Recently I started playing Arkham City (yes, I know, its been out for quite a while) and, while I enjoy the game, I’ve been having a hard time figuring out exactly what makes it good. The plot, though fitting for a Batman/Comic-book-inspired game, isn’t particularly amazing or original. Many of the characters are well-written, drawing simultaneously from the nostalgia of their original depictions with a very modern twist, but many of them are just continuations of characters from Arkham Asylum, they generally don’t get a lot of screen-time, and some of the female characters are downright cringeworthy. The writing is often entertaining, especially when you eavesdrop on NPCs, but I still found myself skipping past a lot of these snippets of dialogue to get back to the game.
I’ve often heard my friends – and other people online – lament that games focus too much on improving gameplay without improving the story, characters, and writing. There may be some truth to this, but to claim that a game should ignore mechanical improvements entirely in favor of writing highlights a fundamental misunderstanding of game design, and Arkham City is a perfect example of how improved design can make or break a game without changing much of the writing or characters.
Games are very difficult to write for because the story is implemented in many different ways at once. A game can have dialogue – some of which may be interactive, some of it not – the story can be conveyed through in-game documents, or in the environment itself through posters and billboards. Sometimes the story is conveyed mostly through the level design itself. The thing is, in games, the story is most effectively conveyed when its tied to the gameplay. In Mass Effect players know the story will primarily come from the dialogue choices they make, and the game is built around that – and is further supplemented by the tone of the levels and the party-based combat. Games like Call of Duty tell the story episodically through mission briefs, with surprises and twists being conveyed in-level, mirroring the erratic and ever-shifting nature of ground combat. In fact, what makes most popular and acclaimed games popular and acclaimed is the way their gameplay is effectively integrated into their story.
What makes Arkham City of particular note is that the game not only features fantastic design, but also implements that design in such a way that the player is almost forced to appreciate it. The fluidity of movement in the city by climbing, gliding, and and grappling makes the player acutely aware of the ludicrous amount of effort that has gone into making this complicated map traversable while also seeming like a real metropolis. The Riddler’s riddles make the player think critically about level design, and also encourage them to pay attention to the many little details sprinkled throughout the world. Even the combat is built to be multi-faceted, offering the player numerous tools and tactics, that simultaneously brings out the character of Batman and the villains while highlighting level design, animation, and the gadgets at the player’s disposal.
Arkham City is a game that manages fantastic design, but its real achievement is the way it integrates appreciation for design into the gameplay itself. I sincerely hope that, in the future, more developers will be able to see that improving mechanics and writing isn’t simply about integrating more of one-or-the-other into the game, but ensuring that these elements are intertwined in a way that the design illuminates the game’s world and plot in ways that the player can appreciate.