Arkham City is not a sandbox game, so what is it?

30 Sep 2011  by   Paul Younger
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Rocksteady’s Dax Ginn is an exuberant man; a man that clearly loves his job, loves Batman and loves showing the game off to anybody that’ll spare him half an hour. Sitting down to talk to him is like talking with a freight train that’s racing to deliver a cargo that it believes in and it thinks everybody should be aware of.
Read on for our chat with Mr. Ginn (sounds like a Batman villian), covering topics like going from a confined space in Arkham Asylum to an open-world setting Arkham City, the studio’s relationship with DC and how to create a Batman narrative that the fans will deem worthy.
Our hands-on preview of Batman: Arkham City can be found here.
IncGamers: How much freedom are you given by DC Comics? Can you do whatever you want?
Dax Ginn: We can’t do whatever we want. We’re just as big Batman fans as the players are, so we stick to the well-defined rules of the franchise as much as possible. We don’t call up DC and say “Hey! Batman with a rocket launcher, what do you reckon!?” That’s just not how we role, it’s not what we want to do because we know as much as everyone else that that’s not Batman.
You can see in the way that we’ve interpreted the Riddler, Joker and Penguin – who are the villains in the game that have had the most exposure so far – that we’ve taken a pretty nasty and twisted route with them. Especially with Penguin.
That’s probably the best indication as to the level of freedom we have to interpret the characters within what we call the ‘Arkham-verse’. So, yeah, we’re given a lot of creative freedom but we always want it to make sense and feel like a Batman experience.
IG: Do DC not mind which (and how many) characters you decide to include in your games? Marvel, for example, seems to be quite touchy when it comes to having multiple characters in games/films because of the fear that one may over-shadow another…
DG: Oh really? That’s interesting. No, DC has never expressed anything like that to us.

IG: If DC is fully on board with what you’re doing, what were the major challenges in the production of Arkham City?
DG: In all honesty the biggest problem we had was in transferring the game from the tight, claustrophobic arena of Arkham Asylum into the streets of Gotham itself.
The Asylum had a sense of constant threat; the atmosphere was really intense throughout because of the enclosed environment. As soon as you take the action into an open world setting the first thing that suffers is the atmosphere. The challenge was how we bring back that sense of threat while still offering navigational freedom to the player.
Our answer to that is to stick villains on every corner [laughs], that’s why we’ve got so many super-criminals in the game world because they combine to flesh out the atmosphere. So, you’ll be tracking Joker but you know Riddler is also up to something, and there’s also evidence of Mr. Freeze’s involvement and Penguin’s thugs are wandering around and there’s Zsasz and Poison Ivy and the rest.
The game is constantly throwing stuff at you that creates that level of threat.
IG: The game must be fairly large considering the number of high-profile enemies…
DG: Geographically it’s five times the size of the first game’s Arkham Island, which is ridiculous. In terms of gameplay it’s roughly 40 hours long in total. It’s big.
IG: As you said, a large part of what made Arkham Asylum such a memorable experience was that sense of claustrophobia and isolation. Was that something you always planned to move away from?
DG: We wanted to offer players a different emotional feeling, I don’t think anyone would have been happy if we had just made the same game again. We wanted to take the game into new territory and we wanted to put Batman on the streets of Gotham – I think that’s what everyone wanted from this game.
In terms of the atmosphere we wanted to offer something you we just couldn’t in Arkham Asylum and that’s the navigational freedom I mentioned. Arkham Asylum was a very structured game. For example, your gliding abilities were largely limited to glide kicks and a few extras in the outdoor areas. The work we’ve put into the ‘full momentum gliding’ system in Arkham City is clear to see; you can carve between buildings and grapple boost off. That has been a huge job to develop in such a way that makes you feel like Batman.
Batman has so many different names – ‘The World’s Greatest Detective’, ‘Caped Crusader’, ‘Gotham’s Saviour’ etc  – and we want to be true to all of those. The navigational systems tie in very closely to the Caped Crusader moniker.

