If you ask people about a game or a comic or a TV show that moved them, they will usually speak in imprecise language. Words like "awesome" and "moving" don't tell us much. Comments like "I laughed" or "I cried" do better. Experts will be more precise, speaking of pacing, or structure or character arcs. They might use phrases like "It sags during Act Two," or "It had the best Save the Cat moment I've ever seen." Sometimes, they can even tell you the differences between mediums. Often, though, if nailed down on how one writes for one medium or another, people will fall back to something like, "Good storytelling transcends form."
Right now I'm in my break from 80+ hour weeks and doing a measly 50 hours or so. Maybe even 45. It's like running naked through a spring rain. Seriously. And as 80+ hours looms again on my schedule (August, you bastard, I see you coming), I start cherishing every bit of goofing off that I get.
Yesterday, while recording the World's Greatest Comic Book Podcast, I mentioned that I was playing Arkham Knight, and that the Arkham series of games are some of the best Batman stories I've ever experienced. While a cohost seemed to think that was crazy talk, I think the reason is that I've never felt so connected to Batman character as I do in that game. Even though they arguably use the exact same tropes multiple times to achieve the same ends. I think it's because I don't really think of Batman as a character in most presentations. He's more an elemental force of rage and PTSD. Not every movie and comic, but often enough. But let's look at some of the things that Arkham does that makes their Batman stories some of the best.
Let me start by saying I've played all of the Arkham games but some of them I haven't played for a while, so my recollections of early games might be more emotional than base in pure fact.
A Slow Build of Pacing
The Arkham games don't usually start with a big in media res opening. They start in the middle of events, technically, but they don't try to blow up the world like pre-credits in a Bond film. They take time and start by laying down atmosphere. They give us some early romps to build our connection to Batman. They make sure that first hour or two of game play is pretty easy. Not only are they giving us tutorials, but they make us feel like Batman, so that when things get real, we feel like Batman's in trouble, not like we're just bad gamers. Obviously there's a difficulty setting so all of this comes through that filter, but the job of game designers is to make you forget that those dials exist.
Batman almost never reacts to anything. Even if most cutscenes, he's standing there like a sociopath, watching calmly as the world burns. And so the games find ways to get us in his head. Often (maybe too often) they do this with the Scarecrow's fear toxins. Let Batman be a stoic bastion of stoicness. When his worst fears walk next to him, screaming about his failures, the stoic act moves from emotionless to painfully poignant.
This actually extends to everyone who cares about Batman in the games, but Alfred illustrates it most directly. Alfred is was Joss Whedon would call our heart character. We know Alfred it the man who cared for this superhero when he was a little boy. Through Alfred's eyes, we see that little boy still there in Batman. We know it's okay to love this heartless bastard because Alfred loves him, and it doesn't take us long to realize that Alfred is a good judge of character, and he would not love this man if he was unlovable.
Big Set Pieces
A set piece, in fiction, is a big scene with a extended series of emotional beats, usually in memorable locales. The tearful goodbye in the rain is a set piece, as is the car chase, or the giant mid-act action sequence. The Arkham games do set pieces well. They translate them to gamist principles, but they do it well. They also slowly convert set pieces into the mundane. You want to make someone feel like Batman? Start a game with them desperately trying to take out four guys without anyone catching them, then slowly ramp things up until by the end of the game, they look at a room with 20 bad guys and ample hiding spots and think, "Whew. Thank goodness. I needed an easy one."
Dramatic Act Three
The Arkham Games are open world, but even so, they do a great job of rocketing you into Act Three. Last night I stopped advancing the pot to clean up all my side quests because I can feel the call of act three. The end is nigh. Batman has been stripped of everything until he's just a raw nerve of justice. Things are going to break, and it's going to be the Dark Knight or his foes. Blood will fall.
The purpose of this isn't to point out what makes a good Batman story. The purpose is to point out what makes almost every good Batman story. The designers of this game examined the triumphs of Batman storytelling... classics like The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, and The Dark Knight. They distilled the heart of what makes a good Batman story and they expertly translated them into a game, because they knew that if they had a good emotional core, then half of their job was done.
You see these same principles transcending genre as well as media. The James Bond chase scene is the big Act Two argument in a RomCom or the tense stealth scene in a thriller, or the dreaded walk in the woods in a horror film. Act two might be about love, or violence, or a mystery, or a fall. The point is that the people who excel at their craft can apply these levers to any story in any medium.
And now back to Act Three. Because Gotham needs me.