Arkham City – the writing dos and donts

I don’t think anyone will be terribly surprised to hear that I spent most of the last two weeks playing Arkham City, rather than Christmas shopping, writing or spending quality time with my wife. I mean, come on, it’s a video game about Batman; the only way to make that more attractive to me as a package is have it dispense a shot of bourbon from the controller every time you get an achievement.

But as of yesterday I have finished the game (both the core plotline and the host of side missions) and having done so I think there’s a lot to consider from a writing POV about the way the game handles its stories and characters. Arkham City does some things right and some things wrong – more the latter than the former, to be honest – and a lot of that is pretty directly applicable to writing fiction. So let’s step away from the fact that the game is a lot of fun and features my favourite character and see what else we can learn from it.

(No, this isn’t a transparent attempt to justify the hours I’ve spent beating the crap out of bad guys on the TV. Honest. Cross my heart.)

Also, warning: if you haven’t finished the game yet, there’ll be some spoilers here. They might ruin your enjoyment. Or they might not.

Plot from premise

For a start, let’s talk about plot. Although promoted as being sandboxy and ‘open-world’, AC has in fact a very central plotline. More specifically, it has two central plotlines. First up, Hugo Strange has turned half of Gotham City into a giant prison, full of psychopaths and lowlifes, and Batman has to find out what Strange is really up to. On top of that, the Joker has infected Batman and a lot of hospital blood supplies with a deadly disease, so Batman has to determine and find the cure before he (and hundreds of others) die.

This is classic stuff – you have an A-plot and a B-plot, you move the spotlight between the two as the story progresses, and you use developments in one to modify the other. It’s very much the approach I’m taking with The Obituarist, for example. By having two main plotlines, you can build tension in one and then move to the other to maintain suspense, or pull the trigger in one to ramp things up in the other. Having just one core plotline in a long-form work doesn’t give you the same richness or as many tools, and you run the risk of pushing that plot too hard and boring your readers.

In addition, AC has about a dozen side plots and missions, plus a parallel storyline about Catwoman. Most of these link strongly to the strong central premise of the game – Gotham City is now a prison that causes far more problems than it solves. As I’ve said before, a strong premise is a constant story generator; you can bring an simple idea to it, put it through the premise/machine and some kind of plotline will come out. Video games tend to be premise-driven, of course, but AC‘s a good (not exceptional, but good) example of how it can work.

Bait, switch, drive a truck through the holes

But while AC has a central plot, that’s not to say it’s a strong plot. Or a coherent one. Or one that makes a goddamn lick of sense in some cases.

So yes, Hugo Strange is doing something bad. But you spend most of the game ignoring that, despite the fact that it’s the A-plot that’s central to the premise and plastered all over the blurb of the CD case. Instead, the Joker-infection plot takes over the core of the game and drives it forward, forcing you to ignore the increasing urgency of prison developments while you look for a cure. Which requires you to fight ninjas in an abandoned subterranean steampunk cult temple.

…yup.

You’ll go on a vision quest. You’ll punch a giant shark and a pair of one-armed former Siamese twins. Solomon Grundy throws electrified balls at your head. And a bunch of other stuff that floats in and out of the story for no really comprehensible reason. Finally you’ll get a cure, only for it to be stolen and the Joker to target Batman. At which point the A-plot comes back and Strange gets the legal right to kill everyone in the prison (!), and you rush to stop him while the Joker allies with the ninjas. Except that’s all bait-and-switch too, and brings with it a couple of plot holes that left me staring slackjawed at the TV, wondering how no-one on the writing team stopped and said ‘wait, correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s just fucking stupid’.

The main reason why these plot turns and events are problematic (apart from the huge holes) is that they’re divorced from the central premise discussed above. Playing a shellgame with plotlines can be interesting if done well, but are frustrating when bungled, and when your story wanders too far afield from the concept that got the reader interested in the first place. Similarly, while some side plots emerge fairly naturally from the central plotline and core premise, others come out of nowhere and feel completely tacked on (especially the one involving Azrael, which is either utterly pointless or an extended teaser for the next game in the series). Fun in and of themselves, their stories don’t satisfy, just as a disconnected subplot in a novel leaves the reader feeling distanced from the main story because of the apparently-pointless detour.

