only to notice the Riddler trophy on the building across the street. And just as you want to get back on your way, you listen in to some thugs beating the crap out of one of the kidnapped firefighters, so you take care of that. And this keeps happening, and its awesome because the world itself helps you discover it and have your own experience as Batman. Instead of just working your way down a checklist and a map, you naturally find those things on your own. You feel like you are Batman out on patrol, taking care of whatever comes up, saving the city from a hundred small problems! Until you suddenly remember the urgency of the situation and that, in the time you just wasted, Scarecrow probably poisoned half of Gotham.
Except, of course he didn’t, it’s a game, take your time!
And this is sad, because it creates a needless clash between world and story, pulling you out of your own discovery and experience to force you back into the story and vise versa.
The absolute worst instance of this happened about halfway through the game. I had just completed the return to the film studios, and was just literally forced to imprison my own ally red robin. (I tried to lock up myself some 3-4 times to no avail)
I was pissed and angry, and just wanted to take care of Scarecrow as fast as possible so I/Bruce could explain the whole thing and not lose all of his closest friends because he kept behaving like a massive d*ck.
And just as I leave the studio and grapple up to the next tower to get going, what happens?
Alfred chimes in with the most inappropriate idea ever: “Master Bruce, there is still time and a lot to do, why dont you pick another destination from the Batcomputer and take care of Two-face or maybe the Riddler? Miss Kyle would surely be happy to get rid that forsaken necklace.”
...how about HELL NO!?!?!?!
This was likely a random voiceline, triggered by pure chance but damn if it didnt utterly kill the mood and the immersion.
And it is exemplary of the problem that Arkham Knight has when it comes to the contrast between the world and the story.
Many blame the open world for those things, but why don’t we simply change the story to fit this kind of world instead?
The problem with the Scarecrow story is that it follows the same basic template that all other Arkham games use: It’s a big threat and Batman has to solve the whole thing in this one super chaotic night where everyone is after him. This worked perfectly for Asylum, and City and Origins managed to somehow pull it off as well. But Knights open world has evolved to something so much more, that it just doesn’t work anymore.
Instead of trying to force this kind of story on a world like this, how about something else? Turn down the intensity. You don’t have to start with a big threat that will destroy everything if not stopped in one night. Start with a mystery and make the player slowly discover the threat over the time. Speaking of time, ditch the “one night” thing. Not only is it starting to sound and look ridiculous, it hampers any possible character development. Just look at the resolution of the Arkham Knight in the game. It feels like there is a whole chapter and at least a few weeks of time in between missing, especially when it comes to the character of the Arkham Knight himself.
One thing I love about Arkham Knight is how they gradually expanded the whole world, even places you already visited. At the beginning, you only had those big explosives in the ground, and only 2 or 3 per island. Over time you got aerial drones, checkpoints, towers and more. Instead of going the Ubisoft approach and just vomiting content all over the map, they started slow and gradually increased the amount while you progressed through the game. Except that the here the whole “one night” thing comes in again, making it all look and sound kinda hard to believe. Really guys? All those checkpoints full of turrets and traps and automated barricades were set up in the five minutes I spent in the Clocktower? Really?
Here is one Batman story that we should look at to see what could have been: Batman Eternal.
For those that don’t follow the comics, Batman Eternal was a gigantic event that was published over the time of a whole year. It included a ton of villains, pretty much the whole Batfamily + Extras & Cameos and lots of other stuff. The basic premise was simple: Jim Gordon was framed for a terrible incident. While starting his investigation in said incident, more and more villains and leads started popping up. And when Batman believed to have found the culprit all he found was a small letter:
“James Gordon falls in two weeks time. You are cordially invited to partake in the destruction of Gotham City”
And this happened again and again. It was a giant conspiracy story that got ever more convoluted with more and more happening at the same time as more and more villains came out of the woodwork, while the Batfamily scrambled all across town and later the globe to finally put an end to all of this, each of them following their own leads and goals:
Batgirl tries to exonerate her father. Batwing is sent to work with Jim Corrigan on a mystic incursion at Arkham Asylum. Spoiler makes her first appearance and is quickly taken into the fold by the latest new member of the Batfamily, Bluebird. Catwoman takes over the crime-familys and uses their power and influence to pursue her own hidden agenda, while still assisting the Bats from time to time. And we havent even started talking about the Robins or the big guy himself!
