June 23rd 2015 saw the release of the videogame Batman Arkham Knight. The third in a series of videogames by the company Rocksteady, its pedigree seemed to all but ensure it would be one of the best games of the year. A few months later, a game I had never heard of called Go Home was made freely available to PlayStation4 owners who had a PlayStationplus subscription. 
My hopes for Arkham Knight were high. I had thoroughly enjoyed the second installment of the series (Batman: Arkham City) and videoclips of Arkham Knight suggested a bigger, more polished experience. As for Go Home I had no idea if I would like it or not but as it was free I decided to at least give it a try. Surprise, surprise, it turned out to be the better game.
Batman: Arkham Knight betrays a gameplay attitude that hearkens back to the early days of videogaming. Before there were games consoles and home computers, a videogame’s natural home was the arcade. Today we are used to games that showboat with film-like musical scores, cutscenes of CG-movie quality and as much particle effects as the latest graphics cards can handle, but the miniscule power of 70s computer hardware meant that games designers had no choice but to strip the game down to one simple idea. Furthermore, since the game was designed to be played on a coin-operated arcade machine, there was a tendency to come up with a very difficult but compulsive challenge. These were not games designed to be completed, they were games that were meant to continue for as long as your skills matched the increasing difficulty or your pockets remained lined with coins for buying more ‘lives’.
These days games often tell a story and, as such, are meant to be completed. But that old-school view of making the game overly-difficult is still very much evident, as Arkham Knight made all too clear.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind a tough challenge. But there are times when I would rather be engaged in other ways. Immersed in a game’s environment, say, or playing because the story is so good and I want to follow it to its conclusion. In the case of Arkham Knight, its environment is astoundingly atmospheric, and the characters are brilliantly realised. I was more interested in the story and just having fun being the Dark Knight than having my gamer’s skills tested to the limit, so I decided to play on the easiest difficulty setting.
But, it wasn’t easy at all. You know a game is too hard when your fingers are cramping up from intensive button jabbing and the screen is still full of an absolute barrage of enemy assaults. Now, call me crazy, but to me ‘easy’ equates to something that is not difficult at all. It suggests a challenge that is a walk-in-the-park, a breeze, a piece of cake. It does not signify a rage-inducing challenge where your ass is being kicked from here to next week and you are seriously considering quitting the stupid game and playing something more relaxing.
Talking of which, Grow Home. In Arkham Knight you are Batman; in Grow Home you are B.O.B. B.O.B is ejected from his spaceship along with some pods with what looks like an emergency vehicle’s flashing light, and his mission is…well I did not know what the overall point was because I had got this game on a complete whim. Turns out that the main objective is to climb up the stem and branches of a massive plant called a Star Plant. It is but a sapling when you start, and whenever B.O.B manages to clamber up and crawl to the end of a branch, you can cause that branch to grow, holding on for dear life as you try and steer the growing limb toward floating rocks in the sky (if you have seen the movie Avatar, picture its floating mountains). As you connect the tips of branches to certain rocks, this causes the main stem to grow taller, enabling access to islands in the sky and, eventually, your own spaceship parked way, way up at the edge of space. Hence: Grow Home.
Grow Home uses a very different method of animation compared to Arkham Knight. That game relies on pre-canned animations triggered by button combinations. Grow Home, on the other hand, uses procedural animation, which basically means B.O.B’s movements are calculated on the fly, based on the environment he is interacting with. So whereas Arkham Knight requires you to execute a great number of button combinations, Grow Home relies on just the shoulder buttons to move his arms, the left thumbstick to make him walk, X to make him jump and triangle to activate or deactivate his parachute or hanglider (which, in keeping with the game’s botanic theme, are a giant dandelion seed and a leaf). 
The use of procedural animation means that B.O.B is able to climb up absolutely any surface in the game. Unlike most games these days, Grow Home has no difficulty settings. Rather, the game lets you use your own common sense in seeking out a challenge that suits your ambitions. If you want an easy time of it, seek a simple route up the plant. If you want a challenge, why not attempt death-defying leaps from one branch to another, in between climbing precariously up the twisting stem and the imposing rockfaces of the floating islands?
I met with failure multiple times playing both Grow Home and Arkham Knight, and they both taught important lessons about failure in videogames. Turns out it is never frustrating when you can clearly see you made an error. I often mistimed my leap or lost my grip while making my climb in Grow Home, but I never felt like it was not my fault. On the other hand, there were times in Arkham Knight where I knew exactly what needed to be done, but the game controls would not let me do it. For example, while playing as Harley Quinn I wanted to quickly climb into a space in the floor in order to avoid approaching enemies. But, no, Harley insisted on executing flashy cartwheels instead, at least until a thug introduced his fist to her face. 
See, this is what happens when you have multi-button combinations. You have to press those buttons in exactly the right way or else the game interprets your intention to jump into a hiding place as a desire to perform acrobatics. The need to do things in exactly the right way was once a bane of videogames. I expect most fans of Tomb Raider can recall the frustration of wanting Lara to operate a switch which was within easy reach, only to have her refuse to do so because she was not in the exact position the game demanded. Fortunately, these problems have been largely ironed out and you really don’t expect a triple-A videogame to have controls which leave you feeling like your character is a stubborn little so-and-so that will not do as it’s told. But there were times when Arkham Knight was like that.