Oh, and the game finishes before you get a chance to cure the hundreds of infected patients in wider Gotham. Apparently there’s a post-credit epilogue that deals with that. But here’s a free tip for writers – if 80% of your novel has focused on a race towards a vital goal that must be achieved, forgetting about it and leaving it to be resolved off-screen and mentioned after the novel wraps up is bad fucking writing.

Rising tension

The advancement model of most video games is well-established by now, and AC does not do anything all that different. You start off fighting small groups of weak opponents, mooks and thugs who do their best to fuck you up but fail because you put your boot through their faces. You fight a few more groups, encounter a boss who has to be fought using different tactics, gain a new gadget or skill, and after a scene advancing the plot you’re back on the streets – except now the groups of thugs are a little bigger, a little tougher and using new weapons/tactics that you have to adapt to with your new powerups.

This is so far from radical it’s practically voting for Malcolm Fraser, but AC does it very well indeed. As the inmates form into massive gangs and get access to guns, shields, body armour and other toys, you never get the chance to feel complacent, even though you’ve also gained new advantages. There’s a constant pressure there to counterbalance but not negate your sense of achievement and to push you to do better, to give you the feeling that the stakes are continually rising.

As in games, so too in prose. This kind of rise / plateau / fall back to a slightly-elevated status quo / rise again pattern occurs over and over again in novels, and that’s because it works. It’s a slow dance of action, consequence, elevated stakes and into action again that gives a story an engaging pace and a reason to keep reading, if only to find out how the protagonist deals with this new turn of events. And it works for both action-packed page-turners and more introspective works; the raised stakes may be bruised emotions rather than 20 dudes with knives and tasers trying to slice your nipples off, but it’s an elevation nonetheless.

Too many c(r)ooks

The premise of AC gives a lot of room for including distinctive characters, as does Batman’s massive rogue’s gallery, almost all of whom have enough depth and history to be a convincing central threat as a core antagonist. What we get instead is a lumpy mishmash of unclear roles and pointless cameos, where characters that deserve substantial development time instead get five minutes of focus before tagging in a replacement to handle the next blip of plot. Within the main plotlines alone there’s a confusing blur of characters, from Mister Freeze to Two-Face to R’as al-Ghul to the Penguin, and they fall over each other in the race to take centre stage and justify their existence.

The side quests are even more rife with these additional characters, such as Mr Zsasz, Mad Hatter, the aforementioned Azrael and (sigh) Hush. In addition, riddles and clues about the whereabouts of more villains are all through the game, in such volume that they become overwhelming. When you find Calendar Man, of all people, sitting talking to himself in a glass-walled cell under a building, not contributing anything to any plotline in any way, it doesn’t make you feel that you’re glimpsing a wider world, it makes you feel like DC is throwing every bit of their IP against the wall in the hope you’ll go on to buy the action figures. Or inaction figure, in this case.

More is not always better, and a massive dramatis personae doesn’t automatically make your setting feel vast and varied; if you stick them all into your story at once, it makes it feel cramped and cluttered. It’s better to use a small number of characters and give them multiple story roles, so that they have recurring reasons to take focus, undergo development and then organically move that focus to another character with an overlapping remit.

Also, don’t put characters behind glass. They might suffocate.

The perfect antagonist

But for all that there are too many characters, there’s one that stands out above all the others as an incredibly engaging and fascinating opponent.

No, not the Joker or Two-Face, and certainly not the barely sketched Hugo Strange. No, it’s the Riddler. Who can kiss my entire arse.

The Riddler’s shtick is that he’s littered Gotham with riddles and trophies, which you obtain by solving puzzles, some of which are simple, some of which are just goddamn bullshit. You could ignore them, but he has hostages, and to free them you need to solve the puzzles, unlocking the locations of deathtraps as you go. And all the while he’s alternately mocking you for your stupidity and accusing you of cheating when you work out the combination of tricks and gadgets required to save a hostage.

It took me a week to finish the core plot. I spent the second week collecting trophies and solving ridiculously complicated puzzles because it was personal – because everything about this plotline was the Riddler saying that I, the player, was not smart enough to figure out his shit. So when I finally found him, pulled him through a set of weak floorboards and punched the question marks off of his hat, the triumph wasn’t just Batman’s, it was mine.

