We can talk about the production values, the voice actors, the longevity, the setting, maybe we could talk about some procedural logic or game studies du jour operational logic, but all there really is to say is that Batman: Arkham Asylum is a fantastic game. The reason why: you get to be Batman. Crazy, no?
Being Batman is not the same as appearing as Batman. Too many licensed (and non-licensed) games start with a game they wish to make, then paint a veneer of the license on top. While the appearance of the license is there, the beauty is only skin-deep, the license providing nothing to the core gameplay. If one is to subscribe to Espen Aarseth’s way of thinking, after little time players don’t see the graphical representation at all, only the rule set and interactions underneath. Thus, the license stops being relevant to play (and perhaps never was!).
Batman: Arkham Asylum, on the other hand, is a game that has been built from the gameplay up, asking what it is like to be The Bat. It’s about being a predator, swiftly moving through the darkness, instilling fear before destroying your prey. It’s about being a fist-fighter, able to level anyone who dares attack you. It’s about being The World’s Greatest Detective, using gadgets and gizmos to aid you. These are core mechanics, not bolted-on aspects to a 3D brawler or platformer. They guide the level design and the game progression, leading upwards to the actual aestheic presentation, whereas other licensed games move from the presentation down. From that point on, everything Batman: Arkham Asylum does is flawless: the voice acting, the cape not just being a questionable sartorial choice, but as an object that defines Batman, the excellent pacing.
Without that solid foundation of being the Batman, all of Batman: Arkham Asylum’s achievements may have been for naught. With it, the game puts its stake in the ground as the best licensed game ever made, and handily assures its nomination for Game of the Year.
It seems so simple, but would the World’s Greatest Detective have realized that all you had to do was identify what it meant to act and play as the license, and not simply use it as a façade?
About the author: Chris Lewis is a British PhD student researching the intersection of software engineering and video game development.