Strange Brew: Art Design in Batman Arkham Asylum

Curiosity piqued about Rocksteady Studio's upcoming Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows action-adventure Batman: Arkham Asylum? Some days mine is, others not so much. I'm conflicted. Celebrity do-gooders always seem to come out done-bad in video game adaptations. It's Murphy's red-headed step-law.

Mark today "intrigued." Comic Book Resources just published an interview with Rocksteady's art director David Hego, the guy responsible for designing the game's environments and characters. Yeah, art direction. Like music composition, audio design, and animation. The stuff you never get to read much about.

Here's a snip:

CBR: David, how would you describe the overall look of "Batman: Arkham Asylum?"

DAVID HEGO: The first main goal while designing the visual direction of "Batman: Arkham Asylum" was to work on a glue that would join two diametrically opposed styles: the comic book style and an ultra realistic render. The traits of the characters and the environmental architecture had to be extravagant enough to embrace the essence of the Batman universe, but at the same time we wanted to give the game a very realistic touch in the texture treatment and in the details. Everything had to feel consistent and in a sense "real."

Now this thing about the "comic book style" and "ultra-realistic render" is interesting. David Hego says those are "two diametrically opposed styles." I'm not sure I agree. For starters, just what exactly is meant by the term "ultra-realism"? Realism-plus? Exceedingly real? Extreme verisimilitude? I'm looking at the screenshots and all I see is an (apparently) scowling, chisel-jawed guy accoutered in sidewalk-gray armor wearing a mask the color of tire rubber with ersatz eyebrows and frown lines, hook-serrated gloves, and a Zorro cape that seems like it'd be awfully cumbersome in a knockdown, drag-out. He looks plausibly real, but "ultra-real"? Come on.

Arkham itself has goth iron fences and overgrown shrubbery cast in ghoulish greens and yellows, flanked by a moon illuminating the gloom like a ghostly nuclear explosion. It sure doesn't look like any asylum I've seen outside a really cool nightmare or Disney theme ride.

Do you see "ultra-realism" in these screenshots? I don't. In fact I think it's a misuse of the term.

So is "comic book style," i.e. intended in this case to signify drawing abstracted from reality. Comics aren't cartoons. That's not what defines them. Cartooning's just one technique in the quiver, not the medium as a whole.

A comic book can certainly be designed to look "ultra-realistic." Consider John Bolton's work in Sandman Presents: The Furies or God Save the Queen. Gabrielle Dell'Otto's in Secret War. Tom King's Snookums, That Lovable Transvestite, or the whole fumetti (photonovel) genre of comics popular in South Africa, Latin America, and Spain. And if you want to drive the sword in to the hilt, peruse just about anything by Alex Ross. The screenshots here seem most inspired by, if anything, Ross's depictions of Batman in Kingdom Come, or his oversized very-much-a-comic-book, Batman: War on Crime.

The CBR interview covers a few more interesting topics, like the game's levels being designed in simplified virtual 3D spaces before the art team steps in to gussy things up, or the point about avoiding brown and monochrome colors in favor of vibrant, saturated stuff (thank god). But it worries me that Hego seems to be riffing on a wobbly conceptual premise about comic art in general. Maybe something's getting lost in translation. I hope so.

In any case, Arkham Asylum could be another dreadful superhero tie-in...or something extraordinary. Me, I hope it's one or the other. I'm tired of gaming on the fence.

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