One of the most anticipated blockbuster games of the year released this week around the world from Rocksteady Studios, the creator’s of 2009’s incredible Batman: Arkham Asylum, and in Batman: Arkham City, players will explore an amazingly detailed open-world while once again matching wits and resolve with The Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker.
A new villain, Hugo Strange, has also arrived on the scene as the steward of ‘Arkham City,’ a prison district sectioned off from Gotham that currently houses some of the most vile and dastardly ne’er-do-wells ever seen.
Naturally, there are foul goings-on in the massive metropolis and as T. Batman, players will be tasked with getting to the bottom of the trouble while meeting a huge cast of fan-favourite characters, all while gliding around the city and beating up a mountain of goons.
From what we’ve seen of Batman: Arkham City so far, its place on many a ‘Game of the Year’ list (and even ‘favourite game of all time’ lists) is assured, so Lisa and I jumped at the opportunity to speak with lead narrative designer at Rocksteady, Paul Crocker, about his work on the title, the challenges of writing for an open-world game, the value of collaboration, and more.
Paul Crocker’s background is in game design but he’s always been involved in writing for the games he’s worked on in the past, and having had a hand in the creation of the excellent story, dialogue and characterisation found in Batman: Arkham Asylum, we can immediately make assumptions about the quality of similar elements in Arkham City (i.e. they’re very good).
Working directly with game director and studio head Sefton Hill, with Batman: Arkham City Crocker was once again tasked with writing dialogue and providing characterisation for each of the game’s personalities, and because he writes the dialogue, Crocker was also involved in voice recording, working with top talent like Mark Hamill (who plays The Joker) and Kevin Conroy (who plays The Batman).
According to Crocker, even though Rocksteady’s portrayal of each of the characters in the Batman universe (or in this case, the ‘Arkhamverse,’ as he calls it) is slightly different to those seen in other media (like the films, TV shows and comic books), and may act a little differently to what long-time Batman voice actors may be used to, talent such as Hamill and Conroy are both accepting of these changes and waste no effort in bringing their own flair and charisma to the personalities that they play in the games with the delivery of their lines.
Of course, sometimes Rocksteady’s versions of these characters are very different to what we’re used to, as is the case with The Penguin. Instead of a distinguished gentleman with a vicious mean streak, The Penguin seen in Arkham City is decidedly rougher around the edges with a coarse British accent. Instead of a monocle, he’s got the end of a broken glass bottle shoved in his eye. Instead of using a cigarette holder, he chomps on cigars.
Working closely with Batman license holder DC Comics, Rocksteady was given a fair amount of freedom in the way it depicted well-known (and obscure) Batman characters, and while Crocker hopes franchise fans won’t be put off too much by the studio’s characterisations (its version of The Penguin in particular), the team felt it was necessary to freshen up the characters and provide these fans with something different and new, instead of the same old depictions we’ve become accustomed to in the past.
With so many different Batman universe characters included in Arkham City, Rocksteady and Crocker certainly had their work cut out for them when it came time to add their own spin on these personalities, but choosing who would make the cut was a different matter altogether. Crocker says that the story of Arkham City is primarily about The Joker ‒ he has an agenda and he has a purpose ‒ and Batman’s interactions with him, but other complementary characters were chosen to fit into the story as well as to provide a good variety of scenarios for players to engage in.
For example, a character such as Solomon Grundy will give players the chance to go head-to-head with a powerful character in a full-blown drag-out fight, while a character such as Mr. Freeze balances out a potential boss battle with Grundy by supplying a more cerebral challenge to test players in a different way.
A character such as Mr. Freeze is also a good example, says Crocker, to demonstrate that not all villains in the Batman universe are out-and-out evil ‒ Mr. Freeze has been caught up in ill-doing due to his particular backstory and isn’t necessarily a bad person. In addition, a character such as The Riddler (who is this time more of a threat) provides an overarching confrontation for players and offers a different set of challenges ‒ challenges that you’ll choose to take on and challenges you’ll be forced into solving (depending on the situation:), and with 400 Riddler Challenges this time around, there are a lot of extra activities (and different activities) to take part in.
In this way, Rockseady filled the cast of Arkham City with matching characters to keep the pace (and story) of the game diverse and interesting.
