Dark Matter
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 10 (Oct. 2009)

Dark Matter

The Dark Knight delivered arguably cinema’s finest performance in 2008, with a haunting vision of Batman steeped in a labyrinthine maze of moral choices that wowed critics and audiences alike, en route to becoming the second-highest grossing film of all time. One year later, the Dark Knight is poised to represent the shining moment for gaming, this time with Batman: Arkham Asylum, an interactive title for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC that is having the same seismic commercial and critical impact as its cinematic predecessor.

Batman’s cape was an always-present challenge for the game developers. The artists had to drive the cape through the real-time physics of the game engine, yet switch to a keyframe solution for handcrafted animations.

Developed by London’s Rocksteady Studios and featuring all-new character designs from comic publisher and DC Comics imprint Wildstorm Productions, Arkham Asylum is a masterpiece of modern gaming. It is a visceral virtual experience that immerses players so deeply in the creepy, Gothic biosphere of its closed-off island setting that finishing the game feels like leaving the theater after watching The Dark Knight: satisfied, but exhausted.

As a result, the game has inspired a tsunami of rhapsodic prose since its release. Critics have lavished it with superlatives, calling it “the greatest comic-book game ever made,” “the best licensed game of all time,” and “the best game of the year.” The universal acclaim has even landed the title in the Guinness Book of World Records as “The Most Critically Acclaimed Superhero Game Ever,” a highly specific distinction, but an honor, nonetheless.

Through stunningly animated and voice-acted scenes, the game’s plot twists alternate between the exciting and the horrific. The story was co-authored by Paul Dini, writer of Batman: The Animated Series, and reassembles most of the cast from the hit series to reprise their roles, including Mark Hamill as the Joker, Kevin Conroy as Batman, and Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn. But make no mistake, this is no cartoon world they’re inhabiting: The air is laced with salty language, the lady villains prance about in skimpy attire, and bodies are falling left and right, as the game pulls no punches in depicting the psychopathy of its criminally insane inmates, at times even making The Dark Knight look like a Disney movie.   

Inmates Rule the Asylum

Although the game is faithfully rooted in the 1989 graphic novel of the same name by writer Grant Morrison and artist David McKean, it plays out like a love letter to the entire 70-year mythos of the Batman canon. The adventure begins with an in-game cut-scene showing the caped crusader escorting the Joker back to Arkham Asylum, an island prison for the criminally insane, where hundreds of the Joker’s goons are being conveniently housed after a “mysterious” fire erupted at Gotham City’s Blackgate prison.

Soon after the cackling clown-prince of crime is admitted, however, Harley Quinn overrides the security system, enabling his escape. He sets the inmates free, and then, with Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, Scarecrow, Victor Zsasz, and the Hulk-like Bane at his side, he executes a plot to obtain a chemical called Titan, which is secretly under development inside the asylum. With it, he hopes to turn the inmates into an army of monsters to serve beneath his hand and, afterwards, dump the waste product into Gotham City’s water supply.

The game action takes place both inside and outside the iconic asylum. Inside, the aesthetic is cold and clinical; outside, it is dark and gloomy.

From the crumbling, gargoyle-adorned asylum, with its 1920s retrofitted look, to the murky waters lapping at the island shore, to the ghostly depths of the forest where Batman’s cave lurks, the game plunges us into a gritty, comic-book hellhole that is as unique and fully realized a world as Bioshock was in 2007. It’s a common setting for suspense and horror stories (reminiscent of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island), and indeed the game veers, by turns, from action, to suspense, to outright Silence of the Lambs-style horror. The audio logs of interviews between Arkham’s doctors and the inmates will chill your spine, as their pathologies are revealed in gruesome detail, revealing how and why villains like the Riddler, Croc, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn went completely sideways.

