Whether skulking through shadows or out in plain sight, Rocksteady’s Batman chips away at Joker’s henchmen (and their skulls) through elegantly designed combat, stealth, and forensic systems.
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 3: Freeflow
All Those Wonderful Toys
For all the freedom DC bequeathed to Rocksteady, the team was not given carte blanche. Batman: Arkham Asylum was to be drafted according Rocksteady’s blueprints, but built on top of a foundation that had to remain intact.
“We really started [by] taking those facets from the character in the comics directly, and said, ‘These are the things that are Batman,'” explained creative director Sefton Hill in a 2009 interview with Gamasutra. “We wrote those things on a board and said, ‘We have to make a game that really exaggerates these things and brings them to the fore.’ We left those there. Nothing we came up with in terms of design could ever break those things, even if we thought of design ideas. If it didn’t fit with who Batman was, we would drop it. It’s unusual, but the comics were a massive influence, and we were trying to get to the core of who Batman is and try to reflect that in the game the best way that we could.”
Ask any Batman fans what they expect from any Bat-story told in any Bat-medium, and you’re sure to get a laundry list of beloved characters and tropes. Robin, Nightwing, the Batmobile, Oracle, Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, the Bat-cave, “Azbats,” Damian Wayne, Talia al’Ghul, Selina Kyle, and the veritable chemistry kit and armory that Batman packs into his utility belt.
As Rocksteady’s whiteboard filled up with nouns and story ideas, the developers knew that not every suggestion could make the cut. The game’s story was being written around Arkham Island, a landmass just small enough that driving the Batmobile would have felt cramped rather than fun and freeing. Nevertheless, the developers found a way to give Bat-vehicles a cameo or two.
“We decided that we would make vehicles a part of the story, so rescuing the Batmobile plays a significant part, and the Batwing delivers the Line Launcher,” Hill told Gamasutra. “What we don’t want to do is take on too much. Some of the things that we really wanted to achieve were for Batman himself, so we didn’t want to overstretch with a driving section with its own mechanic and requirements, and take that development time away from the things that were important for Batman himself.”
The Line Launcher is one tool in Batman’s utility belt, a piece of iconography Hill and his team knew had to be included—for practical reasons as well as to appease the fandom. Progress in Arkham Asylum is gated, meaning that players typically cannot progress until they’ve found a specific new item with which to access new areas. The Line Launcher, a grappling device that lets Batman fire, swing, and walk across tightropes, functions as a key to certain gates. The designers could, say, drop a chasm or electrified pond between Batman and his next objective, and let players intuit that the Launcher will let them swing across.
Other obstacles range from vents positioned too high on walls for Batman to reach by hand, weakened walls, and electrified gates. These and other obstacles make up Arkham Asylum’s brand of puzzles. Players come to them, experiment with their arsenal to see if any item can help them pass, and either find a way forward or reason that they don’t yet have the tool they need.
From the proverbial forest down to individual trees, every environment found in Arkham Asylum was a collaboration between artists and designers. “The levels are built by the designers,” art director David Hego explained to editors of Comic Book Resources. “The gameplay is a vital part in creating an exciting game, so the designers are laying down game mechanic elements in very simple room volumes and shapes before any artist work is done. Concept artists are, in parallel, creating pieces of artwork that will follow the art direction and the general style of each location. An environment artist will then take the shell and dress it up to make it look like a believable and functional room.”
Batman’s bag of tricks includes contraptions familiar and brand new. The Bat-claw lets players pull down weak walls and rip ventilation covers high up on walls. A hacking tool disables electrical gates, while explosive gel rips through certain floors and walls. Batman’s staple Batarang comes in several flavors, such as one that emits sonic waves to distract enemies, and a remote-controlled variant that players steer in first-person.
Ultimately, Arkham Asylum’s narrative proceeds along a linear track. But the developers aspired to leave pacing and progress in the hands of their players. If they prefer to push ahead and see what happens next in the story, they can. Or they can take the scenic route, solving every riddle and turning over every stone along the way.
“You walk a fine line,” says Paul Dini, lead narrative designer of Arkham Asylum. “On the one hand, you want to make it true to Batman’s world, and make it an engaging experience, but you always have to keep in mind: it’s a game first, and a movie not at all. Even the most die-hard Batman fan is going to lose interest if the game elements suffer at the expense of adding more story.”
