Since the release of Batman: Arkham Asylum, developer Rocksteady Studios redefined the comic book genre in the video game medium, and demonstrated that with the proper care and consideration, pop-culture icons like The Dark Knight could be expertly brought to interactive life (to read more on how Superman could be realized in a videogame click here).
With each new iteration (even Batman: Arkham Origins developed by WB Montreal), the Rocksteady approach to successful Batman-gameplay has brought players deeper into the mind and body of the Caped Crusader. With the addition of The Batmobile and a massive, more open Gotham for players to explore, Rocksteady aims to add the final piece to the Batman-experience puzzle in their swan song, Batman: Arkham Knight.
But where do we go from here?
Rocksteady plans to leave the Arkham series and move on to new projects after Arkham Knight becomes available, which likely means WB Montreal or a new in-house developer will inherit the property and continue expanding upon it.
While the prospect of sequels, especially an unhealthy, yearly deluge of them, is always cause for concern, as a Batman fan, I can't help but already be looking forward to whatever future video game adventures my favorite comic book character finds himself in. Certainly we should savor Arkham Knight, and the great Batman games we already have, but one can't help but imagine what might be coming someday in the not too distant future.
And so, examining what Rocksteady and WB Montreal have already done, considering that the basic gameplay tenets originated in Arkham Asylum haven't changed much in five years (which isn't necessarily a bad thing), here are some thoughts and suggestions on where the Arkham series could go, and how, like other stalwart franchises, it might evolve over the next several years.
Comic book titles have proven increasingly problematic over the years. It's hard for them not to all start sounding the same, especially when they go the colon route.
The Arkham series painted itself into a corner, establishing "Arkham" as a brand, integrating the word into each title. It's hard to imagine that they'll ever drop the "Arkham" from the series because it's become such an integral aspect of the story, the series, and the marketing.
But such comes at the cost of originality and integrity.
I suggest that the "Arkham" be dropped after Rocksteady's fond farewell.
The word "Batman" is enough to move units (to keep the businessmen happy), and people will always want a good Batman game regardless of whether or not it continues in the same storyline or even the same universe that we've grown accustomed to over the last five years. Being that Rocksteady means Arkham Knight to be their farewell, to continue with the Arkham story and name simply feels like milking the cow that's already given you everything it's got.
It's best for Batman video games, and the series as a whole, if a fundamentally new storyline is established, preferably taking place after the events of the next Arkham game, similar to how the Halo series birthed a new trilogy with Halo 4 after Bungie went independent.
Dropping "Arkham" permits the writers a little more freedom and also means the titles won't start sounding hackneyed. When you get a bunch of people in a room thinking "Okay, how do we work Arkham into this title?", creativity has died.
We don't need an Arkham: Brotherhood and an Arkham: Revelations and an Arkham: Unity.
And those certainly aren't the titles Batman deserves.
And those certainly aren't the titles Batman deserves.
Gamers gave Arkham Origins and WB Monreal a hard time. Unjustly. The game remains every bit as enjoyable as the previous Rocksteady games, and actually boasts a superior story and superior writing. My own reservations about it being a copy and paste game quickly vanished when, after about thirty seconds in, I realized the unavoidable truth; it is fun...it is good.
But will WB risk hearing the same criticisms and damaging the brand for the inevitable Arkham Knight sequel by simply rehashing the Arkham Knight environ? Will they rush another game simply to capitalize on the popularity of the series, re-use the new larger Gotham in, and once again add some signature touches and a new story?
If it's written by the same people who wrote Origins, I know I'd buy it, but the idea of continually pumping out Batman games in the same environment over and over again is unsettling. Quality would inevitably suffer, as well as innovation.
But this isn't Assassin's Creed where the developers have a wide-assortment of time periods and locations to choose from (unless they eventually alter the franchise and set it in a different time and a different Batman-universe).
So where do future Batman games go, literally? I don't suggest they leave Gotham, I just wonder at the longevity of the environment, but perhaps a drastic enough change will come to the series, similar to how The Legend of Zelda approaches Hyrule, that it won't grow stale.
I foresee getting one game the likes of Origins a year or two after Knight, and I foresee the same complaints from snarks and reviewers, proclaiming "copy and paste" and "cash-in". And it very well may be, but it also might be amazing. And then, perhaps a year or two after that, I foresee a proper sequel with a re-tooled city built from the ground up.
But how much can Gotham really change before it starts to feel too much like retcon and still remain interesting? How much can be added before developers are just adding things to add things? Will we ever really need to control the Batwing or the Batboat?
Perhaps, to keep things fresh, the developers of Batman games in the distant future might want to re-think their release-model entirely and allow, organically, to work with a single environment for several years.
Unlike other cash-cow yearly franchises, comic book characters actually do lend themselves to serialization.
Perhaps the future of games like the Batman: Arkham Series is a model not unlike TellTale's superb Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us games.
If Batman: Arkham Origins was a forty dollar expansion that was marketed as a forty dollar expansion, would you have disliked it so much? Would you have complained that it was a copy and paste game, or thought that it was amazing?
What if future Batman video game developers release their main, flagship game, and then, instead of rushing the development cycle on the sequel, permit a team to craft new stories utilizing that flagship game's tech and engine over the course of the true sequel's development.
