"What would Batman do?" That's a driving principle behind the upcoming game Batman: Arkham Origins. And, sure, that's what the people making any game about a famous character are going to say. Still, how do they do that?
Part of it is having you control a guy that looks like Batman. Part of it is having you not kill people. There's more to it than that.
"I'm going to assume you have some passing interest in Batman if you're playing a Batman game," the game's creative director Eric Holmes told me recently while I played a demo of Origins at a PlayStation event in New York City. "You kind of want to play him as he's classically depicted."
Makes sense! You're playing as Batman; you want to feel like Batman.
"In the situations he's in," Holmes continued, "we want his options to feel like ones that are true to that property. Like, Batman with double-machine guns wearing—I don't know—no shirt, rolling around in a pink cadillac would be a horrible violation of the property, something I don't think we would want to make or that people would want to play."
Holmes: "The Batman of Origins is a guy who explodes out of a shadow, jumps on top of somebody, and their friends scatter ... They think it's a monster."
The enemies that you hit will twitch on the ground so you don't feel like you killed them. There will be random crimes in the Gotham City of Arkham Origins—an element new to the series—that you can intervene in.
"We want to make sure there's an opportunity for the player to feel like he is that guy doing the things in that world that Batman would do. And he's not punished for not doing them if he doesn't want to, but there really is a sense of pay-off for being that guy."
This might seem super-obvious, but games have gotten it wrong before. Many of us, say, have played a James Bond game that has Bond killing a dozen bad guys a minute or a sports game that mangles the stats and has a guy who'd never sink a three-pointer scoring repeatedly from beyond the arc.
While past Arkham games didn't violate the tenets of Batman either, it was actually a Simpsons game that helped remind Holmes the importance of catering to, what he calls, gamers who might "want to play the right brand character."
"I worked at Radical for many years. One of the most successful games that Radical made was The Simpsons Hit & Run. There were many ways that the guys on the team tried to add open-world activities. They were quite scientific about it: What sort of people will play this game? And one of the things they figured out was that one of the reasons people play Simpsons games are [that there are] guys that love the Simpsons. So they tried to add things that Homer would do, or Marge or Flanders and try to make opportunities for those moments to exist."
In a Batman game, saving random people from getting mugged is going to feel very, very Batman. So's this:
Holmes: "There are moments in this game where you have Gordon there and, in mid-conversation, you vanish. And that feels very true to the property."
Me: "Is that playable—interactive—that you can vanish on him?"
Holmes: "I don't know if I can reveal that right now. It's a good example of a moment that feels true. There's certain things that put a big smile on your face when you get to live these moments. Maybe you've only seen in a comic or a movie."
I like the sound of that, though I've got to say that a lot of the character-breaking, illusion-ruining stuff that happens in video games stems from the general stupidity of video game characters: missing a jump as Batman or getting knocked out by a random thug... that sort of thing. As the player, I'm often to blame. I'm often the one making Batman seem not like Batman. I appreciate developers who are going to try to help me keep it all on track.
As for the Batman you'll be in Origins, he's younger, more fearsome, angrier. That's who you can role-play.
"In Arkham Asylum, if you walk down a corridor and you see a guard, he'll say, 'Hey Batman, there's a friend of mine trapped in this room. Can you help me out?'" Holmes said, recalling the first game in the series he's about to release a sequel to. "The Batman of Origins is not that guy. The Batman of Origins is a guy who explodes out of a shadow, jumps on top of somebody, and their friends scatter because they don't know what jumped on top of them. They think it's a monster. I think that speaks to the early career of Batman, before he becomes an institution, before he's someone people know they can trust. He's an urban myth at this point."
Origins will be out on October 25 for PC, PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii U.
Me (playing the game): Am I going the right way? No, I'm not going the right way.
Holmes (pointing to the directional indicator): Head in the direction of the green arrow.
Me: You have Green Arrow in the game!
Holmes: No. You can officially quote me on that.