Arkham City Part 8: How To Batman

By Shamus
on Mar 16, 2017
Filed under:
Batman

49 comments

The brute-force approach to tutorials is to jam them all at the very front of the game. Some text boxes will tell you what buttons to push. Once you successfully complete the action you’re given another, then another, until you’ve got all the mechanics down. Then the story is allowed to proceed.

This is bad for a lot of reasons. It’s actually a bad way to teach the player about the game, because you’ve got too many concepts delivered back-to-back. Sometimes you’ll be taught how to do something an hour before the story calls for it. If you take a break from the game, then you’ll likely forget the skill by the time it comes up again. Game designers sometimes guard against this by adding more reminder prompts later on, which makes the game feel patronizing and handhold-y. Worst of all, these brute-force tutorials are torture on repeated play-throughs, since you already know how to do the stuff and there’s nothing else to hold your interest.

Arkham City is a perfect example of how tutorials should be done. It’s a masterwork of teaching through doing, without breaking the flow of the story or patronizing the player. The Arkham series is actually a blend of three entirely different but overlapping gameplay modes. There’s brawling, stealth, and explorationExploration is a big mishmash of navigating + platforming + puzzle-solving + finding secrets and collectibles.. Each mode has numerous concepts the player needs to understand. Batman is famous for his tool belt, and the game is not shy about loading that thing up with a lot of different ways of solving problems. This means the player needs to learn a lot of different controls. The fact that players can glide through these lessons without getting bored is a testament to just how good developer Rocksteady is at their job.

The Rule of Three

While he was climbing to the top of the building to obtain the Batsuit, Bruce Wayne was also talking to Alfred and making his goals clear to the audience. At the same time, the game was giving us the initial exposure to the basic movement controls. Also, it gave a really cool view of the city. See developers? You don`t need to lock us in linear corridors to do your tutorials!

While he was climbing to the top of the building to obtain the Batsuit, Bruce Wayne was also talking to Alfred and making his goals clear to the audience. At the same time, the game was giving us the initial exposure to the basic movement controls. Also, it gave a really cool view of the city. See developers? You don`t need to lock us in linear corridors to do your tutorials!

In writing, there’s the rule of three. It’s a pretty broad concept, but it’s often distilled into the form of setup, reminder, payoff.

As in: The setup is when Luke insists he’s a pilot and they don’t need to waste their money hiring Han Solo to fly them somewhere. The reminder is when Luke tells Biggs the trench run will be “Just like Beggar’s Canyon back home!” And the payoff is when he successfully flies the mission to destroy the Death Star. If he just jumped into the X-Wing and flew the mission without the prior setup, it would have felt like a random ass-pull. If the writer left out the reminder, then it might have felt like being a pilot was just a very minor detail of his character (is he even a good pilot!?) and so the end might have felt jarring and un-earned. The story needed to hit all three beats for this detail to work.

Another example: The setup is when we see young Peter Quill listening to “Awesome Mix Vol 1”. The reminder is when we see grown Peter Quill willing to risk his life to recover the tape. And the payoff is when he gets “Awesome Mix Vol 2”. Without the setup we wouldn’t understand where the tape came from. Without the reminder we wouldn’t understand how much it meant to him.

I think this same structure applies to videogame tutorials. In fact, I think it’s even more important to games than it is to movies.

The setup is when Alyx tells Gordon Freeman to remove the energy spheres from the thingy powering the gate, and the player learns that doing so results in powering things down and flinging awesome energy spheres all over the place. The reminder is when he gets to the Citadel and the place has energy sphere contraptions sprinkled all over the place, doing various stuff. The payoff is when those spheres are used in the final boss fight.

Far too many games want to skip the reminder. They give you a brute-force tutorial message that says “If you encounter a Widget, you can Press X to defeat it.” Then two hours later you run into a widget-based boss fight you’re unprepared because you haven’t had to deal with widgets since the tutorial.

Yes, this game gives us a little button-prompt tutorial to teach us how to knock out a mook. More importantly, the game will make sure we use this lesson again in the next ten minutes, so the knowledge will stick.

Yes, this game gives us a little button-prompt tutorial to teach us how to knock out a mook. More importantly, the game will make sure we use this lesson again in the next ten minutes, so the knowledge will stick.