Heightened Comic Realism
At the outset of production, the first challenge Rocksteady faced was finding an overarching visual philosophy to not only capture the tone, mood, and atmosphere of the Batman universe, but to do something even trickier. Art director David Hego explains: “Right from the start, we had to develop Arkham’s visuals as the glue that would join diametrically opposed styles: the comic book’s style and an ultra-realistic render style. We wanted to stay true to the comic’s over-the-top look through the saturated colors and the stylization of the world and characters, but still keep the materials and shaders close to reality. That is, concrete should look like concrete, wood should look like wood, but the mood and architecture should be more exaggerated in a pure comic-book sense: The verticality should be exaggerated, the visual elements slightly over the top,” he says. 

To accomplish this, the group read through a huge assortment of Batman comics and graphic novels. The first one that came to mind is, of course, Arkham Asylum by Morrison and McKean. But at the end of the day, even if that was a good starting point at the beginning of the pre-production, the team ended up creating its own unique style through the maturation of the project.

Additionally, Wildstorm updated the designs of the characters, making them, like the asylum, tougher, darker, yet still colorfully over the top. “We worked closely with Wildstorm and DC Comics in developing the new designs,” says Hego. “The relationship was open and prolific. The main goal was to create our own take on the main protagonists. We wanted to give Batman fans a new vision of the Batman universe. For example, Harley Quinn in Arkham Asylum represents a completely new take on the character, at least visually [in her very skimpy outfit]. It worked quite nicely, as the result on screen was breathtaking. There are always many iterations when working on such big, well-known, branded characters. But at the end of the day, the result on screen is faithful to the original vision, with a bit of a twist and Rocksteady’s touch.”

Similarly, the team tried to find a unique character for the iconic asylum, which is rendered, like the characters, to unite dark, comic-book pastels with gritty realism. “We toyed around with building Arkham Asylum as essentially one big building, following the idea found in most of the comics depicting the madhouse. However, we later decided that the gameplay and atmosphere would be more compelling if it were broken down into several buildings,” says Hego.

Portrayed in the past as both a Gothic hellhole and a modern, sterilized, whitewashed hospital, Arkham Asylum, through Rocksteady’s eyes, features cold, clinical white-tiled walls intermingling with stone gargoyles and countless Gothic spires. “Our vision of the asylum is dark, gritty, and Gothic. It might as well be the darkest and grittiest representation of the asylum in Batman’s history,” Hego says. To create more visual variety during the exploration of the island and to add a layer of history to the structures, each building received its own architectural style and meaning. For example, the administrative building exudes a high Gothic architecture, the medical pavilion depicts a Victorian architecture, and the catacombs reflect a mix of early-industrial Victorian style.

The team applied motion-captured animation to the character’s basic movements. For more complex actions, the artists used keyframing techniques.

“The uniqueness of each set added a lot of depth and believability to the environments,” adds Hego. “We also designed each location with its own color palette, a set of main tones that honored, purely, the visual tradition of the graphic novels and comics.”

Rocksteady did an enormous amount of research on actual mental hospitals and penal institutions prior to production, and tried to stray little from the reality they found there. “Once our visual style was established and the art vision understood, the creation of the environment was a natural and organic process that deviates just a little bit outside of the real world,” says Hego. “I think that is what creates the unique mood and feel of the game.”

However, in its quest to remain accurate to hospital décor, the crew unwittingly turned the indoor medical levels into an unexpected technical nightmare. That’s because they had decided to furnish each of the examination rooms with the thick, plastic curtains so common in most hospitals. Worse, each one was modeled, rigged with bones, and physics-driven in Auto­desk’s 3ds Max. “The levels would run terribly with more than one curtain,” laments Rocksteady artist Will Smith. “To remedy this, we eventually coded the curtains to become idle if they weren’t visible. We also reduced the number of bones on each mesh and how detailed they work.”

Lay of the Land
The Arkham campus is sprawled out across the island in six main buildings, each honey­combed with dark, dingy cells and a maze of cavernous corridors leading to laboratories, libraries, interrogation rooms, infirmaries, ICUs, decontamination rooms, and hidden execution chambers. “Having Batman spend a night in the Arkham Asylum was really the most powerful way to concentrate as many villains at once in a believable set,” says Hego. “Depicting Batman’s journey through the madhouse and the encounters that would happen made for a fascinating concept.” Indeed, the journey becomes one of psychological horror, as well, when Batman falls under the influence of the Scarecrow’s hallucinogens and endures the hellish nightmares of his worst fears come true.

