I’ve spent a long time dwelling on the problematic existence of “typical” narratives in open world games before. The sum of this was that the “open” nature of the game conflicts with “closed” proceedings of the central narrative. The expectations of an open world mean that there has to be compelling reasons to explore, it must feel like a living world – but these very distractions mean that a central narrative can be sidelined at any time loosing its importance and gravitas.
In the search for emerging narratives within games worlds, much depends on the development team doing the ground work and letting you find/tell the story yourself. But give the player a rigid central narrative to follow and any other stories that are being fostered act primarily as a distraction, ruining the pacing. In fact, this was one of the biggest criticisms for Arkham City when it hit the shelves. But labelling Arkham City as having “poor pacing” and leaving it at that is a touch unfair, and I’ll show you why.
When you journey through Arkham City you are constantly being bombarded by sub-quests; political prisoners being beaten, hostages being taken and a seemingly unending conflict with The Riddler. Each of these are inconsequential to the central narrative – ignoring a hostage isn’t going to stop Gotham City from being saved- but you’re Batman, you’re not supposed to leave them in peril. The sounds of a political prisoner getting viciously beaten in the alley below is a harrowing sound, do you glide off in search of the Joker, or do you stop to help out?
The Dark Night character of Batman/Bruce Wayne, is the very paradox all good superheroes come to inhabit at some point or another. Christopher Nolan’s filmic reboots of Batman couldn’t paint this in a much clearer fashion, these thematics are captured by Rocksteady in just as competent (if not better fashion). Batman can’t ever end a life, even if it leads to saving the lives of many. His very existence is what fuels his enemies and he acts above the law in the name of justice when many of those “villains” he stops believe they are doing the same – if in a more deluded fashion.
If you are already well acquainted with Batman or superhero paradoxes in general, you will be aware of these themes, however, the game constantly reminds you that your current quest is the most important. Whether it is Oracle or Alfred trying to usher Batman on, or one of the many psychopathic inmates of Arkham City hatching a plan, which has to be stopped, there can seemingly be no rest. Truth is there’s only one man who can fix everything and there simply isn’t enough hours in the day. Batman’s response is always confident, yet completely ambiguous, “It’ll be fine Oracle” or words to that effect repeated over and over begin to seem like he is trying to convince himself too.
The effect of this tug-of-war between the central narrative and the sub-quests in Arkham City gets you closer to the character of Batman, to his plight – to constantly be confronted by the ultimate decision to weigh the peril of one against the many. You’re rushing to save the populace of Gotham City from Joker’s evil scheme, you’re also being reminded of the imminent unleashing of the ominous “Protocol 10”, which is only “hours away”. But wait! An innocent man is being beaten, or a team of medics have been taken hostage!
Irrespective of whether you choose to help out or just fly past, the conflict produced here is the very focal point of Batman’s existence, which you get to play out. Every time you have to make this decision, you are playing your role in the paradoxical world of Batman. It is rare that an open world game can sidestep the issue of pacing in the central narrative whilst also promoting an emergent one – it is even rarer that an open world game embraces such an issue and integrates it into the narrative dichotomy itself.
This doesn’t right all the wrongs in Arkham City, the movement to the open world setting has opened several new cans of worms, which you can even see Rocksteady already working on in the game. In Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady perfected the mechanics, in Arkham City, they set the challenge, lets hope Batman’s next outing will see that challenge met and we’ll watch blissful union of narrative and gameplay in action.
Chris Green is a narrative designer/games writer who loves to talk story. Having recently finished working with Bossa Studios on Monstermind, the first PvP Facebook RTS and worked as narrative designer on some indie projects, he’s always looking for that next, great project. Get in contact if you’re the one with that project!