Minor spoilers for Batman: Arkham Knight follow
I’ve put a lot of time into Fallout 4. Like, an absurd amount, though let’s be honest, how many of those hours were for their abysmally long load times? I’ve also put in several hours into Just Cause 3, I’ve bounced around in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, and many more. I love open-world video games. But they all share the same fundamental problem when it comes to story. When the player is finally set loose upon the world they’re exploring, there is so much to do, that you go off and explore, and any sense of story progression or pacing is lost. By the time I reconnected with my missing son in Fallout 4, I had already joined three factions in the Commonwealth and built several small settlements. What started as a non-stop revenge quest to find my son who was taken from me probably came off as wooden. Sure my character acted overjoyed to see him again, but the reality was he spent so much time doing anything else that clearly reunion wasn’t his number one priority. So that moment didn’t land the way it should have. It’s not unique to Fallout 4. Most open-world games struggle with this problem in some way.
But Batman: Arkham Knight absolutely nailed it.
When I was first playing Arkham Knight, I immediately noticed how the story and exploration seamlessly weaved together. Now that I’ve played several open-world games since then this has only become more and more obvious. The game takes place over the course of one night, for the development purposes, it is Batman’s final night as the Caped Crusader — at least his final night under the guide of developer Rocksteady. Gotham is evacuated and Scarecrow has unleashed everything he can at Batman in an attempt to break the vigilante while destroying the city in the process. Obviously, it takes more time to complete the game (a few weeks in my case) than the timeline of the game (one night), but despite this obviously exaggerated clock, there were so many smart ways Rocksteady made me feel like I was in the moment.
Rocksteady has always delivered great Batman stories in their games although each one is a variation of the criminal-controls-this-area-of-Gotham. In Arkham Asylum, Joker took over the mental asylum/prison. In Arkham City Two-Face, Riddler, and Joker all fought for control of Arkham City, Gotham’s redesignated prison district. In the finale, the entire city is at play. When it comes to game design, the bigger the city is, the harder it can be to keep a narrative focus. For example, in most Bethesda open-world games, the consensus is that players could ignore the main story completely while still getting a full experience with the title.
The trouble is that in games like Fallout or Skyrim, there is an entire world that exists and doesn’t involve you. You are a wanderer and unsurprisingly the world doesn’t revolve around you, at least not initially. Some might argue that this adds to the experience. For example, if you truly make your character in Fallout the way you want, what’s to say you aren’t playing as somebody who has accepted he will never find his son, and who will begrudgingly move on with his new life? What if in Skyrim you rejected your destiny as the fabled Dragonborn, and instead were a nameless warrior in the land with untold potential. In both these games fortunately, there is so much — let me say again, SO MUCH — to do outside of the main story that you can carve that path if you want.
Batman: Arkham Knight has a plethora of sidequests as well, but they all are directly connected to the main quest. Scarecrow’s mission is to put Gotham City in fear and to create a scenario where Batman must fail. As such, he throws everything he has at The Caped Crusader. Part of this involves unleashing the various other Rogues, some famous, some forgotten, all of whom have their own bone to pick with Batman, but neither are in direct conflict. Penguin is supplying guns to Scarecrow’s militia, an arsonist is destroying firehouses, and there is even a murder mystery to solve. These “Most Wanted” stories make up the various side missions for the game, but again they all are related to the main story.
This lets you feel like exploration isn’t you wasting time, but rather you are constantly running into another criminal element of Scarecrow’s that needs to be shut down. As you put more and more pressure on Scarecrow he feels it, and of course, will retaliate in time. So your side missions never feel like you are separate from the main story, but are cleaning up the trash on the way to your final goal.
The missions are also incredibly well-paced, to the point where I didn’t even realize it. On your mini-display, you can see your mission progress, but the game quietly limits how quickly you can tear through each side-mission. Don’t expect to defuse every bomb planted in the city or lock up all escaped convicts before the game lets you. The game is very good at quietly pushing you in a linear path that feels anything but. But more importantly, it makes sense that things happen when they do. There is a villain who I had no idea was even in this game who didn’t surface until the very end, just when I thought it was safe. And when this villain does come into play, it all makes sense, especially why they wouldn’t get involved until that part of the story. Batman: Arkham City has mastered balancing so many storylines simultaneously that form a single narrative cohesion and yet still give you the open-world experience it promised.
And it isn’t just the side missions that give you a sense of where you are in the story. As Batman flies around Gotham, his radio lets him overhear the conversations of various soldiers, who actually are talking about what you just did. You overhear a variety of these conversations all from various perspectives and with differing levels of knowledge. And if you’re not overhearing a conversation, then Riddler or Scarecrow themselves get on the PA system and publicly taunt you and call you out if you’re idle for too long. But most actions you have in the game incur some kind of feedback as to how this fits in the little picture. If you disarm a roadside bomb, the mysterious Arkham Knight will laugh it off as luck, a small action that won’t have any real impact. If you disarm several of them, the Arkham Knight will get on the PA and be very clearly agitated. It’s the little touches like that which always make you feel like no matter what you do in the moment, you are working towards one endgame.
I haven’t even mentioned how there is a certain additional, psychological element to playing as Batman, which gives you even more context as this element is always commenting on what you’re doing.
The only other game I see where the world reacts accordingly to the player’s actions would be Fallout. In those games, your exploits are what the radio DJs talk about, and again that makes sense. However, the structure of those games is so much looser, that you can hear the same radio conversation several times before you move forward again. Again, games like Fallout and Grand Theft Auto create worlds that you exist in but don’t focus around you, so it makes sense. Gotham and Batman are pretty tied at the hip, so it makes sense that everything is focused on you.
Ultimately, Batman: Arkham Knight keeps the player in the moment. The entire world you explore is in that same moment and everything feels contextual. Your side quests feel like direct reactions to your main quest. And while you’re exploring there is enough atmosphere that you don’t feel completely separated from the earth-shattering events happening around you. The game wisely keeps everything happening over one night. While that sense of time is clearly impossibly long, it still feels in the moment.
Not every game can have that sense of timing that Arkham Knight does. But future open-world games could try and form a story that is connected on a broader level. Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate so far does feel like everything is contributing towards a common purpose while Fallout 4 can be an entirely removed experience from its main story. For some games, a sense of context isn’t as important, but for others it can feel very off-balance. Until then, Batman: Arkham Knight’s sense of place, time, and context have made it the gold standard for open-world storytelling.