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.


Mr Ak August 16, 2010 at 11:01 pm

I agree to an extent – my experience was that both villains were on a fairly even standing.

Although I think you’re possibly selling Rocksteady’s intentions short. The final few Riddler puzzles *seem* to only be unlockable after the game has finished, meaning that the Riddler is the last boss you defeat.

It may be a happy coincidence, but the pacing there worked perfectly for me. I’d finished the game with about 90% of the Riddler challenges completed, and I’d started to get bored of hunting down the occasional missed set of teeth when I got the Riddler narrative changeup message.

This inspired me enough to keep looking for those pesky missed objects/riddles.

Josh Foreman August 30, 2010 at 2:50 pm

Excellent find. Thanks for articulating this. I hope it inspires designers and game writers to ditch the whole linear narrative alltogether. This sort of mechanics-driven “story” is SO much more compelling because it is the PLAYER’S motivation rather than the fictional protagonists motivation that drives the experience.

Crimson November 14, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Excellent article! Although I believe that you title is a bit miss-leading, although the collectibles are a game mechanic, the thing that makes you want to collect them is the narrative connected with them. Hence why I could never be bothered to collect the 100 packages in GTA or all those flags in Assassin’s Creed, but found each of Riddler’s collectibles a joy to hunt for. So narrative still prevails in the end. I wish everyone would intertwine this sort of narrative thread in more of their game-play mechanics, which would result in an experience that, as you said would mean that the player could choose to interpret the narrative in their own way.

JG_Lives January 18, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Love this, never thought about it that way. Plus Batman: Arkham Asylum was the first game I ever got 100% completion since I bought my 360 in 2007 (bought the game when it was released)

Eidos even had a Viral Campaign before the game released teasing with background information and some tapes from the actual game. And guess who was behind that? Yup…

I agree, having a purpose like fighting against a villain to find those objects was more engaging than Assassin’s Creed’s flags or the sequel’s feathers. Or really any game that had collectibles. because it didn’t give you any new bonus other than a slightly faster XP gain.

Plus, it was not a one-trick pony. Those Question Mark puzzles I never even saw until after a while.

Cartigan October 21, 2011 at 12:16 pm

After reading something like this, I generally recall Sigmund Freud – “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Very interesting premise but I could together an equally compelling argument that AMADEUS ARKHAM was the real boss of Arkham Asylum? Joker? Please. Nigma? Wannabe. Arkham put stuff in the place when it was BUILT that could only be accessed by some person who he couldn’t even fathom existing having special tools to get at them! Of course that is entirely nonsense and anything can be read into anything if that’s what your end goal is rather than just realizing you are playing a game where the developers put in a nonsense secondary quest target.

Kletian999 October 21, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Reading this article reminded me of the Gem hunt in Illusion of Gaia. 50 gems scattered across the narrative all over the world, collected by the Gem merchant who awarded you at various milestones. Get them all, however, and you are wisked into a bonus dungeon with a surprise boss (turns out those gems were doing more than just look pretty) that really ties the game back to it’s spirtual sequel, Soul Blazer.

Not quite as well narrated as AA; but something you might want to experience if you haven’t already.

via PA October 21, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Not so sure -

“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.”

So you have to be in game dev and care to pay attention for your point to be valid? I don’t think so.

Your diagram of the riddler preceding the joker’s presence in the plot is wrong. The riddler’s laying out of riddles all around could only come after the joker’s plot was invented.

The correct chronology:
joker’s plan reaches other criminals in the jail
riddler is one of those criminals
riddler makes a bunch of riddles with knowledge that batman would
be there.

That aside, “a narrative trumping mechanic” is nothing new. You’ve never played a game before and fixated on a subplot or collectible over the main plot? I will agree that AA is a bit bizarre in the proportions, in GTA you just “got stuff” there wasn’t some guy running around hiding it as a pseudo-antagonist, but I’d say the scale of riddler’s presence is bizarre.

How is it a riddle to shoot X number of joker’s teeth? That’s where, yep, “it is just a game.”

Why can’t the narrative be: joker lays a trap for batman while other criminals do their thing in response to it. Sure, some of them are bosses or temporarily in the game, but without joker’s plot riddler wouldn’t have laid the riddles out, right?

