Lessons from Batman: Arkham Asylum
Batman: Arkham Asylum is a game with an enduring legacy. “The best licensed game of all time,” some might say. The game probably spawned the phrase, “This game makes you feel like _______.”
That legacy is mostly warranted. It’s an entertaining and polished game. What surprised me, though, as I went back to play the game this week, is how scrappy the game is. It makes sense in context; you can’t find the game’s budget information, but I can’t imagine that Arkham Asylum had a ton to work with. What it pulled off with its limited scope is extremely impressive, and I’ve gleaned many lessons from it that I hope to apply to my game projects.
This post will contain spoilers for the entirety of Batman: Arkham Asylum
Be thrifty with your assets
Asylum is a short game by modern standards, clocking in at about 12 hours, according to How Long To Beat. That’s what drew me to it this past week, actually. I fall off of longer games quickly, and I was looking for a game I could beat in a few play sessions.
I was shocked to see that, in such a short game, there were a lot of parts of the story that had you re-treading the same areas multiple times. I was worried this would be a weakness for the game, but it was a strength. Over time, I gained a mastery of the environment and remembered how to navigate it effectively.
This sort of map mastery usually doesn’t work for me. The map of a modern Metroidvania game is much too large for me to keep in my head, but the grounds of Arkham Asylum are so compact that it wasn’t a problem. I could easily remember nooks, crannies, and shortcuts to look into later when I was better equipped.
What stood out to me the most about this reuse was how the developers kept the experience fresh. At several points throughout the story, they modify the map. Sure, you remember navigating Arkham Mansion; how would you navigate it when the bottom half is full of toxic gas? You remember platforming through the catacombs. How will you navigate it now that Poison Ivy has gnarled roots throughout it to block your path?
These modifications take what you’re familiar with and change it up to challenge you in ways that require your newest tools. Returning to the Mansion, getting around the toxic gas would be impossible without the Line Launcher you just unlocked, allowing you to zoom horizontally across the room. The game doesn’t rely on you to think to go back and try your new mobility options but instead organically makes you look at the same space in a new way.
The inspiration for this likely came from the inverted castle of Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night. In that game, to get the true ending, you must navigate the entire game with the whole world flipped upside down. The inverted castle was likely a thrifty way to make the game longer by reusing assets cleverly.
Arkham Asylum’s area modifications feel a bit more organic and a bit less shameless. Still, neither approach is invalid. As a developer, you’re always working within constraints, whether it’s money or how much time you can spare after work each day. Keeping your scope in check is essential, and if you’re clever with planning your game, you can get a lot of content out of relatively few assets.
If you do it right, your player might not notice they’re seeing the same content again. Or even better, they might be thrilled to see the same stuff in a new way.
Do a few things well
Speaking of reusing the same things in new contexts, that doesn’t stop with Arkham’s environments. When you think deeply about it, there are relatively few things you can interact with in relatively few ways. There are bits of the environment that you can grapple to, pull, explode, and climb; relatively few enemy types (you could count them on two hands); and only a few distinct scenarios the game puts you into in a few remixed ways.
Your interactions with the environment are well-defined, and the game does a great job of conveying to you what you can do and where. By scanning the environment with your patented Detective Mode, you can quickly find out what you’re able to do anywhere. Even without scanning, you start to intuit how exactly to interact with the world. By the end of the game, you’re using your gadgets one after another and navigating with ease.
Enemy variety is a weak point for the game, but luckily combat is quick, fun, and relatively uncommon. When you’re put into a full-on brawl, combat is uncomplicated. You can tell that a lot of the budget went into this combat system: you press the attack button, and Batman flies toward the enemy you’re pushing toward with a contextually valid animation. Combat is not the game’s center point; it’s one of the scenarios the game can put you into to make you feel powerful from time to time.
The main other scenario where you interact with enemies is in the stealth sections. This is where the game shines and delivers on reviewers’ “feel like Batman” chants. These sections are little sandboxes where you are put into an arena with a bunch of enemies and tasked with systematically dispatching them. But even these scenarios are made up of remixing a few tricks in novel ways. The rooms are a few gargoyles you can swing from, ducts to crawl through, and walls to blow up. Sometimes you can’t be seen, and sometimes the thugs have guns. Still, the variety ultimately comes from finding novel ways to arrange relatively few concepts.