Another thing that helps you carry on in the face of repeated failure is encouragement. This can be positive encouragement. Grow Home adopts this approach, in the form of ‘M.O.M’, who is never seen but urges B.O.B on with motherly encouragement whenever he falls too far and smashes to bits. Or, it can be negative encouragement in the form of taunts at your incompetence. This is the approach Arkham Knight takes. “I expected better from you, Batman. You disappoint me!”. Yeah, well, should have given me controls that allow me to make Batman do what he is supposed to do, shouldn’t you?
Like I said, I played Grow Home without knowing a thing about it. This included its star, B.O.B. What was his overall mission? What abilities did he have? I did not know. For me, the entire game was a process of discovery. Under my control, B.O.B was a baby discovering how to control his limbs. The procedural animation would sometimes cause B.O.B’s body to contort into comedic positions, further emphasising this impression I had of B.OB as not quite in control of himself. Accomplishment of little tasks seemed like big achievements. ‘Aha, if I move my limbs like THIS, I can reach the top of this small cliff’. Bit by bit, B.O.B and I figured out what our robotic body could do, what purpose items around us could be put to, and our confidence in our abilities grew. By the time the plant had been grown tall enough to reach the spaceship parked high in orbit, B.O.B was trusting himself to make suicidal jumps from one limb to another, controlling his glide and hitting his target with pinpoint accuracy.
As for Batman, I knew all about him. Everybody knows who Batman is. Batman is supercool. Batman does not find things difficult. Batman has a mind that is more than a match for the most devious puzzles set by The Riddler. Batman has fighting skills that outclass any adversary. Batman is not the kind of guy who attempts to drive his batmobile off a ramp and land on the roof of the adjacent building, only to mess it up and fall upside down among the garbage cans. Well, certainly the Batman of the comics, the cartoons and the films would never make such a stupid mistake. But the Batman of Arkham Knight frequently did.
I sometimes think that the people you would think would be best suited to videogames are actually not that suited at all. James Bond should make for a brilliant videogame character, right? I mean, he shoots guns, he has knows how to handle himself in a fist-fight. His driving skills are top-notch. His day job involves travelling to exotic locations and dishing out instant justice to any bad guys that he encounters. He is like a male version of Lara Croft.
So, you would think videogames based on James Bond would be a surefire hit. But while many would rate ‘Goldeneye’ on the Nintendo64 as one of the best games ever made, I think it is fair to say that most Bond games have been something of a disappointment. And, if you stop and think about it, some conventions of the James Bond franchise do not fit well with videogame convention at all. For example, traditionally the opening sequence of a Bond film is an action set-piece involving extraordinary stuntwork. It is usually among the most exciting moments in a film jam-packed with implausible action. But a videogame’s introductory level is typically a training level which gently guides the player through the basics. “Press directional up to aim gun, Bond!’. Bond knows how to use his gun. Such basic instructions are not something a man of action such as he should need to be told. But the gameplayer might.
When you base a videogame around a familiar character the number one priority is that you should feel like that character when playing the game. To be fair, Arkham Knight does offer plenty of moments where you really feel like Batman. Silently gliding through the rain-soaked skies of Arkham City’s permanent night, using high-tech equipment to solve crimes, taking on groups of thugs and saving a hostage with a flurry of unarmed combat. Yes, this is what being the Caped Crusader is like. But then it all goes wrong. If Scarecrow knows Batman’s mind so well, why did he have driverless tanks patrolling Arkham City? Had he put human drivers in such tanks, Batman’s moral code (which forbids killing anyone) would have ruled out blowing up them up, and he could not have saved the day (or, rather, the night). Why am I spending so much time using the batmobile like a tank and blowing things up, anyway? This is not what Batman does. I am feeling frustrated stuck on this difficult part of the game. Batman should not find anything too difficult.
Arkham Knight had all the shine and sparkle one expects of a triple-A modern videogame. It looks great, it sounds great. The acting in the game is top-notch (especially Mark Hamil’s Joker). Videogame mechanics are put to great use in telling a story in a way no other media can emulate. There was enough entertainment to ensure I struggled on to the end of the main objective, despite those frequent difficulty spikes and failing because the game controls would not let me do what needed to be done when I needed to do it (damn you, Harley, get in that grate!). But for all it has going for it (and it has a lot going for it) Arkham Knight felt like an old game in next-gen games clothes. I felt like I was playing an arcade game of the seventies, fingers cramping up from intensive button mashing in order to make it past some near insurmountable challenge, and being taunted whenever my skills were not up to the test set by the game’s designers.
Grow Home has nowhere near as much polish as Arkham Knight but it felt more modern in its more relaxed attitude to gameplay. There was no ‘game over’, no races against the clock, no boss fights. B.O.B frequently fell and broke into a million pieces, but a new B.O.B was always ready to try again. This was an environment to play in, first and foremost. Its motivation came in the form of the joy of discovery, the pleasure of being able to do things one would not dare do in real life. B.O.B often seemed so small, clinging on as the plant twisted and climbed to dizzying heights. It was awe-inspiring despite the overly cartoony graphics. It was a game that wanted the player to have fun, not one which wanted to kick the player’s ass and make them feel angry. 
It was free and it was fun. More fun than Arkham Knight. 

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