Monday, December 12, 2011

Running the Asylum: Lessons Learned from Batman

Adrift in the white noise of what seems to be generally good feelings about the now passed Bat-sequel; I must confess to having almost no knowledge of, or experience with, Arkham City. Amidst rumors of yet another expansion toward something along the lines of an 'Arkham World,' I feel some reticence toward any assertion that these are the greatest games the comics-to-gaming world has, and will ever see, but the point remains -- Rocksteady did make some very good games!

Personally, I've never been a big believer in writing off titles simply because they're derived from something else. The world has undeniably seen its fair share of hideous adaptations, but that blanket attitude has done more than lead many a soul to miss a hidden gem, canonizing an opinion as fact to such an extent as to condemn an entire sub-genre, by consensus, and by self-fulfilling production. At least, that's the theory. A brand as powerful as Batman can be counted on to fight through just about any prejudice (for the time being), and there are always the unwashed masses who buy even the most reviled adaptations, if they're within Wal-reach and the price is Wal-right.

As much as I'd love to spend time sharing my take on consumer wisdom, a more interesting, if equally dismaying point, has taken my fancy. It's a subject intertwined with a good deal of blogging I've done on 1UP over the past couple years, but is the kind of boneheaded, blisteringly obvious point that bares constant repeating, if only because it hasn't been adopted as a widely accepted truth: games should reference the source.

I suppose the implication of "referencing the source" is a project that intends to make use of the parent license, and if you're making use of a license from comic books, then your focus is primarily to reference design and ideas.

Games have never completely abandoned their penchant for storytelling, but for a while there, it seemed there might actually be a conceited push to get away from inconveniences such as plot, motivation, and other things that don't always accomodate a grey-brown palette and running and gunning. Comics can do both, as famous for their face pounding superheroes as they are their elaborate literature of pictures and words. Batman: Arkham Asylum brought The Dark Knight Detective's chops to both arenas, improving upon the motion of being the ultimate hero, as well as the poetry of his world. I've got my issues with both areas, but for all intents and purposes, the success of Asylum was an important moment for everyone to take note of -- and they clearly have.

Warner Bros. Montreal (via MTV Splash Page) inspired this blog by citing the current Batman games, as well as Activision's now classic Spider-man for the PlayStation, as the contemporary standard for this type of product. It's the kind of no brainer statement that makes me a little sad for the need to say it, but pleased that the right people are reaching the right conclusions, however late. As they prepare to tackle other properties from the DC Comics pantheon, they note, "They were just taking that really rich fiction from the comic books and exploring the characters. It's not about hitting the movie date or some arbitrary date – it was giving the game the time it needs to be successful and really just concentrating on the quality of it."

It's worth remembering that Batman: Arkham Asylum -- one of the games of 2009 -- emerged as a belated, unofficial compliment to one of the films of 2008 - The Dark Knight. The film influence can be found in elements of the close quarters fighting, or the steady orchestral drone of score that occasionally swells during play, but it was otherwise a surprising shift away from the direct adaptation that was met with mixed reviews for Batman Begins. For a time, a Dark Knight game was reported and assumed, but in the end, through design or inadvertent juggling, we got something much better, sourced from the comics (with a smattering of other references).

Consider for a moment that Arkham Asylum had the all-black costume of the movie Batman, and revolved around a slightly different plot, and you might appreciate the importance of recognising that games based on popular movies don't necessarily need to fail. Activision's development of the Spider-man universe arguably peaked with Spider-man 2, the second film sequel that gave the wall crawler a complete city (with streets and select interiors), and added new complexity to the act of web-slinging. Of those first four games, divded evenly between comics and films, each sequel improved upon the experience of its predecessor.

Where movie-based games are most immediately prone to fail is in the storytelling department. Personally, I think it goes without saying that a game that literally retells the plot of a movie, even with occasional insertions, is going to fall short, however ironic that might be. It's a redundancy that isn't completely without virtue, but typically has all the charm and intrigue of a second-hand account of last night's cinema trip from your parents, whose droning confusion equates to scene-extended fetch quests and time trial chase sequences. If your parents are anything like mine, it probably also rings true that the notation of a familiar actor (or character) takes precedent over anything even remotely relating to the film -- but I digress...


It's my hope that, if nothing else, superhero video games can learn valuable lessons from the success of the Batman games, but it's no sure thing. Batman has often been a brand to lead the way down a golden path, only to have it soiled by hamfisted misinterpretations.

Anyone partaking in the online sport of mocking nineties comics (and folks like Rob Liefeld) would probably like to trace their bombastic, grit-toothed origins to the grim 'n' gritty explosion led by iconic eighties matter like The Dark Knight Returns -- a tome expected to play key to influencing Christopher Nolan's 2012 blockbuster, The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan himself has been the source of widespread mediocrity, empowering a terrifying trend of brainless franchise remakes that extends to video games, and coincides with new products that share a skewed, misguided influence taken from the "realistic" Bat-reboots. Even DC hasn't been immune, bungling their way to one of the flops of the decade, the glowing missed opportunity of Green Lantern, which attempted to combine ideals of the successful Batman and Iron Man franchises with insulting results.

Even as we speak, a designer or publisher somewhere in the world is contemplating ways to recreate the success of the Arkham games with no appreciation for how a product was arrived at. Accounts from those that ventured there give the impression it was the mechanical formula of the Arkham series that gave motion to a lacklustre film tie-in based on Captain America. It certainly seemed to be that type of affair, not quite worth the dollars to find out [consumer beats commentator].

Unfortunately, some of these more shallow, corporate-driven trends have infiltrated the comics themselves. If you know about the heavily publicized DC Comics "New 52" reboot, you know that the four-colour format is as fickle as ever, prone to ditching its history at the first sign of digital sales (to a degree), contrary to old wisdom. With worlds that demand reason to fill the far reaching corners of an ever expanding sandbox, I like to think video games have the opportunity to take the best from the Batman lesson, doing as the comics haven't by making a sales pitch of a rich and involving universe.

Arkham Asylum makes a meal of all available materials, borrowing iconic thrills from comics like Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth and Arkham Asylum: Living Hell, while also picking up on colourful strands from scary places like 1997's reviled Schumacher film, Batman & Robin. The story isn't a dense tome of text and cut scenes, but often that's the intended meaning of good storytelling, remembering the importance to acknowledge medium, genre and any other influences that might shape a story. Things fell apart at the end of Arkham Asylum, but for the most part, there was a servicable effort to make all that trapsing seem pretty worthwhile, at least while it was happening. By referencing the comics, it ensured the entire affair was as visually and conceptually interesting as it should be, unbound in ways the films, by their own choice, haven't always been.

The films have a similar strong foundation in the comics, owing much to stories like Batman: Year One and Batman: Dark Victory. With that in mind, the lesson of Batman's many successes should almost certainly be one of respect for the source, rather than dollar-signs-in-the-eyes that might suggest any Batman is good Batman. It's an endorsement of the influence of the original, just as Warner Bros. Montreal profess.

Meandering to a blog conclusion, I think back to the turn-of-the-decade phenomenon of The Matrix. The 1999 breakout hit brought Hong Kong wirework to the Hollywood fore and similarly endorsed the ideals of a comic book and anime audience, steeped in expansive universes and interesting concepts, bolstered by graphic design. Famously left to the devices of the Wachowski siblings who put the pieces together (in distant Australia), the film was a landmark endorsement of the creator, confirming the action-packed auteur theory that offered a gateway to the superheroes who've taken over that ideaspace (for better or worse).

Let's just hope things end better for Batman.

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