I watched the trailer for the upcoming Batman game that got released earlier this week and immediately had one inescapable thought: you can’t tell it’s a prequel. That’s not a good thing.
Nothing about Batman’s look or affect in the four-minute clip makes it seem like he’s in the early days of his crimefighting career. Overall, it could be just another Batman video game that looks like the last ones. That’s to be expected, of course, as Warner Bros’ marketing folks want it to be viewed as part of the same franchise despite being made by a different studio. But trying to do so misses the best thing a prequel has going for it.
Arkham Origins’ biggest opportunity is to show a Bruce Wayne who’s building this identity called Batman. There’s a lot of raw storytelling ore to found in the Dark Knight’s early days. Hell, there’s a whole subgenre of Bat-mythos concerned with just the first year of Batman’s crusade. But the key to having such endeavours work is to ensure they don’t make the audience scratch their head about the long narrative life story of the character.
Sure, the idea of a video-scrubbing investigation mechanic sounds cool and, based on what Stephen Totilo’s written on it, it could be one of the better additions to the Batman game formula. But, unless it’s presented as Batman learning to be a better detective, it’s just a gameplay gimmick. Same goes for enemies being to able to counter Batman’s strikes. If it’s understood that they can do that because a younger Batman isn’t as skilled a fighter, then, sure, throw the countered counter counters at me. It's the problem with any prequel. How do you make players feel like they're as much of a bad-ass as they were in earlier games, while making the character seem like a novice?
Trickier still, any explanations could themselves break the trance that Warner Bros. Montreal is trying to cast on the player. Now the game could be an extended flashback narrated by an older Batman. You know, the whole “I was young and cocky” bit. However they handle these prequel problems, they’ll need to be careful not to make a more inexperienced Batman seem like bigger bad-ass than the older versions in Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. And that needs to be done without making Batman feel wimpier than in those games.
It can be done. Batman: Year One, the Mask of the Phantasm movie and the Venom storyline all deliver a Bruce Wayne who’s far more fallible than the hero he’d later become. You understand why he becomes a loner, an obsessive planner and more emotionally closed-off. In fact, the idea that you as a player are helping Batman evolve -- taking him from a rich guy in an armoured suit to a fearsome shadow predator -- could be the most compelling thing that Arkham Origins brings to the table. The previous Bat-games let you play a Dark Knight at his peak. This one should let you help him get there.