Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Arkham Games - Something I'd Like to See

Edit: I mixed RockStar Games with RockSteady and somehow thought Borderlands was the same developer. Relevant incidents were limited to a couple of sentences which have been removed.

When we play a game in an established setting there's generally two things we want regarding the characters of that setting. On the one hand, we want to play those characters and get the feel of being the signature and famous characters of the setting. On the other hand, we want to meet those characters. There is almost never a circumstance where we don't want them to appear at all because why bother playing in the setting in that case. The Arkham series of video games gives us a great shot at being Batman and playing through his storyline from Origins through to Knight (which I admit that I haven't actually played yet). So they have so far provided the a lot of the first desire and a little bit of the second in the manner of encountering all the other named characters of Gotham though mostly via the eyes of Batman. However, there is something to be said for games where you create your own character and can explore the setting of a fictional world through those eyes.

So, yeah, an Arkham game where you could play your own character getting a start on the vigilante career is definitely something I'd like to see. Of course, there are problems with this. Among those is the fact that a lot of the strength of the writing and story of the Arkham series is that there are a set arrangement of characters and things happen in a very specific way. Arkham games are primarily action and puzzle games rather than role-playing games. You don't have a dialogue tree, all the dialogue happens automatically when a cut scene occurs. This narrow focus and certainty allows for making the story very well-developed with a great deal of depth. 

Unfortunately, the desire to create your own character to explore these sorts of surroundings comes along with a desire to tell your own story, which sort of necessitates leaving some room open for the story to go into different directions. Tabletop RPGs don't suffer from this situation as much, as they have a living GM able to adapt the story to any of a number of unexpected directions while a video game can only take the directions it is pre-programmed to take. A lot of roleplaying games end up suffering from either having cardboard cut-out characters, railroaded plot or a combination of the two.

Depth of story combined with flexibility of direction is somewhat possible, however, as represented in some of the excellent RPGs over the past years. This includes things like Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, Mass Effect, Neverwinter Nights, Dragon Age, Fallout, Elder Scrolls and so on. In these cases, however, there is still a strong story spine that provides direction and focus of the developing story and certain events which always occur. So there is a clear beginning, middle and end but the ways and means of getting there various from person to person. 

So, that said, I'm going to go ahead and run a thought of a game concept here. I am not in position of creating this game myself. I don't have the programming skills and even if I did, I'd be fool-hardy to think that one person could create such a game. Nor do I have anything like the resources necessary to funding this barring a miraculous winning of the lottery. So this is more or less just an open bit of wishing that I will likely never see out.

Anyway, the key to a good and memorable computer roleplaying game is in that happy middle ground between freedom of direction and established story. So the first thing to consider is the story structure and framework that the game would be based around. For that, I am going to look to two other games: one a recent MMO and the other an older tabletop pen, paper and dice roleplaying game. 

Skaile
In the DC Universe Online, you play one of thousands of people who were granted powers and skills based on other existing heroes via the release of "exobytes" into Earth's atmosphere. You are given a choice of three mentors to get your missions from, Batman being one of the mentors, of course. Similarly, in the 1989 Mayfair Games Batman RPG (a simplified version of the DC Heroes RPG) the example scenario involves the players portraying up and coming heroes being mentored by Batman as they take on one of the Joker's schemes. Playing around with DCUO, I ended up creating a character I named "Skaile" who picked up her powers unfortunately mostly from Killer Croc. Which is where I started thinking about this.

Batman has a history of mentoring new heroes and taking them under his wings. This is where you get the Bat Family including Batgirl/Oracle, Batwoman, Nightwing, Robin, Red Robin, Azrael, Batgirl II and even, to a degree, the second Question (Renee Montoya). Toward the end of the previous DC universe he had established Batman International where he started sponsoring various Batman agents all over the world rather than directly take to the streets himself.

Consider an Arkham style game with the same art and mood bits, where you create a character with a backstory connecting them to one of the Batman's many foes leaving people to often assume that they are just as crazy or fanatical as the more famous individuals they're connected to and giving them an uphill battle to even prove themselves good people much less living a normal life. Somehow they come to the Batman's attention and he starts trying to give them direction with the game representing the first major event they were involved in.

Character creation could consist of choosing a backstory such as League of Shadows, Frozen, Joker Venom, Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, and so on.  Each of  these would provide some of the skill trees you would be purchasing on as per the normal Arkham games. Other skill trees would be standard as things the Batman would provide or teach. Most importantly, the backstory might determine more of the important events along the story and thus allowing for more replayability. 