Proving the adage that creativity thrives on restrictions, the small, localized island setting also allowed the team to maximize the details and visual scope of the levels. “We wanted to have a detailed world,” says Hego, “meaning that the amount of detail in the rooms and locations would be very high and time-consuming. Making something bigger would have made the quality of the visuals suffer.”

Nonetheless, Arkham island is still massive, replete with an “Overworld” of new facilities, catacombs, and natural environments on the outskirts of the island that can be unlocked through backtracking and re-exploration when Batman progresses through the adventure. This is done by expanding his abilities and Bat tech. Unfortunately, the additional overlay of a few of the sets in the Overworld taxed the computing power of both consoles. “Because of the size of the levels and the detail of the game, it was hard to get these Overworld levels running in frame on the consoles. To make them run, we spent months reducing the number of assets, combining similar assets, combining textures in shaders, removing any unnecessary or hidden geometry, and basically being careful with what we built,” says Smith.

Nevertheless, Rocksteady wanted to encourage and reward this kind of free exploration of the island, which was one of the primary reasons for dividing the asylum into multiple buildings and creating the Overworld. “Breaking it down into multiple buildings spread across the island allowed for more exploration, both within the structures and outside them, and also broke the monotony of solely interior environments, contrasting them with the overwhelming spaciousness of the exteriors,” says Hego.

Indeed, outside, in these exhilarating exteriors, the island is thick with swaying trees, weeds, and foliage, as well as the sea grass combing the shoreline. In addition, there’s the plant life in the botanical garden, where the seductive Poison Ivy practices her evil science. While artists sculpted a handful of static tree meshes in 3ds Max, they relied primarily on the commercially available SpeedTree, a tool kit from Interactive Data Visualization for creating and rendering plant life in games.

Restyling the Batmobile
Artists gave the Batmobile a significant style overhaul for the game, applying the same fusion of gritty realism and retro comic book that re-energized the characters and sets. “We wanted to keep the cool, hard, chunky Batmobile feel while adding a 1920s retrofitted style to it,” says Hego. “The result comes across like a mix of a hot-rod monster car and a rocket. It looks pretty cool, and sits well in the dark and Gothic atmosphere of the game.”

When asked if the team modeled and textured the Batmobile in various states of damage and disrepair, Hego prefers to leave us in suspense. “I don’t want to spoil anything about what is going to happen in the game,” he comments.

Appearing in Batman: Arkham Asylum is the iconic Batmobile, built in Autodesk’s 3ds Max, as were all the characters and sets.
Comic Characters
To create Batman’s repertoire of ninja combat moves, Rocksteady mocapped professional martial artists at its in-house studio in London, which employs Vicon’s Blade and 30 F40 cameras. The team processed the data in Autodesk’s MotionBuilder before animators crafted the finished performances in 3ds Max.  

The developer also used 3ds Max to model and animate Batman, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, the guards, wardens, and the rogue gallery of inmates, building each character model with roughly 15,000 polygons. Looking at Joker’s face, at the fine lines, wrinkles, scars, and caking paint, players can see the excruciating detail with which artists rendered each character. They painted most of these details in Adobe’s Photoshop and Pixologic’s ZBrush, baking them into normal maps that were one part of a complex shader system, including diffuse maps, specular and specular power maps, and a transmission map. The latter simulates subsurface scattering to capture the translucency of blood, flesh, skin, and the vessels writhing and popping beneath, most noticeably in the muscle-bound Bane.

Artists accomplished much of the wrinkling, furrowing, and delicate deformations in the faces using normal-map blending, which, according to Hego, helped to significantly “reinforce” the expressions. “We built the shaders using the [Epic Games] Unreal Engine 3,” he adds, “authoring each one at a resolution of 2048x2048 for high-end PCs.”

