“Y’know,” a friend who has been staying with me and my wife for the past year or so said to me the other day, “for someone who spends so much of his time writing about games, I rarely see you play ’em.”
It’s my dirty, dark secret. Between a boring office day job that consumes no fewer than 45 hours a week of my life, working on scripts/pieces of flash fiction, freelancing for nine websites (usually simultaneously), and partaking in that wonderful pastime called married life, I have precious little time for gaming anymore. It is, sadly, a far cry from the days of beating the latest Resident Evil installment within 24 hours of release while holed up in my dorm room.
All of which explains why my wife has been arching an eyebrow at me for the past three weeks, ever since I first picked up the controller to play Batman: Arkham City and literally have been unable to put it back down again. The game has possessed nearly every waking moment of my life in a way that hasn’t happened since crawling along the trenches with Solid Snake or taking on Covenant armies in real-time battles. Leaf-blowing or cat-feeding or, even, article-writing last for all of five minutes. Mondays, which are typically my leave-me-the-hell-alone-so-I-can-get-out-from-under-these-goddamn-deadlines days, have now become day-long riddle-hunting marathons (yes, I did manage to mow the lawn and go grocery shopping, thank you very much). When I lay in bed, I see those tantalizing green-outlined baddies walking against the insides of my eyelids.
It’s bad, I’m telling you. Gamasutra is emailing? Go away, suckers. I’ve got that treacherous Mr. Freeze to take care of. You can take that paycheck and stuff it.
But, of course, it’s also great. It’s been far too long since the daily tasks of my existence have been subsumed by the call of the great gaming frontier. (And once I’ve swooped out of Arkham City’s gates for the last time, it’ll be far, far too long before it’s allowed to happen again, Skyward Sword or no. [Sigh.]) But such distance gives me – well, distance – to even remotely approach objectivity while game-binging, and I’ve noticed a few things that particularly resonate given all the recent business-y industry talk.
The first is also the most obvious: there ain’t nuthin like a good game. (Although, to be fair, the same thought ricochets around my head when cracking open a good book or sitting down to a good film.) There is such an immediacy to videogames that is fundamentally and irrepressibly absorbing. It provides a momentum that is difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in any other media, and it revolves around the sheer amount of choice available to the player, particularly in such a game packed with goodies as Arkham City (or, for that matter, Super Smash Bros.). Do I continue that side quest or press on to the next story chapter? Do I go hunting for riddles or compete against (online-ranked) challenge maps? Do I upgrade Batman’s gadgets or Catwoman’s combat maneuvers? Do I read character biographies or look at the character trophies?
There is so much To Get Done in the game – and there is so much to involve the others in my household, from my wife, who likes to see the television-caliber story unfold, to my aforementioned buddy, who lovingly pores through the background info and concept art, being the comic nerd that he is – that I don’t think twice about dropping one hundred bucks on the game (special editions are the only way to go, my friends – particularly when they come with statues of the Batman)… even though I did find myself reconsidering the $7.50 I spent on a matinee(!) movie ticket and the $11.50 on popcorn and Pepsi this past weekend. The value proposition is intrinsically off; Hollywood doesn’t have anything on videogames. Or Netflix, for that matter, rate hikes or not.
The immersiveness of choice, the longevity of the dollar – such truisms may read like the most abrasive of bromides to most of you out there in Videoland, but it all adds up, and does so in a very striking fashion. It just doesn’t seem to make an impression on the movers and shakers of the industry – otherwise, would there be such an unbending focus on shoehorning (competitive) multiplayer into every title to, at least in theory, increase playtime? If there is the choice between Arkham City‘s deep and rewarding trophy system (on top of the already-addictive Trophies/Achievements mandated by Sony/Microsoft, of course), which actually and actively encourages expanded playthroughs, and, say, the online versus mode of BioShock 2 or Dead Space 2, there’s no comparison, either in terms of quality or effectiveness.
Rather than forcibly attempting to shove an inherently different type of plant into the native region’s inhospitable soil, publishers would fare much better if they simply allowed their developers’ creations to evolve laterally and organically. AC‘s particular permutation of the burgeoning online pass concept is a terrific example: rather than merely a code that must be purchased to unlock the previously mentioned online multiplayer mode(s), Rocksteady Studios incorporated a second playable character in the form of Catwoman into the very fabric of the single-player campaign, expanding upon the story and complementing Batman’s playstyle. Is it still, ultimately, a gratuitous flourish? Possibly. But it’s so creative and (comparatively) subtle, and handled so deftly, there’s no doubt it will – or should – be the template for many other studios to follow in the years ahead.
It could also be that I just have Batman on the brain. Speaking of which – it’s been over five minutes, and the Bat-signal beckons…
Marc N. Kleinhenz has covered gaming for over a dozen publications, including Gamasutra and TotalPlayStation, where he was features editor. He is also Batman.