But Arkham City not only introduces concepts with the proper setup, it’s able to interleave multiple tutorials together without bringing the plot to a halt. In the first hour or so of the game, every single scene serves the dual purpose of advancing the plot while also guiding the player through the setup / reminder / payoff for a particular gameplay concept.

The game will present you with a problem and tell you what buttons or actions will solve it. Then it lets you do something else for a couple of minutes before presenting you with the same challenge again as a reminder. After that, the game can be confident that you understand it, that you’ll remember it, and the concept can be mixed with others as part of standard gameplay.

I’ve found that having you wait a couple of minutes before you do a task a second time is really good for signaling to the brain, “This is something you should remember.” It sticks out as something you’ll need to do in the future, and not one of those goofy one-off mechanics you find in games sometimes.

Check out how much learning they pack into the first chapter without breaking the flow of the gameplay or story:

Multi-task Learning

Batman escapes the church just seconds before the tower explodes. This shot makes me wonder: Does Batman steer with his HEAD?

Batman escapes the church just seconds before the tower explodes. This shot makes me wonder: Does Batman steer with his HEAD?

Batman investigates the scene where the sniper shot entered the courtroom. This is the tutorial on how detective mode investigations work. He discovers the shot came from the tower of the nearby church. When he gets to the church, he has to deal with a hostage situation. A few minutes ago the game gave the player a quick tutorial on how to sneak up behind a lone guy and silently incapacitate him. This hostage situation reminds the player of how that works, and then offers a few variations on that same idea.

When Batman reaches the top of the tower, he finds the sniper rifle. The game has you go into detective mode to examine the rifle. There’s no crime to solve here, and in fact Batman discovers a bomb and has to dive out the window to escape. This moment teaches you how to dive through windows while also acting as the reminder of how detective mode works, and it does so during an exciting action escape that keeps the excitement levels high and advances the story!

These tutorials are safe mechanically but tense narratively. It’s not hard to pass these tests, but the hostage situation and the mystery of what the Joker is up to are there to keep you engaged so it doesn’t just feel like you’re “still in the tutorial”. Obviously you’re still in the tutorial because the game is teaching you things, but the point is that the story is moving, so it feels like you’re learning as you go rather than having the story stop so you can learn how to properly be the protagonist.

Batman enters the steel mill through the chimney. It results in this shot, which I believe is contractually obligated to happen at least once in every story.

Batman enters the steel mill through the chimney. It results in this shot, which I believe is contractually obligated to happen at least once in every story.

Batman discovers that Joker is hiding in the old steel mill on the opposite side of Arkham City. Once there, Batman has to enter through the steelworks rather than going through the front door. This leads to a series of very gentle “puzzles” designed to teach you the language of the game: When you see a big rusty metal ring, it means it’s something you can grab with the grapnel hook. When you see a button you can’t reach, throw a batarang at it. Here’s how to walk on tightropes. Here’s how to navigate ledges. Here’s the reminder on how to drop down and hang from a ledge. Here’s how to enter crawlspaces. Here’s how to slide under things.

Now, if this section was nothing more than a series of tutorials it might get a little dull. So we get some exposition. We can hear Harley Quinn yelling at Joker’s goons, and her dialog explains what’s going on. The Joker is sick. He might even be dying. They kidnapped a doctor to treat him, but the doctor couldn’t help him. The player might have learned this if they had stopped to eavesdrop on Joker’s goons on the way to the steel mill, but here the story makes sure you understand the important stuff.

Exposition + tutorial is pretty good, but it still might feel a little slow, particularly for returning players. So the writer adds some tension to the scene by showing the doctor. The Joker is angry that she couldn’t help him, and so the doctor is thrown into his crowd of goons to be killed. So now we’ve got some excitement keeping the story lively. The player is learning their tools, getting exposition, and also in suspense over whether they will reach the doctor in time to save her.

Batman is still making his way through the tunnels (???) under the loading bay when the goons gather around the doctor to kill her.

Batman is still making his way through the tunnels (???) under the loading bay when the goons gather around the doctor to kill her.

This is the sort of stuff we usually take for granted until a game gets it wrong. Tutorials are something we only notice when they’re bad.