The facial blendshapes for all the characters, which were somewhat exaggerated to handle the wildly gleeful inflections in Hamill’s performance, for example, were entirely bone-based and sculpted 3ds Max. The backbone of Rocksteady’s lip-syncing and facial animation system was OC3 Entertainment’s FaceFX, which worked within the Unreal Engine 3 to analyze the sound files, sync the lips in real time, and then blend in general facial expressions. “Animators utilized FaceFX for a dual-method approach that allowed us to take advantage of FaceFX’s great real-time analysis functions while still being able to do our own custom animations within 3ds Max,” says artist Paul Bolden.

“To create much of the real-time, in-game animations, the FaceFX system analyzed and animated the faces from a large range of preset bone-pose targets set up by the animators. For more detailed cut-scenes, however, the animators expanded on those primary bone poses and set up a custom control rig within 3ds Max that could be animated freely. Those custom animations could then be read by FaceFX and rendered through the same pipeline within the Unreal engine,” explains Bolden.

This custom control rig, which was designed in 3ds Max for each of the main characters’ faces, consisted of well over 30 bones. Artists exported the bones using a MaxScript that separated the poses into their own tracks with unique function curves, which were then recognized by the FaceFX setup.

Knight Moves
While Rocksteady used Vicon’s Blade system to capture most of the basic movements of the characters—like walking, running, and martial artistry—the team was also doggedly determined to use the system to capture some of the more complicated altercations between the characters and their environments. “The hardest shot we did [which occurs in a cinematic] happens in a scene where a small and feeble character is hung up by pipes and wires entwined around different parts of his body. Soon after, he transforms into a much bigger and heavier character, who frees himself from the restriction of the pipes and tubes. To capture this, we had to set up a complex harness system in the motion-capture area that allowed the actor to struggle and pull himself down from the pipes in a safe environment. The whole shot consisted of three people controlling the harness and wires while giving the actor enough freedom to perform,” explains Bolden.

For Batman himself, Bolden says the hardest and most time-consuming animations were the ones that were impossible to motion-capture, yet still needed to look as fluid and realistic as their mocapped counterparts. “One scene, in which Batman is being grabbed by a much larger character, was incredibly difficult to get right. Batman releases himself by kicking out of the hold and back-flipping, before landing on his feet. The entire combination of motions was entirely hand-animated,” he explains.

Of course, the cape was an ever-present challenge for animators, spreading out as Batman takes flight, or just billowing and rippling in the wind as the Dark Knight stands perched atop a gargoyle, surveying the world below. During the cinematics, a cloth system developed in 3ds Max drove most of the cape animations. “The simulation was set up and then executed to react to all of Batman’s moves,” says Bolden. “The simulation not only gave us accurate weight and motions for all the moves, but also allowed us to control collision and secondary aspects, such as wind or damage. This was then imported back into the game engine and played at specific points in the game.”

The cape’s rigging, Bolden continues, was extremely advanced and difficult to develop. “We needed the ability to drive the cape through the [real-time] physics of the game engine, and then switch to a keyframed solution to play [handcrafted] animations for individual set pieces,” he says. “An enormous amount of time went into developing the rig and the physics solution that drove the cape; the physics had to cope with interactions between Batman, the other characters, and the environments during combat and environmental navigation.”

Using 3ds Max, the artists created all the characters (top), adding facial detail in Photoshop and ZBrush (bottom), and baking the imagery into normal maps that were part of a shader system.

Feelings of Empowerment
Batman’s gameplay is divided into three modes. The first is hand-to-hand, martial-arts combat, showcasing his ninja training. The second is the “invisible predator mechanic,” in which Batman uses stealth to stalk enemies from the rafters without them ever seeing him. By striking from the shadows, using fear and intimidation to outwit and overcome his adversaries, the gameplay encourages a degree of preparedness specifically designed to empower the player. While stealth is a key component in these actions, Rocksteady prefers to call them “predatory,” because stealth tends to imply “weakness,” something the team aggressively tried to avoid.

