New York Comic Con kicked off Friday morning with a lively panel for “Batman: Arkham City,” the highly anticipated sequel to the hit 2009 video game “Batman: Arkham Asylum,” which holds the Guinness World Record for best-reviewed super hero video game ever.
The panel consisted of Sefton Hill, Rocksteady Studios game director, Nick Arundel, “Arkham City” audio director, Kevin Conroy, the voice of Batman, and Claudio Sanchez, lead singer of Coheed and Cambria. N’Gai Croal, former technology and video game writer at “Newsweek,” moderated the panel.
Of all the panelists, the one to receive the biggest reaction was easily Kevin Conroy, with many audience members rising to their feet. Conroy shouted, “I am Batman!” as he sat down on the panel.
“I don’t know why you are applauding, you just missed out on the chance to record that for your ringtone,” joked Croal. “Got it!” one fan shouted back.
Hill said his goal in making the original “Arkham Asylum” was “to try and make the most authentic Batman game we possibly could. At Rocksteady we are just huge fans of Batman, so getting this opportunity to work on this game was phenomenal. I’ve always said it’s such a privilege to work on Batman.”
Hill said their goal with the sequel wasn’t just to make the game bigger, but better as well. To that end, not only does Batman have over double the moves of the previous game, but “Arkham City” will have open world gameplay in a city five times the size of “Arkham Asylum.”
In addition to expanding the size of the world itself, the game time just to beat the main super villains will be over 30 hours, a revelation that caused the crowd to cheer. “Double the amount of dialogue [as well,]” laughed Conroy.
“I’m surprised he can still speak,” added Croal.
Despite all of the improvements, Rocksteady only added about 30 new employees, pushing their total to just under 100 people working on the game.
Croal pushed the panel into discussing the difficulties in changing genres from an acclaimed action-adventure game to the open-world style of gameplay featured in such games as the “Grand Theft Auto” series.
“A number of games, when they expand to open-world games, tend to lose that detail and have a lot of sacrifices. We set out saying we don’t want to do that, we want a game with all the care and attention of ‘Arkham Asylum,’ and not just have kind of a bigger canvas. I think that was the main drive for us — This game has to feel like Batman in Arkham City.”
Sanchez, who contributed an original song to the game’s soundtrack, said the thing he wanted to see most in “Arkham City” was the super villain Calendar Man. “I was so thrilled with [‘Arkham Asylum’] that I was just hoping for more,” he added.
The story, scripted by “Batman: The Animated Series” creator Paul Dini, was guided by the team at Rocksteady Studios. Clues laid out in the first game gave them an idea where the storyline of the sequel would go,. “We kind of knew the main story beats, we worked out all the main details,” Hill said, before handing the story over to Dini.
“Paul was the creator of the original show, so his involvement in this game was fundamental,” said Conroy. “I think one of the most important things about Batman is the relationship between the audience and the story. There is an incredible degree of loyalty from the audience. You understand Batman better than I do.
“What Paul understands is that everything about Batman comes from those very deep wounds he went through as a child,” Conroy continued. “Everybody’s got a public face and a private face, we all do, everybody does. In Batman it’s manifested, he’s the embodiment of it. He takes it to a whole new level. The private face is that wounded kid who lost his parents — Paul goes to that place with every story. He goes to that basic truth of the myth.”
Croal asked where “Arkham City” sits to Conroy, pointing out that along with Dini and Bruce Timm, Conroy has had more involvement with Batman than almost any other person in history.
“What’s cool about it is it takes it in to a new technology, a new realm, but it’s the same story, the same myth,” Conroy said. “It’s just in a new format, an interactive format with the audience, so it’s kind of ideal.”
Realizing he’d only been discussing the story, Conroy hastily added that the graphics were amazing too, looking at Hill. “And the sound quality!” he added, turning this time to Arundel, drawing laughs from the audience.
Hill said they decided which villains to use by first writing the story and then figuring out which villains fit logically. “We take the characters that best test and torment Batman in interesting ways. Honestly, we were like kids in a candy shop,” said Hill.
Arundel said some of the villain’s musical themes were variations of Batman’s theme music. He specifically cited the Joker’s theme as being almost the same but with slightly different notes and Catwoman’s theme being the Batman theme upside down.
One particularly challenging sound to come up with was the surveillance audio. Arundel said it was tough to make story audio come in clear and concise while also allowing Batman to swing and fight around the city and not dulling those sounds.
Another challenging area with sound was the effect of Batman’s cape opening. “We called it internally the ‘wachung.’ It’s when you dive off a building — as soon as your cape opens, you glide and there’s a ‘wachung!,” said Arundel. “It’s such an iconic sound — it’s just so important that it sounded great.”
