Although their first game failed to leave a mark, Jamie Walker and Sefton Hill impressed publisher Eidos enough to earn a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redefine the Dark Knight in video games.
Welcome to the Mad House: Building the Padded Walls of Batman: Arkham Asylum
Written by David L. Craddock
Note: This retrospective has been revised and expanded since its original publication in the June 2015 issue of RETRO Videogame Magazine.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Batman in a Box
A Superstitious and Cowardly Lot
From Superman and Iron Man to Captain America and the Flash, superheroes have been fodder for the deluge of beat-em-ups that kicked and punched their way to popularity in arcades and on consoles during the 1980s and ’90s. Flashy and simple, beat-em-ups distill actions down to two or three buttons and ask players to do little more than walk in one direction, eat food recovered from trashcans to regain health, and hit everything that moves.
It makes sense for publishers to cast superheroes as the stars of beat-em-ups. Most costumed crusaders boast super strength, fighting prowess, or both — the stuff of which best-selling action games are made. The marketability of punches and laser beams fail to do justice to more nuanced traits and abilities, such as examining crime scenes and skulking through shadows to get the jump on enemies, fall by the wayside.
Batman didn’t earn the moniker of “World’s Greatest Detective” by bludgeoning Penguin and The Joker with magnifying glasses and jabbing them with pipe stems. He can throw down with the best of his spandex-wearing peers, but he is also cunning, furtive, and clever enough to solve conundrums fashioned by super-genius villains.
Unlike Superman or Wolverine, Batman is flesh and blood. He thwarts crimes and solves murders by relying on his mind and the gadgets in his utility belt. To survive, he must be cautious, stalking prey from the shadows and whittling away at their numbers until only two or three remain, gibbering in terror and desperate to escape the predator picking off their friends. In other words, he’s a thinking-man’s superhero.
Not that you’d know it by playing most of the video-games sporting the Batman license. Batman for the NES and Batman Returns for Super NES, while classic beat-em-ups, had you moving from left to right and mashing buttons, no different from Bad Dudes and Final Fight. Batman: Return of the Joker for NES and Sega Genesis went so far as to forego hand-to-hand combat and equip the Dark Knight with a gun-like blaster — a serious violation of Batman’s “Thou shalt not bust caps” commandment.
And that’s the rub. Outside of Metal Gear Solid, few games grounded in slow, methodical gameplay post numbers and review scores that make them worthwhile investments for triple-A publishers. Better the button-mashing devils they know than untested ideas that might not rake in hundreds of millions in sales.
Fortunately, Eidos Interactive and Rocksteady Studios dared to challenge the norm.
Take a look at Rocksteady’s development history prior to 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, and you’d be forgiven for wondering how the relatively unknown studio ever landed the chance to redefine Batman’s reputation in video games.
Located in Highgate, London, Rocksteady was founded in 2004 by Jamie Walker and Sefton Hill. The studio, tucked away amid bucolic meadows, nature reserves, and pubs, was formed from the remains of Argonaut Edgeware, a development house where Walker and Hill had headed up creative efforts on an action game called Roll Call. When the studio bottomed out, publisher SCi Entertainment saw potential in Roll Call and offered Walker’s and Hill’s newly formed Rocksteady a tidy loan and purchased 21.5% of the company’s shares to fund development on the game.
Rocksteady rebranded Roll Call as Urban Chaos: Riot Response, a tactical first-person shooter for the PS2 and Xbox. Published by Eidos, Urban Chaos is a tad more complex than the droves of Doom clones and WWII-themed shooters that preceded it. Players can gun enemies down, or show restraint and place them under arrest. Either approach earns players medals they can use to upgrade their weapons. One of the game’s most complex tactical elements is the riot shield, an implement able to absorb enemy fire at the cost of not being able to shoot back while the shield is raised.
Published in May 2006, Urban Chaos garnered respectable ratings and paltry sales numbers, perhaps because gamers were more excited about the newly arrived Xbox 360 (released six months earlier) and the imminent debut of the PS3 that autumn. “That project took just over a year,” said Hill in a 2009 interview, “and after we finished that, we started to work on a number of different prototypes using Unreal Engine 3 for a next-gen game on 360 and PS3. That was the first time we’d used Unreal, and we worked on that for about a year.”
While the Rocksteady staff plugged away at Unreal demos, Eidos inked a deal with Warner Bros. Interactive in the spring of 2007 to develop a game based on Batman. During a check-in at Rocksteady, Eidos executives were impressed by their embryonic experiments, and handed Walker and Hill the opportunity of a lifetime.
“When it was first announced that we were doing Batman, we were all called into a meeting and to some of us it was really a big surprise,” said senior gameplay programmer Paul Denning in a 2009 interview. “There was instant hollering and whooping. There were some big Batman fans here who were really psyched and there were others who were into it a bit and thought it would be a pretty cool thing to work on.”
“Over two-and-a-half years, you can see studios become fatigued with characters, because you’re doing that every day,” Hill explained in a live Q-and-A with Eurogamer in 2009. “It’s like working in a chocolate factory or something. But that was an unusual thing. People just got more and more into Batman, and more and more excited by Batman. They devoured more and more of the Batman lore and universe.”
Rocksteady’s crew commenced preproduction work on their as-yet-untitled Batman game in April 2007. They considered their options carefully. While their prototypes were impressive, their team wasn’t versed enough in Unreal to build a fully realized city environment. What’s more, there were only 40 people on staff, not nearly enough to support development of a game predicated on huge environments and limitless gameplay options.
The team soon hit on another idea. What if, instead of recreating the mean streets of Gotham, they confined Batman to a smaller, more intimate environment teeming with hardened criminals and psychopaths from his iconic rogue’s gallery?
