Kalervo A. Sinervo is a PhD student in the Interdisciplinary Humanities Program at Concordia University, where he researches forms of authorship and intellectual property in transmedia cultural production, as well as comics, games, and the general debris of pop culture. His work is supported by IMMERSe, TAG, FRQSC, the Ampersand Lab, and the Canadian Society for the Study of Comics (CSSC).
Most fictional cartographies, when an official source bothers to map them, are set out by a masterminding author or at least built upon with consistency: in the first editions of the Lord of the Rings series, Tolkien included maps of Middle Earth so that readers could follow the trajectory of the Fellowship’s journey; L. Frank Baum’s world of Oz, though expansive and expanding, always fits its new fantastical locales in relation to those areas of Oz already visited; and even the shifting, convoluted island of Lost is represented by a definitive map within the television series. Business models relying on Transmedia—those whose approaches tie films to graphic novels and to games—have driven increased consistency in the layouts of fictional urban spaces (like Batman’s hometown, Gotham City), in the pursuit of a canon that allows audiences to cut across media without losing their sense of place. Gotham City has traditionally defied notions of consistent geography and design sense, and the 2013 video game Arkham Origins illustrates a new sensibility for the geography of the Batman mythology and how player circulation through that fictional space is achieved. Not only does the Gotham City of Arkham Origins operate as a palimpsest of the aesthetic modes and architectural spaces of Gotham that have come before it, but it also creates a virtual geography by incorporating real-world graffiti from the city of Montréal, leading to what we might think of as a “real virtuality” as opposed to a virtual reality.
Mapping Real Virtuality
In a conference paper on Assassin’s Creed II, Darren Wershler identifies Michel de Certeau’s concept of the tour as exemplified in navigation of the game’s vision of 15th century Florence. Wershler discusses the player’s tendency to articulate Renaissance era Italy in terms of both the overhead map and the ground-level walking tour, with neither functioning to complete the picture without the other:
de Certeau’s second mode of writing and reading the city is from a great height above it. This is a space of privileged knowledge – panoramic views that are only available to gods, city planners and level designers. As opposed to the tour, this is the space of the “map”, which totalizes a space into a single description of a place. It pretends to a total knowledge of a given space, but that knowledge is only possible because of a particular kind of abstraction. The tour – walking – is what makes the construction of maps possible, yet de Certeau describes the process whereby the drafters of maps have gradually erased their connections to the itineraries of individual pedestrians in order to create a device for the planning and administration of the circulations of those same pedestrians. (3)
These ideas are prevalent in Arkham Origins, where the player also relies on a layered approach to circulating through Gotham City, using the HUD bird’s eye map view, the human-scale third person view, a working knowledge of the city’s layout from the franchise’s previous instalment, and the familiar aesthetics and architectural landmarks from Batman’s transmedia history. Wershler also parses his view of Assassin’s Creed’s Florence in terms of circulation because circulation takes into account the materiality of objects as well as people as factors of analysis. “A city,” like a game, Wershler says, “is nothing if not a set of entwined systems of circulation: people, information, objects, architecture” (Wershler 1). Batman’s city in Arkham Origins uses cultural, aesthetic, and informational layering to immerse the attentive player in the same credible universe without boundaries. This all combines with the player’s actual experience of being Batman in the game to give off a strong sense of what Manuel Castells calls “real virtuality:” the immersive realistic experience of a virtual environment as mitigated by the same symbolic metaphors and frameworks that we use to experience and navigate the “real” world (Castells 372). Real virtuality is a key component in thinking about the Gotham of Arkham Origins: it is a city built up of the same formal and geographical modes and content that make up the locations of the real city of New York, the architectural illustrations of the early 20th century, the landmarks of the Batman comics, the aesthetics of the Batman films, the layout of Arkham City, and the virtual geography created by mixing them all with recognizably Montréal-specific graffiti. Just as for de Certeau “walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language,” (96) in the layered world of Arkham Origins, playing is to the game system what walking is to the urban system: an action of articulation that helps constitute the real virtuality of the Gotham landscape.
The Arkham franchise and the Gotham of Origins
The Arkham video game franchise began in 2009 with Arkham Asylum, a console and PC game in which the Joker has taken over Arkham Island, on which the asylum housing Gotham’s worst criminals and madmen stands. Batman must navigate the asylum grounds and buildings, defeating multiple supervillains from his rogues gallery. The game was extremely well received and, in 2011, was followed by Arkham City. In this sequel, several months have passed since the events of Arkham Asylum and Batman is trapped inside a city-sized gulag standing on the remains of a desolated section of Gotham City. Again, the Dark Knight must navigate the penitentiary, defeating multiple enemies to bring the prison under control. Both games were developed by Rocksteady Studios and met with a great deal of critical praise and commercial success. In 2013, Canadian developer Warner Bros. Games Montréal released a prequel to the series, Arkham Origins. In this game, Bruce Wayne has only been Batman for two years and faces off against the Joker for the first time, as multiple villains converge on Gotham in response to a $50 million bounty placed on the Caped Crusader’s head.