Now, as a writer, you can’t make the reader solve puzzles to turn the page – not unless you’re doing some very interestingly ergodic sort of stuff – but you can target the reader directly through a character’s portrayal and development. If you can make the reader take a character’s actions personally, whether thanks to identification with the protagonist or pushing emotional buttons directly (which is tricky, but kudos if you can pull it off), you give the reader a big reason to care what happens next. Don’t just leave them wanting the protagonist to succeed – leave them wanting the antagonist to fail. Do that and they’re yours.

Action is character

I’ve harped on this in the past, and I’ll probably harp on it again in the future, but action – stuff actually happening, onstage, front and centre – engages the reader and defines character far more than description. And like most video games, AC is action-adventure focused, and you’re constantly doing stuff. Well, more precisely, Batman is constantly doing stuff, and that’s a meaningful distinction. You’re more like a director than an actor or author in this game, guiding and making decisions for Batman rather than micromanaging him. He knows what he’s doing, and his actions show it – he fights hard, he always knows what gadget to pull out, he moves confidently from hiding place to hiding place, pausing only to silently smother a goon or electrify Mister Freeze’s armour. And outside the fights, it’s action – confrontation with villains, working out puzzles, infiltrating hideouts – that advances the story (albeit unevenly at times). There are cut scenes and conversations, yes, but those are still focused around conflicts and the actions required to resolve them.

The upshot of this is that the story never stalls, because there’s always something happening – even if, yes, that story and those actions don’t always make sense or connect properly. And because of this, we never have to be told that Batman is a man of action, that he’s prepared to do whatever it takes, that he thinks on his feet and refuses to lay down even when weakened near to death by the Joker’s disease – because we see him doing those things, and because we help and guide him as he does those things. There are dozens of backstory snippets that you can collect as the game goes along, but you lose nothing by ignoring them, because the story and character development doesn’t take place there – it takes place in the now, in the action, and in the immediacy of the moment. Just as it does in a novel.

Action is character, even when you don’t want it to be

The flip side to the above, of course, is that when a character says one thing and does another, it’s the action that presents the character to the reader.

And what AC presents is a Batman that talks a lot about never killing and doing the right thing (he even makes a little speech about it at one point), but his actions say something else. No, he never kills anyone, but he’s fine with letting people die through inaction. The game is rife with instances where you stand by and let the body count rise because you’re too concerned with other priorities. For example, a plotline with Deadshot has Batman waiting for the assassin to pick off targets so that he can pick up clues afterwards, rather than working from day one to prevent the killings. And that’s not even touching on the ending, where Batman slowly and reluctantly gets himself organised while Strange’s men deliberately massacre a third of the inmates, or where he carefully knocks out and incapacitates half-a-dozen armed gunman and leaves them littered around Strange’s HQ, only to abandon them to die when the joint explodes. These actions reveal him as either callous or incompetent, no matter his stated plans and sensibilities.

Ditto the thuggishness of his brutal interrogation of captured henchmen – bad guys or no, you can’t help but feel a moment of sympathy for them when Batman first terrifies them and then smashes their heads into brick walls or drops them off ledges once they spill the beans. I get that Rocksteady’s vision of Batman is darker and grimier than the traditional DC version – although it’s a pretty good fit for the less-well-written depictions in the new DC continuity that’s deliberately targeting the age-18-35-male demographic – but they’re still trying to describe the character as heroic within the game, and his actions belie that, leaving their protagonist more like an easily-distracted bully.

As I’ve said before, actions speak louder than words, especially in prose – which is weird, given that it’s all words, but you know what I mean. It’s all show not tell once again, and if you show your character doing the opposite of what you tell the audience he’s doing, they’ll think he’s a hypocrite and that you’re confused about your work. Make sure it all lines up, and remember that what happens on the page is what the reader will take in above all else.

See, folks, that’s all it takes to get me to write 2500+ words – Batman. If only he popped up in Arcadia I’d have finished the book months ago.

Next week, some flash fiction (plus visual stimulus!) for your Christmas reading. Just the thing for warming your heart after you have your pudding.

9 thoughts on “Arkham City – the writing dos and donts

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. Although I’m not a comic reader (my husband is) or into acomputer games (my husband is), I’ve learned enough about both topics through osmosis to be able to keep up with most conversations. And your parallels with writing were really well done.

    Thanks. I’m going to be thinking about this for a little while.

  2. It’s also so weird, considering how damn well they handled Arkham Asylum. So many of your issues here can, in that one, be handily answered.