“I think this is the new planking, ladies and gentlemen,” Croal joked. “‘Wachunging.'”
“Arkham City” is not just a game, but will also receive an official comic book tie-in series also written by Dini, a toy line from DC Direct and an album, which is in stores now.
The banner track from the “Arkham City” album is “Deranged,” written and performed by Sanchez with his band Coheed and Cambria. Croal asked Sanchez what it was like to work on the track and it caused Sanchez to get a bit emotional.
Sanchez said he jumped on the chance to write a song for the album immediately. “My wife and I were actually taking a trip in to Manhattan and I was like, ‘I don’t want to waste any time, this means a lot to me and this is my chance to write, essentially, a story about the character and the song’s premise is basically about the duality between the Joker and Batman.’ So while my wife was driving into the city, I grabbed a few gadgets, an iPad and an iPhone, plugged them in to the car stereo and I started to work on this tune.”
Sanchez revealed he actually made a music video out of footage of the game he received to help himself better visualize his song while he perfected it.
“To be allowed to do something like this, to pay tribute and respect to a character that I grew up with and has always been there,” Sanchez said before pausing. “Oh my god, I’m gonna cry. Why am I going to cry?!”
At this point Sanchez teared up on stage while talking about his experiences adding to the mythology of one of his childhood heroes. He explained to the crowd why he was getting so emotional. “Earlier we were in the back waiting room and Frank Miller was in there, and this is actually a battle I am having with myself right now to answer these questions. Why didn’t I say hello!? I don’t know why. I’m just scared of everything.”
Croal then asked the panel which of the villains from Batman’s rogues gallery each of them related to the most.
Arundel chose Two-Face, Hill said the Riddler, Sanchez said Calendar Man or the Riddler and Conroy picked the Joker because of his own relationship with Mark Hamill, who voices the Joker in the game and in the animated DC Universe. The crowd erupted in to hysterics at the mere mention of Hamill’s name.
Croal then opened up the panel to questions from the floor, the first of which were about side missions in “Arkham City.” Hill mentioned that there would be, and specifically mentioned Nightwing as having them.
Does Conroy enjoy voicing Batman better in cartoons or games? Conroy couldn’t decide, saying that each experience is so different, both for him as an actor and in how each experience is consumed by the audience. “I’m not being diplomatic, I really do love both,” Conroy said. “They’re just so different.”
Did Sanchez tie in any personal experiences when writing “Deranged” for the soundtrack? “I tried to stay with in the realm of the mythos. You have to draw from images in [Batman’s] past.” He mentioned the last page of Alan Moore’s story “The Killing Joke” as being a particular inspiration for the song.
“I just want to thank [you], because when I read a comic book I hear your voice in my head,” one fan told Conroy. He then asked if Conroy actively pursued being attached to so many Batman projects in the last 20 years or if he was just asked by the studios to return each time.
Conroy revealed the studios kept coming back to him each time. “I think it had a lot more to do with your reaction to what I was doing. It was really the audience reaction to the initial performance that made them come back to me again and again, so thank you very much!”
What are Conroy’s feelings on Christian Bale’s performance as Batman in “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight?” “I got slightly misinterpreted at the last comic con. I actually think he’s incredible — he’s kind of a definitive Batman for the live-action Batman. I think he’s fantastic but I think that Michael Keaton was fantastic, too. Everyone brings something different, there are lots of different ways to play the role.”
Conroy then began singing the praises of the original live-action Batman Adam West. “That guy is a gentleman. The first time I met him, he came on [“Batman: The Animated Series”] to do a character called the Grey Ghost,” Conroy recalled. “Up until then, [West] was the only one who had done Batman, until I came along. Here I am this upstart, intruding on his territory, how’s he going to feel about it? The guy was classy. He was so gentlemanly, he couldn’t have been nicer. He said, ‘I’m so happy for you that you got this job, run with it and have as much fun with it as I did.’ He’s just a great guy.”
Croal then pulled the Q+A session to a close, but not before surprising the audience with a live gameplay demo of the game. Hill took the controller and played through the entirety of an early stage for the crowd.
The footage showed Batman swinging around an open-world Gotham and then using stealth to break into the Joker’s compound. The graphics were incredibly detailed and smooth, something the developers must have been very confident in to risk a live demo in front of thousands of fans.
Hill clearly had much practice with the game, as it looked almost like watching a Batman film, the crowd cheering along every time he used one of Batman’s gadgets or took out an enemy.
After the short demo, Croal again surprised everyone by revealing one lucky fan had a sticker underneath their seat that would win them the “Arkham City” X-Box 360 console that had been sitting on the stage during the panel.
“Batman: Arkham Asylum” is on sale now.