Arkham Asylum: Bad Guys

For all the stylistic changes that Batman has gone through over the years, one thing has always been constant: the villains are the best part. Let’s take a look at how Batman: Arkham Asylum uses them. It does a surprisingly good job of assigning each of them a distinct role in both the story and the gameplay.

First and foremost is of course the Joker, the prime mover of the entire plot. The game opens with Batman delivering him back to Arkham after one of his many escapes, and although he disappears soon afterward, his presence is felt throughout the rest of the game. Even when he’s not hijacking security monitors to taunt Batman or delivering orders to his goons over the PA system, he’s a constant object of attention, as the goons discuss him or Batman makes discoveries about his plans. He’s the game’s GLaDOS, its Andrew Ryan. As such, I don’t expect a direct confrontation with him until the very end.

Since the Joker is thus consistently absent, Harley Quinn acts as his lieutenant on the scene, making recurring appearances wherever the designers want you to feel like you’re getting close to achieving your goals only to dash hope away. I’ve had an extended confrontation with her that I take to be the Harley Quinn boss fight — I suppose she could show up again later if someone lets her out of the very secure cell Batman locks her in, but if so, it’ll be kind of anticlimactic. The interesting thing is that the confrontation doesn’t involve fighting her directly — it’s more a fight that she directs, acting as what 4th edition D&D calls a “controller”. The writers seem to have a rule against hitting girls.

The first villain you meet who isn’t directly involved in the Joker’s plan is Victor Zsasz. As far as I’m aware, this is his first appearance outside the comics 1[UPDATE 16 January 2011] Shows how little I know! Not only does he make a brief appearance in the movie Batman Begins, he has no fewer than three videogame appearances predating Arkham Asylum. ; I was vaguely aware of his existence, but I’m not sure why. His deal is that he’s a serial killer, but not a flamboyant one like the Joker. He doesn’t even have a costume. He has a gimmick of cutting tally-marks into his skin for each of his victims, but that’s it. I suppose he’s useful to the writers of the comics when Batman is going through one of his periods of fighting normal, realistic crime. His role in the game, though, is to teach the player stealth mechanics. The first time you encounter him, he’s simply escaped from his cell in the chaos, and is holding off the guards by threatening to kill a hostage the moment anyone enters the room — so you have to take him down without being seen. He doesn’t stay down, though; I think the Joker finds him after you leave and releases him again. In the second encounter, he has another hostage, but can’t restrain himself from killing her for very long, so that imposes a time limit that forces you to use different techniques.

Bane is also an educational boss. The Joker’s plot involves turning his henchmen into an army of monsters by means of a newly-developed drug derived from Bane’s strength-enhancing “Venom”. I’ve encountered several of these mesomorphic abominations by now. They’re basically the sort of classic miniboss that charges into walls and becomes temporarily stunned and vulnerable, but with the twist that they only crash into the wall if you disorient them with a batarang to the noggin while they’re charging. Anyway, the fight with Bane is the tutorial for this. I have to feel a little sad for Bane; he’s fallen pretty far. As originally conceived, he’s Batman’s equal: polymath, master tactician, the only person with enough strength of will to use Venom and survive. But outside of the comics, he’s basically just a strongman in a wrestling mask who can be defeated by unplugging a hose. In this game, he at least gets to brag about having defeated Batman once (something the Schumacher and Animated Series versions of the character never managed), but he’s still just the Joker’s patsy.

But the game does give us one monster that Batman just plain can’t beat in a fight, and that’s Killer Croc. You can run away from him, you can temporarily disable him, and ultimately you can lead him into a trap, but going toe-to-toe with him isn’t even an option. If you try, game over. Croc is established as a lurking menace early on, glimpsed through a reinforced door long before the story takes you through his turf. He lives in the sewer under the asylum; the asylum guards throw meat down to him from time to time but otherwise leave him alone and count themselves lucky that they don’t have to get any closer to him. As such, he may not even really understand that anything has changed in the world above.