    Distractions from the main plot: Minimal. There are the Joker challenges, but they’re fairly minor in the scheme of things.

    Too many villains: Yes, still plenty; but they make sense. Most get their one moment in the sun, and recede again in a very natural fashion. Killer Croc gets an early cameo, one (optional) one a bit later, and then he gets his big moment before he’s dropped like a stone. Bane gets a key moment and then is hit off the island, etc. etc. The Joker retains, at all times, the focus. It’s clear every other villain is operating because it suits Joker to LET them operate. The end result is tighter and more focused.

    Batman is a thug: Far, far less so in Arkham Asylum. There are maybe a few inmates who might conceivably have died from Batman’s actions in Asylum, but they’re sure not coming to mind. (My best guess are the ones in the gardens when Poison Ivy goes ballistic, but even many of those we get to see alive when we return.)

    Asylum was beautifully taut and well constructed. City is a mess. Oddly enough, that suits the themes of both games. (Asylum being about building your own hell brick by brick, City being about how the centre does not hold.) But it still winds up with Asylum being the better game by a long shot.

    1. Yeah, pretty much agreed on all counts. AA is focused and directed where AC is not just sprawling but muddled.

      And while AA still has tough Batman, the psychodrama elements give you the chance to develop sympathy for him, what he’s gone through and how hard he strives. AC tries for that with the TITAN infection, but it never emotionally clicks.

      In terms of gameplay, I do think AC is stronger – more engaging puzzles, more varied bossfights, more toys to play with and ways to approach problems. But both gameplay and narrative matter in a game like this, and it’s a shame they dropped the ball on half the project.

      1. There is one other really weird element for me, and it’s this:

        Arkham Asylum is about Batman walking through hallways, whereas Arkham City is about Batman zipping across rooftops.

        Strange, but that alone really became an issue for me. In a Spiderman game, zipping around in the air makes sense. But in a Batman game, it doesn’t fit in the same way. Batman glides, yes, and you did in Arkham Asylum, too. But Batman is defined by that slow, resolute walk in Arkham Asylum. It clearly shows his character. Implacable. Calm. Patient. Observant. Arkham City lacks that so much, in the moment to moment.

        Such a small thing, but it really did make a difference to me.

        1. I agree on that too. At first the freedom to explore rooftops and move freely in all dimensions is exhilarating and in-character, because yeah, Batman does a lot of that.

          But then zipping and gliding take over so completely that you forget to walk. You never climb, you never explore the space you’re in; you never move from one side of a rooftop to another. You’re too kinetic, and you’re too busy moving to connect to the narrative space. Everything’s a spot to get past while rushing to somewhere more important.

          Again, lack of focus. Whether on the part of the player/reader or the avatar/character.

          Now, admittedly, I tended to run everywhere in AA, not walk. But even that gave a different feel to the character than all-but-flying everywhere.

      2. Open-world games always struggle with the sense of ‘urgency’ in a game. You’re constantly being told in AC that something is ‘counting down’, that Protocol 10 will commence in X- so it feels strange, from a narrative sense, that you would take the time to do Augmented Reality challenges and hunt down a sniper and solve Riddler puzzles, when you’ve got these ticking clocks up against you. The trick from the gameplay perspective is to just recognize that there isn’t a ticking clock- you’re not going to die from the virus and Protocol 10 will occur no matter how fast or slow you blat through the main questline.

        There are similar problems in Oblivion, Mass Effect, Red Dead, Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry 2- they all have things that really need to be done as soon as bloody possible, yet they also expect you to have time to go on very time-consuming side-quests that ultimately have no impact on the larger, overarching problem that drives the story. But the reverse of this is what they did in LA Noire, where they have an open-world *engine* but only a single narrative plotline that you pretty much have to follow-through on rails- so you have the impression that you can wheel about doing side-quests al la GTA (and really, what better format for it than being a cop?) but get frustrated when you realize you actually have to stick to the single, pre-determined story. The only open-world game that actually DOES have a real-life clock via which things get progressively worse is ‘Dead Rising’, and it almost broke the game (because if you didn’t do X, Y and Z before a certain time, you could not progress and had to start from scratch).