Your point makes a bit more sense if somehow riddler put all of that stuff out there in preparation for joker to come up with some plan. There’s nothing in the game that points to that.

It seemed very obvious to me that riddler was moved around the asylum, caught wind of the plan and did what only the riddler can do.

Erick October 21, 2011 at 2:38 pm

I played it a while ago and I’m playing it now on higher difficult. First time I couldn’t resist: collected all Riddler’s trophies and other things.

Matthew October 21, 2011 at 2:58 pm

I found the Riddler stupid and annoying. I actively *avoided* picking up trophies, and quit the game once I beat it. JUST TO SPITE HIM. If he is a “boss,” then *that* is the only way to beat him – to deny him the attention his inflated ego desires.

There is nothing “Batman-like” about running around looking for stupid little pickups in crevasses. And if you want to talk about “narrative” and the Riddler being “in the know” somehow… HOW, exactly, could he have placed all those trophies in places even Batman has trouble reaching? He couldn’t have, he’s a scrawny little dork, and the trophy thing makes no sense at all. And what motivation does Batman, as a character, have to go after them? None whatsoever. All those trophies do is break the suspension of disbelief. Why not put some Mario-style question mark boxes around while they’re at it?

Sorry, but when I beat the game MY Batman went home and got some well-earned rest.

John Eno October 21, 2011 at 4:08 pm

I agree with the weirdness of Riddler being able to position a lot of his riddles – some of the upside-down question marks and only-accessible-by-exploding-a-wall trophies, in particular, make it seem as though he’s actually got the superpower “place riddles wherever the hell I want.”

However, I disagree about Batman not having in-character justification for solving those riddles. Traditionally, unsolved Riddler riddles result in the deaths of innocents, and Batman’s obviously got a stake in preventing that. Additionally, as you’d know if you’d completed all those riddles, he’s also got a stake in keeping Riddler talking to him on his comms, because he uses that data to eventually triangulate Riddler’s position and take him down. Since the most reliable method for getting Riddler to contact him is to solve his puzzles, solutions ahoy!

Dan October 21, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Whether you like the mechanic or not, it’s clear that critics of the “artfulness” of video games have completely missed this. The fact that a game can drive a person’s motivation against its own storyline, as it did with Spitfire, or cause a person to spitefully turn his fiery focus on the main narrative in the game, as it did for Matthew, shows that a game is much more than the sum of its parts.

I certainly found myself becoming more and more interested in finding all the collectible ?’s and the history of Arkham sound bites. Though the Joker’s storyline was compelling (up until the final, and very disappointing, boss fight,) it also became apparent to me that the Riddler may know more than even the game designers thought he did. They inadvertantly created a MONSTER in the Riddler, an omniscient and ingenious prankster. All the Riddler ever wanted to do was get into Batman’s head; In Arkham Asylum, he takes up residence in yours.

ParanoidObsessive October 21, 2011 at 6:45 pm

>>> The riddler’s laying out of riddles all around could only come after the joker’s plot was invented.

Not necessarily, actually.

While it’s still somewhat fanon-ish to break it down this way, it would have been entirely possible within the context of the narrative for the Riddler to have set up his little game, and then deliberately used his own genius to subtly make comments around the Joker which then give the Joker the idea to set his own plans in motion in the first place. Sure, it would be difficult to pull off… but perhaps less so when the person trying to do it is one of the smartest people you will ever meet.

Keep in mind, especially in modern storylines, the Riddler isn’t just some pretty clever guy with a knack for puzzles. He’s a literally mastermind who processes information in ways almost no one else can. He’s someone who’s long since deduced Batman’s true identity, but who will never reveal it (or even act on it), solely because a secret shared is a secret devalued – and because where’s the fun in outing or killing the Bat when he can challenge him to intellectual duels?

Probably wouldn’t be that difficult at all to come up with a plan to influence the Joker into luring Batman to Arkham, all the while making the Joker think it was his own plan all along…

FRM October 21, 2011 at 6:51 pm

The final “interview tape” collectible for the Riddler supports your theory – in it, The Riddler teases his therapist with being in communication with Joker, who had escaped weeks prior, and clearly indicates he knows what is about to happen.

crawlkill October 21, 2011 at 7:04 pm

you make me wanna play Arkham Asylum.

