Arkham Knight: How to Write Dialogue

So I’ve been playing through the Arkham games again. We’ll probably treat that as our next loose series after Call of Duty – it’s either this or Halo, depending on how quickly the next few games come out for PC. We’ll see. Anyway, today I want to look at how Arkham Knight deals with dialogue. The series as a whole is pretty dialogue-heavy – if you go for a replay, you’ll find you spend a lot of time on the phone to Alfred, outlining all of your plans in just a little bit too much detail. For the most part, though, the Arkham games are really good with dialogue. There’s a little mechanic where you can hear the conversations of thugs in a certain proximity – and most of those conversations either make you laugh, or make you want to find that thug and beat the shit out of him.

For instance, in Arkham Knight, you can hear one thug saying, you know, I’ve been in Arkham Asylum, and Arkham City (the previous two games in the series), and I’ve never seen Batman. Guess I’m just lucky. And ooh, you just really want to go and ruin that man’s life. Or maybe you want to let him continue, blissfully ignorant of how close he came to getting trounced by the Bat. Whatever you choose, the dialogue sets you up in such a way that the range of actions available to you functions as a type of response to the lines you’ve just heard. You can do this with certain boss fights, too – you’ll sneak up on Penguin or something, and he’ll be running his mouth about how Batman’s a big dumb idiot, and then you get to jump out of a grate and beat the shit out of him. There’s something really satisfying in that process. Sometimes you just want to sit there and listen to them, secure in the knowledge that whatever they say, they’re wrong, they haven’t beaten you, and they only continue to go around un-beaten because you haven’t yet deigned to jump out of a grate and smash them. It’s one of the ways in which the developers have dealt with the theme of player empowerment. It’s a superhero game, right – they make you feel like a superhero by having everyone talk shit about you, and then letting you prove them disastrously wrong. There were a few other similar little bits that I’ve seen – it’s hard to get screenshots, because it’s not usually scripted dialogue. The thugs will just say shit while you’re flying around or whatever – there’s not a lot of time to set up a nice aesthetic screenshot. But, for instance, when I played last night, one bad guy said oh, I feel sorry for Batman, I’ve got a black belt in Krav Maga. You hear it, snort a little, and go knock him right the fuck out.

Against all of that, I actually want to spend a bit of time criticising the dialogue in Arkham Knight. Much of it is really good, and the thug dialogue is pretty reliably hilarious. But there’s just a few moments that really kinda grate. For example, whenever Two-Face is running around, most of his lines invariably reference the number two. It’s okay in small doses, but after a while, it just – fuck, it’s just awful. Let me give you a sample – this is all from the ‘Two-Faced Bandit’ string of missions, where Two-Face is robbing banks with his goons.

“Whoever kills the bastard and brings us the body gets double their cut.”
“We’re gonna be rich even after Harvey takes his cut! Well, both his cuts.”
“That’s two bullets for each kid.”
“Let’s set a record tonight, boys! Hell, let’s try and set two, for the boss’s sake.”
“Hands off the boss, Bat-freak! He’s twice the man you are.”

And I get the underlying logic here. The Arkham games are all a little bit campy – they hit a mid-point between self-consciously silly and ‘I AM THE BATMAN’. It’s a stylistic cross between Batman and Joker, if you like – moody wish fulfillment that’s aware of how self-indulgent and silly it is. The twee, campy gimmicks of the different supervillains play into that second part. And most of the time, the balance is well-maintained. But sometimes – I dunno, I think the ‘two’ gimmick just fucks me off.

Part of the issue with this type of dialogue is that it’s often just reiterating stuff we already know about the character. This is actually a broader issue with dialogue in games writing – not just in the Arkham games, but throughout the industry. Writers will get a chance to develop a character, and instead of offering anything new, they’ll just reiterate things we already know. Think about every boss fight, where the boss has come in and gone ‘You’re going down,’ or some stupid bullshit variation on the same. On a character level, what they’re saying about themselves is just ‘I will fight you.’ If you see them again and hear something similar – ‘You won’t escape this time!’ – it’s still the same meaning. They’re still just expressing opposition. We’re not really talking about Batman, at this stage. There’s a broader point about how dialogue should work – it should be used for development. If you’re just reiterating stuff that we already know, you’re wasting our time. You’re taking time that could be used for deepening character, and just spinning your wheels. That’s bad writing.

To be honest, it’s a little unfair to make the Arkham games the poster child in this example. The characters in these games are arguably more motifs than anything else. They’re fundamentally static – it’s not totally fair to expect character development from them. That said, two points I will stick by: one, they can be fucking grating, and two, if nothing else, the reasons why they’re grating can help us conceptualise why bad dialogue is bad. Once you know that Two-Face has two faces, all of that dialogue listed above – it basically just boils down to that detail. Every time, it’s going hey, do you remember that Two-Face has two faces? Two of them? It’s wheel spinning. Add something new, or fuck off. That’s how you write dialogue.

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