The doctor is dragged off, and Batman decides to stop hunting the Joker for a few minutes so he can rescue her. When he gets to where she’s being held we get yet another stealth section, but this time there are a few new mechanical bits to play around with. You can now hang from stuff on the ceiling and ambush guys when they walk underneath you. Also, your adversaries are mobile this time around.

Batman saves the doctor, punches the goons in the face, and by the time it’s over the player has gone through the Setup » Reminder » Payoff for a dozen different gameplay concepts.

When it’s over Batman adds another gizmo to his Bat-belt. Let’s talk about this gizmo.

A Gun? How Shocking!

It turns out Batman is fine with guns. It`s the BULLETS he hates.

It turns out Batman is fine with guns. It`s the BULLETS he hates.

Once Batman is done talking to the good doctor, he reaches into a nearby machine seemingly at random, scoops out some blue electricity goop, and then all of a sudden he’s got this shotgun-shaped thing that shoots electricity balls.

Mechanically, this is fine. You use it to power up machines. It also reverses the polarity of electromagnets for reasons that I’m sure would make sense if I was a physicist and also insane. You use it to open doors, move machines around, and shock troublesome scoundrels in the heat of battle. It’s a fun little addition to the game that – unlike the shock gloves in Arkham Origins – takes its place beside your other tools in battle without overshadowing them.

My problem is with the appearance of the device and how it’s introduced. Was Batman carrying around a weapon designed to shoot electrified gel just in case he found some? What is this thing and why was he carrying it around?

The weapon is enormous compared to most of the other stuff Batman supposedly has on his utility belt. I get that the belt isn’t physically big enough to hold all of his gadgets at the same time, but that’s no reason to introduce something that’s obviously too big to be carried anywhere on his person. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for the sake of comic book logic, but there’s an upper limit on how much Loony Toons spatial physics my subconscious can ignore before it gives up and calls bullshit on the entire scene.

Also, this thing looks like a gun.

The thing is made of comic book science-magic anyway, so there’s no reason it couldn’t be small and not-gun shaped. Call them “electrified Batarangs” or something. Whatever. Just don’t have Batman carrying around enormous shotguns that serve no purpose and stowing them in the tiny pouches of his belt, because it will bug me and I’ll complain about it on my blog.

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Footnotes:

[1] Exploration is a big mishmash of navigating + platforming + puzzle-solving + finding secrets and collectibles.


20209Feeling chatty? There are 49 comments.

From the Archives:

  1. Darren says:

    Great analysis! I’ve long been bothered by the REC, too. I’ve played Arkham City enough that I think the idea is that he McGyvers it together on the spot from scrap in the workshop. It probably would’ve been a good idea to have the doctor say, “Woah, is that…did you just build a gun from the junk in here!?” and have Batman respond (somewhat ominously) with, “It’s not a gun.”

    Because, let’s be honest, no iteration of Batman is really consistent on the whole “no gun” thing. He’s always been willing to use things that are effectively guns so long as there’s some justification that they are nonlethal, although Rocksteady pushes that loophole to the point where they feel obligated to weave it into the plot in Arkham Knight.

  2. Durican says:

    God I love Arkham tutorials. It’s a testament to how well they’re executed that once I’d put on the Batsuit I completely stopped noticing that I was going through tutorials until my second playthrough.

    For the remote electrical charge I got the impression that Batman built the whole thing from doodads scattered around the steel mill office like he was Macgyver locked in the store cupboard. It certainly looks a lot less sleek than the other gadgets he brought from home.

    EDIT: You win this round Darren, you faster-typer-guy-person.

  3. lucky7 says:

    Oh my. The Remote Electrical Charge.

    To me, that device (alongside the Special Combo Disarm and Destroy) meant that I had won Arkham City. A quick button press to stun mooks and send armored foes flying? Yes, please. It’s kind of hilarious how much I used that gadget as a combo extender. Alongside this is its function to counter signal jamming, which was incredibly useful.

    But Arkham Origins changed it.

    The REC equivalent in Origins is the Concussion Detonator, which can affect groups, at the cost of requiring a longer activation time.

