Drawing The Dark Knight

Rocksteady Studios’ Batman: Arkham Asylum seems to be (to my knowledge) one of the first games to address the ethical problem that comes with the high body count and you, the player, being the supposed good-guy. The fact of the matter is, in this game you don’t kill anyone, you just knock them out, including the main villain. Even when you push a guy into an endless-looking abyss, you hear a reassuring splash of water whispering soothingly into your ear: “He’ll be okay, don’t you worry about that, big boy.” But that’s a minor and more or less trivial detail of the game.

More interesting detail is the fact that B:AA isn’t visually anything special… until you hit the pause screen. When doing so, the game renders the screen as if it’s been taken straight from Sin City or alike. The effect is eye-meltingly good and makes you wonder what if they would have made the whole game look like that. Now the pause screen is like a nod to the player that “Yes, we could have done it this way, but we didn’t. Sorry.”

Ok, the effect in question is a bit extreme and perhaps it would have rendered the game unplayable by making it too hard for player to make sense of. This comes actually back to the problem of freedom the player has in video games, in contrast to non-dynamic mediums, like movies and graphic novels. When working with old mediums the director/artist has the absolute control over what the spectator sees and hears, which enables highly stylistic and even abstract ways of depicting things, but still keeping the viewer on board what’s happening. Samurai Jack’s certain stylistic scenes are good examples of that.

I’m a big fan of cel shading, and I consider it as one of the biggest breakthroughs in history of real-time image, especially the outline effect. I truly think there’s something magical about seeing something like B:AA’s pause screen to be drawn in real-time knowing that you can affect the outcome by rotating the camera or adjusting the character’s position. It’s like having a personal Frank Miller at your disposal, but not quite.

Madworld, Borderlands, and not to mention cel shading grand-daddy Jet Set Radio, already have proven that a stylistic rendering method can work and add a lot to the experience. Would the cel shading made B:AA a better game then? Perhaps not, but it would have made it definitely more interesting looking game, that’s for sure.