“Before we announced Arkham Asylum and how confined it was, there were people on the forums hoping it was set in Gotham,” said Denning in a 2009 interview. “I read that thinking ‘Is that really what you want?’ because as soon as you open it up and allow that diversity you lose specifics and the ability to get core mechanics really nailed down. I think if Arkham Asylum had been that kind of game I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have been as good. Also, Batman is a very driven character and wants to stop The Joker at all costs – you’d lose that intensity if you could suddenly think to yourself, ‘Oh, I’ll just go over here for a bit.'”
They scoured pop culture for influences and hit on two major touchstones. The first was Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, a dark and gritty graphic novel penned by Grant Morrison that sees Batman locked in the eponymous madhouse with Killer Croc, Joker, and other infamous supervillains. The second was Irrational Games’ BioShock, a first-person shooter featuring a tense, brooding atmosphere and compelling storyline — two fundamental aspects of the Batman mythos conspicuously absent in most Batman games.
Walker and Hill turned their artists loose on sketching concept art for their take on Arkham Asylum. Roaming London, they gleaned inspiration from the Victorian construction of St Michael’s Church and the gothic tombs of Highgate Cemetery.
Arkham Asylum seemed the perfect setting. Inspired, Walker and Hill turned their artists loose to sketch concepts for their take on Arkham Asylum. They envisioned it as a handful of Victorian edifices set on a rural island set apart from Gotham City. When it came to the particulars of that story, Rocksteady was uncertain. For guidance, they turned to Batman scribe and expert Paul Dini.
The New Warden
Dini doesn’t mind if you call him a Batman geek. He’s quite comfortable in his skin. “I knew everything — about the comics, about the ’60s show, about Batman’s guest appearances on Superman’s old radio show,” he says. “If it came from the Bat-cave, I knew about it.”
Dini earned a living tending bar during college, but that was a means to an end. What he really wanted to do was write. He honed his craft and eventually broke into the entertainment business as a writer on episodes of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. In 1989, he took a job at Warner Bros. Animation to write on Tiny Toon Adventures. A couple of years later, he caught wind of plans to develop an animated series centered on his favorite superhero.
“Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski were developing the show for Jean MacCurdy at WB Animation,” he says. “I was writing Tiny Toons and I went to them and said ‘Please use me!’ Happily, they did.”
Premiering in September 1992, Batman: TAS went on to become a smash hit among dedicated Bat-fans looking for a regular fix of the character’s bleak violent roots. The series tackled adult themes, was one of the first cartoons to depict realistic physical violence, and never dumbed down the writing to draw in younger viewers.
Dini didn’t pull rank on Animated Series. He cared less about getting credit for the best episodes of the series, and more about taking part in what would become one of the most beloved interpretations of Batman in the character’s history. “As a producer and story editor, I got to contribute to a lot of elements I was not directly credited on, or I might have been working with the other writers who sparked to something and went on to write one of the best episodes. Just being a part of it all and helping it happen was the best achievement for me.”
Following several successful follow-up series, Dini moved on to other ventures in the realm of masked heroes. In 2006, he wrote issues of Detective Comics. Late in 2007, executives from DC approached Dini about taking the helm as lead narrative writer on Arkham Asylum.
“I knew while I was looking at the preliminary artwork at our first meeting that Rocksteady had an incredible vision for Batman and the Arkham world,” he says. “It was dark, it was disturbing, it was — to my Yankee eyes — very British. And I thought those were all wonderful elements from which to craft a game.”
Even more appealing to Dini, Arkham Asylum was to be an original Batman game rather than one handcuffed by dogma. He and Rocksteady could add a pinch of this and a dash of that from other takes on the Bat’s mythos, cooking up a story uniquely their own. “We were never looking to literally translate the Animated Series into the Arkhamverse, though there were quite a few strong parallels,” Dini says. “The Rocksteady team and I took what we felt worked best within Batman’s entire history, comics, movies, cartoons, etc., and like we did when we developed the Animated Series, trimmed it down to its basics.”
Those basics took the form of Arkham Asylum set on a remote, claustrophobic island. The idea was that players would be able to see Gotham’s glittering skyline off in the distance, but in-game events would isolate Batman from his city — leaving players with no choice but to pacify the evildoers on Arkham Island or die trying.
“Asylum was basically ‘Batman in a box,'” says Dini. “It’s a big box, but he’s stuck there in the Asylum and on the island and he can’t leave until the job is done.”
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Preview for Chapter 2: As Paul Dini teams up with Rocksteady writer Paul Crocker to shape Arkham Asylum’s story, the rest of Rocksteady’s developers take aim at defining the game’s look, feel, and ambiance.
* publisher SCi Entertainment saw potential in Roll Call: “Roll Call back on track as SCi funds new development studio.” GamesIndustry.biz. http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/roll-call-back-on-track-as-sci-funds-new-development-studio.
* That project took just over a year: “Rocksteady’s Sefton Hill Unmasks Batman: Arkham Asylum.” Gamasutra. http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/132540/rocksteadys_sefton_hill_unmasks_.php.
* When it was first announced that we were doing Batman: “Looking back at Batman: Arkham Asylum – Part 2.” GamesRadar.com. http://www.gamesradar.com/looking-back-at-batman-arkham-asylum-part-2/.
* Before we announced Arkham Asylum and how confined it was: “Looking back at Batman: Arkham Asylum.” GamesRadar.com. http://www.gamesradar.com/looking-back-at-batman-arkham-asylum/?page=3.
* The second was Irrational Games’ BioShock: “Producer Talks Batman: Arkham Asylum.” ComicBookResources.com. http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=20344.
* I knew everything — about the comics, about the ’60s show: Interview with Paul Dini. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from Dini come from interviews conducted during 2015.