Wednesday, December 21, 2011

-REVIEW: Batman: Arkham City-
where storytime goes wrong

Title: Batman: Arkham City
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Release: $49.99 (PC, Steam, Multiplat too)

Batarangs, check. Batclaw, check. Batsuit, check. Psychopathic villains, check. Paradoxically benevolent sadomasochist ambivalent bipolar girlfriend, check. Superego-repressed narcissistic self-righteous chaotic good protagonist, checkmate

A large part of my appreciation of games comes from perspectives; that is, the phenomenon of perceiving. Sometimes I enjoy the perspective I control: wherein I find myself surrounded by lush forests or desolate ruins while taking bullets to the face, or being blinded by the flashes of a million cameras whilst delivering blows to a fleshy, turgid head. Other times I enjoy the perspective I provide: knowing that others see my accomplishments with respect to their difficulty or simply enjoy my ingenuity in design or customization.
When I step back from these moments, I realize that there is yet another perspective. All these various angles and various types, from both known places and persons  and unfamiliar ones, fall under the grand idea of perspective; the act of perceiving (and of course the perception of that act as well). The most enjoyable game for me then would be a game that takes advantage of each and every perspective it presents, elaborating on each with a deft curative skill and a firm, yet forgiving, guiding hand.
The question I’ve so roundaboutly posited to you then is “is Batman: Arkham City a good curator or not?”

And while I’d love to answer this question directly (and thereby save both you and me considerable effort and time), the demands of integrity and the need for context forces me to delve a bit deeper than a simple “yes” or “no”. But, beyond even these demands lies a set of principles that I think are obscured by some serious cultural presuppositions that Batman: Arkham City inadvertently challenges (and defeats). And that, my friends, is something that I think is something worth exploring.
PART I: The only good QTE is a dead QTE

Gaming journalists would have you believe that quick-time-events are bad design. Even more so, game developers would have you believe this, too. It’s unfortunate, mostly because neither of these people really know what a quick-time-event is. To most of us, we know them by example only: God of War’s much-lauded (and eventually trite) execution animations, which require a likely detrimental amount of televisual radiation being forced into our eyes (or risk failure), Call of Duty’s fantastic (and subsequently boring and tiresome) narrative clinchpoints that require robo-rapid button presses and woodpecking-pecking inspired precision, and others. These particular implementations represent what QTEs are in our minds, and as such prevent us from actually knowing what they are, in an abstract, principled form.
A quick-time event is axiomatic, in a sense. It is a scripted event that occurs if the player presses the correct button within a prescribed amount of time. “Quick-time” refers both to the speed of the button press and also to the shortness of the opportunity window. “Event” also has a twofold meaning: it is both what occurs as a result of the button press and also the opportunity itself. If broken down in such a way, it could easily be said that every game is a series of “quick-time events”, wherein some events are quicker in relation to others, but in all quick relative to the events occurring outside of the game itself, and all events occur as either opportunity windows or resultant events. So, the point is that not only are QTEs not bad game design, but in fact they are the only real design there is.

The particular type upon which has befallen such an ignoble label as “bad design” is simply one version of such QTE; namely the overt, explicit, mashy, twitchy type elaborated upon in the Call of Duty and God of War franchises. In this case the QTEs are simplistic and canned, but serve the purpose of providing the player a tangible link to the unbelievable acts that their avatar performs. It is necessary, this link, but it is not necessary for it to be implemented this way. Enter: Batman: Arkham City.
Firstly, the Freeflow Combat System in Batman: AC, is no more than a series of QTEs designed to simulate the experience of being Batman. The key difference between these QTEs and those of the other, more ignoble tradition is that these are “choose-your-own-adventure” QTEs: there are no explicit prompts, no guaranteed endings, and no prescribed directions for a given encounter. Instead, these prompts are subtle and double-edged: the quickfire gadget hints that appear do not require obedience, but doing so can be effective at times. The increasingly avaricious combo meter, as it increases in both size and intensity concomitant with quantity, pressures you to time your clicks more deftly. And of course the constant proliferation of incoming attacks (signified by the screaming heads of your enemies) and their production of counterattack opportunities maintains the pace of each encounter.
A person watching a player of Batman: Arkham City, as she taps buttons rhythmically while her body seems to tense with an overt ebb and flow, could be easily convinced that the screen before her is nothing but a string of imperatives, which she is in turn following unthinkingly. Imagine this spectator’s awe and surprise then, when they see nothing but the deadly ballet of broken bones and projectile collisions of a gorgeous combat performance. And yet the player herself is indeed seeing such imperatives, in her mind’s eye, from her own will. She is following the invisible, undeniable, self-fulfilling, self-gratifying chain of command which comes from within. She is one with the QTE. She is one with the game.
She is one with the Batman.