The first two Arkham games maintain a great deal of narrative consistency, with many of the issues faced by Batman in Arkham City acting as consequences of events in Arkham Asylum. However, this required very little geographical consistency: while the action of Asylum takes place in a mental facility off the coast of Gotham, the action of City occurs in a demilitarized zone of Gotham itself. The Gotham of Arkham City is a wasteland, dilapidated by neglect, half-drowned by flooding, and teeming with criminals. It appears as a diseased part of Gotham abandoned by the rest of the city, where churches are repurposed into triage centers and municipal landmarks like police stations, museums, and courthouses are repurposed as criminal strongholds. The greater geography of Gotham City is revealed as roughly double of the Arkham City makeshift prison: a large bridge connects what constitutes Arkham City to the Southern half of the greater metropolis. From this, we can already see the Gotham of Origins being layered on almost a literal level with the geographical content of the preceding game.
The Arkham City map (above) roughly matches the North half of the map in Arkham Origins.
Player Experience/Circulation in Origins’ Gotham
The Arkham games reveal the most palimpsestual qualities of Origins’ Gotham are tied up with the Gotham of Arkham City. While the concept of the palimpsest derived from textual analysis places importance on that which has been erased from a manuscript document to make space for new writing, in critiquing contemporary cultural objects we can think in terms of layering as well as erasure to focus on the theoretical implications of adding new tiers of meaning to form novel products over on top of relevant qualities that pre-exist in the transmedia assemblage. Asylum’s world was largely limited and matched the player’s linear progression through the game’s narrative. Players are allowed to visit one part of the game map at a time, and a heavy emphasis is placed upon indoor environments. Open movement through the exterior areas of Arkham Island is mainly used to go from building to building, with only sidelining points of interest. In Arkham City, however, the focus shifts from the inside to the outside, as the game is filled with side missions and enemies to face all over the map, as well as some missions involving trails of clues from point to point in the city, or chases that ask the player to traverse great distances over a limited period of time. This element would not have worked on the Arkham Island map: the environments are too confining and prescriptive, with few areas of the island left unexplored. So the setting for Arkham City shifts entirely away from Arkham Island and onto Gotham City.
In Arkham Origins, the geography of the game has expanded rather than relocated. The idea in Origins is that the game takes place before either Asylum or City, when Batman is just a few years into his career. The main problem this creates (besides the issue of relying a bit too much on the content of the game’s predecessor) is that there is suddenly too much city to traverse. In fact, rather than expand outwards, the Gotham of Origins simply expands down: another half of the city is revealed, connected by a bridge inaccessible in City. Origins strives for certain points of originality by reshuffling the interior locations of the map (those buildings available to be entered by the player rather than just serving as impenetrable architectural monoliths). This is part of what makes the Gotham of Origins a layered version of the Arkham City map rather than just identical. For example, in City the old Gotham Police Department (GCPD) headquarters are located on the East side of Amusement Mile. Though in the diegesis of the game, headquarters were abandoned before the creation of Arkham City, in Origins the GCPD headquarters are located at the other end of the map, on the South side of Burnley. Instead, the spot in Amusement Mile taken up by the GCPD in City is occupied by the Penguin’s boat (the “Final Offer”) in Origins. Other aspects of the City map are reorganized in Origins to add originality as well: the Sionis Steel Mill, Joker’s hideout in City and Black Mask’s in Origins, stands in the same spot on both maps. However, opposite sides of the building’s interior are accessible in the two games.
Familiar but novel architectural features like these affect the player’s circulation through the city, as well as her ability to cope with the game’s challenges. They do so by combining with the in-game menu or Heads Up Display (HUD) to create a well-known environment for the player, loading familiar landmarks with familiar challenges and juxtaposing them with nearby novel landmarks and challenges. Returning to the Sionis Steel Mill for a moment, in City, the mill is just South of a disused Ferris wheel, while in Origins the Ferris wheel is gone, and in its place stands a Gotham City Radio tower.
In City, Batman is drawn to the Ferris wheel by a side mission involving detective work and the weaving-in of the larger Batman mythology; in Origins, the radio tower is a combat challenge location where Batman must defeat multiple enemies to unlock a fast-travel point for the Amusement Mile region. Though the steel mill remains largely the same as it was in City, the experienced player is still drawn to the area by the novelty of a new landmark and a different kind of challenge. Meanwhile, the steel mill not only remains similar on the outside, but it acts in the same way as a cluster point for enemies in both games. This makes the player of Origins who’s already gone through City an instant expert on central points on the map, and it only takes a momentary shift in the HUD for the player to see what lies in wait nearby. Not only is the map itself layered with the meanings of the previous game, but the player’s experiences are as well: she can expect to find an experience similar to City on certain points of the map, but is also given novel experiences just next door.