Finally, Batman is a detective at heart, so the game involves a lot of exploration, ingenuity, gadgetry, and old-fashioned detective work to gain entrance to the many rooms and chambers of the cavernous asylum. For instance, to break into a locked or blocked room, the player has to use Batman’s cryptographic sequencer to hack the security codes, or use their reasoning to solve the 240 logic puzzles that the Riddler is constantly squealing into Batman’s earpiece, giving clues about the rooms he’s entering.

Most times, Batman must employ all three modes at once. For example, while surveying a group of inmates from atop the rafters as they hold some guards hostage below, Batman can switch to detective mode and use a blue-tinted X-ray-style visor—similar to the one from The Dark Knight—that lets him see his enemies through walls and identify important aspects of the environment, like ventilation shafts, knives, and guns. He can then spread his cape and lithely alight to an adjacent room, plant a sticky bomb—a gel-like explosive—against the wall and, detonating it remotely, disperse most of the villains in a panic. Then, he can finish the rest off with a flurry of roundhouse kicks and punches.

Similarly, when the Joker locks the wardens in a gas chamber, Batman has only seconds to save them. X-raying the scene with his visor, he finds extractor fans that, with a deft throw of his batarang, can be activated to flush the toxic gas from the room. As Zsasz holds a guard hostage in an electric chair and threatens to fry him if anyone approaches, Batman scans the room for ventilation shafts, climbs through, and then, hanging upside down from above, subdues the villain with a quick twist of the neck.

Real-time and volumetric lighting was needed for moonlight and searchlights;  the overall misty, foggy atmosphere was crafted with fake god rays made from polygons, particle systems, or shaders.

Rocksteady specifically designed these actions to combine stealth, detective savvy, intelligence, and high-tech gadgetry, with the express purpose of immersing the player in the unique mind-set of the Dark Knight—a man who relies not on superpowers, but merely superior human and physical strength to defeat his enemies. “We wanted to explore the psychology of the Batman character,” says lead designer Sefton Hill. “Players should feel empowered by being Batman and his ability to handle any situation.” To endow the player with this “sense of empowerment,” Rocksteady always eliminated any trace of  “avoidance” and “weakness” in Batman’s stealth operations.

When Batman is fully engaged in invisible predator mode, he’s constantly scaling walls and ledges, climbing through ventilation ducts, or trying to gain a precarious foothold or handhold on his environment. To constrain his hands and feet to the surfaces, Rocksteady used an in-house solution that corrected foot levels on undulating terrain and repositioned Batman’s hands while he shimmied along ledges. “[Using this proprietary tool], the hands are free to move and reposition themselves when Batman is clear of a wall, railing, or other scalable surface. But, when the hands do approach a scalable surface, the limb is retargeted toward the wall to cope with any unevenness and keep things looking clean,” explains Bolden.

“Another good example of this tool at work would be the opening scene of the game, in which the guard pulls Joker’s trolley [Hannibal Lecter-style] down the corridors. Using the IK on his arm, the crew was able to make the two AI characters (the second guard and The Joker on his trolley) move down the hall with the correct lag, coping with AI cornering and small undulation.”

Lighting the Dark Knight
To capture the ghostly murk of the island and the dark, dingy, sodium-suffused interiors of the asylum, Rocksteady employed primarily the stock lighting systems of the Unreal Engine 3. “We laid down hundreds—sometimes even thousands—of lights in each of the rooms and locations to mimic a global illumination lighting solution,” explains Hego. “It proved to be a good method because we wanted the lighting to be quite stylized and contrasted to follow the dark, Gothic feel of the asylum.”

Obviously, lighting is a character in itself in the Batman world. There’s a misty, diffuse lighting engulfing the island, replete with god rays from the moonlight, while haunting, chiaroscuro shadowing creates pockets of fear at every turn. Therefore, real-time and volumetric lighting was crucial for moonlight and searchlights. “Real-time, dynamic lighting is used on all the characters and interactive elements of the game. But the lighting is not the only way to light up an environment and establish the mood. For instance, fake god rays made out of polygons, particle systems, or even animated additive shaders are other ways to create the thick, misty atmosphere on the island,” Hego explains. “It’s a great way to create contrast between the lighting and the silhouettes of the Gothic architecture.”

