In 2009 Rocksteady Studios released Batman: Arkham Asylum. During the height of Christopher Nolan's success with his grounded, more realistic take on the Dark Knight, Rocksteady and Warner Bros found success with their own take on the character – blending together the grit and absurdity of the famed DC Comics universe.
They followed it up with Arkham City in 2011 and now conclude their Batman tale with Arkham Knight, the first in the series to be released on PS4 and Xbox One. Ahead of the game's release tomorrow (23 June) we spoke to the game's director, co-writer and Rocksteady co-founder Sefton Hill.
[WARNING: Spoilers for the end of Arkham City will follow]
IBT: Did you feel an obligation to include the Batmobile this time around having basically nailed all other aspects of the character?
Hill: I don't know if obligation is the right word as much as a desire on our side. We felt the Batmobile was the one thing that was missing but at the same time we only wanted to do it if we could do it justice. We spent a lot of time prototyping the different ways it could move and didn't want it to feel like a separate entity to Batman, we wanted it to feel like an extension of him. Something that ties into the existing systems in the game, something that integrates into the gameplay. It was certainly worthwhile.
Were there any complaints people had with Arkham City that you wanted to address in Arkham Knight?
Not really, which sort of sounds arrogant I guess. It was... we wanted to trust our instincts. Fans were very positive with their feedback to the first two games, so we wanted to continue to push and make this a franchise that takes chances. Our industry can be quite conservative in some ways so we wanted to keep things fresh and exciting. There wasn't really anything already there which we wanted to fundamentally change, but the introduction of the Batmobile changes a lot – in terms of the size and scale of the city. And fans had been asking for the Batmobile for some time too, so there's that, and as fans we wanted it as well.
Not many people get the chance to end Batman's story. That must come with pressure but does it also offer some freedom as well, creatively?
Yeah, that's one of the fantastic things about delivering the Arkham series in quite a staccato fashion, we get to deliver three big parts of a story and we can create events that have consequence. So when Joker dies at the end of Arkham City that has huge consequences for Knight. You see with some TV shows that they're caught in a state of equilibrium and don't want to change things that are successful so the story starts to fizzle out and go nowhere.
We're quite privileged to have three chunks of story to tell and go on a genuine journey so as a storyteller we can create these moments – if someone dies or something happens – that affect the world and change it. That's exciting. Knowing we're coming to the end of the story there is pressure, but as you say it enables us to create something with a real arc and not have to worry about certain things.
Villains in Arkham City kept to their own areas, is that the case in Arkham Knight?
The villains are definitely moving around the city more... because it's a coordinated attack on Batman they've all agreed how and where they're gonna place the emphasis on taking down Batman. Scarecrow is more psychological, Arkham Knight is more physical with how he's occupying the city with his drone army, whereas other people are attacking the city itself. Two Face is robbing banks, Penguin is supplying arms, so they have their own way of pulling Batman in all directions and bring him to his knees.
The villains themselves are more dynamic if you like, because the city is much more open and moving to next-gen means all these things are happening concurrently in the world. It's definitely the most dynamic experience we've created with a rich city full of things to do.
Two-Face wasn't in Asylum and got little more than a cameo in City, will he have a bigger role to play this time around?
Two Face is focused on robbing banks, that's his mission. Each of the supervillains gets their own arc in their own mission. City had more of an ensemble cast crossing over the main single story, here they have their own stories in their own missions which keeps the story clean to follow. What we wanted to do with the story was... it's a mix of Asylum and City in a way. It's more epic, the sense of scale is huge but at the same time the attack is very much on Batman and what it means to be Batman. So those tones are from that personal relationship to the characters in Arkham Asylum, but with the scale much larger.
The Scarecrow levels in the first game were among the game's best moments and always seemed like they were fun to develop. Was it that experience with the character that convinced you to make him the main antagonist here?
With Scarecrow we deliberately held him back from Arkham City to keep things fresh, rather than repeating what worked in the first game. So we sort of hamstrung ourselves slightly, saying "That was successful, we don't want to overdo it", but we wanted to bring him back for the third one and always knew that.
But at the same time we never wanted to openly repeat the beats of Asylum. So Scarecrow is back and he's messing with Batman, there's a psychological assault on Batman, but the way that is portrayed and the way it develops is quite different from before.
In the first game his sections diverged from the main story, here they're presumably more engrained in the core story...
They're more integrated, they're more... without spoiling anything... even the way that's portrayed and how it happens is very different.
What have you learned during the development of the Batman games that you will take forward into your next project?
Primarily I think it's the confidence. When we worked on Asylum all we had to go on was trying to make games that we believed in and that's what we've taken out of the process. You can't fake it, you have to make games you're passionate about, don't try to – I'm sure some places do this – don't try to second guess the market, or dumb a game down or make them super-hard. We're just making a game that we all enjoy and hopefully that passion comes through when people play it. That's what we learned moving from Asylum to City to Knight, to have that confidence and to not second guess ourselves too much.
Are you interested in creating a new IP as your next project?
Yeah... the great thing at the moment is the wealth of opportunities open to us, which is daunting. I mean if you're told to write a story about anything, that's just... woah [laughs]... anything? So this is an exciting time for us with lots of options as to whether we go for a new IP or an existing character.
To be honest we're in a strange position because we haven't finalised what we're going to do, which is unusual but we like to work on one thing at a time, having the whole studio focused. We just finished Arkham Knight obviously so if I wasn't here today I'd be back at the studio talking about what we're doing next.
So that's your summer sorted.
Pretty much, yeah [laughs].
Just going to finish with some quick fire questions: What's your favourite Batman comic?
... Long Halloween.
Good answer. What's your favourite Batmobile? Other than your own.
Ooh, other than my own. My own? I wish it was my own! I love the Batman 1989 classic, the hotrod, long hood. For me growing up it was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen, I loved cars.
What is your favourite Batman film?
[Umming and ahhing] I'd probably go with Batman 1989, the original Tim Burton. I love the Nolan ones as well, I love Begins which has some scenes which are classic Batman, like the docks, but at a push I'd say the 1989 film.
Who is your favourite Batman villain?
It changes all the time. I love Joker which is the obvious answer, but Riddler too. He has a great story in this game with the richest story he's had so far. It's Batman, Riddler and Catwoman interacting and I think players will enjoy that.