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Batman: Arkham Asylum

Problem: Explosive Gel introduces inconsistencies to the game that can break immersion.

I’ve seen a number of games that utilize terrain destruction to some degree, such as blowing through a wall or using a crane to remove an obstacle. This can draw the player into the world, and make the experience seem more immersive, but it can also backfire. Interacting with an object can remind the player about all these other objects nearby that the player can’t interact with, and remind them that they’re just playing a game.

Arkham Asylum’s explosive gel, as cool as it is, fell a little too far on the latter side for me.

  • Certain walls can be destroyed entirely, but other walls will be completely unharmed by the explosive gel. I could apply the gel a hundred times, and not even chip the masonry. This reminds me that I’m not really in this world – it’s just a game engine.
  • It violates Batman’s character. Batman carefully avoids killing or using any kind of lethal force against his foes, yet he doesn’t mind detonating a patch of explosive when a guy is one foot away. Sure, the game will tell me he’s only unconscious, but it still seems like a risk Batman wouldn’t take – unless he knew he was in a video game, and the bad guys will never get killed. Again, it reminds me that it’s only a game, and breaks my immersion.
  • How much explosive gel is Batman carrying? He seems to have an unlimited amount, which makes me want to be able to apply it liberally to blow down doors, or pour out a bunch to blow through some weak flooring. As a player, I know that more of an explosive agent = a bigger explosion, but I can’t choose to have Batman use more explosive. It breaks my feeling of control over Batman.

The problem is that we, as players, know what explosions do. They destroy anything. But the explosions of Arkham Asylum have a different set of rules, where they destroy certain specific things, stun other things, and don’t affect most things at all. Explosive gel can end up feeling more like a different kind of keycard than a cool explosive device.

Solution: Change Explosive Gel to a more technological item.

Instead of explosive gel, I’d have Batman carry another device to accomplish the same effect. Let’s call it a Bat-Sonic Device for now.

The Bat-Sonic Device has the same gameplay features as the explosive gel:

  • When placed on a weak wall, it vibrates the masonry until it crumbles.
  • If a bad guy is close enough, the sonic screeching will overload his senses and knock him unconscious.
  • When activated, it makes a noise that attracts enemies to its location.
  • It’s disposable, at least as much as the Batarang and explosive gel are.

The Bat-Sonic Device also avoids the problems of the explosive gel.

  • When placed on a strong wall, the masonry is supported and not susceptible to vibration.
  • It’s more technological, and less messy than explosions, which feels more Batman-like.
  • There’s no risk of killing an enemy with sonic waves.
  • The player doesn’t know how the Bat-Sonic Device works. They don’t expect two Devices to be twice as powerful as one – maybe some quirk of this technology is that the sonic waves from two Devices just don’t interact with each other at all.

The more general principle here is that, when designing a game, you shouldn’t utilize known interactions between objects unless you’re prepared to handle every possible interaction of those objects. By ‘known examples of interactions between objects,’ I mean explosions, setting things on fire, hitting things with a sledgehammer, or even just climbing on a box. How many games have you played where you see an object that looks like you should be able to jump or climb on it, but you can’t?

These are actions we innately understand, from our lives or from movies. Explosions destroy things, fire burns wood and paper quickly, sledgehammers can tear a chunk out of concrete, and we can climb on anything about chest-height (or higher, depending on how athletic our protagonist is).

Many games avoid this problem by limiting ‘every possible interaction’ to one – such as jumping in a stationary crane to lift an object out of the way. Many ignore the problem entirely – look at any game with grenades, where they go off with a boom and a flash, but no real damage to the scenery around them – but they ignore it consistently.

I’m looking forward to more games like Red Faction: Guerrilla, to embrace the possibilities of interaction. That game avoided inconsistency with the destructive power of explosives by simply letting the player destroy everything, even mission-critical buildings and vehicles. After playing RF:G, it’s hard to go back to games like Batman: Arkham Asylum, where I can clearly tell that my power to interact with the environment is just a thin veneer over a traditional, linear level design.

(I feel like I should mention again that my comments on the game’s design flaws do not necessarily indicate that I disliked the game. Arkham Asylum is a totally amazing experience. I just don’t know why they gave me explosives if they didn’t want me to explode everything that gets in my way!)

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