Similarly, the Scarecrow’s recurring appearances aren’t really boss fights in the conventional sense. They’re bad drug trips, and they’re by far my favorite parts of the game. Each encounter with him culminates a stealth/platforming sequence with a gigantic hallucinated Scarecrow towering over you, searching for you with deadly gaze. But that’s not the good part. Before you get to the platforming, you get a set-piece, a just-barely-interactive sequence comparable to walking through a carnival haunted house, but one that’s personalized to Bruce Wayne, themed around powerlessness and dead parents. These bits start with small but clear cues in the form of unsettling changes to the environment, like a Nightmare on Elm Street dream sequence — in one case, the first hint that I was hallucinating was that the location name of one room in Arkham Mansion had changed from “Library” to “Wayne Manor”. The final encounter simulates a crash and reboot of the console. This is perhaps less effective if you’re playing under Windows (I know what my machine looks like when it wigs out and it doesn’t look like that), but still brings it into that creepy Metal Gear Solid 2 territory where the game escapes from its established boundaries and addresses the player rather than the player character.

Poison Ivy is the big surprise. Not that it’s a surprise she’s in the game — you figure she’s going to show up as soon as you see a building labeled “Botanical Garden” on the map. The surprise is that she’s the dominant force for about half the story. When you first see her, she’s still imprisoned and helpless in an airtight glass case, distraught because she can feel the pain of the genetically-modified plants that are the source of Joker’s monster drug. She persuades Harley Quinn to release her, which is foolish on Harley’s part, because she has it in for the Joker as much as for Batman. Her chief effect in the game is altering the terrain, making huge roots and tendrils block the passageways you’ve come to expect, forcing you to find alternate routes, and generally causing more havoc and destruction than the Joker did when he took over. The Joker redecorated a bit, defacing statues and putting a mural of himself around one of the main doorways (the opening being his mouth), but Ivy is causing earthquakes. When you finally get to face off with her in one of the game’s genuine boss fights, the game once again asserts its no-hitting-girls policy by having her pilot a huge mecha-like flowering plant that you can hit instead.

That leaves the Riddler, who I’ve mentioned before. The Riddler isn’t so much a character in the story as a delivery device for collectibles and other optional challenges; I don’t expect to actually fight him, because eliminating him from the story would break the game mechanics. The game has some light RPG stuff going on, with Batman leveling up and getting new abilities and upgrades with experience (even though you’d think he must be level 20 in everything already). And, although you get experience for winning fights and for advancing the story, the safest way to level up is by solving the Riddler’s puzzles, which mainly means finding his question-mark-shaped trophies, which are scattered in inconvenient spots throughout the whole gameworld. Sometimes they’re in useless fake ducts that don’t go anywhere. Sometimes they’re sealed behind very old brick walls or other places that he couldn’t possibly have had access to. There’s nothing that makes in-world sense about this, but then, Arkham isn’t a sensible place.

That’s all I’ve seen so far, and I think I’m very close to the end of the game now. Certain of the Riddler’s things unlock character bios of major and minor characters from Batman continuity, including several villains I had never heard of, such as Humpty Dumpty and the Ratcatcher. But I doubt I’ll be seeing them.

1 [UPDATE 16 January 2011] Shows how little I know! Not only does he make a brief appearance in the movie Batman Begins, he has no fewer than three videogame appearances predating Arkham Asylum.

Arkham Asylum: Controls and Feel

I’ve heard the controls in Batman: Arkham Asylum described as “solid”. A lot of people seem to have independently hit on this word to describe the feel of the controls, but what does it mean? I think it’s mostly a matter of the feedback: any time you press a button to perform an action, the game plays a satisfying sound cue, and often shifts the camera, the better to show Batman very decisively acting as instructed. Also contributing to the “solid” feel is that your actions pretty much always succeed. When you fail, it’s because you did something foolish, like charge at someone with a gun rather than sneak up on him or take cover and throw batarangs at him. You don’t fail because you attempted the right thing but got the timing slightly wrong and didn’t execute it correctly. After all, you’re Batman. Batman executes everything flawlessly. Even in combat, you don’t throw punches and miss. You press that punch button and someone gets punched. With a bone-jarring thud, and sometimes in slow motion. You can fail in combat, but only by making bad decisions, like trying to do a takedown move on one guy when another guy is preparing to hit you.

