Breaking Down the Bat in Batman: Arkham Asylum
Do you believe in curses? We’re not sure we do, but if they exist, we know they can be broken. Our evidence is none other than the Batman license. One of comics’ most beloved heroes has been thrilling audiences for generations. Yet somehow, despite the fact that interest in the exploits of the Caped Crusader has rarely ever waned, producers and developers in the video game industry had tried and failed numerous times to produce a video game that could properly capitalize on the things we love about Bruce Wayne.
In fact, beyond a couple computer games, one of which was only released in Europe, pretty much every single Batman video game produced between 1988 and 2008 was average at best and absolute trash at worst. Lego Batman pulled the idea of an interactive Caped Crusader out of the garbage and made him fun again, but truly it was on this day in 2009 that the stars aligned and a starving fan base finally received the definitive Dark Knight experience it had longed for in the form of Batman: Arkham Asylum.
The development of Batman: Arkham Asylum was an enormous undertaking by the then fledgling Rocksteady Studios, but it certainly must have helped to have access to legends of the Batman lore for this project. It was in 2007 that DC approached writer and industry legend Paul Dini of Batman: The Animated Series fame among many other successful projects. DC consulted Dini for his take on how a Batman story should be written if it was going to involve gameplay. When Dini’s ideas were discovered to be in line with what Rocksteady was trying to accomplish, he was brought on board the team as the head writer for the game. By this time, Rocksteady had already determined that it was to be a game centered around the iconic Arkham Asylum as a means to give the team boundaries to work within when it came to story and mechanics, as well as access to most of the popular villains of Batman lore so they could pick and choose who they wanted to use easily.
One of the most crucial goals of development on Arkham Asylum was to create an experience that would appeal far beyond the comic book culture of the figure. Facets of Batman’s being were dissected to their most important elements, such as his reliance on gadgets, his detective skills, martial arts and acrobatic prowess while refusing to cross the line of murder. These were exaggerated and built as the cornerstones on which all gameplay in the game would work. Likewise, Batman’s perceivably most important enemy, the Joker, was chosen as the centerpiece antagonist of the game and other villains were carefully considered based on how their actions would fit or contradict Joker’s schemes. To bring it all home, Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Arleen Sorkin, who voiced Batman, Joker and Harley Quinn respectively in Batman: The Animated Series, delivered performances that players would be able to easily recognize from the popular show.
The basis of Arkham Asylum’s story is adapted from writer Grant Morrison’s famous graphic novel, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, in which Batman is called to the asylum by its recently freed inmates, led by Joker. Once inside, Batman finds himself trapped and must survive the night against the schemes and attempts on his life by many of his common adversaries. In the game, Batman is further guided by a hunt for the Joker, who claims he had hidden bombs throughout Gotham City should anyone besides Batman attempt to interfere. The story spurs a journey that almost perfectly balances fast-paced combat, versatile stealth and intelligent problem solving at every turn.
Languishing and decaying over thirty years of failed attempts to capture the mystique of Batman, the license could have been said to be dangerous to any developer who handled it. It could just as easily be said that the license was just waiting for a team that would nurture it with a considerate balance of ideas on what makes Bruce Wayne’s every facet work. Rocksteady took the challenge, sought the right people, carefully studied the subject and source material for the game and delivered in a way that nobody had ever been able to accomplish so well in the history of the video game industry. Rocksteady didn’t just make a Batman game that finally made sense. It deconstructed what made Batman great to build an experience both faithful and fun.