This series is the main reason than you don’t hear the saying ‘Comic characters never get good video games’ nowadays.
The impact of Batman: Arkham Asylum cannot be overstated.
It launched a little-known British software company named Rocksteady into the spotlight, and they’ve remained there ever since – they even had their very own segment in DC’s 2020 online event, DC Fandome.
More than that, it showed game developers and software houses worldwide that video games about comic characters couldn’t just be good, they could be genre-defining masterpieces (in the right hands).
Join us as we take a brief look at the history of the Batman: Arkham series.
PLEASE NOTE: While it’s true that Rocksteady is currently experiencing certain controversies regarding company culture, this article will be focused on their games.
History of Batman: Arkham – Origins of Asylum
Origins of the Arkham Asylum game.
In 2007, Eidos Interactive (now known as Square Enix Europe) gained the rights to make a Batman game.
They approached the fledgling software house, Rocksteady, and were impressed with their Batman game prototype. This resulted in Rocksteady being given the opportunity to develop the game.
Rocksteady wanted a similar feel to the wildly successful ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ (BTAS) TV show, which would impact the game in a couple of ways.
The first way it impacted the game was that they sought out Paul Dini, who wrote not only for BTAS but also for Detective Comics – the ongoing comic title in which Batman first appeared over 80 years ago!
Rocksteady and Dini worked together to create a story. They chose Arkham Asylum as the location of the game due to its isolated nature. This worked to their benefit in at least two ways: They could justify a standalone story, and the artists and designers could focus on their work (instead of having to create an entire city and then working out how to fill it with enemies/traps/etc.)
Their desire to incorporate a BTAS feel also had another effect on the game, one that’s rarely mentioned with regards to Batman: Arkham Asylum’s immediate popularity: They hired the same voice actors from the show: Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as Joker, Tara Strong as Harley Quinn (who first appeared on BTAS, not in the comics) – and so on.
But BTAS wasn’t the only inspiration for the game. Once they’d decided to set the game in Arkham Asylum, they found a lot of food for thought in the graphic novel, ‘Arkham Aslyum: A Serious House on Serious Earth’. The comic was written by Grant Morrison, and is a deep-dive into the neuroses, psychoses, and outright weirdness many of the Arkham Asylum inmates.
The subtle ‘you are playing a game’ narrative shown during the Scarecrow segments, as well as the claustrophobic-feeling map design – no mean feat on a world map with plenty of wide open spaces – were inspired by the game Bioshock. The gadgets, and the way they can often be used to solve puzzle elements, were inspired by The Legend of Zelda and Metroid.
Building The Combat
However, the most successful part of the game – even beyond the amazing graphics, the absolutely perfect sound design, and the incredibly immersive atmosphere – was undoubtedly the combat.
The combat went through multiple iterations.
The first version was a rhythm mini-game, possibly due to the popularity of rhythm games at the time. This was then changed to a 2D mode, which didn’t work because it felt even more like a rhythm mini-game than the actual rhythm mini-game they’d just thrown away.
They translated the 2D combat mode into 3D, and they knew they’d found their combat system.
The game sold very well for a comic book hero game, and even introduced many new fans to the world of Batman.
History of Batman: Arkham – Into The City (And Beyond)
About 6 months before Arkham Aslyum shipped, work began on the next title in the series, Batman: Arkham City.
In fact, Rocksteady had already created the play-area map for Arkham City – they even hid it for players to find in a certain area of Arkham Asylum!
The idea behind Arkham City was very loosely based on the Batman comic crossover event, ‘No Man’s Land’, in which Gotham was isolated from the rest of the world due to an earthquake. Most of the citizens are evacuated, but some chose to stay behind.
In Arkham City, however, a large section of Gotham is barricaded off and used as a ‘prison city’, meaning it’s full of criminals. In this way, Rocksteady were able to set the game in a city, but also use the same gameplay mechanics they’d created for Arkham Asylum.
Arkham City allowed the player to play as other characters, such as Robin, Nightwing and Catwoman.
The Other Arkham Games Still Stand Strong
The prequel Arkham Origins came next, and was the first game in the series developed by Rockstar Montreal. While it was plagued with problems at launch, most of these problems are now fixed, and the game holds up surprisingly well (especially considering that many fans refuse to acknowledge the games existence). Arkham Origins launched with a multiplayer component, which is sadly no longer running.
Arkham Origins, being set much earlier than the previous two game, also used a different voice cast.
The next game in the series was the divisive Arkham Knight. With many comic fans guessing the big plot twist before the game had been released, the developers chose to say ‘No, it’s a completely new character’. This would be proven to be a lie after the game’s release.
The reason we’re being secretive there is because it’s a pretty big spoiler, and – like the rest of the series – the game is well worth playing, even today.
While not technically a sequel (it’s a spiritual successor, similar to relationship Bioshock has to the System Shock series), the next Rockstar Batman game, Gotham Knights, will be developed by Rockstar Montreal, and will contain a multiplayer mode.