I once said that in some console games “the level of detail in the solution… is on a much coarser scale than the level of detail in the presentation“. The feel I’m trying to describe here has a lot to do with that. On the screen, there’s a lot of messy analog stuff going on with physics, but the exact placement of objects in the world seldom matters much. Anything important happens at the story level, the level of deliberate decisions. A lot of what you do is stuff that could be expressed in a text adventure with no loss of detail, like kicking a grating off the wall or using a gadget to make a sentry move away from his post. There may be an infinity of routes you can take from point A to point B, but all that matters is whether you chose one of the routes that has sufficient cover from observation or attack — and that will be a route that a game designer intended. There’s enough simulation that the game doesn’t just come down to CYOA, but the interactions between game elements are all very planned-out in a way that makes me think of the methodologies recommended by Jesse Schell.

Having played the game a bit with both a gamepad and mouse/keyboard control, I find it interesting that the two control schemes are not completely isomorphic. In most games, I’d expect the left mouse button to perform the same function as some particular button on the gamepad, probably the one that performs an attack or whatever the most commonly-executed action is for that game. Here, the left mouse button is indeed the “punch” button, but it’s also the “use gadget” button when you’re in gadget mode. (Being in gadget mode basically means using your analog controls to choose where to aim the gadget.) It makes sense for both of these actions to be on the left mouse button because they’re both your basic “do the thing now” action in their particular contexts. But with an Xbox controller, which doesn’t have a single most privileged button, those two actions are separated: “punch” is the X button, “use gadget” is RT (the right trigger button). It makes sense to put “use gadget” on the right trigger because pressing and holding the left trigger is what puts you into gadget mode in the first place, and the easiest thing to use in combination with a trigger button is the other trigger button. With mouse/keyboard controls, the thing that puts you into gadget mode is holding the right mouse button, which is also the “counterattack/take-down” button if you just click it instead of holding it.

Kind of like playing the videogames in the Strong Bad adventure games.Probably the most problematic adaptation, and the clearest illustration of the fact that the game was designed around a gamepad, is the Cryptographic Sequencer. This is a sort of lockpick for the game’s many electronic locks. You operate it by twiddling a couple of knobs to tune a waveform and holding it for a second in its optimum position when you find it. With a gamepad, you do this with the two analog sticks. A colleague of mine has praised this as being the one thing in the game that makes you feel the most like you’re Batman: he’s on the screen doing exactly the same thing that the player is doing, manipulating a pair of rotary controls with his thumbs, in unison with your own movements. But with keyboard/mouse, you don’t have an analog control under each thumb; only one hand has an analog control. The designers apparently decided that the feel of controlling each knob with one hand was the important part, and made it so that you control the left knob with the keyboard, using the A and D keys to twiddle it clockwise and counterclockwise, and the right knob with the mouse, using the left and right mouse buttons — yes, not even using the mouse as an analog control, presumably for consistency with the other knob. The result is unintuitive and not at all as solid-feeling as using gamepad.

