Over the course of three Arkham titles, Rocksteady faithfully realised numerous facets of being Batman, from combat to navigation, and--depending on who you ask--driving the Batmobile. The obvious exception, however, is the detective part of the character.
By Rocksteady's own admission, this element was underserved in its series. However, investigating crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice will be the primary focus of its upcoming Batman experience for Sony's PlayStation VR.
At Gamescom, we went hands-on with Batman Arkham VR and spoke to Rocksteady's brand marketing manager, Dax Ginn, about the challenges of stripping away the series' much-loved gameplay mechanics in order to tell a narrative-driven story in VR. Here's what he had to say.
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Dax Ginn: Man, you were in there for a long time.
GameSpot: I did the demo really slowly; you can't rush being the Batman. When did you start working on this, and is it just a means to explore VR for Rocksteady?
No, totally the opposite. We finished Batman: Arkham Knight and shipped it in July 2015. Towards that date, the team was winding down, but we'd been working on Batman games for a long time and said publicly that Arkham Knight was going to be the end of the road for Rocksteady and Batman. We got some dev kits from Sony and were interested in VR more as gamers than developers. But because we had so much Batman stuff in the studio, like assets going back to Arkham Asylum, it made sense to us to use those to see what we could do with the technology.
What we found very quickly was the thing that worked the best out of gliding, grappling, combat, and the other facets of Batman was the detective stuff. The aspect of Batman's personality that we have focused on the least has been the detective stuff, which is when it clicked for us. Here's the technology that gives us the opportunity to finally do justice to the one part of Batman's persona that we feel like we haven't before.
We nailed combat, stealth navigation, Batmobile stuff--we've done all we could. But we wanted to go deep on detective work, crime scene investigation, and forensics. VR as a technology allows us to do that, which is why we chose to do it and why the game is so focused on that part of Batman.
Is this a small team effort or the entire studio?
It started small, with a core group of around eight or nine people, who were VR obsessives. They brought a lot of knowhow to it, but then we realised we had to build the Batcave and GCPD, and the way we built these for console was completely different. A lot of our technical art knowledge had to be thrown out and we had to start again. The design team was like, "We don't have a HUD anymore, so we can't convey information to the player the way we used to." So we had to figure all that out. We had to rethink UI, navigation, and all that stuff. It started small, then it grew, then everyone went, "Oh man, this is really hard," so we needed more people to solve problems and got to the point where we were on top of it.
The focus on solving a mystery must place quite a pressure on the narrative team, since you can't rely on action or navigation to carry the experience.
[Warning: There is a spoiler for the premise of Batman Arkham VR in this answer.]
You're bang on! The narrative is critical. We can't just do what we've done on previous Arkham games. All of those systems don't really apply anymore, but the good news for us is that I think we've always been good at telling Batman stories. We've got our colleagues at DC to run things past, collaborate on the story with, and figure out what characters to include, so narrative is something we take very seriously.
The crime scene investigation of the demo sets up that this is a murder mystery. The overarching story is about identifying who killed Nightwing, but it's obviously not as simple as that; it gets complicated and takes you places you didn't expect. In amongst Batman's search for truth, he ends up visiting legendary places within Gotham City. There's a load of places I can't tell you about because they're massive spoilers. We approach the narrative in a similar way to how we have done in previous games: iconic places within Gotham and a complex, evolving story are part of that.
[VR is] the technology that gives us the opportunity to finally do justice to the one part of Batman's persona that we feel like we haven't before
Does the nature of the game and the restrictions in gameplay limit the villains you can use? Will it be something like Gotham Central, where you're dealing with the aftermath, instead of the villain directly?
They will be there and you can interface with them directly. The end of the crime scene investigation mentions Penguin, so you'll pay him a visit and deal with him. The choice of villains is really interesting because we have so many to choose from. We have to make careful decisions about which ones give us the most value. It's always been different game to game, like, "How do we use Harley Quinn without her being window dressing and actually an interesting emotional interaction for the player, similarly for Killer Croc and others." Those rules still apply.
When I say to people that the game is a murder mystery, the immediate assumption is it's Murder She Wrote or a Miss Marple story, that means it's going to be slow in pace. But when the Nightwing fight is unfolding around you, that's some of the paciest, high-tempo gameplay we've ever made. It's really intense when you're in there. It starts off slow but then it ramps up right until the end. Just because you're trying to solve a murder, doesn't mean it's a slow experience. A lot of the villains we've chosen compound the pace.
I get the feeling that people would be ok with a slower, more cerebral Batman experience. You have the opportunity to tell a story akin to The Long Halloween or Hush, a great mystery story similar to those fans love reading in comics.
I'm not speaking for the whole studio here, but Hush has always been one of my favourite Batman stories and it's because of the way it unfolds. As the reader you feel like you're figuring it out just as Batman is, and this has the same feeling. You know you're playing a game, but there's an intensity to the experience that console games don't normally have. You're seriously in it, and that brings a pace to it that I think gamers are really ready for.