The Importance of Internal Consistency – Part I
By Josh Snyder
Editor’s note – this is Part I in a series on internal consistency and logic. To read Part II, click here.
Gamers often claim to want realistic video games, and although there is value in the simulation genre, video games as an artform are at their best when they are allowed to exaggerate an idea or concept, and allow the player to explore those thoughts and ideas. The underwater city of Rapture in BioShock makes little sense, but developer Irrational Games set certain rules in place, and made sure that the gameplay and story followed those rules, which in turn allowed players the explore a world influenced by the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
Similarly, being brought back to life after getting blown up and jettisoned into outer space is impossible, but this is exactly the premise for which Mass Effect 2 is based, and by utilizing story and gameplay mechanics that fit within that world, players do not question the impossibility of being reanimated simply for a suicide mission.
Gamers accept these unrealistic scenarios because of internal consistency, an aspect of game design that allows developers to present impossible ideas to the player in a way that feels natural and compelling. It allows the player to understand these impossible worlds and to wrap their mind around off-the-wall scenarios. Internal consistency helps establish a connection between the game and the player. Developers achieve internal consistency by setting and employing rules and boundaries for how the game world works, how characters within the world behave, and how the player interacts with that world. Following those rules throughout the entirety of the game is critical, and the hallmark of every great game.
However, maintaining internal consistency is a delicate balancing act between wanting to keep the world familiar to the player while also implementing new ideas. This is especially true of sequels that are not developed by the same team as the original title, a practice that is becoming more common in the modern video game landscape. Handing over the development of a franchise or sequel to a new developer is always a risky move. On paper it makes sense – a publisher can have their main development studio working on a new title, without the final product being rushed to market. During that time they can have their secondary development team working on a sequel that will generate revenue and keep the franchise alive in the public’s mind.
But more often than not, these sequels fail, and do so for a number of reasons, primarily due to a lack of internal consistency. Obsidian Entertainment was on their way to delivering a classic with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, but publisher LucasArts pushed the game out when it wasn’t ready, simply to hit a holiday deadline. The result is infamous at this point – a game with mountains of potential, crippled by an abrupt ending that leaves the player unsatisfied and demanding more in the worst way possible. Sequels helmed by new studios also run the risk of losing sight of what made the original games so successful – 343 Industries learned this the hard way with Halo 4, a game that didn’t quite seem to understand what made Bungie’s Halo games so popular.
For years, Knights of the Old Republic II served as a warning to publishers and developers alike – if a new development team is going to take the lead on an established project, they must have time and resources in order to properly pull it off (Obsidian would go on to prove this with Fallout: New Vegas, redeeming themselves by nearly topping one of the best games of the seventh generation, Fallout 3). However, many lessons from the mistakes of Knights of the Old Republic II and, more recently, Halo 4, remain overlooked.
In 2013, developer Warner Bros. Games Montréal released Batman: Arkham Origins, the third entry in the Arkham series and a prequel to the original Batman: Arkham Asylum. Although the game looks like the two games that preceded it, and to an extent even plays like it, there is something off about this entry, the first developed by a studio other than series creator Rocksteady Studios. What Arkham Origins lacks is internal consistency, the same logic and understanding of the world that was established and expanded upon in the two previous games. By losing this internal consistency, Arkham Origins feels like a shell of the original Arkham games, a hollow experience that lacked soul, which can all be traced back to inconsistent game design and implementation.
Surviving the Rough Streets of Gotham
In order to appreciate the inconsistencies of Arkham Origins, you have to go back and understand the groundwork Rocksteady Studios built in the original title, Arkham Asylum. The original gameplay mechanics were clearly influenced by Metroid – the player starts the game with a small set of tools that would allow them to navigate the world, but they would run into dead ends. By unlocking more tools with a wider array of functions, the player could then access new parts of the world, and eventually reach a point where they could fight the final boss and complete the story. This same mechanic was applied to Batman: Arkham City, the key difference being that the world in the sequel was far more open, placing a greater emphasis on the tools at the player’s disposal. The function of these tools, and the scenarios in which to use them, needed to be clearly and effectively communicated to the player, otherwise their implementation would be a source of confusion and frustration.
One of these basic tools, which has become ingrained as part of the identity of the Arkham games, is the grapnel gun. If Batman is within range of a railing or rooftop, he can target the object with his grapnel gun and instantly ascend to any ledge, allowing for a greater degree of vertical movement. This is a core mechanic, and many of the tools the player acquires throughout the franchise are simply more powerful variations of the “travel from point A to B really fast” mechanic the grapnel gun introduces. By learning how to use the grapnel gun, the player is able to reach new areas that may hold new items, allowing for even further exploration. This sense of progression is a critical part of the Arkham experience – players get to watch as Batman, the most feared vigilante, grows even more powerful, and takes on even tougher foes.
However, the rules that govern how these items work (and therefore, guide the sense of progression) are not necessarily carried over into Arkham Origins. Instead of empowering the player with new abilities, or even with basic ones such as the grapnel gun, Arkham Origins loses sight of the meaning behind these items, and therefore the internal consistency shatters, resulting in the identity of the game, and its gameplay, turning into a muddled mess.
I Want To Go To There
It doesn’t take long for Arkham Origins to begin to feel like a game from an entirely different franchise operating on its own rules that make little sense within the context they are provided. Early on, the player finds themselves aboard The Final Offer, a ship owned by the Penguin. After a very brief boss fight which takes place within a makeshift arena on one of the lower decks, the Penguin, standing on a balcony overlooking the arena, retreats to his office. The mission updates, asking the player to pursue the Penguin into his office. Without hesitation, I took out the grapnel gun, aimed it at the ledge right above me, and… nothing happened. The prompt that typically highlights where the grapnel gun will latch onto was gone. I ran around the room for a while until I realized that, despite there being plenty of grapnel gun points throughout the room, all of them within range, there was some mystical power preventing me from using the one tool specifically made for this exact circumstance.