    This was probably an attempt at a lateral upgrade; get rid of the spamminess (and moving the anti-jamming abilities to the Disruptor, giving it some much-needed utility) while also throwing a bone to those (like myself) who loved the REC. But the delay is (much like the rest of Arkham Origins) a small tweak that destroys the fun of the original system. If I want to Batclaw a mook, I want him batclawed NOW. The Concussion Detonator suffers from the same issue: I don’t want multiple dudes stunned, I want this one guy stunned NOW.

    Alongside this is the issue of Alfred selling it as a nonviolent alternative to fighting, making me picture it as the glue/ice grenade.

    While adding more functionality to the disruptor was a good idea, they took too much away form the stun gadget to make it worth using.

    • Jay Allman says:

      Yeah, I think “Origins” messed up every single gadget. They become overpowered, like the Shock Gloves, or underpowered, like the concussion detonator.

      I could only ever find one use for the concussion detonator. I’d throw a throw a stream of them onto any big guys in the room, which would keep them distracted while I took care of the regular-sized mooks. That’s not what it was designed for but hey, you do what you can with what it gives you.

      I never got much use from the REC in “City” story, but I loved using it in that advanced Riddler challenge in the subway terminal that is all armored mooks. It’s hilarious using it to knock them off ladders and platforms.

  4. Bropocalypse says:

    It’s not a gun, it’s a tiny electrical beehive that releases tiny electrical bees.

  5. thak says:

    Should be “…but that’s no reason to introduce something that’s obviously too big to be carried anywhere on his person.”

    • Scampi says:

      Btw: If he can invent and assemble it on the spot I’m ready to believe he disassembles it after each use and reassembles it before it;)

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Other typos include:

      “The doctor is dragged off, and Batman decides to stop hunting the Joker for a few minutes to he can rescue her.”

      Should be “so”.

      At also reverses the polarity of electromagnets”

      Should be “it”.

  6. Shoeboxjeddy says:

    I do not steer with my head. He who steers with his head has forgotten the face of his father. I steer with my dorsal fin.

  7. Christopher says:

    I forget which thing it was in, but I did once watch an episode where Batman pulled a sword out of the end of the utility belt. It was pretty funny.

  8. Jay Allman says:

    Great entry. I hadn’t notice how the game uses “rule of three” to do it. Like you say, a technique proves its good when it’s invisible, and I’m glad you made it visible for us.

    Like others above, I thought Batman McGyvered the REC from snips and snails and puppy-dog tails. I don’t understand why its being gun-shaped is a problem, though. Batman has a problem with guns, not a phobia about things that are shaped like guns. After all, his grapnel looks a lot like an 18th-century pistol, and he points it at people and shoots it in combat.

    http://www.zib-militaria.de/WebRoot/Store8/Shops/61431412/4CD9/6808/1FC4/FEE5/EA08/C0A8/28BB/A76D/1104L.jpg

    http://i1.wp.com/batman-news.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Batman_Grapnel_Prop_Replica2crop.jpg?w=800

  9. Dreadjaws says:

    Batman doesn’t have a “no gun” policy, he has a “no lethal force” policy. That’s why the shape of his gadgets doesn’t matter (provided that, you know, at least some of them are bat-shaped in some way or another) as long as they’re not lethal.

    Granted, some of them could be used in lethal ways (such as shoving a batarang through someone’s throat or feeding them some explosive gel), but as long as the things he points at people don’t kill them, he’s OK with them.

    Having a problem with gun-shaped stuff would be the kind of thing that the people who believe Batman is crazy would point out as “exhibit A”. But Batman is not crazy, he’s logical and practical. He understands that just because it looks like a shotgun it doesn’t make it one, and he uses it because it’s convenient.

  10. Jabrwock says:

    What might have worked better was something he could click on to the end of his grapple, same way they have Tasers that have a detachable launcher that clips on the front. So instead of firing the grapple, it basically slingshots one of these electric goo blobs.

    They already showed modifying the grapple was possible because of the triple-grapple (which somehow makes Batman stronger???) So they’ve established that the grapple can get things added on to the end.

    • Shoeboxjeddy says:

      The triple grapple doesn’t make Batman stronger, it makes the gun stronger. Through ummm leverage. Yes, we’re going with leverage and no questions will be answered today.