PART 2: You can’t have it both ways

Genreification is yet another apparent truth of modern gaming: people want to know what to expect. Nobody likes surprises, apparently. They want their shooters to be about shooting and their RPGs to be about RPing. They want their blockbusters to be about bearded men and archaeology (or detectives and the roaring 20s. Or murderous greek men and the gods who hate them.) They want their open worlds to be non-linear and their closed worlds to be virgin-vagina-tight.
Well, perhaps “like” is the wrong word. Rather, everyone has learned to live with this fact: games can’t cross genres successfully. In a given game, a balance must be struck, and is often struck at the cost of completeness. The ludonarrative dissonance of GTA IV’s singleplayer experience in contrast with its free-roaming nature was the result of attempts to inject morality and linearity into an open and amoral design. The stunted survival horror of F.E.A.R.’s later titles were the result of the FPS arms race, a coercive act that derailed both the scares and the booms found within them, which ended in the player being a paradoxical “walking death machine” fighting supposed supernatural forces. And more recently Battlefield 3’s hackneyed story and enfeebled singleplayer design standing out like a sore thumb compared to its legitimately groundbreaking progress in first-person shooting mechanics. These are the particular examples that have scared us into believing that genre-mixing isn’t just a bad idea, it’s impossible.

And while we still enjoyed these games, we always did so like caveat-burdened beasts, such that if asked to give recommendations, we’d necessarily preface every piece of praise with a 10-word qualification and a flurry of distractive gestures. Those days are now over.
We have had games that are capable of creating a strong primary narrative, intricately wrought worlds, and consequential optional quests. Batman: Arkham City is just another one of them. The beauty here is that it’s yet another refined element added to an already polished package. It also integrates into the game's combat mechanics; the narrative not only drives itself, but also creates believable scenarios in which combat is explored more vastly. Side missions also build one upon the other in these two ways.

PART 3: the house built on sand

Still, nothing is perfect. This final point is more speculation and personal opinion than those before it (or rather more so), but is substantial enough to warrant elaboration.
The weight, any weight, that this game seems to carry, from its dastardly curvy combat difficulty/complexity ramp to its world-class voice acting and story arc, isn’t really real. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but I’m saying it isn’t actually “there.” The truth is that this is a Batman game. Which means it’s not really a Game about Batman, as it is Batman: The Game. Lesee here…

We’re waiting for something really special. We are. We always have been. We have seen glimpses of it, and we have seen bits and pieces. Like some kind of strange roswellian mystery, we believe there is something out there. But it hasn’t actually come yet. Most often, the closest thing that comes to what we think we’re waiting for is something resembling something that already exists, but only slightly tweaked. Changed. A great UFO would really be just that: unidentifiable, flying, some kind of object. But unidentifiable. And unidentifiable even in plain sight. This is a true UFO.
More often what we find are unidentifiables due to circumstance, or perhaps due to unfamiliarity. Bad context, one might say. A kangaroo in an Antarctic blizzard may very well be unidentifiable (maybe that’s what a Yeti really is. A frozen kangaroo?)  A hairy dog at the bottom of a swamp may very well be mistaken for John Carpenter’s next big movie. But these things are not truly “new” or “real” unidentifiables, just things dressed up in a different way, or just using their unfamiliarity to present the same information from a different angle. These things…are not what we are waiting for.

And yet, this is what Batman: Arkham City is. It is a great game, yes, because it maintains itself firmly to be a game: you play it, you play through it, you interact, it reacts, it changes, you fail, you succeed, you learn, and it affirms (or denies) your choice. It is a game, a model, a thing to be played. But most of its greatness, or at least the key points of its greatness (that is: story, character development, writing, voice quality, world atmosphere, quest structure, narrative motive, protagonist foundation) must not and indeed cannot logically be attributed to the game itself. It is just a game about Batman, and any merit that the game has in terms of its lasting narrative quality is due to the fact that Batman is such a well-developed, interesting, storied, and in the end complex and badass character that even an average game about this insane man that simply allowed you to press buttons to turn the page would be a great game.
I don’t mean to discount those things that are in fact in the player’s control (combat, mostly), but I mean to dissuade people from thinking that this game is somehow a model for games to come. It isn’t. It can’t really be. And the reason for that is because it isn’t about games and it doesn’t strive to make games better. It doesn’t push. What it does do is repackage, repurpose, and re-present interesting, compelling, and in the end completely well-tread, established, in a word, old, ideas from one media and into ours. But it does so with only the minimum of boundary-ravaging in this medium, our medium.
Video games about other things are fine and good. And perhaps it is our curse, or our privilege, as partakers of this medium, to have our stories and our experiences be predigested by books and film before they are palatable in a video game. But I think not. There are still too many stories untold and too many models unexplored and unexperienced for us to settle for sloppy seconds. So on the one hand, enjoy Batman: Arkham City.

On the other, burn it, and never look back.