Batman is not known for coaxing evildoers to turn over a new leaf when he invariably catches up with them. Therefore, Rocksteady’s developers extended Arkham Asylum’s player-first manifesto to three other core tenets of Batman: combat, stealth, and investigation.
Combat system underwent three design iterations. One of the earliest resembled a bizarre cross between button-mashers of yore and Dance Dance Revolution. “We also had rhythm action combat,” said Paul Denning, senior gameplay programmer, in a 2009 interview with Games Radar. “This idea was that music was playing and Batman would fight him in time with music. As the camera would cut, a new guy would come in and you’d have to punch him on the beat to connect or you’d end up getting hit. If you had two guys running at you, you’d have to branch off into another piece of music that would seamlessly blend into a combo attack. We put all that in and we actually got it pretty far and it was looking pretty good, but it was also obvious that we were running out of places we could take it already.”
The developers finally landed on Arkham Asylum’s patented Freeflow system, now one of the most widely used modes of combat in video games. Spend even a few seconds with it, and it’s easy to understand why.
Freeflow combat consists of strikes, cape whips, and counters. Every action is mapped to a specific button. Press strike repeatedly to perform a combo. Press counter, and Batman will grab fists and weapons in mid-swing, shooting the assailant an irritated look before casually backhanding him and directing his attention to more pressing matters.
String those buttons together, and players become the conductor of a symphony of violence. Mash the strike button to deploy a flurry of punches. Press counter to swat aside the lead pipe arcing toward Batman’s head, then tilt the analog stick toward the goon unlocking the gun box bolted to the far wall and press strike to vault across the room and put him down.
Freeflow combat lives up to its name. Batman responds to button presses instantly, and flows seamlessly from punches to counters to kicks. Players can add even more spice to combos by stirring in gadgets—fling a trio of Batarangs to give Batman breathing room and leave stunned enemies open to ground takedowns, then break out the grappling hook and pull enemies into range in a Scorpion “Get over here!” style of attack—and add in flips to buy time and get the lay of the land.
Every successful hit adds a point to the combo counter that appears when a fight breaks out. Higher combos net players more experience points, and leveling up unlocks new moves such as throws, the ability to add Batarangs and other gear to the mix, and instant takedowns, brutal finishers that leave thugs whimpering on the floor and cradling broken limbs. Advanced moves like takedowns and deploying gadgets called for pressing multiple buttons at once, a necessary demand that Rocksteady worked to make as painless as possible.
“We had the philosophy that if it’s something that’s simple for Batman to do in his world, then it should be easy for the player to execute as well,” Hill explained to Gamasutra. “That’s where the combat’s simple controls came from.”
The developers primped and polished every encounter until it shined. Elements such as architecture and color palette were refined so they aided the player’s ability to study battlegrounds and see how much space they had to work with, where gun boxes were located, and what debris enemies might throw at them, thereby interrupting the perfect combo.
As the story unfolds, players encounter larger and more varied mobs of foes that can only be dispatched in certain ways. Evildoers wielding Tasers cannot be attacked from the front; instead, Batman must leap over them and pummel their exposed backs. Likewise, a cape whip to the face softens thugs armed with knives, leaving them susceptible to combos. The largest and most ferocious enemy, the Titan, cannot be attacked head on. Players must find a way to stun it and then hop atop its shoulders, riding it rodeo-style and steering it headlong into packs of weaker enemies.
By the end of Arkham Asylum, players will stare down dozens of enemies toting guns, knives, Tasers, bats, and two or more Titans for extra muscle. Fortunately, Batman’s one-man-army approach to crime fighting, coupled with Rocksteady’s excellent sense of pacing and the straightforwardness of the Freeflow controls, makes the prospect of largescale brouhahas exhilarating rather than alarming.
“That was quite a challenging area,” Hill told Gamasutra in reference to designing the Freeflow system, “because combat has been done a lot in games, and we really wanted it to feel fresh and new for Batman. We had invested a lot of time purely in the gameplay. We’d spent weeks and weeks tweaking the controls, and during that time, it can be quite difficult, because there’s always a pressure to make things [showier] and look more amazing, but we felt that people respond well to something that just played great. We spent a lot of time making it play great before it looked great. That was a big challenge for us.”
