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The Story Mechanic Part Fifteen: Batman & Robin Syndrome

by on February 1, 2013

If there is one thing the whole world agrees on, it’s that Joel Schumacher made a bloody pig’s ear of Batman.

For those who haven’t seen Batman & Robin, here is a quick clip of the director apologising about the movie.

It’s safe to say, I think, that we won’t see Chris Nolan penning an apologetic missive to the fans anytime soon. Largely because his Batman looked nothing at all like this.

Schumacher missed the point of Batman. The list of things which were just wrong is too long to write down. Worse, he mistook his audience. He thought the people going to see Batman and Robin were just film fans, when in fact they were Batman fans as well. That’s what brought out the knives, and what catapulted the film into a million “Worst Ever …” list. If you are going to take a meaty dump on a beloved character, then you better back that choice up with a good movie.

Ask Chris O’Donnell’s career what it thought of that movie.

It seems to me that Ninja Theory are experiencing a very similar backlash with their Devil May Cry reboot. With a twist.

They looked at the fans of Devil May Cry and thought that they were game fans. Gamers. Apparently they were incorrect. They were making a game for fans of Dante. The crime of getting a character “wrong” (internet commenters code for “not to my liking”) is almost worse than putting out a bad game. If that is not the case, then how can you explain a 4.2 out of 10 metacritic score of Ninja Theory’s new game, DmC: Devil May Cry?

The brilliant Rich Stanton wondered the same thing in somewhat kinder terms, “whether it was this kind of connection to a character that had inspired the rage – mastery of a beautiful system mistaken for some kind of intimacy”. Maybe the hardcore have a right to be disappointed if the new game doesn’t challenge them like the old one did. Certainly this new DmC is easier than the games that preceded it. I’m no series expert, having only completed Devil May Cry 1 and Devil May Cry 3 on the PS2 prior to finishing DmC, but I know that if I can go through the game on normal difficulty, never die on a boss and only die a handful of times in total, then the game has been softened in Ninja Theory’s hands. Oppressive difficulty still remains in the Dante Must Die modes, but the base experience, that which most people will see, is certainly easier in this new DmC reboot.

However, this new DmC is not a bad game. It is not even a worse game than its predecessors. It is Ninja Theory’s storytelling genius, not just the central plot but the storytelling through the design of the game itself, that marks out the new DmC from the old and makes it a game worthy of the name. Or, at the very least, a game worthy of the respect of online commentors.

Devil May Cry was always about being cool. I remember the images and GIFS that came back from trade shows showing Shinji Mikami miming the gun-juggling that would become synonymous with the series. Cool was the byword, from the main character right through to the player feeling stylish as they reeled off SSS combo after SSS combo.

Having said that, take a butcher’s at this:

Cool people, in my experience, rarely eat pizza with their shirts off and their front door unlocked. Posers do that. Posers and child predators. If Dante’s redesign offends you, and that creative decision has been catching flak for some time, then I strongly urge a good look at those old cutscenes and reconsider. Devil May Cry games were never cool, they were kitsch. Dante was cool in a way that only ten year olds think people are cool: He has super powers, zero responsibility, and owns a pool table. It was great at the time, but we can look back and realise things have moved on.

Ninja Theory shows us how far we have come. Sure, Dante was naked in DmC’s first cutscene, but (whilst it probably is the worst scene in the game) at least you can link his behaviour to the character at that point: Decadent, carefree, a bit of a dick. White Hair Dante wore a leather jacket with no shirt because that is how the concept artist drew him. There was never a reason for it, you just had to accept that the leather wouldn’t make him all sweaty and get on with it. New Dante has a reason for being as he is. He has gone from a cool avatar that does cool things in the original game, to at least having a shred of a reason for being in the new DmC. Whether you like new Dante’s haircut or not, it is impossible to argue that new (black hair) Dante is less interesting that old (white hair) Dante. What old Dante has, apart from Stanton’s astute analysis over the (optional) depth a player can find in his combos, is the cool cutscenes. Those over-the-top sequences where we find out how strong Dante truly is.

Watch this cutscene from Devil May Cry 3:

It is one of the coolest sequences in the game, Dante sprinting down the side of a vertical tower, leaping, jumping and killing in a gravity defying ballet of violence. However, he is using moves that the player doesn’t have access to in a scene more complicated than any the player ever gets to interact with. In short, one the game’s coolest moments is a section that the player just has to sit and watch.

One of the most effective design decisions which Ninja Theory made was to, in 99% of cases, keep action out of the cutscenes. The player does all of the cool stuff now. Introducing weapons that allow the player to leap around has changed the dynamism of DmC’s levels and, combined with cutscenes which focus purely on advancing the story, really let the player embody the role of the gravity-defying demon hunter. What’s more, Ninja Theory have provided a narrative which supports the gameplay. Ninja Theory understand one of the key aspects of telling stories in a game: What the player feels, what they experience, is the most important thing, and designing the game to engender those emotions, those experiences, is good storytelling in games.

Rocksteady are the current masters of this technique. When playing as Batman, they make the player feel methodical and dominant. Not invulnerable, but almost a different species from the goons that they spends most of their time dismantling. That sense of dominance through skill is the emotion the player should always have when controlling the Batman. The brilliantly designed Freeflow Combo system does this perfectly. Success isn’t winning the fight (in most cases that is largely a foregone conclusion), success is chaining moves and weapons into a strategic, seamless combination. There is no danger of a single grunt beating the Batman, he is too strong and too dominant for that, but a group might trouble him. The player feels these things through the skill of the gameplay design. The amount of “story” that is delivered through this method is vast.

With Dante and DmC, Ninja Theory inherited the combat design. The sword, guns and combo system, so central to the Devil May Cry aesthetic, had to be in place for it to be a Devil May Cry game. Added to that, the player must feel cool playing as Dante. They are a shit-kicking demon hunter, a demonic kung-fu film come to life, and playing the game should feel like that at all times. The building blocks of this require all the game’s best moments be part of the levels, with cutscenes reserved for slower-paced sequences and exposition. The quick traversal moves encourage not only extended combos, but also bridges the gap between the kinetic cutscenes the game is known for and the combat system itself. Cutscenes are interesting, with some intense sequences, but they never undermine the core emotion that the player should feel whilst playing the game; that of being wicked-cool. Here the eased difficulty is actually an advantage. Players are less likely to get stuck, allowing the story to maintain a cracking pace. The compromise might not please the hardcore, but it allows the game to show off its new strength in narrative design. This is all hugely significant, and a step forward for storytelling in the series. By keeping the action in the gameplay, Ninja Theory has perfected the sensation that the player has of being the coolest thing in the game. It is a brilliant marriage of character, controls and storytelling.

What is important to remember is that Batman & Robin killed Alicia Silverstone’s movie career. We went six years without a Batman film and, when it came back, Chris Nolan couldn’t have put more distance between his work and Schumacher’s if he put his version of Gotham on the moon. DmC isn’t Batman & Robin. It doesn’t deserve the negative backlash it is receiving. The central character might have changed but a brilliant (if easier) game resides beneath those changes. Ninja Theory’s work is not simply a re-imagining of the character. It is DmC with the influence of great storytellers and you can see it in the cutscene design, the level design and the plot. Like it or not, this is a great DmC, whether masochistic enough for the hardcore or not.

DmC is not Batman & Robin. Case Closed.