Batman Arkham VR by Rocksteady Studios, 2016. Copyright Sony Computer Entertainment.

Becoming Batman

Analysis of VR specific gameplay design solutions in Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham VR

This analysis focuses on Batman: Arkham VR by Rocksteady Studios (2016). The game was among the launch titles for PSVR, Sony’s recently launched Virtual Reality peripheral for the Playstation 4.

I am interested in how the game continues the series of Batman games by the same studio, and in particular how designing for VR has influenced gameplay design. This ties into my current research into trends in gaming. The analysis functions as a case study into a VR title and its specific design from gameplay point of view.

In what follows, I will discuss a number of design details that, in my analysis, result from both the new design space VR opens up for game design, but also from the constraints that designers are forced to work with, due to the current state of the technology.

Key Design Drivers

The introductory sequence sets up the key design driver: making the player step into Batman’s shoes. Through the increased sense of bodily presence in a game world that VR is able give to players, the sequence gives the player an embodied experience of what it is to be ‘the world’s greatest detective’, as Batman is also known in the fiction.

Besides the first-person point of view, this is achieved, first, by giving the player familiar bat-tools, such as the grappling hook and the scanner (which, if one uses the Playstation move controllers, one in hand each hand), and second, by placing the player (as Batman) into a number of physical places the position of which are clearly aimed at the player identifying with Batman’s physical capabilities and the detective work he does.

Whereas the amplified sense of presence is what VR affords, the main constraint for the design is stemming from the current state of the technology: the lack of free-form, player-controlled movement (unless this can be constrained into a level plane, such as in another PSVR launch title, Battlezone). This is partly a controller issue and partly a frame-rate issue, which, at its worst, can produce the feeling nausea among players.

“this is a game that in hindsight will be looked at as a collection of VR design tropes in their infancy”

The design solutions to counter this in Batman: Arkham VR are two-fold: first, the player is provided no free movement but he is transported directly between pre-defined locations.

For example, the designers use transitions which communicate the change of location via sound only. These transitions are used when there is a more substantial move from location to another, such as from the Bat-cave to a place of interest elsewhere in Gotham. How the transitions are executed feels slightly forced: the fade-to-black-with-sound-only design solution makes them feel almost dream-like, which mostly feels like a constrained way to mask loading times and technological shortcomings.

Within the places of interest, which are designed as more confined set-pieces for the player to interact with the environment (e.g. a morgue where Batman is tasked in investigating bodies of victims, see image below, or the Bat-cave which functions as a hub), the player can ‘warp’ between locations of specific interest. These spots are chosen in order to afford investigation and gathering of clues.

The waypoint movement mechanics signalled by the triangle and bat sign in Batman Arkham VR by Rocksteady Studios, 2016. Copyright Sony Computer Entertainment.

Second, the designers of Rocksteady have tried to turn the lack of movement to a strength by designing specifically for that constraint. This becomes evident via a number of scenarios where Batman is either placed, bat-like, into a position of a hidden observer from above. This design solution amplifies the bat-ness of the proceedings and allows the developers also the showcase the epic architecture of Gotham from a first person, 360 degree point of view.

Hovering over Gotham and its villains in Batman Arkham VR by Rocksteady Studios, 2016. Copyright Sony Computer Entertainment.

The other approach is where Batman is basically trapped into a small space, such as a cage, and therefore the lack of movement is justified by design of the set-piece. In these instances, the designers bring in characters from the gallery of villains in the Batman lore to create startling moments of intimidation and helplessness, e.g. where Killer Croc appears and seemingly kills Robin before Batman’s eyes.

Killer Croc’s intimidating presence in Batman Arkham VR by Rocksteady Studios, 2016. Copyright Sony Computer Entertainment.

AmplifyingBat Presence’ through virtual reality

Listening to a number of gaming podcasts, it seems that the mirror sequence in the beginning of the game, where the player gets to put the bat-mask on and see himself in the mirror, has captured players’ attention in the way the designers intended.

This simple yet clever gimmick seems to work for the target audience, building on the basic aspiration of becoming a superhero and obviously now achieving it through the amplified sense of presence the VR headset provides in comparison to the third-person position the previous non-VR games in Rocksteady’s Batman series have created for the player to identify with.

The mirror sequence in Batman Arkham VR by Rocksteady Studios, 2016. Copyright Sony Computer Entertainment.

Designing for feelings of intimidation and helplessness via current constraints

There are two key sequences in the game, where the designers try to turn their design constraints into their advantage. The game opens with another take on Batman’s origin story i.e. where his parents are murdered in an alleyway when he is a young boy. The sequence makes the player watch this from young Bruce Wayne’s eyes, with him, perhaps understandably, frozen helplessly on his footsteps. The thug who just murdered his parents hovers over the boy (player) in a way that takes clever use of how scale can be manipulated in the VR space. As a result, the experience is quite intimidating — arguably the result the designers were aiming for.

Another similar sequence follows towards the end of the game, where Batman has been trapped into a cage by The Joker and his cohorts. Robin is jailed into the adjacent cage, and what follows is quite a startling sequence where the player as Batman can only watch how Killer Croc, one of the more intimidating villains in the fiction, mauls Robin. Similar design approach continues with the final sequence of the game, where the circle comes to a close in that the player is put into a position where his mirror identity is quite literally substituted to the one of The Joker.

Young Bruce Wayne intimidated by the thug towering over him. Batman Arkham VR by Rocksteady Studios, 2016. Copyright Sony Computer Entertainment.

Temporary Design conventions

In conclusion, Batman: Arkham VR displays both sides of current VR game design and development: One, the constraints regarding movement that overall seem to be more limiting than VR evangelists like to admit. Arguably one of the key game mechanics in previous instalments of the Batman series has been the bat-like movement and the sense of exploration above the rooftops of Gotham. The technological constraints of the current PSVR generation has forced the designers to take the series’ gameplay into a different direction, and it can be argued that this direction is, even if interesting as such, not entirely satisfactory in comparison to the rest of the series.

It seems to me that the term ‘VR experience’ has been coined as a subtitle to a number of game titles struggling with similar challenges in trying to get the best out of current constraints for game design that the VR hardware imposes.

The consequences of limited movement to the players’ experience are not limited to the movement as such, but they have consequences to other pleasures gained from exploration, such as sense of discovery and meaningful choices in how to approach the challenges presented to the player. For designers, this also means that design goals and techniques such as world-building by placing storytelling fragments into the game world, are not available as part of the designers’ toolset, and consequently, the resulting experience feels very linear, as if literally on rails, with a few brief excursions (e.g. investigating a crime scene) in between.

On the other hand, the game does showcase some of the distinctive qualities of VR in its current state, i.e. the increased sense of presence and sensory immersion that the technology enables. As I’ve indicated above, Batman: Arkham VR displays clever design in how it leverages VR for the purposes of giving the player a sense of ‘becoming Batman’.

The overall conclusion, though, is that this is a game that in hindsight will be looked at as a collection of VR design tropes in their infancy — at once, tropes not yet perfected through enough iterations and conventions, but simultaneously of tropes hindered by constraints. In a few years, these constraints will be looked back at as growing pains which no designer will regret not having anymore.