The Batman universe is no stranger to video games. For years, we’ve been beating up thugs as the caped crusader, often having to end each title with a climatic fight against famous comic villains such as The Joker, The Penguin and The Riddler. Even RockSteady’s revolutionary Arkham games have – thus far – only featured the usual spray of villains. These hardened criminals have been around for decades, originating from various Batman comic arcs. As a result, Batman video games have felt more like an homage to the comic roots, telling different stories about the caped crusader’s struggle to apprehend the most dangerous criminals in Gotham.
However, with the latest batch of screenshots for the third game in RockSteady’s Batman trilogy – Batman: Arkham Knight – the meaning of the title has been revealed: the Arkham Knight is a new Batman villain, one designed by RockSteady, DC Comics’ (DC) Chief Creative Officer and comic-book writer Geoff Johns, and DC Comics’ co-publisher and comic artist Jim Lee, specifically for the developer’s latest title. This is a momentous step forward for the Batman franchise and for video game storytelling in general. RockSteady’s masterful depiction of Batman has allowed it to not just use the Batman universe, but also to add to it in unprecedented ways.
RockSteady has been given creative freedom, with the help of DC, to essentially produce the next big villain for Batman to tackle. It shows DC and Warner Bros. – which would have had some say it in the matter – have immense faith in RockSteady’s storytelling ability. Through producing two amazing, true to the universe, video game experiences (Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City), RockSteady has earned the trust of one of the most popular brands in the entertainment industry – DC. Not only does RockSteady get to use the Batman IP, but it also has permission to create new lore and new canon for the universe; a universe which is accompanied by over 75 years of history.
Different entertainment mediums are utilised to expand on universes all the time though, right? As far as I know, this is rarely true when it comes to comics. Sure, there are a plethora of television programs and movies based on comic book series, but how many of those movies and television programs have the privilege of creating new main villains? As a recent example, the Marvel movies have only – thus far – included villains from their respective comic book universes. Christopher Nolan’s award-winning Batman trilogy did not even create its own villains!
With that in mind, when a comic brand gives permission for a video game studio to create a new villain, it is a big deal! It adds a level of authenticity, rather than the product being seen as a simple nostalgia trip or money grab.
Think about it this way: those who indulge in comic books do not read them to see the protagonist face off against the same few villains over and over again. Most people read comics for new stories of their favourite hero presented in a visual medium, as opposed to written words or moving images. Batman: Arkham Knight is a new Batman story arc. The only difference is that it is presented through a more interactive medium.
RockSteady’s success allows the Batman universe to expand its horizons. Rather than restricting itself to one medium to add to the rich universe, the franchise is adapting to newer, more emerging forms of entertainment in order to reach a wider audience; just as it has through movies and various television shows.
Let’s not forget about video game storytelling in general. What’s more validating for video game storytelling than a long surviving medium (comics) allowing one of its most popular franchises to be expanded upon through the video game format? Movies, television and books – comics included – are mainstream forms of storytelling. Heck, school students – in Australia at least – are forced to analyse them year after year by the Government. Yet, even after over forty years of enjoying interactive entertainment in the home, the storytelling aspect of video games receives little mention.
In the last decade or so, the ability of video games to tell great stories has improved. The power of this decade’s home consoles allows developers to incorporate aspects of movies and television to create a detailed, immersive viewing experience. Such features that come to mind are motion capture and high quality graphics. Couple them with the interactive features only possible in a video game, and you’ve got yourself a new storytelling medium.
Of course, the amazing storytelling in games like The Last of Us, TellTale’s The Walking Dead: The Game, Spec Ops: The: Line, and – in a different manner – Gone Home are made possible by the great, behind-the-scenes work of sound designers, writers, producers, etc. The influx of talent in the video game industry has used the improved technology available to create an unparalleled experience.
To highlight a recent case, Neil Druckmann – a writer on Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us – was presented with a Writers Guild of America award for Outstanding Achievement in Writing for Video Games. To be handed an award from the Writers Guild of America is no easy feat. It proves that video games are slowly being accepted as a form of storytelling.
Bringing everything back to my point, video game storytelling has evolved to a point where gamers can experience emotional, humorous, and action packed stories in line with the quality of Hollywood blockbusters, award-winning television programs, and classic novels – on both the production and writing side. Video game developers are continually finding new ways to do something film, television and books are incapable of doing: tell an amazing story that the player can interact with.
With the partnership between DC Comics, Warner Bros. and RockSteady on Batman: Arkham Knight, the unique story telling potential of video games is being acknowledged. This is only one comic brand allowing video games to expand its universe through character creation. However, it always starts with one.
I dream of a day when video games will be seen in the mass media as more than just toys. Video games are interactive experiences not possible in any other medium. DC understands this. It is willing to place its most popular franchise in the hands of a video game developer. Hopefully, soon, others will follow suit.