Nearby, there’s a cape with rainbow stripes and a cowl covered in diamantes; beside them a Batman bust featuring the phrase: “Although of course you end up becoming yourself”. It’s a book title, but also a neat comment on this weird character.
We’re at the Kachette art gallery in Shoreditch and tonight sees a promotional installation featuring dozens of Batman outfits reinterpreted by artists and celebrities. It’s the sort of event Bruce Wayne would begrudgingly attend, and somewhere among these curious art works is Sefton Hill, the director of the monumentally successful Batman Arkham video games.
Twelve years ago, Hill and Jamie Walker, found themselves out of work when veteran British studio Argonaut closed down. Taking a few other colleagues with them, they set up Rocksteady Studios in north London, and started out by completing their last Argonaut project, a gritty urban first-person shooter then known as Roll Call. That game would go on to become the well-received PlayStation 2 release Urban Chaos: Riot Response – a game in which a lone hero had to fight gangs of criminals in a fictitious American city. Something in that rather familiar set-up alerted DC Comics and a year later, Rocksteady had been set to work on a new Batman project, subtitled Arkham Asylum – a dark, third-person adventure, set to reinvent the hero as a game character.
Now, of course, the resulting trilogy has come to a close. Released in June, Arkham Knight has drawn critical plaudits, managing to combine the close-quarters combat of its predecessors, with a much more open world. And once again, the game combines the power of Batman with enough vulnerability to ensure the revolutionary fighting system remains interesting throughout.
Considering the huge success of the Arkham series, it’s hard to believe Rocksteady is now abandoning the Dark Knight, but Hill assures us they are. “This is definitely the end of the trilogy,” he says. “We wanted to have a very final end, because it enables us to write the story much more cleanly. It just felt like the right time to do this as the finale, it felt like we’d put so much into this game, this was everything we wanted it to be.”
Interestingly though, despite its clean narrative arc, the Arkham series wasn’t originally conceived as a trilogy. When Rocksteady started the first title, the team didn’t know if they’d get to make a sequel. Back then, the game was being developed for SCi, the now-defunct UK publisher that previously swallowed up Eidos and would itself become Square Enix Europe. It was a complicated era. “When we developed Arkham Asylum we were all wishing we’d get to make a sequel, but we didn’t know for sure, we didn’t know until quite late on in development,” recalls Hill. “It was when we started to work on City that we felt we were in the middle part of the trilogy. We thought, ‘OK, we have a definite story we want to tell here’, and then, with the death of the Joker at the end of Arkham City, we were really interested in where that would take things. When you remove that chaotic element from Gotham what happens next?”
It’s the relationship between Batman and the chaotic elements of Gotham society that seems to have really inspired Rocksteady. Despite the expanding environments, Hill is clear that the feeling of intensity between the characters is the core of the experience. “The important thing about Batman is the way that he interacts with both the super villains and his allies,” says Hill. “But it’s also the way he interacts with Gotham City, which is why bringing that to life was so important.”
With a vast range of influential material to draw on, from the earliest Bob Kane and Bill Finger artworks, through the zany Adam West years, to the brooding Christopher Nolan movies, the team drew most heavily from the darker comic books. They studied Death in the Family, The Long Halloween and Arkham Asylum, stories that close in on the motivations of this flawed, angst-ridden character. “You know, what does it mean to be Batman?” says Hill. “How does it affect Batman when things happen to him? What is his psychological make up? Those are the influences behind the game. If you treat this person as real, it actually introduces some really interesting dilemmas – you actually delve into the psyche of what makes him what he is, which is where I think so much of the interest in Batman is.”
For the first two titles, Rocksteady worked closely with DC writers like Paul Dini, but Arkham Knight was penned entirely in-house. The team had developed its own idea of how the iconic character should be handled, keen to explore the implications of embodying Batman. There’s a key dynamic that makes the games so fascinating: Batman is unwilling to kill while also having a brutally finite amount of health himself. In the comics, this makes for interesting stories, but in games, it translates into a compulsive balance mechanic, which also shows Batman in a new light. Longterm fans found a new way to think about the idea of this superhero, and the interior conflict he represents. “The game is very lethal,” says Hill. “But if you approach it and think like Batman then you’re going to be successful.”
Despite a desire to explore the darker, more mature edges of the character, Rocksteady decided to use the voice actors from the cartoon series for its trilogy. Mark Hamill is up there on the cast list of the first two titles, providing his wonderfully deranged Joker, and Kevin Conroy portrays a memorably stoical Batman. Hill sees no contradiction there. “We all felt the animated series was something quintessentially Batman”, he says. “They’re not a pastiche of Batman or an over the top version. For many of us, when we think of Batman, Kevin Conroy was the voice we would hear, the same with Mark Hamill and The Joker. Bringing that tone across to the games didn’t feel wrong. It worked fine; this wasn’t a comic book take. It was darker than that.”
This is perhaps the defining achievement of the Arkham trilogy. However they work as games, they have considered the whole mythos of the character in enough depth that they feed into, rather than simply draw from, the canon. Some players have complained that the Batmobile broke the sense of balance and made Batman too powerful in Knight. But Rocksteady saw it as true to their vision of the character – and how he extends his power and influence into Gotham. “The big thing we were pushing was that there’s a symbiotic relationship between Batman and the Batmobile,” says Hill. “One shouldn’t trump the other, it’s Batman’s game. The car is a gadget, it’s an extension of Batman.”
So what lies ahead for Rocksteady Studios after three and a half years on Arkham Knight and almost a decade on the trilogy? “Holidays” says Hill. “It’s been a long hard project, by far the biggest thing we’ve done. We’re going to take a break, we’re going to try our best to sort of enjoy it, which is always hard in our industry. Then we’re on to thinking about what’s next.”
With Warner now a majority owner in the company, there are no doubt plenty of licenses available, if Rocksteady wants to explore another well-known fiction. And then there’s the rest of the DC universe. Could that interest the team? “That’s a really good question, and one that we’re asking ourselves as well,” says Hill. “I think the answer is that we want to do the thing that inspires us.
“The one thing we learned from the Arkham games is to work on something you feel inspired by. That’s the thing we need to decide now.”
This article was written by Holly Nielsen, for theguardian.com on Monday 20th July 2015 00.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010