Batman: Arkham Asylum Q&A: Writer Paul Dini on Arkham, Batman, and More
The longtime Batman scribe talks about bringing the dark knight to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
Though Paul Dini has worked on many projects during his long and prolific television career, the writer and producer is perhaps best known for his work with DC's seminal crime fighter, Batman. Whether it was the classic Batman: The Animated Series, the futuristic take on the dark knight in Batman Beyond, the more recent The New Batman/Superman Adventures, or even his work on DC Comics' Detective Comics, few creators know the Caped Crusader more intimately. It's not much of a logical leap, then, to understand why Eidos, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, and developer Rocksteady Studios jumped at the chance to work with Dini on the upcoming Batman: Arkham Asylum. In the game, Batman will be facing his archnemesis, the Joker, as well as a who's who of Batman's villains, all while isolated in the creepy confines of Gotham City's insane asylum, Arkham. Recently we had a chance to chat with Dini over the phone about his approach to revisiting Batman once again and about the process of bringing a beloved comics character to life in a video game.
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GameSpot: Have you worked on any games in the past?
Paul Dini: I have. A long time ago, games were something that would come up infrequently, where I would wind up either cowriting on them or consulting, or writing parts of them. There was, way back when--like in the early '90s--I worked briefly on a Tiny Toons video game. And then, you know, [this was] when things were real primitive, left-to-right-type stuff. And there was a Sega Genesis game, [The Adventures of Batman & Robin], I believe. It was a Batman and Robin game that combined more traditional gameplay with animated elements. Where it would actually play like a part of the animated series. And we had extremely good animation on it. And it came on a disc. And you would go from a chase scenario to a cutscene with Batman and various villains, which would be fully animated. And I worked on that to a great extent, writing all the animated sequences and working on some of the actual gameplay.
Unfortunately, it came out kind of at the end, when one technology was kind of wrapping up and another one was starting off, so it didn't get wide distribution. I think I saw it in stores maybe once. I had the existing animation on a VHS tape for a long time, and it was nice stuff, but it never really got seen and never got exposure. I think the technology was still a year or two down the road to make it a real breakthrough game.
Since that time I really haven't done all that much in video games, other than play a lot of them. And then this opportunity came up and--through a friend of mine who was working at DC Comics at the time--and he thought I would be a good match to work with the team at Rocksteady.
GS: Tell us about the first few meetings you had with the Rocksteady team. How much of the story was fleshed out and how much were they looking for you to help with that?
PD: Well, there wasn't much going on as far as story went, other than just the idea [of] wouldn't it be great to use Arkham Asylum as a game location? Because that's a good chance to get Batman and all the villains together in one spot. It doesn't take him all over town; it keeps him confined to one large area. What I remember from the first few meetings was, there wasn't a lot of story in place. They had reenvisioned Arkham as more of like an Alcatraz-like island. Which I thought was very cool, because Arkham's location changes, you know, from medium to medium. Like, in the comics it's kind of off by itself in the country. And in the Christopher Nolan movies, it appears to be right downtown, kind of like in a crime-ridden part of the city. And I liked the idea of getting it out and away from Gotham proper.
The idea of making it either on an island or on a peninsula connected by a narrow bridge seemed really interesting to me. Because it does remove it a little bit and it also creates a threat. Like, what if [the villains] get off the island? What if they come into town and create havoc there? There were also places to go within the island that seemed to be very visually interesting and, from a game perspective, very challenging.
Arkham was sort of reenvisioned as this grand old manor built on an island that had become a sanitarium, then a hospital, then finally a madhouse. And within the confines of the estate grounds, there were gardens and beach areas and caves and everything--great things to explore. And then the mansion itself, which has been converted into this huge, huge hospital [with] elements of it [that] are kind of modern, even futuristic in some places. But it's also existing side by side with the classic Victorian madhouse and a bit of steampunk and a bit of retro from the '40s and everything. It's just great visually.
And when I went into the first meeting at Rocksteady, some of these conceptual pieces were up, and it just got me so excited to see this reimagining of Arkham. I was saying, "Oh, man, this place is just--it's great!" You know, it's so fun to wander around in here and you can create a story from every aspect of the Arkham locale.