The way this would work is as follows: Batman: Arkham Knight is released. Six months later Season 1: Part 1 of a new Batman adventure is released as DLC and the season runs for a year, leading up to the release of Season 2, and so on, each new episode focusing on new characters, new conflicts, and even new areas of the already existing map.
These episodes would be available through a Season Pass, or, eventually, a compilation disc.
This model emulates the medium from which The Dark Knight came, and would inspire continuous conversation among videogame and comic book fans throughout the year. They would ask their friends, "Have you played the latest episode?" with the same intensity they discuss their favorite television shows.
Such addresses gamers' complaints that a yearly release model or a game like Origins is a mere cash grab by remaining transparent about what's actually in the game, ensuring that gamers know what to expect and simply judge the quality of the stories. More importantly, such a model also expands upon the Batman-videogame formula in a potentially exciting way that more closely emulates the source material.
Will there ever be Multiplayer?
The addition of multiplayer seems inevitable. Batman: Arkham Origins dabbled in an MP feature, but it wasn't supported and didn't resonate with audiences. There were some novel concepts, but it just didn't really work.
For multiplayer to work in a Batman game, it probably shouldn't involve Gears of War-like third-person shooting.
It would have to involve co-operative play. Far too often videogame features, whether they be small tropes like maps or additional gameplay features like multiplayer, are not imagined from the perspective the characters in the videogame itself. And, similarly, the reason gamers play such a game is not taken into consideration. If designers consider what's fun about Batman and who Batman is and why players want to be Batman, then it becomes clear that a natural extension of his world in the form of multiplayer is playing with your friends, each friend becoming a member of the extended Bat-family.
Gamers have been hungry to explore Gotham with a sidekick for a while now, and should such a feature never come at the cost of a great, single-player narrative, I'm all for it.
Swinging and souring through Gotham as Batman, Robin, and Knightwing together would certainly be a thrill, and entirely plausible on current technology.
A Truly Living City
Each of the Arkham games, even the forthcoming Knight, establishes a conceit that leaves Gotham overrun by thugs and short on regular citizens.
In the future, it would be nice to see Gotham fully-realized as an inhabited urban sprawl not unlike the heavily populated environments in the works of Rockstar Games.
The Arkham series has demonstrated a natural evolution toward an increasingly open environment, all the while placing restrictions on the worlds and gamers, albeit in natural, intelligent ways - in Asylum Batman was on an island, in Arkham City Batman was in a massive prison, and in Arkham Knight the citizens have fled due to the Scarecrow's threat of fear toxin.
Moving forward, it's only natural for the city to become increasingly alive, populated with the citizens Batman is sworn to protect. Such could create a stronger connection between gamers and The Dark Knight and his home - imagine hearing NPCs shout, "It's Batman!" as you sour through the sky, or shudder in awe if you happen to land in the city streets.
I envision a city that depends upon the Batman, a city that will descend into twisted chaos or ascend into a beacon of justice depending upon how gamers play. Instead of implementing arbitrary morality meters, why not allow the actual look of the city to indicate how selfish or altruistic players are in the role of The Dark Knight?
The more Batman takes care of random crimes throughout the city, the more he takes care of his home, the lower the crime rate will be, the happier the citizens will be, and the less likely it is that the cops will be on the look-out. The city will look cleaner, brighter, and be an all-around more hospitable place.
The more Batman ignores saving citizens, instead focusing solely on his larger, main-narrative pursuit of justice, the darker and drearier the city will become, the angrier and more terrified the citizens will be, and the more vigilant the Gotham Police will be in capturing The Dark Knight.
In this way the psyche of the player and Batman will be reflected, literally, in the world itself and offer opposing, yet equally exciting gameplay paths.
There wouldn't need to be a day and night cycle; it could remain permanently night, with the occasional cutscene during missions explaining the passage of time if necessary. Batman's activities would be made up of everything we've seen in previous games, but also everything we've seen in comics and films and cartoons, but have never really had the chance to partake in - random crimes like robberies, murders, and the like. Occasionally, it would be interesting and in keeping with the theme of moral-examination, if different crimes occasionally spawned at the same time and players would have to choose which one they valued more - perhaps a woman is being robbed in an alley while a bank heist is going down across town.
Integrating news broadcasts into this thriving city could also act as an extension of Batman's choices - filling players in on the consequences of their actions. For instance, players that choose to save the woman might hear a news report about how the bank robbers got away, killing two cops in the process. And then the report would give the names of the cops and who they were survived by. Conversely, if players chose to stop the bank heist, they'd hear about how petty crime rates are at an all time high and how five women and two men have been found dead in Crime Alley just last night.
Implementing subtle touches such as these will help draw players even further into the mind and habitat of The Caped Crusader.
I have no doubt that Batman: Arkham Knight will deliver the purest Batman-experience yet, as well as an all-around excellent videogame adventure. As Rocksteady forges a new path, hopefully tackling some of DC's other popular characters, I look forward to seeing what a new developer will bring to the series, and how The Batman might continue on his righteous quest for retribution and justice.
Thank you for reading and be sure to follow on Twitter @MaximusWrestler for more.