During this increasingly frustrating search, I discovered a large metal hook on the wall, which required an item I didn’t posses yet – the remote claw. At this point I didn’t understand why I needed this new item, or why my grapnel gun didn’t work, but I forged ahead, trekking through a needlessly long, roundabout path to the Penguin’s office. When I arrived I was treated to a cutscene, in which Batman savagely beats the Penguin, to the point where he doesn’t even notice that he is about to be ambushed. The conclusion of the cutscene was the final nail in the coffin – Batman gets thrown back into the arena to fight another boss who, when defeated, enables Batman to acquire the remote claw, the very item needed to get into the room the player was just standing in.
There are numerous problems with this scenario, but the most egregious is that the game is willing to abandon the internal consistency of the grapnel gun simply to add in unnecessary filler to this level. The player must battle through room after room of enemies, with little variation, only to return to square one, but now they have a tool which allows them to connect a high tension cable from one metal hook to the other, providing them with something to grapple onto. The circular logic is mind boggling – why can’t the player use the grapnel gun to begin with? Why did the developer extend this level by a solid thirty minutes to accomplish nothing? By betraying their own rules, the player feels cheated, and the disconnect between the player and the game world begins to grow wider.
These inconsistencies continue throughout the entirety of the game, and they quickly begin to pile up to the point where routine missions feel as though they are Herculean-efforts. Even after the player acquires the remote claw, navigating the map is still a chore – for reasons never explained, one of the largest buildings in the game, Gotham Light and Power, is unaccessible. I do not mean that you cannot enter the building – you can’t, but that can be said for the majority of buildings in Gotham – but that this building is impossible to grapple or remote claw onto or glide to from a taller building. It is completely off-limits. This is important because it effectively serves as an artificial wall, separating two districts of Gotham City and increasing the amount of time it takes to navigate that portion of the map. Again, the reasons for this are never explained, and the result feels like artificial filler.
But the biggest repeat offender are the Riddler Trophies – collectibles that in previous games allowed the player to confront the Riddler after obtaining enough trophies. In many instances, the trophies required the player to use contextual clues and their tools to solve a puzzle. In Arkham Origins, the Riddler Trophies return in the form of data packs, and all 200 need to be collected in order for the player to complete the Riddler storyline.
But before the player can conclude the Riddler’s story arch, they first have to deactivate a jamming signal that the Riddler has placed within each of the seven radio towers found throughout Gotham (one per district). Simple enough, but once the jamming signal is turned off, the player then has to track down and destroy ten network relays per district, for a grand total of 70 relays. Once all of those are taken out, the player will then learn the identity and locations of data handlers, the men the Riddler has tasked with dispersing the data packs throughout Gotham. There are 20 data handlers, and after all 20 have been dealt with, and after collecting the remaining 200 Riddler Trophies, the player can then storm the Riddler’s HQ and… find nothing, except one last Riddler Trophy, which nets the player an achievement. There is no conclusion to the story, no final showdown with the Riddler. Just a giant green question mark in a hidden room, and plenty of time wasted.
Not only is this process a chore, but the ending betrays everything the player has learned about the Riddler from the previous two games. All of this effort, and the reward is nothing more than an achievement that screams “I wasted hours upon hours of my life.” But the sad thing is, this might not even be the worst part about the Riddler Trophies or data packs. In previous Arkham games, the player would use context clues and their tools to solve a puzzle in order to get the trophy. But in Arkham Origins, many of the data packs are puzzles simply because the player’s tools do not work as intended. One data pack can be found on the roof of one of those radio towers, and when standing on an outdoor balcony, the player can look up and see the edge of the roof a mere ten feet away, well within the range of the grapnel gun. But, of course, the grapnel gun doesn’t work up here. No, the player instead has to glide over to a much taller building that is further away, use the grapnel gun to climb up to the top of that building, and glide back over to the radio tower, sustaining a certain height for the flight over, at which point the player lands on the roof of the radio tower and picks up the unnecessarily-difficult-to-obtain data pack. That is not a puzzle – that is an inconvenience, and it is the direct result of the developer not understanding (or willfully choosing to ignore) the internal consistencies of the Arkham world.
Lost In Translation
Internal consistency is necessary when the world the player interacts with allows them freedom of movement and travel that is not grounded in reality, such as grappling onto tall buildings and gliding across a city in seconds. This is where Arkham Origins differentiates itself from previous entries in the franchise, and where the lessons of abandoning internal consistency are most prevalent. Without internal consistency, a game that should be a sure-fire hit instead turns into a polarizing title, a frustrating result when, after some analysis, it becomes clear that it didn’t have to be this way, that should Arkham Origins stay on track, it could have been a highlight of the seventh generation.
By failing to maintain internal consistency, Batman: Arkham Origins loses its connection to the audience, just as any game that fails to build and maintain an internal consistency will lose the player to confusion and frustration. It’s not too much of a leap to suggest that this inconsistent tone is what led Arkham Origins to receive the lowest levels of acclaim for this franchise. When weapons and tools do not work they way they have for the previous two games, with no reason as to why, the player feels betrayed, and nothing good comes from that.
Arkham Origins is a cautionary tale for what can be lost when fumbling internal consistency. But what can be gained by following that path so closely? And can a game succeed that purposely confuses the player and is designed specifically to be inconsistent? There is plenty to learn from games such as Arkham Origins, but there is just as much to learn from games that succeed in expanding their scope while maintaining internal logic.
Be sure to check out Part II, in which author Josh Snyder explores games that maintain an internal consistency, as well as games that oppose any internal logic.