GS: It seems that by being placed on an island it gives the story that added tension of being surrounded by all of these supervillains and you're more or less trapped. Yes, you're Batman, but you're still trapped.
PD: Yeah, it's very much like that. You've delivered your worst enemy to prison, and then surprise, there's a lockdown and you're in the middle of a prison riot and everybody wants you. And not only do you have the master criminals, such as Joker and many of the others, but you've also got a lot of the more deadly inmates from [Gotham's prison] Blackgate [who] have been shipped over. Because, at one point in the game, you discover that a disaster was arranged over at Blackgate to shut that down, so some of the hardcore criminals were put into Arkham secretly for the purpose of keeping Batman occupied while the Joker creates his ultimate surprise for him.
GS: I wanted to ask you about that game's opening scene, where Batman is escorting the Joker into Arkham. It's a really great narrative device of introducing the first bits of Arkham to the player, while still delivering that great back-and-forth between the Joker and Batman. Can you tell me about creating that and what you had in mind there?
PD: Yes. One of the great things that I just think works so well narratively--this was the creation of the guys at Rocksteady--is at one point you see a sign that says "Arkham Island," you know, an arrow pointing ahead, and then there's another [sign that reads] "Do not pick up riders." That just sets the mood so perfectly that it's pointing the way towards insanity and they're warning you at the same time. And right away, you're going like, "Uh-oh, what's going to happen?"
That exchange with Batman and the Joker, that was just a lot of fun. I love writing those two characters, especially when they have something to say to each other. They don't necessarily have to be at each other's throats. The Joker is always kind of wily and he's very funny and ironic. And Batman is always grim and he doesn't really want to get distracted by anything the Joker says, because the Joker is always looking for an edge. If he can get under Batman's skin just a little bit he can unnerve him and just go to work on him. Batman has to remain icy cold and just treat him like he's a pit viper or something. Never get close to this guy, because, even if he is trying for a friendly moment--or just a moment between two enemies who respect each other--it's going to come back and sting him. There's no trusting this guy at all. It's like, this is the devil. The devil will tell you very amusing things and try to get you laughing, but he's always out for himself. And Batman knows this, which is why he has to keep the Joker at arm's length and never falls for his tricks.
GS: Let me ask you a little bit more about the process of creating a video game story. Did Rocksteady give you carte blanche to create encounters, or did they say, "We've got these levels built that we need to find some narrative bridges between"?
PD: Well, there was a lot of give and take. You know, we knew that we were going to use the Arkham location, for instance. And it was very easy dealing with them because the only restrictions we had were the restrictions of what the technology can accomplish for the gameplay. Other than that, we were just able to throw ideas on the table and it was very collaborative in the way that a lot of the best animation I've worked on has been. Where everybody has a good idea, you put it out there.
We did know that Batman [would be] going into Arkham. Joker [would be] the ultimate villain, who [Batman would] even encounter along the way, and from there we kind of opened it up a little bit to say, "OK, who really challenges Batman in this scenario? What villains can we bring in?" There are plenty of guys who have snazzy powers and cool abilities, but [there was] a weeding-out process. We thought, well, this is a scary location. Who is big and scary? Who can we [draw on]? There are a number of heavy hitters who are lurking in the shadows of Arkham, so it's a very physical challenge for Batman to go through all these levels.
So the Joker is in there. Harley Quinn is in there. She's always anxious to carry out [the Joker's] bidding. And there are a number of heavy hitters who prey on different aspects of Batman and who are lurking in there. We never wanted to really repeat any character's powers and abilities. Just throw Batman a new challenge every place he went.
GS: I have to ask you about this version of Harley Quinn. She's considerably different from the cartoon version. She's a little bit sexier, a little bit more...grown-up, I guess is a way to put it.
PD: Yeah, a little more. A little more adult I would say. She is a little harder edged because the game seemed to demand that. She does have her impish side to her, but it's really dark, for the game. Sometimes in the comic she goes back and forth. Sometimes she's a little girl and she's almost to the point of being a hero, like helping out people in her own screwball way. But in this version she's clearly in the Joker's camp and doing whatever she can to help him out.
