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I’ve been replaying Batman: Arkham Asylum recently as prep for my new series Explaining My Favorite Games to My Grandfather. As often happens when re-experiencing things that haven’t been touched in a long time, I was reminded of some of the things about it I didn’t like. Like the clunky and repetitive boss fights. Or the dull detective segments. Or the, ahem, problematic depictions of female characters.
But the thing that’s been bugging me the most, to my surprise, was something I didn’t even remember as being annoying: the cutscenes. Part of the reason these moments stood out to me is this great article on story in games that I read recently, which compares cutscenes to making a movie adaptation of a book by filming someone reading it aloud.
That metaphor applies to this game in a big way: as often as it makes me feel like The Dark Knight, Protector of Gotham City (he loves handing out his business cards,) it also tends to rip control from me at pivotal “Batman” moments that I’d love to have created for myself. A great example of one such moment is reaching dead man’s point:
As you’re approaching the cliff, even before you can look down and take in the excellent use of the unreal engine in this game to create beautiful landscapes, the camera fades to black and the “cinematic” takes over, showing you how the real Dark Knight would handle this.
It does the same thing earlier in the game, when you fight your way out of the first building and glimpse the open courtyard of the island for the first time. It’s a beautiful, moody, dark, majestic place, but in order to make sure you take it in properly, we get another cinematic.
But one of the worst offenders comes after an extended and difficult fight in the high high high security wing (they have a lot of high security wings in Arkham, such that sometimes you wonder if their blast doors are made of paper mâché and manned by monkeys, because a fat lot of good it does them). Harley Quinn has been looking down on you from the surveillance tower, calling out every missed counter and taunting as wave after wave of thugs come after you while the floors sparkle with health-sucking electricity. After you’ve punched every last one of their ugly faces into the re-enforced cement walls, Harley, seeing that she’s lost, makes a foolhardy attempt to down the bat herself:
…and Batman counters with a satisfying twist of the wrist, leaving her splayed on the floor. Now how hard would it have been for them to let me do that counter? Not very hard; there is a similar moment in the next game, featuring Harley in fact, where you can do just that. In fact, if memory serves, there were far less moments in the second game that wrestled control away from me needlessly; leading me to wonder if maybe these immersion-breaking “cinematics” were due to technical or budgetary limitations. Either way, they do a lot of damage a game that does so many things right.
If I sound mad, I’m not. Only disappointed that games I love so much are still trying to be movies. Making great videogames doesn’t mean taking control from the player to make sure they see the cool thing you made. Just put me at the helm, and I’ll show myself your pitch-perfect Batman story as operatically as I know how.