Branching Dialogue: Tales of Bat-Mania (or: Why Arkham Asylum is an RPG)

Ludwig Kietzmann
L. Kietzmann|09.08.09

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Branching Dialogue: Tales of Bat-Mania (or: Why Arkham Asylum is an RPG)
Presenting Branching Dialogue, a weekly, wordy and often worryingly pedantic discussion of video game genres, trends and err ... stuff I didn't think to put in this introductory line.

One of the most irritating outcomes of role playing, often exhibited in games far removed from that genre, is when you're forced to play dumb. You'll recognize the phenomenon as the shimmering, insultingly obvious trapdoor that must be trampled in order to trigger the next cutscene or event. You may have outsmarted the game by spotting a literal hole in the plot, but the inflexible narrative can only reward those who blindly play the role -- the role usually being that of a flustered Admiral Ackbar.

It's even worse when you're supposed to be Batman. After using one of Arkham Asylum's most integral tools to spot a gang of goons lying in ambush, I was thoroughly annoyed when there seemed to be no alternative route toward the next objective and no acknowledgment of my foresight. I had to knowingly steer the world's greatest detective into a trap -- and he didn't even flinch. Only moments later did I realize that Batman was the one setting the trap, his calm demeanor hiding more intelligence than inattentiveness. In fact, had I not thought to use the all-seeing detective vision, Batman would have likely outsmarted me. And I'm the player, dammit.

Though applying a simple label to a complex work such as Batman: Arkham Asylum is unnecessary, it's useful in exploring why the developers at Rocksteady Studios are not only the first to make a genuinely good Batman game, but the first to actually ... make a Batman game. If I have to call it something (outside of "awesome," which I'm sure you're all sick of hearing), I'd call it a role-playing game. And not just because of the turn-based combat and unskippable summon animations!

Though it's meant to house Gotham City's numerous villains, Arkham Asylum feels like it was built for and around Batman more than anyone else, his calculating mind and stoic heroism casting a pointy-eared shadow over every important decision in the game. It's never a question of what would make for a cool game, but what's right for the dark knight. That's Rocksteady's one rule, and they almost never break it.

Of course, it helps that Batman, being a gadget-toting vigilante billionaire martial artist orphan, makes for a cool game anyway. But Arkham never panders to the cheap thrills of tossing batarangs and breaking arms without motive, instead growing its adventure -- a carefully constructed sequence of events, really -- organically from Batman's expected behavior. When his quest to capture The Joker takes a detour past civilians in need of rescue or other villains stirring up trouble, it rarely feels like you're being tossed a bunch of new mission objectives. Batman's just doing the right thing.

The game's slavish and clear devotion to the character has an interesting, but expected effect: very soon, you start to think just like Batman. And once that happens, the lines delineating Arkham Asylum's various parts -- a little bit of Super Metroid here, a bit of Splinter Cell there -- become invisible, and the question of whether it's an action, a stealth or an adventure game becomes irrelevant. It's none of those, because it's a Batman game.

And who has the most fun in a Batman game? There are few experiences as thrilling or rewarding as becoming the caped predator, quietly observing from the shadows and slowly turning unbeatable, well-armed odds into one whimpering, paranoid sod. You don't want The Joker's minions to see you, but in Batman's unique approach to stealth, you want them to know you're there. It's no wonder Batman's so keen on freaking people out -- it's fun!

Hand-to-hand combat also bears the unmistakable mark of the bat, with the game emphasizing moderation in attack and calm anticipation of incoming blows. Rocksteady could easily have opted for a Devil May Cry-esque flurry of air juggles and pleasing somersaults, but it would be a poor fit for Batman's circumstances. These are the kinds of punks Batman wouldn't waste a second punch on, so why not opt for the most efficient beatdown?

It's only after donning Batman's cape that you realize just how heavy it is, particularly in the flickering light of Arkham Asylum. The inspired choice of location reflects not only Batman's numerous victories, but the challenge he faces every time he leaves the comfort of Wayne manor. The warden, guards and doctors are all in agreement and repeatedly share their contempt with Batman, and even The Joker poses an uncomfortable question. Why not just kill these monsters once and for all?

"That would be breaking Batman's one rule!" is the correct answer (with the exclamation point), but knowing it and willfully obeying it are two very different things. Yes, it's technically impossible to actually break the rule, but the best way to fail in a role-playing game is by acting out of character.

Branching Dialogue is written by Ludwig Kietzmann. He regularly writes posts on Joystiq and also wrote the highly narcissistic blurb you're reading right now (well done for making it all the way to the end, by the way). He can be written to by means of this fairly uncomplicated e-mail address:
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