One of my latest lockdown activities has been playing the eleven-year-old video game that put Batman games on the map, Arkham Asylum.
That nostalgia, combined with my love of Batman, games and comics, had me on the edge of my seat during the DC Fandome event last Saturday (22 August, 2020) as Warner Bros. announced their upcoming 2021 video game, Gotham Knights.
Along with this announcement came eight minutes of pre-alpha gameplay footage, which gives fans a lot to talk about, and indeed, to get excited for.
The main premise of the game: after Batman’s “death” (air quotes are my own), you play as one of four members of the Bat-Family — Batgirl, Nightwing, Red Hood and Robin — to save Gotham from notorious villains and uncover the mystery of the Court of Owls.
In this post, I want to write about the game design implications of having multiple playable characters in a single story-based video game.
In Games, Your Playable Character is Your Identity
The main reason to have a choice of characters to play as in a video game with a single story through-line is for players to be able to identify with their chosen character. In these games, the game designer has to balance the character design between two things: aesthetics and abilities.
At their extremes, consider playable characters that are designed purely for each:
- All characters look totally unique and it’s a level playing field for success because they all have the same abilities or can be freely spec’d.
- The player has ultimate freedom to base their character choice on aesthetics alone, because they can play the game in their specific way no matter what character they choose.
- All characters have diversely different abilities and/or gameplay, but they all look the same or can be made however the player wants them to look.
- The player has ultimate freedom to base their character choice on abilities alone, because they character’s appearance is either identical or can be designed however the player likes.
Of course, game designers usually end up somewhere between these two ends of the spectrum, and there are tradeoffs. This also influences how the rest of the game’s story, levels and missions are designed.
Designing Character Choices in Video Games
Let’s take a look at some examples:
- Mass Effect: Choosing a character based on aesthetics
- Male Shepard or female Shepard? It’s 100% an aesthetic choice because it doesn’t matter in the gameplay.
- Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic: Choosing a character based on abilities
- Quick character creation lets you choose between preset Soldier, Scout and Scoundrel classes, which are based on combat play style, and your choice isn’t hampered by how you want your character to look because all 30 portrait options are available no matter what class you pick.
- Borderlands 3: Somewhere in between
- There are four playable characters, each with a unique play style, and a unique look. This means that players who want to play the game with certain abilities are locked into an aesthetic, and vice versa.
Where Will Gotham Knights Fall Between “Aesthetic” and “Ability” Characters?
Out of the three examples, I would expect Gotham Knights to behave most like Borderlands 3, with the four different characters having their own strengths, weaknesses and maybe even weapons or skill trees. However, unlike Borderlands 3, where you play as one character throughout, I suspect that Gotham Knights will allow you to switch between characters from mission to mission.
Character choice is paramount in a game like Gotham Knights, especially because it is set in a well-known, beloved universe. Many Batman fans have a favourite member of the Bat-Family and would want to play as that character, which is tricky if that character does not have the play style that you like.
For example, say my favourite character is Batgirl and I love taking enemies down by stealth. If Batgirl’s moves are more offensive and fighter-like, I might feel forced into playing another character, say Robin, if he has all the best stealth moves.
Why Does Character Choice Matter So Much in Gotham Knights?
Gotham Knights is a superhero game, so gamers expect to be able to live the superhero fantasy on both fronts — playing as a character they like and employing tactics that speak to them.
Moreover, if you’re not a Batman fan, it’s likely that you’ll choose a character that you identify with. As a female, the only character that kind of looks like me is Batgirl, so if I had no knowledge of Batman when I opened the game, I’d probably choose her to start with.
Even though I appreciate that the selected four are probably the most popular Bat-Family members, I can’t help but feel shoehorned into the “Batgirl” choice if I wanted a character that I identify with right away. It would have been nice to have another female on the map to even the ratio to 2:2 — Stephanie Brown’s Robin, for instance.
Characters and Abilities Exist to Give the Player Meaningful Choices
One of the best things about Arkham Asylum is how it allows players to choose how to accomplish each level. Generally, there are times to be stealthy, and times to go in swinging, but there are enough places in the game where you feel like you can make decisions.
Stealth can mean sneaking up behind someone, causing a diversion, or jumping down with a kick from a gargoyle. Combat is largely punches and kicks, but you get combo bonuses for chaining moves and variety bonuses for using the environment or throwing batarangs. There are also sufficient encounters where either stealth, combat or a combination of both, is a viable option.
But Arkham Asylum has one playable character, Batman, with an arsenal of tools that provides players with the most valuable commodity in games: choices.
In Gotham Knights, at minimum that same amount of choice needs to be spread across four characters. In a way, each of the four characters can be thought of as a subset of Batman’s abilities, wrapped in a shiny skin. On opposite ends of the spectrum:
- All characters have interchangeable abilities
- Pro: Character choice is now purely aesthetic, so players can choose their character without feeling like they are missing out.
- Con: If it doesn’t matter which character you play, no singular character feels special. Does that mean that having one character that can do everything would be enough, and feel better to the player?
- Each character has unique abilities
- Pro: Characters feel special and character choice can be part of the strategy.
- Con: Some levels may require certain tasks that are better suited to certain characters, which means that players will need to switch characters or the game needs to require that a certain character is used. This could lead to interrupted story progression and clunky gameplay where players have to switch between characters, without ever feeling like their favourite character is good enough.
The best design is somewhere in the middle.
How will Gotham Knights Balance Batgirl, Nightwing, Red Hood and Robin?
I’m looking forward to seeing how the game designers balance the four characters and the gameplay of Gotham Knights. (There was so much I wanted to say, that I didn’t even get to talking about co-op play.) On a high level, here’s what I hope to see:
- Levels can be completed and puzzles can be solved in multiple ways
- Levels don’t have to be tediously repeated as different characters to get to 100%
- Switching characters feels natural and called-for in the story
- Each character has one or two signature moves so they feel special but is well-rounded enough to play using a number of strategies (finding a good balance between the extremes)
- Co-op play is interesting between different sets of characters for dialogue interactions and abilities that can chain or combo
If my expectations seem high, that’s because they are. I have been spending the last few days playing Arkham Asylum, and even eleven years later, it’s unmatched in my mind. It’s high time a new game came along to take the crown — or the cowl — as the best Batman game.
Gotham Knights has loads of potential to do so, but I think it all rests on the design and handling of the four playable characters, in what appears to be a “Batman-less” (air quotes are my own) Batman game.
And no, I don’t believe for an instant that Batman is dead.