Now that videolamer has become the haven for misfit and under appreciated games, a review of perhaps the year’s biggest release seems out of place and wrong. As such, no review of the excellent and entertaining Batman: Arkham Asylum will be drafted by me for inclusion on this website. Besides, the internet is already chock full of reviews and I really would have nothing to add to the conversation. But I will do a blog entry on a tiny detail that has almost no impact on the game whatsoever: How the Batcave was included, and what other video game makers will hopefully learn from this.
As Batman kicks ass and takes names all across the island that holds Arkham and its many criminals, he eventually reveals that he has a hidden Batcave just for such emergencies. This is not an unexpected revelation, as Batman is the ultimate planner, always thinking of ways to be prepared for whatever may come. While his peers spend their days thinking about Lois Lane or running fast or protecting the galaxy from the mighty Qu’lar race of subterranean bug people, Batman is always envisioning what he will do if something goes wrong.
If the lights turn red while he is chasing the Penguin, will he be prepared? If his flight to Hong Kong to close a business deal by day and beat up ninja assassins by night is delayed, does he have a backup plan? For Batman, the glass is not only half empty but also threatening to become totally dry at any moment. It would be a blasphemy for him not to have a Batcave near Arkham Asylum.
The first moments of taking Batman to his hidden sanctuary are terrifying. No, nothing jumps out and scares the player, and there are no monsters anywhere in sight. Instead, Batman climbs some steep cliffs with the help of his gear. For me, this was the moment that I almost lost faith in the game as I found myself thinking “Oh, great, another hidden entrance to something that could have been reached at any time by a single motivated rock climber or a bunch of frat boys trying to figure out what is hidden up there.”
I finally finished the ascent and all fears disappeared. As Batman climbs and climbs, he reaches a hole in the cave structure he has been making his way through, no Batcave in sight. No poorly hidden door, no waterfall without a back. No warning signs or bat symbols. Instead, there is only the cliff and the ocean. The game cuts to a cutscene showing Batman jumping off the cliff, gliding around it to an otherwise unreachable side, landing hard from the fall, walking down an otherwise hidden path, being scanned by the Batcomputer to prove his identity and finally gaining access to the cave within. Once within the cave, Batman must use his gadgets just to reach the center of the Batcave and all of the toys it holds. By the end of the journey to reach the Batcomputer, all I could think was “Wow, only Batman could ever reach this place safely.”
This entire process has no effect on the gameplay; it doesn’t affect the storyline. But it is such a pitch-perfect detail captured by the developers of Arkham Asylum. It showed me, more than anything before it, that the people behind this game were dedicated to getting it right. Batman would make his cave difficult for even him to reach. Batman would take extra security steps even once past the impossible-to-find front door. It is exactly how Bruce Wayne would have handled placing a secret stash of high-tech equipment within the potential reach of some of the world’s most dangerous people.
Details matter. They matter a lot. To me, they matter even more than motion control or 4-dimensional hyper graphics. As I prepared myself to be let down by the inclusion of yet another lazy gaming staple, I stopped feeling like I was Batman. Without skipping a beat all of that feeling I thought I had lost returned twofold. I had never felt so much like I was a part of the character as I did while watching Batman get to his Batcave. It was a moment of pure gaming bliss, something I experience far less than pure gaming frustration. I found myself lost in the minutia of the moment, and I loved it.
By paying attention to details, a developer has the power to flesh out an otherwise linear and two-dimensional world. By not paying attention to details, a developer can lose any and all momentum generated up to the point where the fourth wall comes crashing down hard and a player finds themselves suddenly thinking, “Oh, yeah. This is just a video game, and every video game has things like this.” Details can make an amazing game great and a good game horrible depending on if they are done right or done wrong.
The problem with the gaming universe isn’t that we are always being told to forever rescue princesses or kill Nazis or save the Earth from alien invaders or try to win some sorts of sporting championship. The problem is that oftentimes that is all we are told. Why are there so many spires located at perfect locations throughout the Assassin’s Creed-iverse? Why are we fighting for Stalingrad again? Why even battle through the first nine castles when you know the princess is in the tenth? And I am not implying that all games need to answer all questions, but just seeing a developer being able to show that there is a reason for something besides “because it fit the level design well” is damn refreshing every now and then.
The plot for Batman: Arkham Aslyum isn’t groundbreaking or even that original. The formula of missions is the tried and true “Go from point A to point B fighting peons along the way, and at Point B fight a boss.” But due to the details that surround that skeletal framework, it feels more complete and enjoyable than it has any right to. I have played the levels of Batman: Arkham Asylum dozens of times in dozens of different universes on dozens of gaming platforms, but no other game has ever made me enjoy the process like this.
The great games of the future won’t always introduce amazing new ways of designing levels or groundbreaking gameplay features. Some will take the laws of the land set for them by thousands of previous titles and find a way to make something fresh, new and compelling. Arkham Asylum isn’t the first to do this little trick, and it hopefully won’t be the last.
Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel to make a brand-new type of gaming experience, the developers of Arkham Asylum instead have chosen to take a familiar wheel and add new rims with spinners, polish the chrome plating to its shiniest, ensure that all of the bolts are well aligned and tightened, measure the tread depth to make sure that tire is ready to roll, check the air pressure for perfect inflation and add a sealant coat to protect from nails and other hazards that can ruin any trip. Make no mistake about it, their old tire with almost nothing new to offer is an absolute joy to travel with.