Batman: Arkham City: art director David Hego interview

To mark the launch of Batman: Arkham City, we met art director David Hego to talk about its visuals, and its controversial depiction of Catwoman...

Brace yourselves, fellow gamers – the AAA season has begun. From now until Christmas, there will be many top-tier titles vying for your time, each attempting to one-up the others in big-budget thrills and near-perfect Metacritic scores.

Currently leading the pack is Arkham City, the sequel to 2009’s Arkham Asylum – which is, we’re assured, The Best Batman Game Ever Apart From Batman On The Spectrum. So far, City has proved to be the equal of Asylum, as Batman enters the eponymous urban prison to do battle with his old foes Two-Face, Penguin and the Joker – like a remake of Escape From New York, but with Snake Plissken donning a cape and cowl, and gliding across the skyline.

However, among the plaudits showered on Arkham City by critics the world over, a few writers have taken umbrage with an underlying air of sexism seen in the game’s cleavage-centric depiction of Catwoman, and the consistent use of ‘bitch’ as a catch-all synonym for womankind.

To settle matters, we got the inside scoop from David Hego, art director at Rocksteady Studios, who gave us some insight into the artistic process, the game’s stylised, hyperreal aesthetic, and the line between sexiness and sexism.

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When developing the art style for a game like Arkham City, where you’re playing with very iconic cultural properties, how free are you to put your own stamp on the characters?

We’re quite free, even for the characters. We’ve got a very good relationship with DC Comics and Wildstorm, to talk through the characters and what we’re trying to do with them. And we’re quite free. We sometimes throw crazy ideas at them and they give us a bit of feedback. The thing which is interesting with Batman and the Rogues Gallery, is that you have an amazing set of characters.

That’s what’s amazing in the Batman universe, all of the villains are really well known. Of course, everyone knows Batman, but everyone knows Joker and Penguin. I think what’s interesting in what we’re trying to do with our Penguin, is that we have the stereotypical assets of Penguin – he’s a short guy, he’s a bit wide and he’s got a monocle. But what we tried to do was to take these elements, and try to bend them. So instead of having a monocle, we’re going to take the back of a broken bottle and stick it in there. That’s the interesting part, taking these archetypes and changing them to make our own version.

Was there a similar process when it came to bringing Catwoman into the Arkham City world?

Catwoman was a bit more straightforward, I guess, in terms of assets. I mean, she’s got really sexy assets, let’s say! We made her quite sexy, and she’s got quite a cleavage, you know. But what we wanted with Catwoman and what we were trying to do with the characters, and globally in the game, is that we have a rule, which is hyperrealism. Very advanced shaders and textures and lighting, to make everything look extra real. But at the same time, we did want stuff to be stylised, because we didn’t want to be around the uncanny valley. And we wanted to dig further than ‘reality’.

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So we’ve got those two elements together. And what’s interesting with Catwoman, is we’re pushing the hyperrealism in the outfit, and the sexiness of the character as well. Because what you’ve got is ugly men and beautiful girls. It’s not just physical, it’s in their minds, too. They’ve all got something quite grotesque. And all the girls need to be beautiful, so you’ve got Catwoman. And it’s hard to decide, or define beauty. I remember having lots of iterations, just slight changes, just to make sure.

When you’re dealing with those extremes, especially on the side of making the women beautiful or sexy, there is a danger of feeding into the sexism that is so prevalent in comics culture and gaming culture. Was that a part of the iteration process, to try and find the right balance?

Yeah, it’s a fantasy world in a way. And we depict extreme things in a fantasy world. That’s what’s interesting.

The city doesn’t look like a normal city as well. Of course it’s very Gothic, it’s very American, but what we did was we added Victorian architectural references, and in Arkham City we’ve added Art Nouveau as well. I find that fascinating, to scavenge, to go through the history of architecture and take some parts.

It’s not like if we were doing a space game, where we had to build everything from scratch, but when you’ve got such an amazing history of architecture, I find it cool. So I hope that’s what makes Arkham City and Arkham Asylum, what I call the ‘Arkham-verse’, a bit different.

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It’s a stylisation. Something that’s magnified in one way. I don’t think… Sexism and stuff, I guess you can see it that way, but it’s not the message behind it. We tried to make a very strong and very defined character. It’s a bit like the movies of Jean Pierre Jeunet, like The City Of Lost Children, all the characters are just amazing people, which are very uncommon and very peculiar. And I think it’s the same here.

David Hego, thank you very much.

Batman: Arkham City is out now for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.

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