This is the lesson to glean from Batman: Arkham Asylum as an indie dev. Define your actions (or “verbs” if you want to get all game-design-y), build a small bag of tricks, and you can find ways to arrange them in ways that create novel play experiences. You may not need as many truly unique objects as you think; after all, if Asylum can reuse the same gargoyle in every stealth room, you can reuse some things here and there.
This is where we get to the one major stain on the legacy of Batman: Arkham Asylum: the boss battles.
The game has two traditional boss battles: Poison Ivy and Joker. The rest of the game, due to its thrifty nature, has you interacting with the game in a few pre-defined ways, but these three sections eschew all of that to have you do boring bespoke combat encounters.
Poison Ivy’s fight takes the form of a giant carnivorous flowering plant, with her at the center. The boss has two different attacks. During one of the attacks, the center of the plant opens and closes, and you throw a Batarang at it when it’s open. Between hits, she sends out thugs for you to fight.
You have to hit the core 10 times.
It’s an absurdly long and repetitive fight, but it’s slightly less disappointing than the fight against Joker. The Joker is a psychological foil to Batman; Their struggle against each other is at its strongest when it makes Batman reconsider something about himself.
In Batman: Arkham Asylum, the Joker turns into a big muscly man, and you punch him. Sometimes you have to fight some goons. You pull him off a ledge three times, and then you win the game.
Joker’s boss battle being thematically weird is one thing, but the real thing to consider is: did this game need boss battles? As I said, combat is not the core of this game. This game is primarily about exploration and stealth, with the occasional break to fight some thugs. Having these two boss battles at the end of the game, back-to-back, does a disservice to the brilliance of the rest of the game.
It’s as if the game only has boss battles because it feels like it needs to. Other villains in the game don’t have big boss battles with weak points and health bars: Scarecrow goes down after you play some incredible platforming sections and fight some skeletons, and Harley Quinn is incapacitated during a cutscene after hunting her through a building. These may seem like anti-climaxes, but the leads-up to both endings make the ends satisfying.
The lesson to pull here is that your game doesn’t need X or Y because other games in the same genre have it. Does your game need boss battles? Does your game need fighting? Does your game need a fail state at all? It’s important to know when to take a concept you’ve assumed is necessary for your game and throw it out the window.
However, I did say that the game only has two traditional boss battles. There is one more thing that might not traditionally qualify as a boss battle, but it’s the blueprint for how to take the idea of a “boss battle” and apply it to this game.
Killer Croc rules oh my god
Okay, I wanted to have the title of this one match the others, but I’m just going to gush about the Killer Croc encounter in Batman: Arkham Asylum for a minute.
You encounter Killer Croc when you enter his sewer lair to gather some sap to craft an antidote (just go with it). The area is a maze of corridors, with floating wooden planks forming a path. You need to navigate the maze, get all the sap you need, and then get out. You have to walk slowly on the planks to avoid alerting Killer Croc and quickly throw a Batarang at him when he finds and charges at you.
A boss encounter should look like this for a game like Arkham Asylum. You’re using the skills you’ve learned in stealth and traversal to take on a foe hunting you down. You’re exploring and navigating a new space in a new way. There are even points where Croc destroys portions of the floor, and you need to use your gadgets to navigate over the holes.
Croc doesn’t have a health bar. He has “attack patterns,” but they test your ability to adapt and explore rather than your ability to dodge or fight. He’s not a boss in the traditional sense, but he serves the same purpose. You enter his arena to compete against him and, in doing so, test your mastery of skills.
The lesson here is to look at old ideas from a new angle. What purpose does a boss battle serve, and how can you get that same feeling out of your game using the systems you already have? Easier said than done, but if you pull it off, you’ll have something your player will remember and write a massive blog post about.
I didn’t go into this playthrough of Arkham Asylum intending to study it for game design. It was in the back of my head, but I really went into it expecting to just have a good time.
I couldn’t resist being struck by how clever the game is, though. The way it uses a few things very deliberately to craft a well-paced 12-hour experience was frankly inspiring.
I’m planning to play the rest of the Arkham series, and while I expect budgets will balloon a bit from here, I hope that the rest of the series learns from these strengths and weaknesses to build a better game. And as I think about getting back into developing my own games, I’ll definitely have these ideas in the back of my head.