Few things create a narrative minefield like a prequel. We already know how the story ends, and yet, you’ve still got to keep things fresh. Add in gameplay that’s largely unchanged from 2011, and suddenly, a sure-bet return to a powerhouse franchise might start to look a little shaky.
Ben Mattes, senior producer on Batman: Arkham Origins (releasing Oct. 25 on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, and PC), doesn’t see it that way. “The Arkham franchise is one of the richest out there as far as the depth of its core systems,” says Mattes. “We said at the very beginning of development that we’re not interested in adding new features for the sake of adding new features. Where can we move the needle? This is an expression that’s very important to us.”
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It’s also very important to Batman fans. So I went to Mattes to find out exactly where that needle moved to.
GamesBeat: This is a new team working on this franchise. How did you depart from where the old team left off?
Ben Mattes: We inherited one of the top-rated games of all time as our launching point. We realized very early on that one of the core fantasies of being Batman was this idea of being the world’s greatest detective. Taking the cool scanning and tracking gameplay, placing it in the open world, and doing that technological scrubbing and rewinding, that digital recreation of the crime scenes. That was an area we wanted to push.
GamesBeat: Playing the demo, a lot of things were very familiar from the past two games. How do you make it feel new the third time around?
Mattes: Our goal wasn’t to throw [the core gameplay] away and say, “No, we can do much better than that.” That would have been a mistake. Our goal was to take that foundation and to help players become the “black belt in Batman.” Taking them through the richness of the system was definitely one of our objectives. On top of that, we wanted to refresh all the content — the enemies, the settings, the stories, the visuals, the aesthetics of some of these gadgets.
GamesBeat: Tell me about the new virtual-reality Detective Mode where you digitally re-create a crime scene. Will detective sequences always be like that in Origins?
Mattes: We have the standard options to go into Detective Mode. In certain key areas, we have this heightened Detective Mode. Sometimes, it takes place in the open world, and sometimes, it takes place in interior locations. Sometimes, they’re big, spectacular events, like a helicopter crash. Sometimes, they’re smaller, like a guy caught in a hit-and-run. But they’re always tied into the story and tied to key characters. They’re optional, generally speaking.
GamesBeat: Are those enhanced Detective Mode sequences mandatory?
Mattes: A lot of them are sidestory challenges.
GamesBeat: One of the things that struck me about the enhanced Detective Mode is that it left the normal POV of the game. I wasn’t Batman anymore — I was in a kind of god mode. What was the thought behind that?
Mattes: Simply put, we tried the first-person perspective and the third-person. We thought it felt cooler to be able to do that — the term that we use is “scrubbing” — from the first-person perspective because you can get right into the action. I encourage you to go stand right in front of the helicopter and have it come and crash-land right at your feet. It’s a more spectacular feeling than if you’re in the third-person perspective.
GamesBeat: This Batman is two years into his career as a costumed vigilante. It’s not Year One; it’s Year Three. That seems like a pretty deliberate choice. So what kind of perspective did you want to bring to this 75-year-old character?
Mattes: We’re not trying to tell an origin story. We’re trying to tell an early-career Batman story. We’re fond of saying that our Batman makes mistakes, but when he makes mistakes, he makes awesome mistakes. It’s not so early that he’s still tripping over his cape.
We wanted to bring Batman back to a place where he was scary, where people who saw Batman wished they hadn’t. A lot of people don’t know about him here. They don’t know he exists. When they find out he exists, they want to forget that they ever met him. There’s a certain familiarity that Batman has later on in his career. He becomes part of the establishment. He shows up on the street and the cops say, “Hey, what’s up?” That’s not the Batman story we wanted to tell. We wanted to tell a Batman story about him setting the explosive gel, blowing the door, standing there backlit with the smoke in his face and his eyes glowing, and people freaking out and running.
GamesBeat: The last Arkham game had a few narrative threads that were clearly building up to something major for the next game. Why let that go to do something completely different?
Mattes: Given that we’re a new studio participating in the franchise, it was important for us to carve out our own creative headroom. We wanted to stay 100 percent consistent with the Arkham universe and make sure we’re not invalidating any of this established canon, but have room to tell our own story.
GamesBeat: What’s going to make this version of Batman stand out in fans’ memories 10 years or 15 years from now?
Mattes: There’s something exciting about saying this is the first time Batman and the these key characters have met and being able to tell origin stories not about the characters but about their relationships. It’s not the 50,000th time the Joker’s broken out of Arkham Asylum. One of the measures of success for this project, if people look back and say, “When those characters met, that was the best time I ever saw them meet,” I’ll be very proud.
GamesBeat: Tell me about the moment where you personally got excited about Arkham Origins.
Mattes: I had one last week. I was doing a start-to-finish playthrough, working on one of the [optional] Most Wanted missions, and I stopped and looked over at Eric [Holmes, creative director] and Matthieu [Raymond, producer], and I said, “Yeah, we’re making something special.” Everyone smiled and we had one of those knowing moments. This wasn’t actually a Most Wanted that we’re talking about yet, but I had followed all of these steps, and I was brought to a particular encounter with a particular character I’m very fond of, in a very cool set-dressed interior location, and I just said, “Wow. We’ve made something special here.”