GS: Moving on to Batman himself. In the game he obviously is doing a lot of fighting, but there's some detective work as well. With all the versions of Batman that we've seen over the years, and all the versions that you've worked on, did you have a specific Batman in mind for this game?
PD: I've done the character in animation. I kind of pick from what I feel best represents Batman's character. And there are times that I've written him a little lighter or a little more from the Bruce Wayne point of view. But this one, he's in a real life-and-death scenario, so I wanted to keep him dark, I wanted to keep him focused--as focused as the player would have to be in order to get through the missions alive. There's really no nonsense in the guy. He's not quite the dark knight--Frank Miller's dark knight. He's not as grim and driven and almost confrontational as that. But he really has to stick to the shadows and to mind the mission at hand and really has to be a soldier getting through all the madness.
So, I guess I was thinking of him as a classic Batman. He's scary when he has to be and strong and analytical. The detective aspect was a big part of it, because we thought that would add a lot of bonus value to the game if he has to stop, go through files about certain characters, or pick up a discarded object or something and go, "This is a clue." He analyzes it--he has a linkup to the Bat computer so he can analyze certain things or chemicals that he finds--and [it] gives him the clues to proceed. He has some infrared vision, so he can see different things in the dark and he, you know, it's all the tools he needs to proceed in that area. And I like the fact that he's not just a brawler in this; he has to be a thinker as well.
GS: Yeah, that was actually going to be my next question. Is there an aspect of Batman that you like to write the most? I mean, you've got this back-and-forth dialogue with Joker, and you've got these encounters so you can really take advantage of his physical abilities. And there are also these detective aspects that really seem like they would require a lot of scientific imagination when dealing with his gear. Is there some aspect that you really appreciate about the Batman character that you always like to get in?
PD: Yeah, you know, I do like the detective aspect of him a lot. I think he's a guy who's always on. Whenever he meets somebody or sees somebody, I think there's just a part of his brain that just clicks into giving the guy an overall examination. Even if you never hear it in his thoughts, he's always looking at somebody like Sherlock Holmes would look at somebody for the first time--trying to discern what he can from the way the clothes hang off him [or] whatever mud he's tracked in on his shoe.
It's hard to really fool Batman because he's always one step ahead of you. As far as me writing the character, personally, I like giving a lot of that same Batman attitude to him when he's Bruce Wayne. When he's out in a public situation and he has to be both Bruce and Batman. He has to act like Bruce, but at the same time his mind is on, and always clicking and going, "OK, what can I get out of this person? How can I do this?" And at the same time keeping up the facade of Bruce Wayne. But he's still Batman, he's still the detective, when he's trying to interrogate a suspect.
GS: He's definitely an imposing Batman, this one.
PD: Yeah, and I really like the outfit they put on him. I thought, you know, this is really a guy who's in a combat scenario. It's not a guy wearing, you know, kind of an amped-up circus performer's outfit. He looks like he's bolted and riveted into the suit. He's really dressed for battle in this.
GS: It must be satisfying to see your work come to life, so to speak, be it in animation or in a video game.
PD: Oh, yeah. When I saw the way that Batman was going to move in this game, I was going, "My god, this should be like a big [CGI] 3D Batman feature." I don't know why they don't put this into the works right now and just do an animated Batman movie. I mean, the Christopher Nolan movies have been great, but you know, put out one of these when you're not doing a live-action one and that way you can play it up and make it a bit more fantastic. The technology exists. I think the audience is there for it.
GS: You mentioned earlier that you were a game fan. What do you like to play, and what have you been playing lately?
PD: I've played a lot of the [Justice League] Heroes games. I like the superhero games. I like the driving games. Grand Theft Auto games. I'll tell you, I'm kind of attracted to character things. If it's a character I like, I'll tend to get lost more in the game because I guess I'm a writer and I like the idea of sort of like creating an adventure for the character. So, I like the Kingdom Hearts [series]. I like things with characters I know. And sometimes I'll find a game that just seems to have fun characters in it and just get lost in that world.
I don't play games as much as I did because it got to the point where it's like if I'm going to spend time on a computer, it had better be writing. Now I limit it to whatever my friends are playing when I go over and sit down, and I basically play whatever they've got.
GS: Thanks for your time, Paul.
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