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Batman: Arkham Asylum was released five years ago and I finally got around to playing it. I never bothered because, at a glance, it looked really awful. The combat appeared slow, exploration seemed limited, upgrades were uninteresting, and there never seemed to be any challenge. Once I decided to finally play it I found that all of these things are actually true! So why does this game get the praise it does? Why am I having so much fun with it? Why is this such a good game!? After playing through the game I can say its an overwhelming amount polish and outstanding level design. So whats so great about the level design?
Verticality is the most important concept to the level design in Arkham Asylum. Outdoor areas excluded, the player is often confined to a hallway or small room when Batmanning their way from plot point to plot point. Using the grappling hook the player is able to scale a staggering amount of terrain in each level. In most cases this actually doubles the size of the playable area, if not triple it. Allowing the player to navigate multiple vertical layers of any given stage grants an immense feeling of freedom and control, even when progression is almost entirely on rails, and even if the outcome is always predetermined.
To me, the single most important part of any game is being able to do whatever I think I can do. If you give me a grappling hook I had better damn well be able to grappling hook myself onto anything I want. Fortunately the team at Rocksteady realized this and executed it with great effect. I have never felt limited in my exploration or mobility in Arkham Asylum. Being able to explore in any direction, even if it takes me nowhere is still a great feeling.
The odd thing is that Arkham Asylum is quite literally on rails most of the time. You are led from point A to point B with the ominous helping hand of the waypoint system and tooltips. Unlike a lot games in this genre, the player is almost never left to find their own way. Usually this bugs the-ever-loving-shit out of me and I want to smash my TV when it happens. It is the reason I do not enjoy AAA titles. The aforementioned exploration would not be enough to keep the gameplay feeling fresh for the 7-10 hours it takes to complete it. Thank God there are a handful of hubs.
Hubs are what really tie everything together for me. Large outdoor areas with multiple paths to other hubs and stages, dotted with tons of collectibles, and often a handful of dudes to practice your Batman on. In these areas you are only limited by your current gadgets and your own ability to explore. Generally there isn’t a sense of urgency and doesn’t repeatedly remind the player that they should be doing something. This makes these areas all the more fun to explore and just play around in. Each one acts as a mini-sandbox to test out my new bat-toys and get out of hallways for a while. Its a brilliant way to break up the pace and monotony of constantly following directions. Hubs are also the only areas you ever really backtrack through, which allows the game to reaffirm certain tools and gameplay elements in a free “no consequences” setting while at the same time rewarding the player for using them correctly.
Arkham Asylum made me really rethink what level and game design means. As a fledgling game developer, I find this game to be utterly fascinating for being far greater than the sum of its parts. It makes me rethink everything I thought I knew about game design. It makes me realize that letting the player actually play is the most important thing. Do not stand in the players way. A game does not have to be difficult all the time. It doesn’t have to make you think all the time. It just needs to let you play it.
It just needs to let the player have fun.