Let’s talk about sight in Arkham Asylum. Recently I’ve been thinking about doing a longer comparative piece on the Arkham games – something about the different architectural styles, how they change from one game through to the next, and what that says about their different stakes and themes. We’re going to end up with a lot of screenshots. Just – just prepare yourself for that, a little. As an introduction, in the meantime, just as a little exploratory piece, I want to start with how Arkham Asylum manages the basic question of sight.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is a 2009 game from Rocksteady Studios. I’ve – oh, I thought I’d written about this game before. Uhh – it’s the first of a trilogy of Batman games, with the second and third titles being Arkham City and Arkham Knight, and there’s a loosely associated prequel game, Arkham Origins, made by a separate company. I’ve written about half a dozen articles on Arkham Knight (this one on pressure is pretty good), and apparently nothing directly about Arkham Asylum – so I’ll give a little more of an overview. At the start of Arkham Asylum, Batman has caught Joker, and is returning him to Arkham. Joker escapes immediately, naturally, and Batman hunts him through the asylum as everything around him descends into chaos. Inmates start escaping, supervillains wreak havoc, and Joker tries to build an army of hulking mutant monsters. Standard day in the life.
As the first game in the series, Asylum takes the time to introduce its mechanics. It labours the point about what’s going on and what you need to do about it – it really deliberately curates and directs your experience. One of its tricks is to introduce stuff at the end of corridors that you’re forced to run down as part of the game. For instance, in the moment above, we have to run down this hall, and at the end of it we’re confronted by this cryptic symbol. It’s just sitting at the end of the hall, right in our eye line. It’s impossible to miss. And some help text pops up and frames the symbol as well, telling you explicitly what you’re meant to do with it. Collectible Riddler trophies are introduced in a similar way – you’re crawling through a duct, you round a corner, and – oh, there’s a glowing green question mark, right there in front of you. Better go find out what that is!
All three games pull this basic trick of directing your gaze by controlling the shape and layout of the environment. Usually it’s while you’re moving through vents, although it comes up in other places as well. Arkham City has a great sequence when you first meet Joker and his Abramovici Twin: you’re crawling through the ducts, and they’ve designed the duct layout so that walls cut away at specific places (as above). It gives you these really cinematic moments as this giant one-armed clown threatens to bash in a medic’s head with a hammer. It’s all in-game action that’s happening while you’re moving – so it feels really immersive, like you’re actually moving through a moment in time rather than just acting out scripted moments. It brings this sense of risk and drama, this time sensitivity, a feeling that you have to hurry – stuff that just doesn’t happen in many other big games, especially the open-world ones. Arkham Asylum is maybe a little more heavy-handed with this method. It’s not as refined, not as cinematic, but you can see them starting to figure out how to use it.
There are two stand-out moments here in the game’s first building, both arguably relating more to gameplay information than to pure cinematic drama. As you rock up to the end of an early air duct, you see through the grill a guard backing away from some inmates. He’s begging for his life, and they shoot him down. It’s short, and not as elegant as the Arkham City moment, but it’s an effective method of communicating information. It shows you the bad guys and warns you not to run out in front of them. It establishes threat really neatly. Similarly, the very next room after those rioters is where you play your first Predator challenge – essentially a stealth challenge where you have to sneak around and knock out guys with guns. Asylum uses its air duct trick again to introduce the threat: as you come round a corner and get close to the end of the duct, you can see an inmate on the other side picking up a gun off the corpse of a security guard (above). Again, the game knows where you’re going to be looking, and it uses that knowledge to show you things that affect how you play.
So that’s all fine, right. It feels like relatively straightforward game design. Arkham Asylum teaches you the game by knowing where you’re going to be looking at certain moments, and by putting things in your eyeline. At the same time, Arkham Asylum is a Metroidvania. It’s not just a linear environment – it’s an interconnected map, where you can go just about anywhere, pending access to certain areas which are gated by unlockable abilities or upgrades. For example, from the very start of the game you can go to the Mansion (above), but you can’t get in until you’ve unlocked the Batclaw. The main entrance ends up blocked by an electric barrier, and you need the Batclaw to sneak in through – what else – a vent. Metroidvanias are a contested term, I suppose, but one of the characteristics in my mind is this experience of inhabiting a space that you negotiate and renegotiate as you collect further upgrades. A big part of that experience is exploring, hunting for secrets. In that sense, the space of the asylum has to be designed to conceal as well as direct. From the player perspective, we have to conceptualise sight in a more complicated way. You see the things that are given to you, sure, but you’re also expected to get proactive – to seek, not just absorb.
In addition to the teacherly aspects of level design, then, Arkham Asylum also hosts all these tricky little moments that encourage you to look more critically at the world around you. As security guards and Arkham staff betray you, you’re encouraged to reconsider how much you trust the characters around you. As you investigate crime scenes, you flicker through different visual filters – alcohol, tobacco, fingerprints – literally changing the lens that you use to look at the world. And, of course, the most obvious examples – the hallucinatory Scarecrow sequences. You’re doused with fear gas on three separate occasions throughout the game: at each juncture, the game starts getting weird. In the first instance, you enter a morgue, and the doors on the body storage start swinging open and shut, hissing at you – Get Out. When you leave, you find yourself exiting back into the morgue. Comfortable reality becomes unstable: rather than looking at the world as it’s given to you, you start to interrogate it a little more closely. Is this real? Is this how it’s supposed to be? Examples can be multiplied throughout these encounters. At the start of the first encounter, you think you see Jim Gordon dead, but you later realise you were just drunk on Crane’s fear gas. In the third, it’s set up to make you think the game has crashed, and it plays a redesigned version of the opening cutscene. You get these lovely inverted little details, like the Bat-symbol in the original cutscene replaced by a hanging bat integrated into Crane’s face (above).
These are pretty well-known sequences, and the broader community has discussed them at length – but I think what’s interesting here is how they tie into the question of sight. With Arkham Asylum, it’s easy to feel like you’re in control. It’s a power fantasy, and it takes the time to make you feel in control. You find yourself learning elements of gameplay quite naturally, just by virtue of your moving through the game. The Scarecrow sequences offset that sense of security. They happen just often enough to keep you questioning what you’re seeing. And that edge, that tendency to interrogate what’s in front of you – it’s something the game rewards. There are tangible rewards in the collectibles and challenge maps unlocked by finding Riddler’s trophies, but there are also little subtle things that can be pretty satisfying too. In the Medical Facility, when you go to save Chen, there are bad guys hiding on a platform above you. You can see one of them hiding over Batman’s shoulder during a cutscene. When you first enter the room, they’re not immediately visible, but you can use your Detective Vision and spot them lying in wait. Similarly, near the end of the game, one of the transition areas features a group of Arkham guards clustered around an unconscious inmate. When you get close – surprise! They’re actually Joker’s thugs. Again, it’s not huge, but you can see this little twist coming if you scan them with your Detective Vision (the third image in the gallery above). If you bother to look, you’ll know ahead of time: these guys are hostile.
In the long view, all of these examples are subject to the law of diminishing returns. Once you know about them, they might arguably have less impact on subsequent playthroughs. You don’t really have to think about what you’re seeing when you’ve seen it all before. We talked about this problem in relation to Arkham City, back in the dark days of 2017 (Arkham City: Surprise!), and I don’t think it’s a problem that Rocksteady fully manage to overcome – at least not in the first two games. But we’re still able to appreciate the construction of sight in Asylum – how it’s balanced both as something given, as a tool for teaching the game, and as something for you to grab hold of and interrogate. The game strikes a fine balance between these poles. I think that’s part of why it’s such a powerful game.