L12515 October 24, 2011 at 5:24 am

I always got the impression that Joker hatched his plan independent of the Riddler. The Riddler found out about it and wanted to be a part, so he offered to leave distracting puzzles everywhere, to slow the Batman down so the Joker could get everything ready (performing his Titan tests, etc). They worked separately, Joker with his plan and Riddler just leaving riddles and trophies for the fun of it.

devook October 24, 2011 at 8:56 am

I like Cartigan’s response the best. This kind of deconstruction is absolutely ridiculous, and you’re giving the makers of a generic batman game with a generic fetch quest way too much credit. Your fixation with the sidequest probably stems from a desire to avoid thinking about the primary storyline and gameplay, which for the most part was abysmal. You should consider instead that these sidequest items (all fucking ONE HUNDRED of them) were placed by game devs, game devs who paid exactly zero mind to the logistics of exactly when/where/how the Riddler could have possibly gotten the items to where they end up in the game. This kind of froth-lipped insistance that the generic gameplay-extender the devs threw into their 8 hour two-button mashfest is somehow a divinely inspired supra-plot that only other enlightened devs have the foresight and knowledge to appreciate puts you at about the same level of self-deluded and autistic as the Riddler himself.

spitfire October 24, 2011 at 9:23 am

Devook: I normally don’t make the effort to reply to comments these days (especially with the level of vitriol of yours), following my usual “Don’t Feed the Trolls” policy, but I find your comment “self-deluded and autistic as the Riddler himself” to be spot-on.

You see, I slipped a comment in there at the end. Maybe you missed it in your rush to point out that deconstruction such as this is worthless? Yeah, I put a hidden item in the article. RTFM dood.


I do like, however, that people like you think that “froth-lipped” and “delusional” devs like me give exactly any fucks at all to character assassination opinions such as yours (which insist that a GOTY game such as this was “generic”), and that you make an effort to come to my house and shit on my lawn, as if anyone actually appreciates that kind of “insight,” which isn’t actually insight at all. What kind of character does THAT?

Your kind of character!
Have a nice day!

devook October 24, 2011 at 10:36 am

If I saw someone’s lawn cut into a huge arrow that pointed to his own house with a sign on it that said “Check out this guy here: he’s the fuckin best,” I’d probably drop trow and lay a hot steamer right ON that lawn. Do you get my meaning here? I don’t think your “IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT GTFO N00B” caveat is enough of a deterrent for me to keep from responding. This is pseudo-intellectual masturbation on a level I’ve never seen before, and I felt compelled to point that out. Also, did you know that the “Song of the Year” for 2009 (according to AOL’s radio blog) was Taylor Swift’s You Belong With Me? Although on a surface level the game is just a generic pop song composed by a committee of record execs to generate wealth off the back of some attractive but oh-so-dumb teenage model, I think if you read a bit deeper you’ll find the subtle phrasing changes suggest a dynamic struggle between the bourgeoisie (referred to in the song as “you”) and the proletariat (referred to as “me”). It certainly isn’t just trite, mass-produced, pop culture horseshit though, it’s a SotY! Right?

spitfire October 24, 2011 at 10:51 am

Keep it up, devook, you’re looking better and better by the word! And smarter, too! I am certainly convinced at this point by your rank condescension that you are a superior intellectual, and probably a really great guy!

devook October 24, 2011 at 11:01 am

That makes two of us.

Kajir October 24, 2011 at 11:05 am

I have never, ever, understood why anyone could so deliberately fail to look past the pixels and button mashing and see the work of art behind it all… and then go on to still call themselves a gamer. I truly pity your joyless, colorless world you live in.

Excellent article. I recently played through this game last week for the first time… I actually started playing it shortly after it came out, but my computer at the time was unfortunately unable to consistently render some scenes, so I had to give it up, and never really felt like starting over once I upgraded my hardware. I’ve NEVER been one to obsess over arbitrary collectibles, and my first attempt at the game was very much in line with this… the idea of the riddles intrigued me, but being the massive fan of Batman vs. Joker that I am, ignored them in favor of the main story with the intent to come back to them later.

