Batman: Arkham Origins creative director Eric Holmes has a hell of a task laid before him. Not only is his Warner Bros. Montreal team a newcomer on the franchise, taking over for series creator Rocksteady Studios, he’s also trying to tell a formative story in Bruce Wayne’s development. We’ve seen Batman’s origin told and re-told in so many different forms and mediums, it’s easy to look at the high-concept pitch for Arkham Origins and scoff. Yet when you sit down and look a little closer, you realize that we’re not going to see yet another re-telling of a vigilante being born out of his parents’ murder. That’s been done.
Instead, Arkham Origins concerns itself with Bruce Wayne’s evolution. Does Bruce Wayne become the Batman, or does Batman disguise himself as Bruce Wayne by day? At the start of Origins, it’s very much the former. By the end, however, it’s the latter. Bruce Wayne becomes the Batman. And Holmes readily admits that this was a challenging story to tell in our roundtable chat with him at the 2013 edition of New York Comic-Con.
Note: This was a roundtable interview with multiple reporters lobbing questions at Holmes . We’ve done our best to accurately transcribe the questions asked by other journalists, but some paraphrasing was necessary due to unclear audio.
Now that Arkham is a franchise, how are you fighting the law of diminishing returns? As players are doing the same thing for the third time now in the same universe, what are you doing to ensure that the gameplay is fresh?
You were definitely Batman in both games, and the core [play mechanics] are the same, but just talking about the first two games alone, there’s a fantastic evolution in the diversity of the combat, the diversity of the enemies, the expansion of the setting. If you look at those two games… the experience is significantly evolved. I think we tried to continue that trajectory; trying to add new gadgets, new ways to counter [enemy attacks], new ways to be rewarded for the depth of the skills that you use.
The Arkham mechanics are very deep. A lot of people will play through the campaign – this is totally true for both [earlier] games – and they don’t realize how deep it is until they finish the game. They go, “Oh, the story’s over. I’ll play these Challenge Room things.” So they play those and that’s where they start to really learn… there’s a lot more to this game than [they] realized when playing through the story.
“Well we make a decision, a philosophically based decision, and that is: gameplay first.”
Also, anytime you have a fight, every time you take on a room of Predator enemies, every time you take down a guy on the street, even just one guy, you’re going to get feedback on how you did. And you’re going to get rewarded more [in XP] if you use more of the advanced features, if you use more of the skills that you’ve got, more of the gadgets, more of the diversity, and you’re going to get closer to that next upgrade on much more of a tree-based [skill system].
As an overall closing of that loop, the idea is to show people how much better the game is if you play it a little bit better, and continue to give them an on-ramp to getting better. And if you do get better, let them upgrade faster. So I think what you’re going to see there is… more of that really solid gameplay core being exposed to players, and players hopefully feeling that they’re better than the game because they’re getting that feedback all the time. They’re always understanding that they could do a little bit better. Rather than finishing the game and then when they’re done, learning how much better they could be.
The playable area in Arkham Origins includes Arkham City as well?
There are two islands in Arkham Origins. There’s North Gotham and there’s South Gotham, and there’s a big bridge… linking the two of them up. That whole area is player-accessible, and it’s now big enough that we’ve added a fast-travel system to the game. The North Gotham island, part of the footprint of that island was – in the future, chronologically – the prison known as Arkham City. Not the whole island; some part of it. Also, all of the prison is removed from it [in Arkham Origins]. It’s turned into a functional city area.
There’s a major dockyards area added. If you remember in City, there was an area that was flooded and destroyed. There were no streets, just buildings poking out of the water. All of that is gone and it’s been restored with a dock added on to it. So the Wonder Tower area, you can actually now go there. You can go underneath Wonder Tower, you can go into Wonder Tower. There’s no big concrete walls or machine guns or spotlights forcing you back as you’re traveling around.
One of the challenges with prequel stories in video games specifically is, it’s the next in a series. So you want to evolve it, you want evolve the mechanics and the gameplay, but at the same time you’re telling an earlier story. So you’ve got this dilemma: how do I power up this character who is intrinsically younger and less powerful? How do you justify that narratively?
Well we make a decision, a philosophically based decision, and that is: gameplay first. We’re making a game, and we want people to enjoy playing that game and feel familiar coming in. So we haven’t nerfed Batman in any way. What we have is we have a game which is built on those mechanics [from the previous two games] and adds on top of them. So all the… gadgets, beatdowns, ground takedowns, all the special moves, we’ve carried all of that stuff over and we’ve added more to it.
“I think the most important part for us in the game was making sure the character has room to make mistakes.”
I don’t want to give too much away, but we have a big growth opportunity for Batman as a person, for Bruce Wayne as a person, through the events that take place. I think that having Batman at a very different place at the start of the game [as compared] to the end, understanding his role in the city, understanding how deep he’ll have to dig to overcome the opposition, I think that’ll be a satisfying story for the fans.
It’s also a unique opportunity to retell Batman’s origins. It’s sort of like Batman: Year One, where he starts out as this competent vigilante. There hasn’t really been a re-vamp or reinterpretation of the character along those lines in years. What was your experience in trying to help Batman develop?
I think the most important part for us in the game was making sure the character has room to make mistakes. I’ll give you an example. Look at Arkham City. There’s a scene where Solomon Grundy first turns up. He’s this big monster and he waves this giant ball on the end of a chain. He smacks it right down next to Batman and Batman doesn’t even flinch because, in my mind the way I read it, this Batman is so skilled and so confident that he knows exactly how long that chain is and he knows it’s not going to hit him. He’s just that good, and he is a classical depiction of the Batman. He is really, really good.
Our guy doesn’t have that yet. He’s still learning, he’s still growing. So he makes mistakes continually in our story, but he doesn’t make the same mistake twice. There’s a scene from the earlier part of our game where he’s interrogating someone. He wants to know where the Penguin is, so he interrogates that guy and starts to work his way up the food chain with Penguin’s gang. He’s interrogating this Penguin thug… and he’s picked the guy up and is choking him. He scares the guy so much… that he passes out and [Batman] doesn’t get the information he’s looking for. So he’s screwed himself. That’s not something the fully mature Batman would do.
Not long after that, Batman gets to the Penguin, and he picks him up in exactly the same way. He’s choking him in exactly the same way. But now he knows how much pressure to apply and he knows how long he can hold the guy there [so he can get] the answer he’s looking for. There’s examples of that through our story where he messes up, but he doesn’t do it twice. We know he’s inexperienced, we know he’s not fully a veteran, but we also know how resourceful and how smart he is as a person. So I think that was a very important part to realize for him. He’s very strong-willed, he’s very controlling, he wants to impose his worldview on things, but he’s not a fool.
How much here in this story you’re trying to tell is evolving Batman as a character versus Bruce Wayne?
The real question you’re asking is who is Bruce Wayne and who is the Batman and what do they mean to each other? Depending on which part of the fiction that you’re reading, I think the early career person is Bruce Wayne. He’s figuring out what this identity is. If you look at some of The Dark Knight Returns, which was a very important work for establishing that relationship between those two characters, you see the Batman has almost taken over and Bruce Wayne is the shell. Batman is the real person. But in our story, I think he’s still figuring out how he can be Batman, and what Batman is to him.