Whiskey Monday: Arkham’s cutscenes

I did battle with the mold in my house yesterday. It’s a substance which has everything in common with those pools of sentient, man-eating shadow you find in the new Alone In The Dark. I’m talking mold which creeps across the floor and ceiling at walking pace when you turn your back on it.

I had a chemical disinfectant spray in each hand, a rag tied around my face for protection and a piece of glass attached to my head via a twisted coat hanger that acted like a rear-view mirror. I knew it would be a fight to the death, but I was not afraid. Should the mold defeat me, should it spread to my body, rot my flesh and make a home of my lungs, it would only ever be so much fungus. As a man, victory was already mine.

Empty of fear, my head soon filled with the noxious fumes of my corrosive alkalis. I went a little crazy during that time. All I could think about was

BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM’S CUTSCENES.

The following is spoiler free. Anyone spoils anything in the comments and I’ll pay a visit to their mother and spoil her for everybody.

This game has the absolute worst case of Let Me Do That Syndrome (L.M.D.T.S.) I’ve seen in a while. You’re aware of the affliction, I’m sure. It’s when you’re playing a game and control is wrested away from you for the duration of some high-octane cutscene, and you’re left wishing you’d been able to play through those events yourself.

Arkham Asylum has it bad. A real terminal case, no visitors allowed, burn your clothes and shave your head if you entered the development studio in the last two years.

It has it bad because it’s a colourful, story-driven game with a protagonist who has a very well-defined personality. During the course of the game certain things happen where we all know how Batman will respond, and the developers were unwilling to let the player damage the narrative by acting otherwise.

It’s extra-frustrating because all the game’s peaks occur when it nails letting you ‘be’ Batman, and yet during all the moments where Batman gets to display some personality (which is to say whenever he adjusts the word ‘bad’ that prefixes his ass like a license plate) the game cuts you out from the action.

To give one of the less coronary-inducing examples, in the opening five minutes of the game Joker escapes his shackles and beats the guards escorting him into unconsciousness. A cutscene then shows you, Batman, beating on the security glass between him and the Joker. One punch! Two punches! Batman’s going mental! The glass is shattered and Batman leaps through the window, though he’s too late and the Joker’s moved on. This is where you get control back.

To give an example which made my very soul itch, at one point in the game you finally catch up to a villain who’s been hassling you for hours on end. Because they’re known to be no physical match for Batman, instead of any manner of fight you’re shown Batman knocking them down like a house of cards in a cutscene. Chasing a villain across the island then having to watch Batman beat them up stems the flow of catharsis somewhat.

For a game so comprehensively smart and polished to simply submit to this problem and let the most dramatic sequences transpire in cutscenes is, I guess, an embarrassment. It shows a lack of imagination, or perhaps a desire to play it safe. OBSERVE how easily fixable this is:

SCENE: The Joker breaks free and Batman fails to reach him in time.

FIX: The game already makes you hammer a button for physically demanding tasks like prying open vents. When the Joker starts breaking free, lock the player into one of these minigames where they have to taptaptap a button to accelerate Batman’s glass-punching. It doesn’t matter if the player isn’t very fast because the Joker gets away anyway, right?

SCENE: Batman dispatches a physically weak villain.

FIX: Let the player fight somebody who goes down in one hit! The villain’s combat animations are in the cutscene anyway. What are you afraid of?

I’ve got dozens more of these, but I don’t want to get any more specific for fear of spoilers. Arkham Asylum’s horrible cutscenes are a fat fly in the Bat-ointment that infest the game right up to the (similarly horrible, incidentally) final boss fight and can’t be forgotten or forgiven.

Other than that, I give it two Bat-thumbs up.

And just so you know, the connoisseur’s choice when it comes to knocking out armed guards is to catch them with the grapple and pull them down stairs.

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Comments

  1. The second one is especially stupid seeing how, if you’re talking about the boss I think you’re talking about, Batman basically executes one of those counter-attacks I spent most of the fight sequences repeating over and over anyway (I’m a very defensive player). It would’ve been very logical to just let that boss act like the last enemy in any other fight, which is to say a single counter-attack finishes the fight.

    As you say, Arkham Asylum was otherwise pretty good at letting you do things instead of using quick-time events (MAN I dislike quick-time events), such as when you’re fighting the beast enemies. It’s a shame they didn’t go all the way, really.