With the approach of Arkham City, I figured it was time to dust it off and finish it. It was glorious… I pulled an all-nighter the first night at it, and started out collecting just the riddles and trophies that were obviously in the path of the main story. Then I noticed that very first question mark riddle right after Riddler makes his debut in the game… I had never noticed them my first time through (and I got as far as taking on Croc). My mind was blown, and suddenly I found myself roaming around in detective mode about 80% of the time (only coming out for fistfights, which look much better when you’re not beating on blue skeletons), and I was utterly obsessed with combing every area for its secrets as soon as I had the tools to do so.

For me, the game’s greatest revelation comes when you complete all of the Riddler collectibles, and then notice you still have one more Amadeus Arkham text to find. After I completed everything, I sat back and reflected for a long time how incredible this game was.

It’s going to be a tough decision between Skyrim and Arkham City next month… they both launch for PC in the same week.

Busky3 October 25, 2011 at 8:30 pm

That Taylor Swift digression was no mere illustration of a nonsensical point. That was him giving the game away. Devook is Kanye West. There’s no other explanation. He’s gonna let you finish spitfire, but Ian Bogost had the best pseudo-intellectual masturbation of all time! Well, thanks for stopping by and classing up the joint by calling the writer of the post autistic.

I liked the article. I look forward to this lens hopefully being used to view Arkham City perhaps in the future.

Thanatos October 25, 2011 at 11:57 pm

I too just got Arkham Asylum and loved the collectible game. Nigma’s 5th interview tape pretty much confirms that he’s predicted Joker’s plan before he ever puts it into action, and tape 4 shows how he’s truly just a petulant child desperate for attention despite his intelligence.

All of this leads up to the crowning moment of awesome when you finish the final puzzle.

The best part is aside from the first time when Nigma contacts you to tell you about the puzzles, Batman NEVER SAYS A WORD TO NIGMA THE REST OF THE GAME. He silently solves the puzzles and never gives Nigma an ounce of satisfaction by responding to his taunting. Batman is stone cold amazing, and you feel the same even while collecting hundreds of random collectibles.

Frapathy October 26, 2011 at 1:14 pm

It’s kind of like the original NES Ninja Gaiden. You progress through that game thinking the nefarious Jaquio is the primary evil force, only to discover that the real sociopaths are the game’s designers. Unfortunately, I did not discover a Riddler statue when I put the controller through the drywall in my mom’s house.

Rich November 2, 2011 at 4:40 pm

haha i totally said that to myself as i was reading this

He'sdeadJim November 5, 2011 at 3:56 pm

NO NO NO the REAL villain of Arkham Asylum is Edward Nigma’s PARENTS, for pidgeon-holing him into becoming a puzzle based villain just so they’d have an amusing party-conversation starter.

Taco November 30, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Devook had a point, mindless fetch quests are mindless fetch quests which are a cheap way of adding x hours to the game. Especially how you get the items you need in order to get at some of the trophies _after_ you’ve past them. Long after, in fact.

The only reason I started picking them up was because the story felt very unrewarding (Work X hours to save a person only to watch them die in a cutscene, repeat), and The Riddler started to be less insulting and more.. Interesting. That got to the point where even a mindless fetch quest was more interesting than the story since the story was so annoying.

An example is Dr Young who you have to go through a fair few fights to get to, do the old “Aim for the head and save the hostage” skill shot, then watch her die, even though you picked up the grapple a while ago and are capable of shooting it so fast thugs with M4′s can’t hit you. Much better to start walking towards her instead of just yanking her out of the way.. Or things like the chandelier, Batman doesn’t kill people which is why the Joker is still playing his little game, but it’s ok to drop a big chandelier onto a bunch of crooks. In fact, you’re supposed to do that.

Because having a very large light fixture drop onto you from four or so stories up isn’t going to hurt in the slightest…

With a game like that, fetch quests become interesting. :P It’s not quite Templar slaying from Assassins Creed, seeking out and killing the odd Templar was quite enjoyable, especially when they were next to a garrison. Getting close enough to kill that Templar without getting slaughtered by half the guards in that sector was a nice diversion. But for a fetch quest that doesn’t involve stealthy execution ninja style, it was pretty good. I do however think arguing that game developers are geniuses is pretty lame when the games installer deletes the files it needs to start up several years after release. That says “I’m a lazy idiot” more than “I’m a genius who has a subliminal plot in Batman which you won’t pick up unless you’re smart enough to do fetch quests”.

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