      • Muspel says:

        I think that the justification was supposed to be that a single cord/rope would break if you pulled it hard enough to break a wall, whereas three cords are strong enough.

  11. Insane Physicist says:

    I’m sure would make sense if I was a physicist and also insane

    It doesn’t make sense to me either.

  12. Tim Keating says:

    I literally cannot fathom how the same organization that built this phenomenal game could then go out and produce the atrocity that is the batmobile in Arkham Knight. Talk about your falls from grace!

    • Taellosse says:

      There were clearly a subset of people at Rocksteady, some of whom had positions of senior authority, who are car enthusiasts. Car enthusiasts that are also fond of Batman think the Batmobile is a central element to his character, and would have happily but a huge amount of resources into making a playable Batmobile once they felt they could do it (there were technical limitations to making the Batmobile driveable in their first 2 games, so it plays a pretty minor role). To make things messier, the Batmobile was once a pretty iconic part of the character, back before somebody thought to make his cape double as a glider on a routine basis – it was the only way he could efficiently traverse a dense urban environment before. But that was 30 years ago, and the car has – forgive the slight play on words – taken a back seat since then.

      Sadly, the car enthusiasts won out over the faction that understood that Batman’s supporting cast is more central to his character than his mode of transportation, and the team-up elements took a distant back seat to the tank combat and racing.

  13. Wide And Nerdy ♤ says:

    The tightrope is also a reminder I think. This happens after the confrontation with Two Face right? There was a tightrope there too.

    Also the crawlspaces which I think you had to do with Two Face and the ledges from when you were still Bruce Wayne getting to a roof to access an airdrop of Bat supplies. Really I think all the traversal stuff you can do without a cape or a grapnel is covered in that scene.

    This only serves to reinforce your point.

    Call them “electrified Batarangs” or something. Whatever. Just don’t have Batman carrying around enormous shotguns that serve no purpose and stowing them in the tiny pouches of his belt, because it will bug me and I’ll complain about it on my blog.

    Not that they had this in mind I’m sure but given where the character goes down the road, this could mark the start of Batman straying from his ethos on violence and becoming comfortable with some more hardcore weapons.

    After decades of crimefighting, Batman succumbs to his greatest foe, gameplay considerations.

  14. Wysinwyg says:

    Shamus, between this post about what’s right about the Arkham games and your comment on another post about the angry gamer guy market, I’m thinking you should make your entire schtick:

    ” here’s what this game does right” instead of ” here’s what this game does wrong.

    As you point out, the former is more difficult, but constraints encourage creativity, your criticism will be more useful to developers, you’ll probably learn more and faster about game design, and you won’t have to make that annoying “I swear I liked this game I just want to say what it did wrong” disclaimer.

    Plus you’ll basically have the market to yourself instead of competing with the angry ranty guys.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Shamus’s criticism are quite often constructive.Almost every time when he says “this game does it wrong” he follows it up either with an example of a game that does it right,or a proposal as to how it could be fixed.

      I really dont get why he ever got the idea that he is anywhere near the “angry gamer” shtick.

  15. Benjamin Hilton says:

    Shamus I can’t even tell you how happy I am that you linked Folding Ideas.

  16. IanTheM1 says:

    While the REC is clearly bit bulkier and larger than his other gadgets, I don’t think it’s really THAT big. It’s not like he’s pulling a full size lightning-spitting AK47 out of his pants, it’s a small bullpup-lookin’ thing.

    But more importantly, if I’m not mistaken, it folds up. It’s been a while since I’ve played City, but I’m pretty sure they even fully animated it (and one step further, sound designed the hell out of it). Looking for Youtube clips of it runs into the problem that the majority of the time Batman is standing between it and the camera as he pulls it up and the animation is also wicked fast so as to be unobtrusive, but something funky definitely happens with the barrels.

    All that said, Jabrwock‘s post above about how it could work better as an attachment to the grapple gun is right on the money: The back half of the REC is unambiguously made from a grapple gun. So regardless of how the animation actually plays out there’s already the strong implication that it really is just an extra chunk he can quickly stick on the grapple gun when needed, making it a lot more plausible.

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