As impressive as Freeflow combat looks in motion, and as good as it feels to pummeling bad guys into submission, mastery of martial arts is only one of Batman’s defining traits. Rocksteady’s developers agreed unanimously that their incarnation of the character must play to all his strengths, including his knack for blending into the shadows.
Walk into a room patrolled by thugs, and Batman goes into Predator mode, a form of gameplay best described as Batman meets Solid Snake. Players are taught how to perform moves that let them sneak around and rough up bad guys without attracting attention. Crouch-walking silences Batman’s footsteps, letting him sneak up behind an enemy and choke him out.
Choking out enemies is a surefire way to take them down, but not always the best option. Most Predator encounters revolve around picking off enemies armed with automatic weapons, and even players who have upgraded Batman’s health to its full potential can only survive a handful of bullet sprays.
“Batman’s combination between his power and his vulnerability is key to who he is, and I think one of the best mechanics for a game is to have an incredibly powerful character who at the same time is still very vulnerable,” Hill told Gamasutra. “It’s such a great combination and balance for a game character.”
Luckily, Batman’s got more moves up his sleeves than mere chokeholds. Players can rappel up to the gargoyle statues that conveniently line the walls in Predator-focused rooms, then perform a glide kick followed by a pouncing attack that renders the enemy unconscious in exchange for the ruckus drawing the unwanted attention of other thugs.
Rocksteady’s developers fashioned Predator rooms into sandboxes brimming with all sorts of sneaky ways to eliminate Joker’s crew. Hide in floor grates and stalk enemies before springing out at an opportune moment, paint explosive gel on weak walls and wait for them to wander by before pulling the trigger (or lure them into the blast radius by throwing a Sonic Batarang), yank up to three thugs off a ledge using the grappling hook, fire the Line Launcher and swing across rooms and through windows Tarzan-style, or hang from a ledge and wait for a bad guy to walk near, then grab him and toss him over your shoulder.
Atop a gargoyle, players can hang upside down like a roosting bat, then grab the first enemy that wanders by, haul him up, and hang him from his feet. The thug begins to kick and yell, summoning his friends. During the commotion, players can swing away to regroup, or throw a Batarang to cut the line and drop the thug to the floor, just for fun.
Cutting a dangling thug’s rope is redundant. Once he gets caught in Batman’s web, he’s out of commission. But the fact that Rocksteady gave players the ability to toy with thugs in this way speaks to their understanding of what motivates the character. When Bruce Wayne dedicated his life to dispensing vigilante justice, he knew he needed to become a symbol that would strike fear into the hearts of his enemies. Stringing a thug by his ankles, waiting for his numbskull buddies to run over, and then throwing a Batarang from afar and watching the group freak out when their cohort drops into their midst, screaming all the way down, is a quintessential totally Batman things to do.
Such actions are not without consequence. When thugs become aware of Batman’s presence, they buddy up, walk back to back, and become trigger happy, firing at movement glimpsed out of the corner of their eyes, and perhaps startling players into acting rashly. Later on, gargoyles are lined with explosives, so players won’t be swoop away and lick their wounds in the safety of the shadows; and some thugs wear shock collars that trigger alarms when their wearer eats a knuckle sandwich.
No matter the odds, no matter the obstacles, players have the tools at their disposal to triumph. Just like electric gates and chasms splitting a room into, Predator and Freeflow encounters are puzzles, and one of the joys in Arkham Asylum is deciding how best to (silently) crack them.
“The Invisible Predator game mode is just a very cool gameplay mechanic that we’ve come up with,” said Paul Crocker, lead writer alongside Paul Dini. “It’s completely designed to make you feel the cool Batman experience. You don’t have to do it that way, but if you go in swinging it doesn’t play to Batman’s strengths. I mean you could go in like that, but to be honest it’s more fun to pick the guys off.”
Whether in the shadows or trading punches, Batman has the advantage, but he’s still just a man. So are his enemies, a point often lost amid the sounds of crunching bones bending back at painful angles. “One of the things that was made clear from the start was that Warner Bros. and DC are the Batman experts, but we’re the game experts,” Denning told Games Radar. “That is our field. Making this game was definitely a collaborative effort, but we made sure the lines were drawn in the right place.”
WB and DC were more than happy to let the team across the pond do what they did best, as long as they adhered to the number-one rule by which the Dark Knight operates.