DC Comics was keen to suggest characters for the game, too, but Crocker says the company would often try to include very obscure personalities that only hardcore Batman fans would even know about, which often meant Rocksteady would politely decline the chance to put them in the game…
While Crocker was primarily in charge of characterisation for Arkham City, because the development of the game was truly a collaborative team effort, there existed a suggestion box where anyone at the studio could pop in an idea to be included, with some great submissions (and even solutions) coming through from unlikely places. Due to The Penguin’s flipper-like hands, for example, he isn’t able to grip objects very easily, but in the game there is a scene where he smokes and obviously can’t light his cigar.
As a solution, an animation coder suggested The Penguin simply gesture to one of his henchmen to place the cigar in his mouth and light it for him ‒ an elegant answer to a peculiar quandary!
When pressed further about how the writers on Arkham City work with the game’s designers in order to bring a level of authenticity and consistency to the world, Crocker pointed out that because Rocksteady has in-house writers, the studio’s approach is automatically different to other development companies working with licensed titles (or even not) that bring on external story scribes to craft a narrative for their games.
Once these outside writers are ‘done’ with the story, they’re no longer involved with the project, while writers at Rocksteady are always working from start to finish, constantly providing nimble additions, changes, tweaks and rewrites where necessary to all aspects of their game, including dialogue, characterisation and more. This allows Rocksteady to be able to react to problems very quickly as they crop up so that story is never the bottleneck to the game’s production, making for a better experience in the end, even helping to add more dialogue and backstory to the world and characters than would normally be possible.
As Batman: Arkham City is this time set in an open-world ready to be explored from the get-go, we asked Crocker where Rocksteady saw its greatest challenge ‒ in upping the ante for a Batman game following on from Arkham Asylum, or in simply ensuring that the quality of that game’s story was consistent throughout Arkham City – and his answer was surprising. Not only did Rocksteady take on the challenge of filling the world of Arkham City with pockets of narrative and intriguing things to see and do, the studio was also put to the test when it came time to create the technology necessary to populate and flesh out the massive open world.
While the results may speak for themselves, it was a long, hard road getting to the end product so not only was there a big challenge on the technical side to ensure Arkham City felt alive and looked the part, but the writers were also faced with the mammoth task of sprinkling morsels of narration throughout that world, so the team essentially took both tasks head-on, simultaneously, for Arkham City!
Writing dialogue and story for an open-world game is different to that of a more linear game such as Batman: Arkham Asylum, too, because players are given free reign to explore as they wish, so in order to present the best, highest quality experience possible, Crocker said it was necessary to funnel gamers through a linear main story that progresses from ‘A’ to ‘B’ to ‘C,’ while simultaneously allowing players to investigate the city as they please to offer more freedom.
In-between story sections in Batman: Arkham City, for example, you can glide around the city to your heart’s content, discovering side missions and taking part in Riddler (and many other) challenges along the way. Once you’re keen to move back into the story, you’re able to easily set yourself on that path again, before diving back into some side missions.
As a game writer, the Holy Grail for story telling must be the ability to use the events and environment of a game to help enrich the world and tell that story without the need for extraneous exposition, text and dialogue. We gave the example of Bioshock ‒ a game that very effectively uses its world to tell a tale of its own ‒ and while Crocker was complimentary of that game’s approach to narration, he admitted that Arkham City will use many different methods to tell its story.
Not only will you pick up snippets of story from thugs scattered around the city who are actively having conversations about what’s going on in the world, but the narrative is also delivered to players with side missions, visuals in and around the city, exchanges with different characters, specially written character bios that can be read, a variety of scenes as well as full cinematic sequences where you’ll get to sit back for a few seconds and enjoy the action. Arkham City’s use of Batman’s ‘surveillance’ ability, too, will help you catch background information on events and further develop your understanding of the world.
We concluded our chat with Crocker as he confided that the team at Rocksteady is a little nervous about the game’s reception but is entirely confident in the work that’s gone into its creation and hopes everyone will enjoy it.
From the overwhelmingly positive response Batman: Arkham City has received so far ahead of and during launch week, and from our time with the game, we can safely say that Rocksteady has nothing to be worried about. A clear contender for game of the year, and a shoe-in for many a gamer’s ‘favourite game of all time’ lists.
Batman: Arkham City is now available around the world on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Look out for El33tonline’s review of the game shortly.