Assuming you’ve visited a video game website today, you’re likely already aware that Rocksteady studios will be returning to the Batman: Arkham series they created, with Batman: Arkham Knight. The early indication is that the game will be released sometime in 2014, with some retailers marking the unofficial release date as October 14th.
Concrete details on the game itself are scarce, but the one tantalizing bit of info that was suggested by the game’s cover and trailer, and later confirmed by Rocksteady, is that the Batmobile will now be a part of the game. In fact, it’s been described as a “core-element” of the experience.
From that, it’s easy to assume that Arkham Knight will feature a return to the open world style of Arkham City. After all, what good is a Batmobile if you don’t have a sizable city to drive it around in?
When I realized that, an interesting question popped in my head:
Did Rocksteady really have a choice in terms of making the next Arkham game an open world one?
First of all, I can’t emphasize enough that this is not an indictment on Arkham staying open world, or an indictment against the open world theory of game design itself. Rather it’s a question about whether or not a gaming franchise is capable of switching to an open world style for one installment, and then going back to something else.
In the case of Arkham Knight, my gut response was a “no.”
Putting aside the implementation of the Batmobile for a moment, and going back to the beginning stages of the game’s development, you have to feel that there was a certain obligation for Rocksteady to make Knight an open world game, as going from the sandbox style world featured in Arkham City back to a world more similar to Arkham Asylum (which is to say, a large but ultimately contained environment done in the style of Metroid), feels like a step back in terms of content value for the player, as sandbox games typically give the player much more to do.
But when I think about it more and more, the notion of viewing any style of game design as being inherently a superior content source in terms of value, is one that I’m not entirely comfortable with. It’s a notion that suggests Arkham Asylum by virtue of its design style is a $5.99 box of 20 cookies from manufacturer X, while Arkham City by virtue of its design style is a $5.99 box of 30 cookies from manufacturer X.
That may be a goofy comparison, but its one I make to emphasize my belief that I don’t feel a sandbox game and a non-sandbox game (a Metroidvania type game in this instance) of debatably equal design quality, necessarily carry an undisputed value based on no other reason than their chosen gameplay style.
I think there’s a very valid argument to be had that Arkham Asylum is a superior game, and that it’s not one that can be negated just by the tiebreaker that Arkham City is an open world sandbox game, and Asylum is not.
Also, I’m trying to not use the Arkham names so much, but the situation surrounding those titles is unique in the sense that both were exceptionally well-made games that both happened to have chosen different design approaches.
Had they both kept their chosen design philosophies, but one was an abomination while the other was a complete triumph, it would be easy to say that the series should stick to the style that best benefited it.
When that’s not the case, such as it is here, the it does raise the question of whether or not a successful transition to an open world experience is a permanent one. Does the evolutionary superiority of the sandbox concept (technologically speaking of course), as well as the fact its a style of gameplay that usually lends itself to more playtime, dictate that the move towards any other method of design from there is a step back?
I don’t think it is.
The sandbox style of game design is capable of doing things that no other genre quite can, but in acknowledging that don’t you also have to acknowledge that other genres are capable of accomplishments open world games are not?
Even when a franchise introduces a successful open world endeavor, it should not be married to the idea out of the belief that the developers would somehow be providing a lesser experience, based on no other particular reasoning than the method of design approach they have chosen.
My worry, however, is that there is a certain tangible logic from a technological and consumer standpoint that does say that the evolutionary nature of the sandbox idea makes it so that when considering the move from any other single player game style towards that one, you also have to consider that this move is permanent and, should your open world game be a success, you are now obligated to stick to it out of fear that moving towards a different design approach would be automatically perceived as a lesser game.
I don’t want that to be the case. I want any developer that is fortunate enough to have created a title worthy of becoming a franchise to be able to take that game in any direction they feel is best from a creative standpoint, without fear.
I’m not comfortable with the idea that open world games are inherently superior to any other style but, if I’m being quite honest, at the same time, I can’t help but feel that stepping away from the open world style does, in many ways that do matter, feel like a step back.
Yet this isn’t an attempt to tell you what the right answer is, largely because its insane to believe that there is a right opinion on the topic, and narcissistic to think that there not only is, but that you’re the one who has it. Instead, for the purpose of discussion, I propose to you the simple question I started this piece with:
Once a game has gone open world, can it go back?