“There are strict rules with Batman,” Hill said during his interview with Gamasutra. “He can’t kill, so that means that it’s much more challenging to create gameplay that allows the player to have complete freedom while not transgressing any of the fundamental rules of who Batman is.”
“DC and Warner Bros drummed it into us that this could never happen,” Denning echoed to Games Radar. “We tried to push the boundaries and they kept pushing back, so enemies falling unconscious pretty much happened from the start.”
On paper, prohibiting Batman from murdering thugs in cold blood seemed simple. All the designers had to do was abstain from giving him overtly lethal attacks like snapping necks or using a Batarang to carve a second grin into The Joker’s pasty throat. The rub was in level design. Freeflow battles could break out on platforms bordered by pits, electrified floors, and other environmental hazards. DC and WB insisted that Rocksteady anticipate scenarios where enemies might accidentally die, such as Batman knocking an enemy off balance and causing him to stumble off a ledge and drop into a chasm.
Like parents toddler-proofing their home, the developers wrote a number of precautions in the code to prohibit any “accidents” from occurring. Invisible walls ensure enemies can’t fall (or be thrown) off precipices, and gargoyles, so handy for hanging Joker’s minions out to dry during Predator scenarios, are never positioned over chasms.
Death-proofing levels turned out to be the easy part. While DC and WB seemed fine with Batman using moves that were likely to paralyze opponents from the neck down, several builds of the game were sent back with notes complaining that bad guys appeared to be dead.
“We added the ability for their chest to rise and fall, which looks like they’re breathing and enhanced the impression that they were unconscious,” said Denning, describing the workaround to Games Radar. “Also, as the detective modes and forensic aspects evolved we put in the ‘unconscious’ tags to reinforce the idea. So, it was always our plan to make them unconscious but we evolved the idea to make it more apparent.”
Elementary, My Dear Robin
Detective Vision, a new tech created expressly for Arkham Asylum, is the Bat’s great equalizer. Enabling it drapes the screen in an X-Ray-like filter. With it, Batman can see through walls, and enemies are highlighted different colors based on whether they’re packing heat or unarmed. Detective Vision also calls attention to noteworthy elements such as destructible walls and the status of NPCs (unconscious or dead, in the case of security guards killed off-screen, a loophole that enabled Rocksteady and Eidos to get a “T for Teen” rating).
Besides painting enemies and pointing out advantageous architecture, Detective Vision permitted Rocksteady’s team to tap into yet another underutilized characteristic of the Batman: solving crimes. “That was fun because the special functions of the cowl allowed Batman to get very ‘Sherlock Holmes’ with his analysis, examining blood, chemicals, and so on,” Paul Dini recalls of writing the game’s crime sequences.
At certain points in the story, players must progress by switching to Detective Vision and examining their surroundings for clues—fingerprints, an item that belonged to a missing character, or blood. As with most of Arkham Knight’s game systems, analyzing evidence is as simple as tapping a button, attuning Batman’s Detective Vision-enhanced cowl to scents or blood trails players can follow to their next objective. It’s a simple yet effective system that afforded Rocksteady another way to keep players interested by changing up gameplay, as well as further their goal of creating the definitive Batman experience.
“Originally, our forensic system was a lot bigger,” Denning admitted in his interview with Games Radar. “We had four months prototyping at the beginning of the project and a lot of the stuff we did for forensics we ended up dropping or leaving out, because we didn’t really think it would fit with the way the game was going. If you look at the way the forensics works there’s not much of it in there and we felt that any time you needed to learn a mechanic, it would almost be thrown away straight away because you’d be past that section.”
To David Hego’s dismay, Detective Vision proved too powerful. Many critics and players confessed that they played through most of the game with Detective Vision turned on, unwilling to wean themselves off the omniscience granted to them by Batman’s cowl.
“It was a gameplay decision to make Detective Vision so strong,” Hego admitted at the 2010 Develop conference. “We’re going to try not to [make] that mistake again.”
Few fans and critics expected Batman: Arkham Asylum to amount to anything more than another licensed superhero beat-em-up when it launched on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC in August 2009. Far more expected far worse. To say they were pleasantly surprised would be a gross understatement. The game raked in high scores and multiple Game of the Year awards, and the crew at Rocksteady became rock stars virtually overnight.
