Let’s talk environment design. In Part 3 we look at Gotham City and Arkham City, and check out semiotic principles applied to the creation of game worlds. We will explore the concept of believability in environment design and the concept of core narrative themes in storytelling.
We dive into the story and specific scenes from the game. So consider this a spoiler warning!
As always, check the Batman tag for all related posts and previous parts.
Indexes And Believability
Especially in video games, where the audience is asked to imagine themselves actually being in the depicted virtual world, the world needs to be believable. That whole immersion thing. Believability on a visual level is achieved by using indexes (see part one to learn more about sign definitions).
A viewer constantly scans his environment for indexes to form a working model of the world around him and to assess the situation he is in. This goes for his actual physical environment, a virtual one and figments. He scans faces to recognize people and assess their emotions, scans rooms for spacial awareness, scans his own body for self-awareness, scans the diner plate in front of him to assess where to stick the fork in and so on.
Most of the scanning happens subconsciously: the viewer sees something and the brain automatically tries to reconcile it with the working model the player already has. If an index is deemed to be a commonplace part of the working model, it stays in the subconscious, so the brain can start evaluating the next index. But two kinds of indexes get promoted to being processed consciously: indexes being relevant to the viewer and indexes appearing to be implausible. (check up cognitive psychology to learn more)
So, depending on how the viewer assesses the indexes presented to him, we end up with three types of indexes:
A ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ fundamental indexes:
Self-explanatory and unremarkable indexes, which add up to a working model of the world in the subconsciousness of the viewer.
B ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ relevant indexes:
Indexes, which are visually pleasing and/or hint at something of interest for the player, but are always compatible with the subconscious working model.
C ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ implausible indexes:
Indexes, which are clashing with the working model of the viewer.
Suspension Of Disbelief
Fictional worlds always have a big disadvantage against the real world, when it comes to being accepted as true. They aren’t. They are fictional.
Still, we as game makers want the player to relate to the events on screens as if they were actually happening or at least a close approximation of that. Fortunately, the player wants the same. He wants to feel immersed in a fictional world, wants to feel aggression towards a virtual foe, feel relief from virtual healing, feel rich from an image of a pile of gold and get scared by a monster, that will never actually do him harm.
Every worthwhile piece of storytelling is always a successful co-production of the storyteller and his audience.
When it comes to any piece of fiction, in any medium, the audience is always willing to do its part in achieving the necessary level of believability to make it an engrossing experience. For the time being, the viewer is willing to suspend his own working model of the world and have it replaced with the working model presented by the designer. This concept is referred to as suspension of disbelief.
Looking again on the three types of indexes, this is how the designer can achieve high believability and immersion, by best supporting the viewer in his attempt to suspend his disbelief:
A ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ fundamental indexes:
‚Äö√Ñ√¨ need to be coherent enough, so they can be combined into a coherent working model of the virtual world. This includes every possible object, character, location, vehicle, piece of dirt or door knob.
‚Äö√Ñ√¨ need to be dense enough to not leave questionable holes in the virtual working model.
‚Äö√Ñ√¨ need to be analogous to the indexes of the viewer‚Äö√Ñ√≤s own working model, to make the virtual working model and its interrelationships easy to understand.
B ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ relevant indexes:
‚Äö√Ñ√¨ need to be rewarding for the viewer, so he stays invested.
‚Äö√Ñ√¨ need to be visually prominent, so the viewer doesn’t miss his reward.
‚Äö√Ñ√¨ need to pop up unexpectedly from time to time, to keep the viewer curious.
C ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ implausible indexes:
‚Äö√Ñ√¨ need to be avoided, so the viewer is not reminded of the fact, that the working model he accepted is actually fictional.
‚Äö√Ñ√¨ need to be hidden, if they can’t be avoided.
That’s it. Believability in a nutshell: Craft a coherent collection of easy-to-understand indexes to establish a working model of your world, make it rewarding to explore that world and avoid anything clashing with the established model.
