Being in Games and Becoming in Films
Comparison of character development and progression from two art mediums
I’d like to take these twin perspectives, of games and films, to study a single character and his arc from the beginning of each medium to its end. And that character… is Batman, a man famous for existing simultaneously in multiple media. Starting as a comic book superhero, his character arc in the 2-dimensional world of paper is perceivably neverending, as long as he continues to be written; the writers may change, the medium may even evolve past paper to digital forms, but as long as people read the character, he keeps adapting to the times. And though that may be so, the core of the character has to remain solid and true. And that core is — parents killed by crime, a vow of justice, the symbol of fear — Batman. He may gain and lose allies in the 84 years of his existence, he may betray and consequently get betrayed, find and fail love, but his core remains consistent throughout.
His popularity over time gave way to prominent adaptations to a variety of art mediums, most noticeably that of video games and the silver screen. And these two mediums have different ways to portray character and different aspects that they excel in narrative-wise. With games, the character is an extension of the player, a vessel to take control of, steer them in whichever way the player deems desirable — while film is a voyeuristic medium where the audience observes events play out. The interactive nature of video games adds a layer of complexity to designing narratives as the world can be investigated at will and every player experiences it uniquely. Subtext is then replaced with collectible texts and environmental storytelling, and to have the protagonist have any meaningful change, the gameplay has to change in tandem with it. If the gameplay does not adapt to the story, then the development falls flat and feels tacked on, the player has to feel the change through the gameplay since the game designers cannot possibly make every individual player alter their real-life predispositions to the events occurring in the game. The gameplay makes the change visceral. Whilst in films, you feel the change by simply seeing it. The music may help bring you there, along with cinematography and editing to support it, but the most weight is held by writing, acting, and the combined result of what is on screen. Films are above all else a visual medium, whilst games are an interactive one.
To take a closer look, I’ll use the example of Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009), the first entry in the Arkham video game franchise, and Batman Begins (2005), the first entry in the acclaimed trilogy of movies. I will use these to compare the portrayal of Batman as a character and his contributions to both narratives.
In Arkham Asylum, the protagonist (Batman) doesn’t really change in the approximately 11 hours of time spent controlling him. From the first minute to the end credits — he stays stagnant, stoic — a hero through and through. Compare this to Batman Begins, where he doesn’t even start off wearing the mask. He begins as an angry young man carrying a gun, planning to kill his parent’s killer. Our protagonist at the end of the film would actively hate the one presented at the beginning. This is the driving point of each medium’s difference.
In the game, the proxy for character growth and change is the plethora of gadgets and skills that Batman cumulatively collects over time. That is the substitute for progress that players feel in gameplay. In accordance, the suitable conflict escalation and plot resolution that is usually seen in film are matched by the increasingly difficult enemies and challenges thrown at the player the closer they reach the finish line. The sense of accomplishment and time well spent is then not calculated in regard to characters undergoing emotional, psychological, or even social development, but in the player actively using the skills they learned kinesthetically through gameplay and being able to do more things and conquer trials previously impotent to at the beginning of the game.
In the film, progress is more typically visual, the audience sees orphan boy Bruce Wayne grow from a resentful broken man into a vengeful actualized symbol. They see Bruce leave the city where his parents died to travel the world and train, they see the foreign alleys and mountain vistas, they see how Bruce learns his moral standing, they see him meet his childhood love again and therefore feel the loss when he lets her go in favor of his crusade. Audience satisfaction is then garnered not from their achievements as the character but from witnessing the character’s struggle as it is written and shown independently of them in the film’s runtime.
The surprising middle ground of both mediums is Batman: Arkham Origins (2013), a video game prequel set in the universe of Arkham Asylum. In this offshoot project made by a different developer, there is both a gradual increase in player ability and character development. On the character side of things, Batman starts off angry and rejects help from other people, such as police Commissioner Gordon, but ends up more accepting of allies. While the gameplay side continues to provide new enemies and appropriate tools to face them as more time is spent playing. So the player’s skill is different at the end of the game as compared to when they first started, and the character the player controls is as well. In some sense, they baked the cake and ate it too, to mixed reception at the time of release. What is interesting is how everything escalates and leads to the climax of the game, where character development itself becomes hands-on, with Commissioner Gordon finally fighting alongside you in gameplay. In this meeting point, the line between gameplay and story blurs, along with it the distinction between player and character, successfully immersing the player in the shoes of Batman. At that moment, not only does the player control him, but they experience his character arc as him.
In summary, the medium of video games can do something that its more popular counterpart: films cannot, it is a very visceral art form. Where films take you on a voyeuristic journey and make you emotionally learn a lesson through empathy, video games make you physically do it, leaning just a step closer to reality. The medium can do more than show the consequences of actions, it can make the player feel the consequences by altering previously acclimated gameplay. It can also put players in the shoes of different opposing characters, making good and evil just that more ambiguous, as is the case with a small section in Arkham Origins where players control the Joker and see through his eyes. I think video games are an untapped potential that has only started to be experimented with in the last decade, to different degrees of success. I am looking forward to where they take us next, and what new insight they may provide.