How Rocksteady’s ‘Batman: Arkham’ Trilogy Changed The Video Game Landscape
It began in 2009 inside the claustrophobic corridors of a madhouse and ended in 2015 on a rainy night in Gotham City, and in the six years in between, Rocksteady changed the face of gaming with the Batman: Arkham trilogy.
Spread across three titles and two console generations, the studio had the unenviable task of taking one of the biggest icons in pop culture and translating 75 years worth of history onto the console. The studio not only exceeded expectations, it also forever changed the way fans and developers view video games.
Arkham Knight may still be less than a week old, but the legacy of the entire trilogy is already beginning to coalesce in the minds of fans as we start to look back at how the series has impacted the industry.
From revolutionary gameplay mechanics to the rebirth of the licensed game, let’s see how Rocksteady’s Batman saga reshaped, rethought and reinvented the medium.
For The Love Of The License
It was hard to get too excited about Arkham Asylum when it came out in 2009. The buzz was subdued, and there were only brief—yet hopeful—glimpses of the game in trailers and screenshots in the months before its August release.
For many, it seemed like yet another superhero game coming out to piggyback off the success of a movie. After all, how could a no-name studio possibly match in a video game what Christopher Nolan put on the screen the year before in The Dark Knight?
Then fans finally sat down to play the game—and expectations weren’t just exceeded, they were obliterated.
By staying true to what makes Batman who he is, Rocksteady brought authenticity to a license that had languished in video game anonymity for decades. Arkham Asylum made players feel like Batman, as opposed to so many licensed games before that stuck to a generic action formula with a superhero skin slapped on top of it.
Everything, including the mood, the music, the voice acting, the easter eggs and the combat/stealth mechanics screamed Dark Knight. This was a game that stuck true to the license with almost a religious fervor. This wasn’t just a job; you could feel the love Rocksteady had for Batman’s world, which was rare for licensed games at the time.
For comparison’s sake, just look at Marvel’s offerings from the previous year: Sega’s wretched Iron Man and Incredible Hulk titles and the sinfully dull Spider-Man: Web of Shadows — these games had blockbuster licenses sitting there for the taking, and instead fans got tepid, flaccid affairs that barely resembled the superheroes on the box art.
By distilling Batman down to his pointy-eared essence, Arkham Asylum turned a night in a madhouse into the first shots in the licensed gaming revolution.
An Engine To Envy
As a character, Batman has always been just as cerebral as he is forceful. For every brawl, there’s a puzzle to solve; for every car chase, there’s some detective work to be done. Rocksteady took note and crafted a game that combined all of these abilities into a cohesive package.
The fighting system in the Arkham series, in particular, is what its biggest in-game legacy might be. Taking a few pages from Assassin’s Creed, the game relies heavily on counter-based combat, which allows Batman to easily fight off several foes at once.
It’s incredibly simple, yet so effectively done here that it’s amazing no studio had perfected it sooner. Now games like Shadow of Mordor, The Amazing Spider-Man and Sleeping Dogs have taken notes from Rocksteady. Even the Assassin’s Creed games—which actually influenced Arkham in the first place—now follow Rocksteady. Why else do you think Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate relies so heavily on fisticuffs and a grappling hook?
It remains to be seen how long the Arkham influence will last—the engine was imagined for Batman specifically, after all—but it’s impossible to deny that both fans and developers recognize just how smooth these games play.
A Story Worth Telling
Most game developers try to tout their stories as a “must-see,” but how many of them really live up to it? You’re probably skipping through more cutscenes than you care to admit, but there’s something different about the Arkham games. Whether you’re hallucinating to some fear toxin, coming face-to-face with Ra’s al Ghul or reliving the night Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered, the stories have always been just as important as the boss battles and gameplay.
Despite some questionable choices along the way—Titan Joker is still bad on a Schumacher level—Rocksteady has managed to captivate audiences with an incredibly dense story stretched across three games, multiple comic book series and an animated movie.
Batman: Arkham’s legacy might not even be the video games themselves, but everything that went along with them. DC/Warner Bros. doesn’t see Arkham as a game series, they see it as a spin-off franchise of the Batman brand itself, complete with its own separate mythology and fan following.
While the main game series might have ended with Arkham Knight, the Arkham brand likely isn’t going anywhere, especially since Warner Bros. Interactive can always pull an Arkham Origins and produce some spin-off titles featuring the rest of the Bat-Family.
Rocksteady didn’t just change gaming with this series; it fundamentally changed the Batman brand forever by adding this new splinter universe that is just as recognized—if not more so—as the Nolan movies or the current comic books.
A Landscape Changed
Look at the three points above: devotion to a license, incredible gameplay mechanics and memorable storytelling. It seems so simple, but how many other game franchises have achieved Rocksteady’s feat?
Whatever you think of the Arkham series—and I’m sure there are some haters out there—you can’t deny that it pushed the boundaries of what a superhero/licensed game should be. Hell, it pushed the boundary of what any game should be. And when you set out to do that, you’ll have a legacy worth bragging about.