Arkham Asylum: Style and Influences

So. Batman. Few characters have been through so many major stylistic changes without leaving the public eye, from the pulp-inspired revenge fantasy of the 1940s to the childish superheroics of the post-Wertham 1950s, leading up to the deadpan campiness of the Adam West’ TV series, which remained the culturally dominant view of the character until Frank Miller turned the focus to the story’s inherent brutality, Tim Burton to its grotesquery, and the writers for Batman: The Animated Series to its melodrama. B:tAS, with its famous voice acting and German-expressionism-inspired visuals, pretty much replaced Adam West in the public consciousness as the default version, the one that young people think of first when the character is mentioned. And it probably still holds that position, despite the popularity of the Christopher Nolan films.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is something of a mixture of these past portrayals, but it’s mainly in the grotesque mold, taking advantage of the power of modern graphics processors to give everybody highly-detailed wrinkles and warts and scars. The characters are a far cry from the polygonal stylization of the last Batman-themed game I played 1Batman: Vengeance, a game based on the later “New Batman Adventures” seasons of Batman: The Animated Series. As such, the extreme stylization was a matter of remaining true to the source, not of technical limitations. , but I can’t call them realistic. They have all the unnatural-looking distortion and exaggeration of a cartoon made flesh. And, of course, they have that CGI sheen. But this is one place where the Uncanny Valley effect works with the fiction.

The setting is a mixture of crumbling gothic architecture and high tech, all glowing electronics and gargoyles, that reminds me the most of the Tim Burton films. The character of Batman himself is of course also a mixture of gothic and high-tech, but his style here, and the style of his equipment, reminds me more of the Nolan films: very sleek and professional without being flashy, the one portrayal that makes him seem almost normal (and, consequently, not very interesting as a character). Despite the weirdness of his premise, he exudes a calm authority; the asylum guards let him more or less take charge because he’s the one person who isn’t panicking. He even punches people with great authority (as Joss Whedon once said about David Boreanaz). Mind you, the comparison to the Nolan films is helped along by the similar music, and also by the way Batman can use his cape to glide, even when not supported by a rope — something that was part of the earliest Batman comics, but which had pretty much vanished from the character’s attributes at some point (possibly due to the difficulty of pulling it off convincingly in the live-action TV show).

Most of the main characters have the same voice-actors as in Batman: the Animated Series. Well, they could hardly do without Mark Hamill as the Joker, could they? He’s the definitive Joker voice these days. And even those with new actors seem to be aiming for the B:tAS versions of the characters — the Riddler, for example, is a man characterized by smug derision, someone who seeems like he genuinely doesn’t want his riddles to be solved (because he takes pleasure in the sense of superiority that comes with stumping you), rather than the giggling mania of prior versions, who always seemed to be barely restraining themselves from blurting out the answers. (A good decision, if you ask me; before B:tAS, the Riddler was little more than a poor man’s Joker.)

The thing is, the voices are rather incongruous for the subject matter. This is a very dark game. B:tAS, as children’s programming, wasn’t allowed to have anything too gruesome. It would never have the Riddler making a disturbing joke about mutilating a baby, the way he does in a psychiatric interview tape you can find in the game. And yet, as I just described, it’s clearly the same version of the Riddler character. It feels a bit like discovering a coworker’s unsavory fetishes. Which may be the point. That particular bit reminds me a lot of a similarly horrifying-rather-than-funny joke involving a baby told by the Joker in Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s surreal and disturbing 1989 graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, which shares the current game’s title, setting, and, very loosely, plot. I wouldn’t say the game is based on the graphic novel, but it’s certainly inspired by it, or at least aware of it. The graphic novel questions Batman’s sanity, something that was popular in the 1980s, but I really don’t think that’s going to happen in the post-Nolan version here. Sure, he’ll face his inner demons — a confrontation with the Scarecrow is never complete without some reliving of unpleasant memories — but only as a step towards reaffirming his position. Still… I’ve found a couple of messages from Amadeus Arkham, the asylum’s founder, hinting at revelations similar to those in the graphic novel, that the place is build on cursed ground, that Batman is an unwitting agent of something occult and malign. We’ll see. For now, let’s just chalk it up as another influence.

1 Batman: Vengeance, a game based on the later “New Batman Adventures” seasons of Batman: The Animated Series. As such, the extreme stylization was a matter of remaining true to the source, not of technical limitations.