    Still: brilliant game.

    • Agreed.

      You know, I almost went on to write about quick-time events in the post. I’m of the opinion that they can be done well (!) and are getting a bad rap because every goddamn game that employs them does it badly.

      I base this opinion on precisely half of the QTE cutscenes in Shenmue 2, and maybe a tenth of the ones in Resident Evil 4.

  2. Wouldn’t it hurt more to pull them *up* stairs?

  3. I did once or twice get the feeling that Batman was my awesome wingman, though, taking awesome action on his own. Okay, actually, I felt that once, in the opening ‘walking into the asylum’ sequence: in the elevator the light goes out, and while the player would not actually be able to see well enough to take an action of his or her own, Batman makes the right badass move all by himself. That was a nice touch, I thought. For whatever reason, I’m pro-that. Even though I didn’t do it, it still made me feel like f-ing Batman. It works because it’s a small, cool thing, not a boss fight that the game plays by itself.

    Speaking of QTEs in general, I’m going to rent Ninja Blade someday because the QTE sequence in the demo that results in you crushing the spider boss with a wrecking ball made me feel, like, so cool. Somehow the designers took advantage of me in just the right way there. That was as awesome and over the top as anything can be, it wasn’t something you could really accomplish outside of a QTE, and I felt (somewhat falsely) that nevertheless I was an active participant in the scene. Even when I missed one of the inputs and had to replay part of the sequence, it didn’t diminish the fun.

    Here it is:

    You could make it possible to replicate a series of actions somewhat like this in actual gameplay, but it would not be as cool. It’s the cinematography. The slow-mo, the moving camera, the perfect angles all focus the awesome like a lens…and moreover it’s more fun to experience it as a QTE than as a movie. Ninja Blade shouldn’t have been a movie, it should be a game with QTEs. This sequence exists in exactly the right format: not quite gameplay, not quite a movie.

    Note that the boss fight doesn’t consist of pure QTE – the QTE is only the finishing move that comes at the end of the real (not very exciting, btw) battle. That’s another reason why it works. God of War worked that way too (the original – I don’t know about the sequels, haven’t played them).

    • That’s kind of spectacular. What happens if you screw up?

      • That’s the genius: in short, nothing. The screen freezes, I think you press a button to indicate you want to try again, and then the game rewinds a few seconds and you try it again. Sometimes you just do the one QTE again, sometimes you have to do the whole series (if there is one) over. In practice it basically turns out that you’re rewinding and replaying a cool action sequence over and over again, as you would when watching the lobby scene in the Matrix and Trinity shoots the SWAT guy with his own shotgun.

        Okay, it would have been better to have a special failure sequence animated for each failed input (break sword on wrecking ball, mistime jump and break legs, throw wrecking ball and totally miss spider) but I forgive them because they were working on a budget – most of which, I imagine, they spent on hiring a master action choreographer and lots of highly skilled cut scene animators.

  4. I still dont understand why they are doing this. Other games have already broke this threshold Half Life (but then they did retract it a bit, later on).

    They dont understand that they are making a game not a movie or a book. Players want to play it, they dont have to give us hundreds of different possibilites just let us at least choose the angle we want or the table to bounce upon.

  5. Every time boss battles are mentioned I think back to Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, which is not a good game as a whole, but there were these giant monsters in it and I found fighting them a lot of fun:

    The way to beat them was to first hack at the monsters feet, all the while dodging its blows by slipping under its feet or just jumping in some direction, preferably away from the giants hands. Once you’ve hacked and slashed at the monster enough it falls on its knees and you climb on its head and start beating it on the head while holding on to one shoulder to keep your footing. The monster makes things difficult by trying to get a hold of you with its hands. The way to dodge his reaching is to switch to the other shoulder.

    Most importantly there aren’t any cutscenes while you battle with the giant . As a result beating the monster is amazingly satisfying and totally up to the player. Sadly the giant was dumbed down in Prince of Persia: Two Thrones, where fighting it was a a series of QTE-events.

  6. “It doesn’t matter if the player isn’t very fast because the Joker gets away anyway, right?”

    This would induce far more angst in me than the current cut-scene. I agree whole-heartedly with your second example, however.

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