If that sounds familiar, you are not wrong: It does kinda sound like the open-world scenarios behind City, Origins and Knight. (If you want to know more about the “Eternal” story, I recommend checking out Comicstorians video series on it!)
I think this kind of story could work incredibly well with a world like the one in Arkham Knight: It has urgency and yet allows for more exploration due to the many mystery’s and unknown elements. You don’t know who is behind it, nor what the endgame is going to be. There are just so many unknowns that it feels like some actual detective work, taking care of all the maniacs not only to protect the city, but also in the hope of finding a new clue to what is going on.
Apart from a better story here are some other things a new Arkham game could try:
A Nemesis System: This isn’t actual my idea, I am pretty sure I read it either somewhere here or on Kotaku, sorry to the original author, I couldn’t find it anymore! The idea is simple: If Batman is defeated or flees from a fight, the thug behind it moves up in the gang, similar to the orcs and warchiefs in Shadow of Mordor. You could actually go another step and include some smaller villains like Zsazz, Croc, Killer Moth, Black Spider, etc… in this, having them move up in Penguins/Two-Faces/Jokers gang or whatever.
Take a hint from that other really good Batman game: Telltales Batman game succeeds in one part where the Arkham games never really tried: Making us feel like Bruce Wayne. While one might argue that the Arkham games are about Batman, this also has started to make this Batman unlikeable and hard to relate to, being ridiculously gruff and grumpy all the time. If the timeframe is extended to a week or even a month instead of a single night, it would only make sense to include Bruce Wayne to a certain degree. It would also help to have some better character arcs by toning down the action a little, offering quieter moments in between, not to mention giving us a more human perspective on all the madness that is going on. What needs rebuilding, what needs to change to prevent those events, how do ordinary people react to all of this?
Really bring in the Batfamily:
One thing I really liked and hated about Arkham Knight is how the Bat-family was kinda there but also not. While Nightwing, Catwoman, Azrael, Robin and Oracle all were part of the game, they were all restricted to their own small parts and segments. This is where the big idea comes in: Do it like GTA V! Instead of playing Batman you control Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, Red Hood, and maybe even others (Do I hear Spoiler? Bluebird? What about Batwoman?), switching between several of them to keep up with all that is happening in the city. This could actually be combined with some kind of “Bruce Wayne: The road home” story. After every chapter or two the player controls Bruce who slowly prepares his return as Batman after his “death” at the end of Knight. Those segments would be pretty short, like the Catwoman parts in Arkham city and maybe even feature first person view to obscure the fact that you play as Bruce for as long as possible. In the meantime, the rest of the Batfamily has to deal with all the stuff happening in Gotham. There is actually a story like this in the comics, called “Batman & Robin Eternal”, except that it doesn’t really feature Batman, taking place in the period where he lost his memory of being Batman, just after Endgame. (Once again if you want to know more, check out Comicstorians channel on Youtube, I cant recommend this enough!)
My point is this: If there are more Arkham Games, Bruce needs a rest! Every game of the series has so desperately tried to top the others that it’s starting to fall apart. Hands up if you took Scarecrow as a serious threat at any point of Knight. No one? Me neither. Knight worked anyway, thanks to the Pseudo-Joker and the Arkham Knight but the whole thing started to feel forced, especially the idea that Scarecrow, who hardly appeared in the previous games and is usually taken out with an off-screen punch, suddenly was supposed to be the biggest threat.
So tune it down a bit. No immediate giant disaster, no super-gruff’n edgy Batman who is so hardcore that bullets evade him out of fear. Let the rest of the team take over. Take time with the developments. This, again, is something that worked well in Telltales Batman: the plotlines stretched across days, weeks even, you could see and follow the steps of the other characters and try to deduce their next move. Instead of being a Bat-shaped Deus-Ex Machina that is dropped on every existing problem, Batman felt like an actual, human detective that is bound by time, exhaustion, emotion and all those other pesky problems we mortals have.
Rocksteady may have moved on from the Arkham series, but you never know what might happen. I personally think it is pretty unlikely that Warner Bros will just abandon a series that has gathered as big a following as this one. There have been rumors about several different possible projects that could manifest at some point, so we’ll have to wait and see. I still love the Arkham games a lot, but I think there is still quite a bit room to try something new und make more out of the given material.
What is your take on Arkham Knight and the series in general? Would you like to see more coming or are you ok with what we got? What changes would you like to see done to the current formula?