Batman: Arkham City: lead narrative designer Paul Crocker interview

With Rocksteady providing another superb Batman game with Arkham City, we caught up with narrative designer Paul Crocker to discuss its making...

We’ve already heard from David Hego, the art director on the smash hit caped crusader sim Batman: Arkham City, but we went to the game’s lead narrative designer, Paul Crocker, for some further insight. Crocker, a man with considerable geek credentials, leads us through Rocksteady’s unique take on the Rogue’s Gallery, ponders Britain’s link to DC’s finest hero, and explains how working in a comic shop helped him to write the Arkham games.

You’ve just polished off another Batman game. How geeky are you, then?

I used to work in a comics store, and I used to work in a cinema. I love lots of nerdy things, so four years ago it was awesome when we got Batman. I remember back when the first Batman movie came out, I used to go and watch the trailer over and over again, because I used to work in a cinema. I used to work in They Walk Among Us, in Richmond. What I didn’t know about at the time, was that it was amazing research for making videogames about Batman, because you get to understand the popular opinion of what the character is, as opposed to what your own opinion of what the character is. So we try to absorb all these different opinions, and get to a halfway point.

I’ve always been obsessed with Batman, but from a disconnected kind of position. I like the comics, and I can understand how it all fits together, but without getting obsessed with the tiny detail. So that helps us making the game, because it means we try and make the game for everyone, rather than go too far down the road of, “In Detective #660, this thing happened…” But at the same time, we look at core Batman stories and try and reference really memorable moments, and work them into our fiction.

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Batman’s a very interesting case, in that he works in so many different contexts, and for such different audiences, on TV, in games, in comics, at the cinema. The audience is so wide.

Batman is an amazing character. For young kids, it’s a lunch box. For older guys, it’s The Dark Knight Returns. It’s all the same character, the same name, everything. I don’t think there’s a single version of Batman, apart from maybe the Lego version, where it’s still not about a guy whose parents died. It’s still the core of what it is to be Batman.

Although I’m sure some of the fun is putting in lots of little Easter eggs for the fans to discover. Could you highlight any of your favourites that we should be looking out for?

Well, personally, the best thing for me is… The game is this huge thing, which is very, very connected. Everybody’s working on different elements of it, everything’s got to come together on every different level. That’s great. But when we do the interview tapes, I get to work a little on my own. The interview tapes turned out to be this great component.

We didn’t know how it was going to work out until we got the actors back. But they were really good, and told some nice little stories. The interview tapes in Arkham City, I think, are better than in Arkham Asylum. And one character’s interview tape might be quite familiar to people who are fans of the history of Joker. We’ll let you discover that for yourselves!

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Which is your favourite character to write for?

Ultimately, it’s difficult, because whatever you write for Joker, Mark Hamill just knocks it out of the park. So it’s very easy to say Joker, and between us we have this great idea about where our Joker sits, and what he is like compared with the animated series. So it’s very easy to write a Joker line that Mark can say brilliantly, and he’ll always push it that little bit further – and you think, that’s not me anymore, it’s this great actor.

Penguin, he’s great for us, because he’s our Penguin. I guess, from our point of view, he was the first character where we said to DC, “In this game, we wanted to do our own take on it. And it’s going to scare you!” And they said, “Well, what is it?” And we explained, and they went “Yeah, that’s cool”. Because when we start doing anything for the game, we’re very aware the history of the characters and what they are and what they mean. We want you to look at Penguin and say, that’s Penguin. He is Penguin, but he doesn’t look like any other Penguin that’s ever existed. He doesn’t sound like any other Penguin that’s ever existed. And that’s great for us.

It’s a double-edged sword, Batman, and that everybody knows everything about it, because we want to put our own stamp on things, and some things we don’t want to change because everybody knows this stuff. But then at the same time, you really can’t please everyone. You learn that. For the 80 per cent who go, “I really like that”, one’s going, “Why’s he English?” or “Why’s he got a slightly dodgy accent?” Well, that’s part of the character that we wanted to create. And again, no one outside of England’s going to say his accent’s wrong, and no one outside of people who’ve read the comics aren’t going to say, “He doesn’t look like the guy I grew up liking”. And sometimes we just have to go, all right, this is what we think works best for our game.

We just want people to know that we don’t make these decisions lightly. The glass eye I wouldn’t say came lightly, but once we had the cockney thing, and the gangster-y idea, the fact that he needed to have a monocle to be the character didn’t seem to fit. So we just thought, well, he’d been in a barfight, and someone had crammed a bottle in his face. And they thought, “Brilliant, you can do that”. And we were like, “Great, because we never thought you’d say yes!” And then everything sort of spiralled out from there, and we’re very proud of him.

Making the Penguin a cockney is an interesting example of the culture clash going on in Arkham City. DC have given one of the top-tier American cultural icons to a British studio – have any other examples come up?

I guess we have a bit more sarcasm in the game. Just from a characterisation point of view, we really do try not to make them too unique, too us. It’s difficult, because I don’t want to say we radically changed this universe, and it’s all down to us. It’s not, it’s the characters, and we’ve just put our spin on things. Our spin on the elements.

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It’s interesting, isn’t it, because Britain’s made the best Batman games, going back to the Spectrum days, and even the Lego Batman games. Even the first Tim Burton Batman movies were made here, and some of the Nolan ones. Why is Britain so important to Batman?

I think it’s because we’re all so miserable. I guess you can understand what Batman is, what he stands for, how he comes to be. He’s obviously an American super hero, but he’s not the clean cut American super hero, there’s a lot more going on in his head. Which is very unusual for a super hero. Whichever universe, whichever publisher you’re talking about, most of their characters are generally quite happy, clean cut kind of people. And then there’s Batman. Everything he does is because he’s dedicated to solving the problems of the world.

That’s where we started, we wanted to have that sense of what it’s like to be Batman, which is why we had the whole Scarecrow thing. For everything Batman’s brave about, he has his fears. His parents dying, his inability to solve the world’s problems. That’s why he does it, that’s why he goes out night after night.

It was a conscious decision that we ended the last game with Batman literally finishing wiping the blood of the last thing off his face, and then being told something else has happened, and he’d have to go on being Batman. That’s the kind of thing, he’s like a shark, he’s always moving forward. As long as it’s dark. And then, when it’s daytime, he goes back to being Bruce Wayne.

Mr Crocker, thank you very much!

You can read our review of Batman: Arkham City here.

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