Making Arkham City Believable
It’s no small feat to wrap all the outrageous elements of the Batman franchise and the plot of Arkham City into one convincing package.
Rocksteady tackled this problem quite well by betting on themes. Rocksteady establishes easy-to-understand themes (many of them carried over from the comics) and sticks to them. The themes guide the designers in their selection of signs and guide the player in reading them. Rocksteady’s commitment to always first establish a theme and then never deviate from it, means both the designers and the players are always speaking the same visual language from start to finish.
When you now also add the painstakingly detailed and dense richness of fundamental and relevant indexes, and the almost complete lack of implausible indexes… you end up with quite an impressive piece of art direction and world design.
The themes around Batman got already discussed in the last article and many of the villains in Arkham City will follow in future installements. Today we will have a look at, what I consider to be the core narrative theme of the game, appropriation, we will look at Gotham City, the backdrop of the plot, and finally check out the district of Arkham City, the actual scene of the events.
Let’s have a look at the source material first. Gotham is fictional city. This gives writers and artists a lot of creative freedom to spin crazy stories, show spectacular vistas and still keep it believable. Fictional cities are a big tradition in all DC comics. Metropolis, Gotham, Central City, Coast City… super heroes in the DC universe usually fight and live in cities, which can be depicted in any way without clashing with any sort of real life counterpart. Though the cities should all have an american appeal.
Marvel Comics on the other hand bets on realism to achieve believability, by having most of their key players roam New York City. This limits design decisions to go a long with a public perception of New York. But this public perception also makes the location very familiar and relatable. Gotham is always the town you never been to and the town you don’t even know from all the movies.
Batman’s home turf is a time capsule for the prohibition era. No, alcohol is not banned but all the classic Mafia themes are in place and some technology somehow also just froze around 1930. Batman originated in 1939, Al Capone was still alive, Zeppelins were used for transportation and Fedoras were still in fashion. So the design was rather contemporary.
Over the decades the design of Gotham got updated to resonate with new generations of comic readers. But the 1930 flair was always kept as part of Gotham’s identity. Giving us strange mixups of 1980s hairstyles for women and 1930 dress codes for men in the first Tim Burton movie and having the Gotham City Police Department still patrol the city via zeppelin in Batman Arkham City.
Pillar of the collective Batman pop-culture memory, the 90s animated television show borrowed heavily from 1930 visual themes, especially in costume design and the Art Deco style used for props and background design. But the design team around Bruce Timm still flavored their show with high tech gadgetry, modern air crafts, laser guns and robots.
The prohibition era town theme was also kept in most Gotham incarnations for narrative reasons. It serves a justification for Batman to even exist. Gotham needs to be tightly in the grip of godfathers and gang lords, and the police needs to be helplessly outgunned and corrupt, so a masked vigilante even becomes necessary.
Art Deco Architecture
A few comparisons between real world Art Deco architecture and Arkham City architecture.
Core Narrative Theme: Appropriation
When closely looking at the story design, it gets pretty apparent, that the main narrative theme in Batman Arkham City is ‚Äö√Ñ√∫appropriation‚Äö√Ñ√π. Also including some specific forms of appropriation, like takeover (appropriation of somebody else‚Äö√Ñ√≤s resources), theft (approriation of some else’s property), occupation (appropriation of space), abduction (appropriation of people) and such.
This is how the theme is driving the story:
‚Äö√Ñ√¨Professor Hugo Strange, the government and Tyger Security appropriate a district of Gotham City to turn it into prison complex.
‚Äö√Ñ√¨Strange’s masterplan is to appropriate more districts in other cities similar to what he did to Gotham.
‚Äö√Ñ√¨Bruce Wayne speaks out against it and gets abducted as a political prisoner, therefore entering Arkham City.
‚Äö√Ñ√¨Each super villain appropriates a section of the district (now called Arkham City) and makes it his territory.
‚Äö√Ñ√¨The inmates get appropriated by the super villains to be soldiers in territorial gang wars.