Complex character model generation isn't something normally seen in Arkham games, unfortunately. They normally stick to set models and the change of various skins or outfits. Someone like me would prefer to have a range of character design more like that seen in Skyrim, Neverwinter Nights and City of Heroes. Though, with the concept in question, there can be some limitations. For example, someone who has somehow been mutated similar to Killer Croc would always have scales in some way and a person afflicted by Joker Venom (somehow without dying) would likely have a coloration similar to the Clown Prince of Crime.

The prelude could be either your character getting caught up in some event where they are able to provide some help for Batman (or one of the Bat Family). Alternately, you could start off with being the Batman discovering the character held prisoner somewhere. That could actually dovetail fairly well with the character creation: Batman infiltrating some secret facility where he finds records detailing your character's backstory and you do char gen via the framing device of Batman hacking records. Use the situation as a tutorial for players to get used to the controls while playing a pretty much fully upgraded Batman mowing through enemies and then releasing your character.

Names might be an issue, one of the glorious things about Arkham games is the voice acting and player chosen names tend to provide a glitch to that. To be honest, I think the best solutions to this come from Bioware's solutions in arena matches. In Bioware arena subplots, the storyline often has some character in the story give you a name such as "Mysterious Stranger" in Knights of the Old Republic or the three options you're given in Jade Empire's arena subplot. The last bit of the prologue where Batman rescues your character could be controlling your new character to get used to their starter special abilities and quirks and somehow getting seen by the Gotham media thus acquiring a nomme de guerre from Vicki Vale or someone else. You could give a set of options based on the background, but each extra option increases the voice acting cost so it might be better to have the superhero name granted be set for each combination of gender and background (in some cases, a name like "Scale" is non-gender specific and saves some cost and in Arkham series universe where the Joker is dead, calling someone that resembles them slightly "the New Joker" might be a thing). 

It is a slight disappointment for people that like making their own characters, but this has worked for Bethesda and Bioware fairly often as you have their games where your player is referred to as Warden, Sole Survivor, Courier, Shepherd, Wanderer, Dragonborn and so on for most of the game. As to the character's real name, you can have the player just choose that and arrange dialogue so that it only comes up in text when it comes up at all.

The rest of the game could be investigating into the powers behind the facility where your character was trapped as well as your characters backstory specific subplots. This is the sort of storyline where I feel that a group like Cadmus might make a dubious appearance, though they're not normal Batman fare. In the process the character gets wrapped up in a save the city scenario and taking instruction from Batman, ultimately being the hero of the situation somehow, because they're the player character. Or, dependent on choices, they might end up being a new villain after all.

As to alignment, I would have to say not to go with the Bioware model for this. In too many cases, Bioware's good vs evil choices end up being a choice of being reasonable and being a jerk for no really practical reason. Their most disappointing system to date being the Open Palm/Closed Fist situation in Jade Empire where they gave a very interesting description of two separate philosophies which could be taken to either good or evil purposes but then the actual application in game became "be nice" versus "be a jerk" with the "be nice" option usually garnering more power and more experience in general. Given that Arkham games generally take place over the course of a single 24 hour period, it's plausible to have the villain/hero choice be a last minute thing without seeming silly actually. That said, in this concept, stretching the storyline over the period of a week or two might not be a bad idea. It would allow for cutscenes showing Gotham's response to this new addition to the local rogue's gallery, plus allow for stretching the story out over a longer period and getting deeper into the story.

Basically the direction of the character's investigation into what happened to them might go parallel with the Bat Family and working with them, or it might go counter to them and operating in ways they would try to stop. So you might have a character fighting with the Bats or a character fighting against the Bats. Most likely here, the choice is going to be more hero vs anti-hero than hero vs villain. So your character might go Frank Castle on Gotham and still save the day or they might take up the heroic vigilante model. For that matter, having a character possibly join the official police force in the end might be intriguing as well.

Now, of course, the question might be "if the DCUO MMO already does this, why not stick with that?" Well, to a degree you can, but there is a substantial difference in mood and feel between an Arkham game and the DCUO. In addition, the presence of other players can be a mood breaker in the DCUO. Also, I'm just sort of spouting out wishes here. A sort of "in a perfect world" situation. Which won't stop me from posting this somewhere I think game developers might see it and saying with no question that yeah, please take this idea and run with it. I won't sue for taking my idea at all. It's not something I can get done myself, so my best hope is for someone to think "hey that's neat, let's do it."

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