Gotham Knights Gameplay: Watching vs. Playing

What makes an engaging video game experience?

Maybe the answer depends on why you like video games.

The main draw is, of course, right there in the name. Games are meant to be played, after all. That interactivity is what sets the medium apart from other forms of storytelling. On the other hand, a bunch of gameplay elements strung together with nothing to connect them can feel almost pointless.

In most cases, engaging mechanics and a well-crafted story are both necessary to make a game work. When that balance is off, when one side of the equation isn’t up to par, the entire experience can suffer and condemn a game that may not actually deserve it. So here’s the big question: What makes a video game good?

The Good, The Bat, and the Gotham Knights

Gotham Knights, the October 2022 release from WB Games Montréal, is a perfect example of this whole conundrum. The game’s reveal had fans of Rocksteady’s Arkham trilogy excited – there’s not been a single-player Batman game since 2015’s Batman: Arkham Knight. As the studio showed off gameplay footage prior to the game’s release, fans felt that excitement turn into some apprehension.

Here’s the Game Plan

On one hand, combat in the game is satisfying, reminiscent of the Arkham series but still different enough to give the game its own identity. However, the movement mechanics can feel clunky and imprecise. Characters idle for a few seconds before beginning to move and take a couple of extra steps before stopping. The grapnel reticle lands exactly where it’s aimed and then shoots off to the opposite side of the screen once the player initiates the traversal action. Plus, there’s no boost option on the Batcycle, so it moves at a single, constant speed — even during chase missions.

These are things that must be right in order for any game to work. How is any game supposed to succeed when moving characters from point A to point B is a chore? Game mechanics are expected to be smooth. When they’re not, they can detract from a game’s strengths.

The Strength of the Bat-Family

Where Gotham Knights knocks it out of the park, though, is with its DC Comics characters. Watching the four Knights struggle to deal with Bruce’s death and the weight of the task he’s left them as Gotham’s protectors is heart-wrenching. The bond between Nightwing, Batgirl, Red Hood, and Robin (Tim Drake) develops and solidifies in real time as they take on Batman’s final case. There are moments sprinkled all throughout the game that are so well executed as to bring players to tears.

Even Bruce, whose death is depicted in the opening cutscene and is thus absent the whole game, feels more human than he ever has thanks to his audio logs and files on the Bat-computer. These characters feel like real people who happen to be super heroes, not super heroes who have to pretend to be normal people in the light of day. It’s astounding how well the relationship between these characters is written.

That’s why it’s such a shame that the gameplay needs more work. So few reviews mention how emotionally resonant the game is because playing it feels tedious at times, unless you’re specifically invested in the story and characters.

Watching a Video Game vs. Playing

This brings up a slightly different question then: Is it ever better to watch a game rather than to play it? Again, the idea is rather antithetical to the whole point of the medium — it’s called a game because it is meant to be played. The experience of it is meant to be active, not passive.

When you click on any walkthrough on YouTube, you’re likely to hear the creator warn you to play the game yourself first. It’s a valid piece of advice – watching someone play a video game takes you out of the experience, separating you from what’s going on and breaking your immersion.

Watching from a Safe Distance

Distance between a game and real life is not always bad though. Sometimes that distance is necessary, and not just in cases where the game’s mechanics make it frustrating. First-person point of view can be difficult for some players to maneuver through. Plus, watching another person play through a title like Capcom’s Resident Evil Village might be better than trying to struggle through it if you’re someone who scares easily.

Granted, House Beneviento is absolutely terrifying no matter how you experience it, even more so in the Shadows of Rose DLC. But when you think about it, watching a video game like a movie gives a distance that eases the terror and makes the first-person view tolerable.

With platforms like YouTube and Twitch, people can watch games as well as play. So which experience is “truer,” which matters more?

And when it comes to the game itself, what makes a game bad? Can the overwhelming success of one element balance out what’s lacking? Gamers, tell us what you think over in our Atomic Misfits Facebook Group, and don’t forget to Let Your Geek Sideshow!