A Narrative Trumping Mechanic

by Steve Bowler on August 16, 2010 · 32 comments

in critique,design,mechanic,narrative


(Warning, this post contains spoilers.  If you haven’t played Batman: Arkham Asylum, stop reading now).

A year late to the party, I grabbed Arkham Asylum GOTY edition a month or two ago on the recommendation of pretty much everyone, and started a playthrough of it for what I anticipated was going to be combat design research.

While I could write an entire paper on the combat mechanics in AA (don’t count on it; I’m stupid busy lately), I found that as the game progressed, I was much more interested in something else, and it kinda came at me by surprise.

Full disclosure:  I’ve never been much for collecting items in games,  besides the basic “get coin” mechanic first realized in Mario and Sonic games, which basically force you to get coins by allowing you to do little else besides survive environment and enemy obstacles (not to mention get extra lives for coin collecting).  I think maybe GTA III did it best first in an open world game, giving you a variety of crap to pick up for really nothing more than the satisfaction of picking it up.  Sure, there were pickup items, like health and weapons or a few useful collectibles like spraying tags in San Andreas, but the “big” ones were just “get 100 of X” type collectibles which didn’t really reward you with anything more than an achievement (if that!).  Those sort of things always just seemed like fairly transparent “here’s how we add X hours of gameplay on the cheap” type of game-isms to me, and I’ve never found them compelling in any way.

Until I played Arkham.

At first I thought the Riddler pickups would be just that: pickups.  Collectibles.  At best maybe they’d allow me to buy some better gear (and they did do at least that by way of giving you XP for each pickup).  I set out to grab a few of them, just to see what they were like, and see what they’d “buy” me for the effort.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Edward Nigma (the Riddler’s adopted name) had hacked into your Bat-comm system and would taunt you every time you found a pickup.  In that regard, the guys at Rocksteady had added some much needed character to a previously boring game pickup/collectable mechanic.  I found I was enjoying hearing Nigma’s voice get more and more scared as I found more and more of his hidden items.  I suppose it should also be said that the riddles for finding some of the pickups were downright ingenious.  Finding/completing hidden question marks, solving cleverly worded riddles by finding the object which best described them, I realized that my focus in the game was shifting.

Instead of playing the game in order to progress to the next room or trap or fight, or even progress the narrative, I was attempting to progress the game so that I could accomplish and find more of Nigma’s Riddles.

While this is a big shift for a collectible hater like myself, it made me start thinking about the big picture the game was offering me, and I realized that, intentional or no, it revealed something new and interesting about the narrative of the game itself.

If you ask anyone who the boss/villain is in Arkham, they’ll all probably just answer “Joker, duh.”  I think that’s plainly obvious from just about all of the game/narrative/marketing messages the game throws at you.  Sure, yes, there are a lot of villains in Arkham, from Scarecrow to Bane, Killer Croc to Ivy, you are going to see a ton of boss level villains.  They all have a varying degree of knowledge of Joker’s master plan, but I think we can agree that Joker is the big boss, right?  He’s the one in control, pulling all of the strings, no?

Meet the bosses.

Maybe not.

Consider Nigma’s collectibles.  They’re quite literally everywhere.  They’re in every building.  Every space.  He’s put crap for you to find in places that are impossible for just about anyone else in Arkham to even find.  Hell, sometimes you have to go back to the Batcave and pick up devices that let Batman get up to that ledge or behind that wall to find them.  Let’s be honest here:  Joker doesn’t even have a clue that this shit is hidden there.  We could speculate it’s because he doesn’t care, but I’m pretty sure it’s simply because he doesn’t know.  Riddler doesn’t work for the Joker.

This throws the knowledge/control base of the villains into an entirely different light.  The Joker isn’t the final boss of Arkham.

It’s the Riddler.  He knows more than what The Joker knows, proven by the collectible mechanic.

Meet the new boss.  Same as the..wait, no he isn't.

For the entire game you (as Batman) are constantly playing catch-up to Joker’s plot to take over Arkahm and eventually Gotham city.  Hell, you even step right into Joker’s trap and deliver him to Arkahm Asylum to get the ball rolling.  It’s a brilliant plan: go to where the supervillains are, strike a deal with them, and have them all work to kill Batman, who you’ve conveniently tricked into delivering you to that very location!

But Riddler’s one step ahead of Joker’s plan.  He’s not only already figured out Joker’s entire plan, correctly assumed you’d also eventually figure it out, but he figured it out so far in advance he had time to seed the entire plot with his collectibles, and then taunts you to come find them, while you’re fighting Joker and his henchmen.**

This is where the game became extra enjoyable for me to play, and why it became the greatest Batman game of all time for me: Joker’s narrative became the side-quest.  Joker’s men (and even Joker himself) were truly nothing more than a nuisance, something for me to backfist while I wasn’t even looking in their direction while I had my Bat-Visor turned on looking for Nigma’s riddles to solve.  That sensati0n felt like Batman.  There’s always something else going on in Batman’s head; he’s a cerebral detective, not just a pugilist who breaks bones but doesn’t kill.  I was enjoying this feeling of empowerment so much that it was with a touch of sadness that I nervously activated what I feared was the final mission/encounter of the game, knowing that it would probably (and did) change the dynamic of my Nigma relationship.

I imagine that this hidden shift in villain power wasn’t Rocksteady’s intent.  I don’t think they set out to make Riddler the Big Boss of Arkham Asylum, but I really don’t care.  I’m sure what they did was set out to make Riddler’s collectibles compelling in that the player would be provided with some reward (Nigma’s ever straining/worried voice and taunts) as they found them.  It was a happy accident, to be sure, but it’s also a level up in mechanics/narrative development for those of us in game dev who care enough to pay attention.

What makes me so excited is that they (probably inadvertently) discovered a way for a game mechanic to overthrow and subvert a linear narrative in a game.  I’ve been wrestling with the idea of mechanic out-weighting narrative in games for a while now, and I hadn’t found a game that had found a way to make that happen to this level of success yet. This takes Ken Levine’s “passive uptake” of story in Bioshock 1 to a whole new level.  In Bioshock, if you collect the data tapes, you experience more story.  In Arkham, it can change your perspective on the story entirely.  Players who ignore the riddles will get an enjoyable game of Batman vs. The Joker, but players who engage in the collectible mechanic will discover a whole new narrative lying just beneath the surface.

I’m a little bit in awe of that, and I hope I’m not the first/only person to stand up and notice it.

**If you honestly say to yourself “it’s just a game” here I implore you to go back to reading mainstream game rumor websites all day long and don’t come back.