        There’s not much of an answer to the conundrum it other than finding a balance, really. Skyrim’s main quest seems less urgent than Oblivion’s, but then you have the downside that there’s not much in the narrative compelling you to progress. I guess the answer in Batman is to do the “urgent” quests as fast as you can, and then go back in post-story and do the side-quests. The problem with that is (for me, at least) that without the narrative to drive the world I have trouble going back in to do side-quests ‘just cause’- I need the story to keep me involved.

        But when it comes to the story v. gameplay balance, the devs are correct to put the weight into the gameplay- because that’s what games have over other storytelling forms. I’m not saying that your points are wrong- on the contrary, they could and should have been paid more attention and it could have been a much better game as a result. But I think they made the right call in making AC more open-world. AA exists and it is wonderful, but no-one played that game and didn’t think to themselves: “This could totally work in Gotham!” AC tried to get bigger and better- even if the end result was not as narratively satisfying as AA, it was still the right call.

        I think you’re being a little harsh on Bats- there were multiple times during the game when his refusal to kill was a defining theme of the story- I think it was front and centre in a way it often isn’t in a lot of Batman stories (I guess because Arkham City was SUCH a dangerous place, the temptation to ‘do away’ with the problem elements was much stronger- it occurs to me now that the reason that you can’t kick thugs off of roofs when you land on them from above is a built-in game feature to prevent you from ‘accidentally’ killing someone- talk about the gameplay bending to the theme!) I actually choked up a little when Batman just REFUSED to kill Ra’s- even to save countless others. It was a beautiful, honorable distillation of his own special nature- he really is a Knight. Not many games choke me up so massive props to AC for somehow achieving that pathos, if only for a moment.

        But part of his special nature is that Batman is not a cop. He is outside due process. I don’t know what gameplay mechanism you are envisioning for thugs he leaves unconscious on dangerous streets. Does he tag them for pickup? By what agency? Batman is not the law- he is a vigilante. He is the force that goes around the law, because he saw that it was not working. AC is also a distillation of that idea- the the law in Gotham just doesn’t work, so you need a Batman. There’s plenty of Superman stories about the idea that he just can’t save everyone- he could be Superman 24/7 and just be on the run constantly and Clark Kent could fade into oblivion and there would still be plane crashes and murder and natural disasters. Batman isn’t even superhuman- his story has always been about carving out his own little slice of justice, not fixing the whole pie, one criminal at a time. If anything, he needs *more* stories about how he can’t save everyone, not less. Stories about where everyone gets saved and no-one dies and everything is okay at the end are for Doctor Who season finales where the Doctor is magical all of a sudden. Batman has always been a candle in a raging wind- he does what he can, but he can’t be everywhere and do everything- and I think it would have been a cop-out if the game had tried to ‘have it all’, to ignore the fact that he DOES use terror and he does break bones and leave people crippled and he is up against people who are out to kill him and other innocents and that means he has hard choices to make- he can knock out some thugs on the way to the cure and that it was *their* decision to side with super-criminals like The Penguin or The Joker.

        Games have come SUCH a long way in such a little time. I think the quality of AA/AC is *so* high that it adjusts our expectations in a strange way, where we think: “Oh, they should have tweaked that, and that.”, forgetting that AC makes the contemporary Iron Man games (another pair of open-world superhero actioners), look like they are from a bygone era. It’s a huge leap forward, and for many people it’s legitimately GOTY. Which is not to say we shouldn’t critique and discuss the problems (and I very much enjoyed your breakdown and love talking games and comics witchu), but we should also acknowledge that it’s, bottom-line, a really great game.

        1. Hey Dan!

          I agree that the gameplay is great – and yeah, I agree that if you have to choose one over the other, it makes commercial sense to focus on the gameplay.

          As for being harsh on Batman – yeah, I am. Because he’s a character that’s been defined over 70 years as practicing what he preaches – of being a figure of fear but not of callousness.

          You can get away from that portrayal, and that’s fair. But what AA does is say that it’s sticking to that portrayal, complete with that specific refusal to kill R’as – but then the callousness emerges in the way you play, the oversights the game encourages you to make, and the outright failures that the game forces upon you.

          In the end, I’m not really looking to review Arkham City – I had a ball playing it and I think it’s a terrific game. What I’m specifically interested in is the way it develops a narrative and the lessons that can be extended from that into other narrative forms. Which is more like taking an example as an object lesson, rather than being critical of the game qua game.

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