The world’s greatest detective

The success of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham series stems from two tenets. The first is a loving, comprehensive treatment of an almost-century-spanning mythos capable of eliciting squees of delight from fanpersons and casual fans alike. The second is just how well Rocksteady puts you in the multimillion dollar combat boots of “The Dark Knight.” Implicit in this explanation is every nerd, geek, and player’s escapist desire to be Batman. Wealthy, handsome, suave, imposing, and intelligent, with a requisite but negligible hint of personal trauma? Count me in, too.

Empowerment, then, in the biggest feeling the game’s systems need impart. Combat isn’t a Devil May Cry-esque slobber-knocker of unyielding enemies as much as a rhythm game in which you ping pong between burly thugs, your movement punctuated by basic button presses. Batman’s trademark surgical precision is so easy to enact in other games you might get a similar end product in a QTE sequence. You direct Bats as a choreographer more than control him immediately.

The need to empower the player also manifests itself in the games’ “Detective Mode” mechanic, the hi-tech, bluey overlay that is Batman’s person HUD, which highlights objects of interest, like vents and peoples’ fragile bones. Since Arkham Asylum, some kindred iteration of the mechanic has become a go-to for mainstream developers — Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored, the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot. It’s not unexpected; rather, it’s equal parts sensible and frustrating.

Detective mode addresses and ameliorates two interesting issues. First, it offers empowerment (for, in particular, Batman), avoiding any ludonarrative dissonance in which the Most Awesome Individual Ever might otherwise find himself less adept at handling a situation. Second, it addresses the commercial issue of making games that are highly accessible in offering a narratively contextualized sort of help system, keeping players playing rather than throwing their controllers down in confusion when they don’t realize there’s a nice vent for them to crawl into and progress.

On the coattails of the latter rides the thorny issue of accessibility unique to gaming. You can be bad at reading or you can be bad at watching films, but in a much different way than you can be bad at videogames. The last thing I want to promote is the sort of “casual shaming” that perpetuates industry insularity. but there’s something to be said for the level of challenge a game offers. The punishingly fair Demon’s Souls wouldn’t be as good as it is — or at least not good in the same way — with an easy mode. And there is something about the omniscience of detective mode and its ilk that feels like it’s undermining other elements of the games they appear in, even if the games are explicitly designed with the mechanic well in mind.

The undermining starts at the aesthetic level. Batman: Arkham Asylum is colorful, vibrant, with art direction compared favorably to Bioshock, and yet detective mode renders that beauty moot, soaking everything in a cheap blue. The ability makes things easier on the player and we as players often, instinctively or otherwise, want to do whatever makes things easier for us (on another level, in becoming Batman, we are meant to be skillful and powerful, thus taking advantage of detective mode makes more sense still), but it’s dull to look at and assuredly drove some artists batty. I used the “dark vision” in Dishonored even less because of how terrible and yellow it made that gorgeous game look. Incidentally, it made it look as piss filled as Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which also has a similar ability that remarkably manages to make it even more yellow.

But as sensible as this omniscience might have seem in Arkham Asylum while playing as the ultimate predator and zenith of fanperson idolatry, the way “detective mode” has crept into other mainstream releases. Tomb Raider contextualizes its “survival instinct mode” as the result of Lara’s training, but it flies in the face of the “helpless Lara” narrative just the same, while Deus Ex and Dishonored, as primarily stealth-based games, seem to be giving players a lazy out. Yes, you can not use it, but it’s also right there to use.

These tools become problematic, too, because they devolve into a crutch much more than organically teaching you to work with the game and its systems; to learn and adapt. You don’t do any detecting in detective mode. You just become trained to look for the thing that isn’t blue and let Batman do all the work. Dishonored partially dissuaded using dark vision excessively by giving it a shortened range of effects, but the ability to see through walls in Deus Ex severely dulled the stealth elements and alleviated a lot of tension. And, again, we get back to the “issue” of accessibility and making games for as wide an audience as possible, which is necessary in the costly world of mainstream game development.

Unless you’re making a survival horror game, you generally want to give the player tools to succeed, but there needs to be balance, and developers using detective mode as a standardized means to coax players through the game versus encouraging them to work things out organically is a bit disappointing. David’s retrospective on the Thief franchise chronicles the emergent, divergent gameplay that Dishonored attempts to replicate (and not exactly transcend), but I’m not even sure it quite does that, as good as it is.

The standard first-person shooter has been contracted into a linear series of corridors in which various “cool things” happen while the player happens to be there. I don’t find “streamlining” to be a dirty a term, but I do fear “detective mode” is already becoming a lazy, homogenized design decision that acts counter to the pure emergence that is walking about and existing in a fabricated world. Aren’t personal, emergent stories (and tension!) sacrificed in a stealth game, for example, when you can always know if there’s a guard posted around a corner? I don’t want to get to a point where we’re not playing games so much as advancing them forward.

Steven Hansen

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