Nevertheless, even though the game employs advanced lighting systems, such as real-time reflection mapping—off the water or the reinforced glass of the holding pen, for example—Rocksteady tried, as a general rule, to minimize the impact of such power-hungry effects. “You need as much bandwidth as possible to display the amount of detail in both the environments and the high-poly characters, not to mention to maintain the game mechanics and AI running in the background,” explains Hego. “So more than ever, we used a lot of smoke and mirrors to create believable and impressive effects. Most of the time, distorting a cube map through an animated normal map in a shader can achieve an effect that can be as believable as one purely calculated in real time.”

Hego concedes that memory management was a constant challenge looming over the entire course of production. Indeed, the PS3 version requires a 1.2gb install that lasts for almost three minutes, and still the graphics are slightly, if imperceptibly, less crisp than that of its Xbox 360 counterpart. “We already had 18 months of experience with next-gen techniques when we began Arkham,” he says, “so we were very mature in term of workflow and tools. Still, it was always hard fitting the amount of details displayed on screen into the consoles’ memory and maximizing the resources available at any moment to make sure that each room would stream in and out smoothly.”

The amount of detail in the characters and the environments often left the artists looking for an effects solution that wouldn’t tax the imagery, game mechanics, and the AI running in the background.

Holy FX Animation, Batman

Batman’s is a deeply dark and atmospheric world filled with fog and wind, as well as slanting sheets of rain pounding the pavement at the wrought-iron gates of the asylum, where spectral clouds creep in front of the moon above. It’s a world that demanded effects animation of the highest caliber, not only for weather and environmental effects, but for smoke and fire, explosions from Batman’s gel weapon, bullet hits off the Kevlar bodysuit, and the poisonous gas released by the Joker.

The team created all those effects in the Unreal Engine 3 shader editor and particle system editor. The visual aspect of the wind was created using animated shaders applied to flat polygons strewn across the landscape, along with wind volumes to react to physics and objects, such as Batman’s cape. The rain is done in a similar way. The artists created fog using a fade-in proximity and normal dependant shaders applied to flat polygons. They also generated smoke, gas, and fire with particle systems coupled with animated shaders.

Detective Mode

When Batman is in “invisible predator” mode, he can fire his grappling hook, ascend to the top of a stone gargoyle, and, switching to detective mode, survey the area under the blue tint of his X-ray visor. Ironically, the visor—which reveals red and blue skeletal outlines of friendly and enemy nonplayer characters, as well as important objects (like knives and guns in bright orange)—was not derived from The Dark Knight.

“We were working on this effect long before seeing the movie,” Hego stresses. “The idea behind the detective mode was to create an augmented-reality interface that would inform Batman about his surroundings. So, it would have to look like the actual world is being filtered, with some computer information displayed on top.” The crew did some edge-finding processes to create that scanning and computing feel. Masks are generated in real time to exclude the interactive elements from becoming tinted in orange. On top of the full-screen process, another layer—made in Adobe’s Flash—deals with all the information and computer simulation.

“But before all this, the biggest technical challenge of the visor involved creating a post-process shader that would not ruin the frame rate, as it would have to process several full-screen effects. Therefore, we had to optimize it several times during the game’s production to get it just right,” says Hego.

The Greatest
For die-hard comic-book fans, their superheroes are religion, and from the movies and games, they demand total fidelity to the biblical canon. Anything less would be heresy. Unfortunately, most superhero games, especially those designed as cross-platform movie tie-ins, have been substandard, to say the least.

However, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a roundhouse kick right to the heart of that sorry tradition, demolishing it with thoughtful, action-packed gameplay, top-notch voice acting, riveting storytelling, and a slave-like fidelity to the Batman mythology that makes it ooze authenticity, while still pushing the comic book in a new and exciting direction.

Comic-book fans, at long last, can rejoice. For now at least, Arkham Asylum holds the mantle of greatest comic-book game of all time, and is a front-runner for best video game of 2009.