Gotham Knights’ great story suffers from this game writing trend

Gotham Knights’ great story suffers from this game writing trend

Gotham Knights have a “we” problem.

WB Games Montreal’s latest follows four of Batman’s former sidekicks as they defend Gotham City and try to solve a case the caped crusader never could after Batman was killed. It’s a bold narrative hook, and by far the best part of this newly released superhero game. Unfortunately, Gotham Knights‘ typing has a bug that has become more prevalent in games lately. Some game scripts, especially in multiplayer games or titles with more than one playable character, can feel impersonal, or even clinical, because they cannot attribute any actions to a single character.

Gotham Knights is simply the latest game to encounter this problem. What should be a personal story about four heroes coming into their own sometimes feels like it follows one conglomerate meant to replace Batman. The scripts for Watch Dogs Legion and multiplayer games such as Destiny 2 and Marvel’s Avengers also suffer from this problem, as they require story moments to be as general and universally applicable to all players as possible. This approach has created a challenge for modern video games, which struggle to balance mass experience with narrative ambition.

There is no I in the team

“There is no I in team” is an old cliché, but it’s something the video game industry might want to think about. With increased emphasis on both multiplayer and storytelling across the industry, more and more video game scripts find themselves having to account for multiple players doing the same things as different characters. Gotham Knights is a particularly clear example of that. Players can tackle the missions as Nightwing, Red Hood, Batgirl or Robin – four completely different characters with distinct personalities. As a result, the script must find a way to bridge these differences and find a way to treat each experience across all of the story’s events equally.

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All four Gotham Knights characters stand in front of Nightwing's logo.

Gotham Knights tries to account for that, as the cutscenes and dialogue in the cutscenes change depending on which hero you play. But it only works from moment to moment; on a larger scale, everything happens to everyone. When a hero out on patrol calls others for a quest, they will usually speak as a collective group of individuals rather than a single character. And when referring to past events, the heroes will use pronouns like “we” or “us” rather than naming the specific character who foiled a supervillain’s plan or solved a crime.

This matter reared its head for me at one point Gotham Knights when a character is kidnapped by the Court of Owls. In my case, it happened to Robin, and the following segment in the Court of Owls’ Labyrinth was one of the most emotional levels in the game. That’s why I was thoroughly disappointed when the Bat-Family spoke as if they were all kidnapped in some conversations that brought up the incident afterwards, using pronouns like “we” or “us”. It made a personal moment feel clinical as this vague dialogue revealed how the game solved every possible experience, solo or multiplayer, in a machine-like way rather than a narratively satisfying one. I started to feel like it didn’t matter what happened to specific characters because it would have happened to any character I chose, regardless.

That choice solves one problem, but creates another by doing something about it Gotham Knights‘ More intimate moments especially feel less personal – and that’s not a problem unique to the bat family. Watch Dogs Legion allows players to recruit and control any old character off the street and turn them into a member of the hacker collective DeadSec. Because of that gameplay hook, the group itself was treated as the main character in itself, as the game refers to the actions of the group rather than individual characters. That setup will also be familiar to players of live service games with ongoing narratives such as Fate 2 and Marvel’s Avengers, as the writing treats each individual character as a member of a larger idea in service of a shared narrative. It feels like the action is simply happening to the player, not that they are actively influencing and affecting it.

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We, the players

Writing games this way is the clearest way to ensure that all players get the same experience, but more personalization can go a long way. I’m a fan of Gotham Knights‘ story, but I wish I could have seen stronger character arcs from chapter to chapter, as opposed to a few lines of special dialogue within certain scenes. Watch Dogs Legion’s gameplay innovations would have been even more impressive had the game’s script built on this foundation. Destiny 2 lore would be even better if more players had a lasting impact on it.

Watch Dogs Legion Team

As more games move away from telling stories with a singular hero, the challenge lies in keeping those narratives engaging on a player-to-player level. A few moments in Gotham Knights and Watch Dogs Legion would have felt more tailored to my experience if the dialogue had referenced the actual character I’d controlled in a given mission, giving me the sense that I was actually watching someone develop rather than an interchangeable protagonist.

It is of course easier on paper than it is in practice. it would require more dialogue variations and tracking each player’s actions, which is probably more complicated from both a creative and technical perspective. Still, if we’re going to get more interactive stories that leave the door open for more experiences and heroes, it will take some creativity to keep the narratives personal – so that not all players are lumped together into one royal “we”.

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