The Gotham of Origins is also layered with fast-travel points, an addition designed to deal with the vastness of the game world. Fast-travel points are a commonly used feature of open-world adventure games. Retracing steps is a necessity of open-world games, where the non-linear playing style can see players begin side quests, tire of them, return to the main mission, and later return to the area with the side quest (either to complete it, or perhaps because a new element of the main mission has unlocked in that region, or just to explore). To allow the player to get around large swaths of already trod-upon territories, developers often divide game maps into regions, like the official or informal neighbourhoods and boroughs that make up a city. A fast-travel point will be located in a central spot of each region that players can teleport to whenever they choose from wherever they choose, so long as this sudden teleportation doesn’t get in the way of the game’s other processes (for example, in Origins fast-travel points can’t be accessed from interior locations because these are whole new maps loaded from other parts of the game’s software). The fast-travel points are also part of the diegesis of the narrative world, as explained by Batman’s high-tech ‘Batwing’ jet. This feature compensates for the circulatory challenges presented by such a large map by letting the player move rapidly from region to region, and incorporating a diegetic explanation for the player’s ability to safely return to “home base” at a moment’s notice: unlike in City, in Origins Batman can access the Batcave, a safe haven located far off the map of the rest of Gotham.
All of this—familiar landmarks, fast-travel points, the similarity of maps on the HUD, and the nostalgic aesthetic and contextual qualities of the landscape—combine to make the layered Gotham City of Arkham Origins an environment optimized not only for the player’s ability to navigate the game and its challenges, but also to allow the player to experience as much as possible what it’s like to be Batman. The interesting rub here is that the game takes the player off-guard because the Gotham City of Origins is a reshuffled version of the Gotham of Arkham City; and yet it should be taking Batman off-guard because of his relative inexperience in the diegesis of Origins. Though the narrative and ludic reasons approach from opposite logics, the result is the same.
There is a final layer to be examined in the palimpsest Gotham of Arkham City: the real-world graffiti of Montréal imported into the game world. In articulating the gritty look of Gotham City, developer WB Games Montréal opted to add street art to the game taken from photos of the surrounding city rather than fabricate wholly new imagery to adorn the city’s brick walls. In particular, the studio sent out photographers to collect pictures of tags and murals produced by prolific street artists Sake, Sino, and Omen, three artists that are well known to any observant citizen of Montréal. Any player of Origins is forced to notice their work on the walls of Gotham because the developer only incorporated a few pieces from each artist and then replicated each in multiple locations around the game world—unlike real graffiti pieces, each of which is one of a kind, street art in Arkham Origins is mechanically reproduced. However, this does nothing to negate the fact that the game has incorporated real-world, culturally specific features into a fictional environment, creating what Michael Batty calls virtual geography, the combination of real geographical features and invented fictional elements into the algorithmic systems of the computer (338). Furthermore, this virtual geography situates Gotham because of the graffiti’s site specificity. The works of Omen, Sino, and Sake are more or less exclusive to Montréal (and certainly exclusive to Montréal in the numbers seen in Origins).
When combined with the happy coincidence that Montréal, like New York City and Gotham, is an island located on the Eastern Seaboard of North America, this graffiti seems to imply that Gotham is Montréal in analogy, which in turn leads one to wonder what this says about corruption and danger in Québec’s most populous city.
This past month, a new Arkham videogame has been released (“Be the Batman,” urges the game’s North American marketing campaign), and Gotham has grown once again. Batman: Arkham Knight (2015) features a city roughly five times the size of Arkham City (Karmali), making it more than double the size of the prequel Arkham Origins Gotham. Interestingly, the booming city has again relocated and reshuffled somewhat: gone are the localizing graffiti pieces of Sino, Omen, and Sake, and the island of Arkham City is apparently part of a full archipelago including callbacks to Batman comics continuity such as Miagani Island (named after the Native American bat-worshipping tribe created by Jim Starlin and Bernie Wrightson for the 1988 miniseries Batman: the Cult) and newly layered versions of neighbourhoods and locations from both the previous games and other media such as Bristol and Wayne Tower. A brief turn at playing the opening of the game reveals layering in player circulation mechanics as well: like in Arkham Origins, the player arrives to game with the full capability to glide and operate grappling boosts (originally introduced as an unlockable in Arkham City), and Rocksteady has also famously now offered players the chance to navigate the city using the Batmobile as well. If circulation in Origins relied on both the map and the tour to move the player elegantly through Gotham, then Knight adds to that what we might call the guided tour (or maybe the Google maps navigation): glowing spectral arrows on the road ahead light the Batmobile’s path to the Dark Knight’s next destination. Much as one might expect from a palimpsestual document, the Gotham of Arkham Knight complicates through sheer, massive addition and expansion as much as through contradiction and permutation. How should the player expect this new layer of Gotham to alter the experience of ‘being the Batman’? Surely new novelties and familiarities lie in wait for the loyal franchise follower, and an in-depth playthrough combined with detailed knowledge of Rocksteady Studio’s Highgate surroundings in London may reveal a whole new level of real virtuality. The level to which these transmedia tactics bleed outwards to affect other nodes in the Batman media network depend only on how deep the user is willing to delve, how many layers they’re willing to scrape away.
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