“At the end when we were sprinting for the line and fixing bugs and tweaking gameplay, we all felt that we’d probably made the best game we possibly could,” Paul Denning told Games Radar. “This is the best game I’ve ever worked on, and you never know, for a lot of people this could be the best game they ever work on.”
Arkham Asylum’s little touches, like the way Batman stands motionless during combat, totally at ease and waiting for Joker’s cronies to strike first, and the seamless animations as he flows from strike to counter to Batarang and back again, speak to Rocksteady’s commitment to capturing the character’s deadly grace. More than any game before it (and arguably any game since, including its offspring), Arkham Asylum let players become the Batman and inhabit his world.
Additionally, Batman: Arkham Asylum verified that superhero games can be more than mindless beat-em-ups. Its confluence of striking visual design, gripping narrative, absorbing exploration elements, and addictive blend of combat and stealth make Arkham Asylum more than a great superhero game.
“It was a Batman game, but it was also a good game,” Sefton Hill summarized to Gamasutra. “A lot of people said that even if you strip out Batman, the core mechanics are good game mechanics as well. They’re really strong. So in terms of the hype, it helps in some ways. There were certainly bigger games and some skepticism, and it’s always pleasing when you get your hands on something and it’s better than you thought it was going to be. I think that did help us to an extent, and obviously, whatever Rocksteady does next, it’s going to be a really big challenge for us.”
Sefton Hill wasn’t just tooting his team’s horn. Batman: Arkham Asylum is more than a superhero game. It is one of the best games ever made, and should be a blueprint for all character-driven action games that follow.
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* We really started [by] taking those facets: “Rocksteady’s Sefton Hill Unmasks Batman: Arkham Asylum.” Gamasutra. http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/132540/rocksteadys_sefton_hill_unmasks_.php.
* We decided that we would make vehicles a part of the story: Ibid.
* The levels are built by the designers: “The Art of Batman: Arkham Asylum.” Comic Book Resources. http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=21959.
* You walk a fine line: Interview with Paul Dini. Unless stated otherwise, all quotes attributed to Paul Dini come from our interviews conducted in 2015.
* We also had rhythm action combat: “Looking back at Batman: Arkham Asylum – Part 2.” Games Radar. http://www.gamesradar.com/looking-back-at-batman-arkham-asylum-part-2/.
* That was quite a challenging area: “Rocksteady’s Sefton Hill Unmasks Batman: Arkham Asylum.” Gamasutra. http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/132540/rocksteadys_sefton_hill_unmasks_.php.
* Batman’s combination between his power and his vulnerability: Ibid.
* The Invisible Predator game mode is just a very cool gameplay mechanic: “Interview: Paul Crocker of Rocksteady on Batman: Arkham Asylum.” Engadget. http://www.engadget.com/2009/05/29/interview-paul-crocker-of-rocksteady-on-batman-arkham-asylum/.
* One of the things that was made clear from the start: “Looking back at Batman: Arkham Asylum – Part 2.” Games Radar. http://www.gamesradar.com/looking-back-at-batman-arkham-asylum-part-2/.
* There are strict rules with Batman: “Rocksteady’s Sefton Hill Unmasks Batman: Arkham Asylum.” Gamasutra. http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/132540/rocksteadys_sefton_hill_unmasks_.php.
* DC and Warner Bros drummed it into us that this could never happen: “Looking back at Batman: Arkham Asylum.” http://www.gamesradar.com/looking-back-at-batman-arkham-asylum/.
* We added the ability for their chest to rise and fall: Ibid.
* Originally, our forensic system was a lot bigger: “Looking back at Batman: Arkham Asylum – Part 2.” Games Radar. http://www.gamesradar.com/looking-back-at-batman-arkham-asylum-part-2/.
* It was a gameplay decision to make Detective Vision so strong: “Arkham Asylum art director talks mistakes.” http://www.gamespot.com/articles/arkham-asylum-art-director-talks-mistakes/1100-6269025/.
* At the end when we were sprinting for the line: “Looking back at Batman: Arkham Asylum – Part 2.” Games Radar. http://www.gamesradar.com/looking-back-at-batman-arkham-asylum-part-2/.
* It was a Batman game, but it was also a good game: “Rocksteady’s Sefton Hill Unmasks Batman: Arkham Asylum.” Gamasutra. http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/132540/rocksteadys_sefton_hill_unmasks_.php.