batman’s helping hand: indirect control in arkham asylum
It’s been eleven years since Batman: Arkham Asylum was released. Yet, with my recent playthrough during lockdown, the definitive Batman video game still remains peerless in my mind. It’s actually more impressive, all these years later, that a 2009 game remains unsurpassed when I think about the marriage of storytelling and action-adventure gameplay. Arkham Asylum is the whole package.
I’ve already discussed Arkham Asylum a little in the context of the upcoming 2021 Gotham Knights video game. But today, out of the many things that are great, I wanted to write about something that stands out about Arkham Asylum, a game design technique called indirect control.
What is Indirect Control in Game Design?
There’s a game design technique called indirect control that Jesse Schell speaks about in The Art of Game Design1. It’s how game designers provide players with a feeling of freedom while really actually getting players to do what needs to be done to progress in the game. Schell explains it more eloquently than that, outlining six methods of indirect control: constraints, goals, interface, visual design, characters and music.
The example that I always recall is how designers painted a straight line on the floor that guided players in the VR experience Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride to fly straight up to the Sultan in a vast room. Players could fly anywhere, but most of them made a beeline for the Sultan, which is what the game designers wanted them to do to advance the story.
Arkham Asylum is full of indirect control methods. You’re welcome to explore the grounds and find Riddler trophies all you like, but the game’s real strength is how it keeps the player on track with the story, by deftly guiding you in the right direction.
Schell says that indirect control allows players to have a feeling of freedom when there is no or limited freedom. But indirect control does something else that is equally important: it shows players where to go next.
Knowing where to go is important in games like Arkham Asylum. With a single storyline consisting of a sequence of missions, there’s something comforting about knowing that you are on the rails of that experience. It’s also reassuring to know that you can go exploring away from the main path but not get lost.
Methods of Indirect Control in Batman: Arkham Asylum
Without further ado, here are the many methods of indirect control in Arkham Asylum.
1. Following the Joker
The game opens with the Joker being brought into Arkham Asylum. The player, as Batman, follows. Giving the player control at the outset accomplishes two things.
- It gives the player a feeling of freedom by allowing you to run around the location, since the guards the Joker wait and only proceed if you follow what is essentially a moving cutscene.
- It trains the player to do this sort of following in order to progress in the game. This means that later on, when the roles are reversed and you are the Joker following Batman in one of Scarecrow’s visions, you know exactly what to do. (Plus, that later scene becomes a strong story moment by referencing the beginning of the game.)
2. Tracking vapours and other trails
Following a trail is common way designers direct players to or through missions. This allows the designer to force the player to visit certain places and have certain encounters. In Arkham Asylum, there’s a recurring detective theme where you “track” something along a route. Two great things about these trails:
- Trails are varied, and while the mechanics are similar, you never track the same thing twice. You go from following vapour, tobacco and DNA trails to Harley Quinn’s fingerprints and Poison Ivy’s pheromones. This makes for interesting storytelling.
- Tracking increases in difficulty, culminating in a mission based around it, where you follow a trail of plant spores in Killer Croc’s lair. In this way, tracking provides an additional difficulty curve or progression loop that game designers can use to add more depth to gameplay.
3. Lines on the floor and other visual cues
A simple form of indirect control is arrows literally pointing the player in the right direction. Arkham Asylum has some of these at the beginning, and the best part is that they go with the game’s theming and enhance the story. Luminous green spray paint points the way, as if the Joker has just vandalised the area.
A more subtle implementation follows the tried and tested technique of painting a straight line on the floor. There’s a mission to rescue three doctors from three different rooms: surgery, patient observation and x-ray. The player can complete the rescues in any order, and there are three lines, red, blue and yellow, that lead to each of the rooms. This makes it easy to remember where you’ve been and retrace your steps to get to the next path. Simple and effective.
4. Joker teeth and presents
While moving between missions, there’s often groups of three or so Joker teeth sets in the direct pathway to the next location. These moving teeth form a visual breadcrumb trail since seeing movement in an otherwise-still world draws the player’s eye. But they also provide indirect control by sound, because they make a chattering noise that gets louder as you get closer.
Additionally, breaking the teeth by throwing batarangs at them count towards in-game achievements, which demonstrates how game elements can serve more than one purpose and provide more than one reason a player might seek them out.
The Joker also sometimes leaves large presents for Batman to discover upon exiting a completed mission, which are conveniently in the pathway towards the next one. These presents are brightly coloured and brightly lit, and catch the player’s attention in the moody atmosphere.
5. Location of enemies
Finally, the placement of enemies helps guide the player along the right path between missions. Often, when I’ve found myself in the open grounds on Arkham Island, there’s a group of thugs strategically placed in front of the entrance to the next building I should enter. Because it’s a natural instinct to seek out and take down these thugs, players will often head towards that location, going exactly where the designer intends.
What Makes Indirect Control in the Arkham Asylum Video Game So Impressive?
There are many things that make the indirect control in Arkham Asylum particularly impressive over other games’. For one thing, there’s just so much of it, but it never feels heavy-handed because it utilises elements that make sense in the story and in the world.
Disguising indirect control as achievements or enemies is clever, and the designers of Arkham Asylum do this time and time again. I also appreciate the huge variety in trails to follow between main missions, which is more compelling than just putting an icon on a map, as is common in many video games. Additionally, these elements and trails scale in difficulty as the game progresses, allowing players to use knowledge they have learned through experience.
Arkham Asylum was praised for its open-world style where you can completely explore the grounds of Arkham Island. But what’s more impressive is how the game’s designers control that freedom and provide a clear route back to the main storyline, so the player never feel lost. Here, indirect control is Batman’s much-needed helping hand, and it does what Oracle’s voice in his ear cannot: it makes players think that they are choosing all the right paths for themselves, not being told exactly where they need to go next.
- Schell, Jesse. The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. 2nd ed., CRC Press, 2015. p. 210-212.
- Delaney, Ben. “High Tech in the Magic Kingdom.” IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications 18.6 (1998): 4-5. Web. 14 September 2020.