All images captured on Sony PlayStation 4 // Spoilers Ahead
It has been 5 years since Rocksteady’s Arkham franchise came to an end with Batman: Arkham Knight. An absolute unit of a game, amazing and densely packed in terms of content and its world. The biggest highlight not talked enough is its depiction of Gotham City. The first and only game yet to encapsulate the beautifully grotesque and grungy world of The Dark Knight.
Gotham has had a history in terms of its portrayal. In comics, the fictional city was not as well defined. Comics being more focused on the story, never really showed a built city even though the world inheriting was very well detailed. The first media to take on the task of physically showcasing the city was Tim Burton’s Batman, envisioned by Production Designer Anton Furst.
The Gotham we get to experience is densely packed and lives in a heightened reality. Many found it smaller than expected, especially when open-world games like Witcher 3 and GTA-V have much bigger maps. They were expecting a full-fledged Gotham complete till the outskirts, but it only had Central Gotham, spread across three main islands. The upgraded grappling gun and the Bat-Mobile make for faster modes of traversal and make the map seem small, but this is because the Gotham we see is from Batman’s eyes. The production design and environment are made in a way that we see what our protagonist does. A protagonist that lives, breathes and sleeps in this city.
For a story dealing with hallucinations and the protagonist’s descend into madness, it is necessary for the environment built according to their perception of it. A subtle example of this is the ‘Jokerified’ Billboards and Statues seen here and there on the map. It can be easily missed but it adds to the unsettling feeling of the game. It’s through Batman’s eyes and it’s the game putting us in his shoes. The creators valued perspective more than accuracy. He knows the city at the back of his hand, and the dense map makes Batman easily and fluidly move from one objective to the other, as you would expect from such a character.
Gotham consists of three main islands.
Bleake Island, Miagani Island and Founder’s Island. They open up as the story progresses. All three islands encapsulate various artistic styles that have influenced Gotham in media over the years. Gothic, Retro, Cyberpunk; even building upon the Hugh Ferris influence seen in the Burton’s Batman is visible in the look of the Wayne Tower and Wayne Plaza.
The Gothic style is very visible in the world.
Many structures sport slim and elongated pillars, narrow ‘ribs’ and pointed arches. The Oracle Clock Tower, GCPD headquarters, and many buildings with this style have it down to very intricate details. The city is also filled with various statues that add to the gothic feeling of Gotham, giving the city its character and somewhat indicative of its history. They blend into the city, yet feel grandiose, looking over its people and Batman himself.
The City also suits an American Retro aesthetic.
Pauli’s Diner from the opening scene, UrbaRail, Grand Avenue, Falcone’s Shipping, Panessa studios, the various billboards. All of them seem like they could be part of the 40's New York. It feels like a reminder of the character’s origins. He made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939. Gotham wasn’t even introduced until Batman #4. Till then it was New York City, an influence even visible in the live-action film adaptations. Grand Avenue in Miagani Island looks very much like Broadway from the 40s. A glowing hub of entertainment consisting of 4 theatres. Many of the residential buildings we see also seem to be directly taken from the boroughs of New York.
You can see proto-cyberpunk aesthetics in multiple locations consisting of neon signs and hoardings.
Grand Avenue Central, Chinatown in Bleake Island and most importantly, Ryker Heights on Founder’s Island, the most extravagant and glowing among the three islands of the map. It’s also the last island that you travel to. It looks like Cyberpunk world in construction, aesthetically and even thematically.
Ryker Heights stands out and looks gorgeous from afar, the pinnacle of development with its Wayne International Plaza, Gotham Stock Exchange CityVision Construction, with AmerTek, Queen, LexCorp and other big-name fictional corporations under construction, all of them sporting bright neon lighting in their architecture, shining bright in Gotham’s darkest night. But as you enter Drescher or Otisburg, the old districts of the island, you see that all of this development is on top of an old, crumbling, abandoned slum, similar to Cyberpunk worlds where the closer your get to the ground, the poverty-ridden it gets. All things progressive are built at the backbone of the unfortunate.
No structure is restricted to one style. All buildings, streets, and signs are an immensely beautiful mixture of various art styles, giving the city its own history. They blend well across the various buildings present in the game.
The game also has a very dreamy and noir presence.
A key influence on the caped crusader’s comics. The city is always under rainfall, with thunder striking now and then. The ground is always wet and muddy. The city is shadowed by dark clouds and an exaggeratingly large moon. The ocean is always clashing with the coasts. There is even a ramp around the lighthouse near Panessa studios that completely inhibit that style.
The outdoors of Gotham is filled with criminals, militia, and villains. It is filled with life in every crook and corner. It is the indoors where the game’s production design is as such that it leaves a lingering creepy feeling in your subconscious. For the first time you enter these places, you are there to face the militia or are accompanied by a member of the family, but when you choose to go back to these places for any reason whatsoever (and if you want those Riddler trophies, you definitely will) it is very creepy.
You can hear each sound in the room as there as music is absent. Many at times, you are roaming around a place where something or the other is alive, like the lab chimps of in the Airships or the Harley Jack-in-the-boxes in Panessa Studios. The sounds of these environments make them unsettling and add a layer of fear to an already gothic aesthetic. All of this while you are witnessing Bruce Wayne’s descend into madness. This kind of work on the environment makes moments like Jason Todd flashbacks more astonishing.
Arkham Knight’s Gotham is not appreciated enough. What I have written is only the influences and aesthetics I have noticed in my time with the game. All of the choices made in the creation of this world are towards making a pure batman experience and his (in)famous city. Game director, Sefton Hill and his team at Rocksteady deserve all the credit for it.