IG: Is Arkham City open-world in the same sense as a Grand Theft Auto or Saint’s Row in that you’ll run into random missions as you’re wandering around?
DG: Yeah, but none of those elements feel random or frivolous. The reason we’re not calling this a ‘sandbox game’ is that we haven’t filled it up with stuff that just wastes your time; everything you can do as a side-mission is something that Batman would genuinely do.
At no point is there anyone standing on a street corner saying “Help me Batman, someone just stole my purse,” because the whole thing is set within a prison so everyone in there is a bad guy except for the medical officers there to treat the inmates. By the same token there’s no frivolous collection stuff, you’ll never be asked to go and collect 50 flowers or whatever because Batman wouldn’t do that while Gotham is burning in the background.
We’ve been really disciplined in our approach to make sure everything you do makes you feel like Batman. If you do encounter a side-mission it’s going to be entirely character driven. For example, you might team up with Bane to destroy titan crates or track down Zsasz by triangulating his position.
IG: There are so many elements going on here, fighting, exploring, navigating, stealth to name a few, how do you balance all of that?
DG: Through a lot of hard work [laughs]. You’re right though, it’s difficult. To categorise the game is fairly easy: it’s a third-person action adventure game. The beauty comes from the fact that things are constantly changing, including playing as Catwoman which alters things entirely.
How do we balance all of that? I dunno! [Laughs]. But it’s what we’ve been doing for the last two years.
IG: You’ve mentioned previously that you were already planning Arkham City before Arkham Asylum was finished. Is that the same here? Are you always looking ahead to the next game?
DG: It’s important to think about the characters and the narrative in a full spectrum time frame. The answer to your question is yes, but in order to write a story that makes sense for this game we have to compose it within the confines of what’s happened previously and what could potentially happen in the future.
So, when you’re mapping out Mr. Freeze’s narrative and it collides with Joker’s narrative, for example, it’s important to compose those threads in their entirety so that they can be intertwined in a cohesive way. We write hundreds of stories that will never see the light of day, but that’s just part of production. You need to compose that stuff to give a well rounded sense to everything.
We’ve got ideas as to where this could potentially go after Arkham City but we don’t know how this game is going to go down. We’re confident that people will like it, but you never know.

IG: Given the nature of the license and what you’ve said about composing narratives in their entirety, can you really kill off characters in the way you’ve just teased with Joker being dead in the demo?
DG: A lot of those decisions get made in collaboration with DC but that’s one of the cool things about Batman, he’s not a killer. He keeps meeting the same people but he can never deal with these villains with any degree of finality in the way that other action heroes perhaps can.
I think that’s why Batman has such eternal appeal, it’s the same guys that keep coming into his life and disrupting his world and he deals with them as best he can. However, because of his strict moral compass, killing them isn’t an option.
Can we as designers kill characters off? The option is there as a tool we can use to heighten the sense of threat, but I don’t want to say too much about Joker…
IG: From what you’re saying, the story is as essential as any other of the game’s many elements. Is there going to be a time when the story in these games is held in the same regard as those of the Batman comics and movies?
DG: I really hope so. We set out to create a classic Batman story; you can see the amount of work we put into the characterisation. Story sits at the heart of our development and we’re very proud of the contribution we’ve made to Batman’s world.
I think the movies and comics do an exceptional job and they’re such a massive source of inspiration for us, we just feel blessed to be able to make a contribution. Will a day come when the games are as important as the other Batman mediums? I think they’re moving in that direction, the anticipation for this game has really taken us all by surprise.
IG: Personally, the most memorable sections of the first game were those involving Scarecrow. How do you match the level of impact of those moments?
DG: And that’s the thing, you can’t just do the same thing again. I’d love to give you a straight answer as to how we’ve gone about matching that but I can’t, you’ll have to wait and find out in three weeks when the game’s released.
IncGamers: Batman and Catwoman are playable in the campaign, and Robin joins them in the challenge maps. Is that all of the characters? No surprises like Arkham Asylum’s PS3-exclusive Joker?
DG: Yes, those are the only characters. The Joker exclusive thing was strictly Arkham Asylum only. 
 

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