‚Äö√Ñ√¨Significant buildings in the district get appropriated by various entities and repurposed as head quarters.
‚Äö√Ñ√¨Medical teams occupy the church to set up a makeshift hospital.
‚Äö√Ñ√¨The Penguin’s sole motivation is the acquisition of stuff for his newly re-appropriated museum.
‚Äö√Ñ√¨Mr. Freeze’s motivation is driven by the fact, that first he, then his stuff and then his wife get abducted/stolen.
‚Äö√Ñ√¨Catwoman’s motivation and mission goals are various variations on ‚Äö√Ñ√∫stealing her stuff back‚Äö√Ñ√π.
‚Äö√Ñ√¨The riddler appropriates a lot of places and people in the district to make them part of a giant scavenger hunt.
‚Äö√Ñ√¨Batman comes in and takes down every single self-appointed proprietor, while being totally untouchable himself.
This theme also heavily drives the overall art direction of Arkham City and the selection of signs.
A big part of the constantly visible appropriation theme are the gang wars going on between the different super villains and their goons. In the comics, goons have a long tradition of sporting derivatives of the iconic looks of their leaders.
In real life, when gang affiliation is a serious matter of life and death iconic graffiti tags, tattoos and clothing are used to mark people and locations as gang property.
In Arkham City, inmates regular jumpsuits get customized with super villain iconography to signal their gang affiliation. Sometimes in multiple layers, when inmates switch affiliation or get drafted. Some inmates also get tattooed, meaning their live now belongs to their super villain gang lord.
This raw form of customization also can be found in the environment designs of Arkham City. Whenever you are in a territory belonging to a specific super villain, you see tons of related iconography used to mark that territory.
The player gets dropped into Arkham City when it is already standing. And we know it was a regular part of the city, with citizens, businesses and daily life before.
Cleverly placed indexes for the process of appropriating a district of Gotham and turning it into a prison complex tell the player what happened before.
The backstory of the government sanctioned forced displacement of citizens from their homes and businesses is a story of overreaching government. The inhumane conditions under which the inmates are held in Arkham City, the political prisoners and the government sanctioned mass execution of inmates, are a story of oppressive government.
The designers at Rocksteady seemed to be quite aware of that and placed anti-tyranny symbols in their game. Some obvious, some are quite subtle. Like this one:
It took me a bit to find a meaning to that symbol, which fits the Arkham City narration. Dating back to medival times, in England, the image of a dragon fighting/eating a snake is a symbol for kings and noblemen taking from their people to keep their people small and weak. It’s a symbol of oppressive rulers bleeding out their people. The snake is viewed as a young and weak form of a dragon, and the dragon eats it before it becomes too big.
Later the symbol got used by the Boston Tea Party, depicting themselves as dangerous poisonous snakes to not be stepped on and defeating the dragon (representative for the british empire). Today the symbol is known as the Gadsden flag.
Less subtle but the more stronger is the use of orwellian imagery to articulate the oppressive government theme. George Orwell’s famous novel 1984 spawned several movie versions, which featured a distinctive style of visuals and the catch phrase “Big brother is watching you!” became part of western popculture as well.
The surveillance state nature of Arkham City and the human rights infringing way of treating the inmates allows to draw quite a few comparisons to the INGSOC, which was the oppressive force in the novel.
Rocksteady based many of their designs for the organizations behind the prison complex (Arkham Asylum and Tyger Secury) on so called orwellian imagery.
I never though this one would take so long. I thought. I maybe loose a few sentences about believability in environment design and share a few examples. But Rocksteady did so much considerate design work, I took so many photographs of interesting locations, it became a challenge to decide what not to show.
But I hope you got some insight in principles that can guide great environment design and the principles and themes that found their way into this masterpiece of art direction.
As always, check the Batman tag for all related posts.
Next in the pipeline: the Joker. Promise.
until then, how about some oppressive regime sanctioned noodles!