Arkham Asylum

I really should have thought to take a screenshot of the "downloading update" progress bar, because that would have been much more representative of my experience.My story today beings with annoyance. Having downloaded Batman: Arkham Asylum from Steam, I found that it wouldn’t let me play (or at least, wouldn’t let me save the game, which is pretty essential in a game like this) until I registered for a Games for Windows Live account — something I’ve managed to avoid doing so far solely through my taste in games. Once I did that, it needed to download a Games for Windows Live update. Installing the update required me to exit the game and restart it, sit through the uninterruptible logo movies (including one for nVidia, even though I have an ATI graphics card installed) and log into Games for Windows Live again (even though I had checked the “log in automatically” checkbox — I’m guessing that the update reset that), at which point I was told that I needed to install another Games for Windows Live update. I had to go through this cycle something like five times before it let me play the game. I almost gave up and hit the support forums, because there was no clear indication that it was actually making any progress. For all I knew, it might have been downloading the same update every time. At least it never went as far as to make good on its warning that it might have to restart the machine.

Since Microsoft has recently been making noises about turning Games for Windows Live into a viable iPhone-like app store that can compete with Steam, it’s worth noting how much worse this experience was than my first Steam experience. Back then, I wanted a particular game, and retail had failed me as a way to obtain it. So, Steam was my rescuer. I downloaded the latest client, and it gave me access to what I desired. Games for Windows Live, on the other hand, I first experienced as an obstacle. The only reason I sat through those updates was that it was holding my game hostage — the game I had already installed, which is not enhanced in any significant way by such a pairing. (It provides leaderboards, which I have no interest in, and achievements, which might as well be completely local for all I care.) I suppose that someone who bought the Orange Box on physical media might have a similar experience with Steam, but even then, my experience with Steam updates is that they’re much more polite than the “You must download this and restart the game now and not ask why” found here, more like “I’ve just finished downloading this. May I have permission to install it? No rush, I can do it later if you prefer. Here’s the changelog, if you want it.” Or consider the business of the “CD key”. The game is set up to require such a key the first time you run it, even though I’m playing without a CD. Steam is kind enough to provide this key, both on request and automatically when you run the game for the first time, in a nice dialog box with a button just for copying it to your clipboard, so you can just paste it in when the game requests it. And this works when the game requests it, but Game for Windows Live redundantly demanded it as well, and required me to enter it into four separate text fields, breaking copy-and-paste. At this point it seems like it’s just being ornery. Steam wants my experience to be a pleasant one; Games for Windows Live wants to throw its weight around.

Now, Arkham Asylum is a port of a console game, and one of the things I’m interested in learning from it is how it managed the translation of the controls to the PC. I’ll go into more detail later, when I’ve seen more of the game’s mechanics and can give a more complete report, but for now, let me just say that, although the game can be played fully with mouse and keyboard, it really wants a gamepad. Fortunately, I have my trusty Dualshock Controller for PS2 and third-party USB adapter! Unfortunately, the game is only willing to recognize an actual Xbox controller. This is not a matter of technical incompatibility: my controller is supported by DirectX and recognized by various other console-to-PC ports. Furthermore, as far as I can tell, it’s exactly equivalent to an Xbox controller in its capabilities, and could probably even masquerade as one with sufficient hackery. I personally don’t need to take things that far, because I have access to an Xbox controller that I can borrow for a while. But it’s still another unnecessary annoyance.

It all really seems to come down to one thing: Microsoft feels like it should have control over my machine. It was their ability to function as part of a system with open standards, an environment in which anyone could create software or even hardware, that initially gave Microsoft their dominant market position, but, having achieved such dominance, they have developed a taste for dominating. The Xbox comes a lot closer to their ideal than the PC does: a locked-down system where every title has to meet stringent certification requirements, many of which have more to do with helping Microsoft push the Xbox brand than with making the game better for the player. They must be really jealous of Apple’s ability to get away with this stuff without losing the goodwill of their customers.

Next post, I’ll talk about the game a little. But I may return to grumbling when SecuROM decides to take its turn at being a dick.

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