Gotham Knights: Building a Brand New Gotham City (With 400 Years of History)

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In the 1650s, five families left Europe, eventually landing on the rainswept islands that pepper the mouth of what would one day be called Gotham River. Those families – the Waynes, the Cobblepots, the Elliots, the Arkhams, and the Kanes – would build a colonial fort together, and sow the seeds of centuries of dominance in the area. Gotham City was born.

The city quickly spread beyond its original bounds, developing five boroughs – and, in each, one of those five founding families would take root. In the early days, the Kanes established themselves on Gotham’s natural harbour (now known as Historic Gotham), tying the family to their new country’s military might, building ships and weapons of war. By the 1850s, Gotham had become a major trade hub, helped along by the industrialist Cobblepots and their smoke-belching Southside steel mills.

Gotham continued to transform over time – in the 1920s, the Elliots took hold of the 20th Century’s newest means of control, mass media, and built Downtown Gotham in a new art deco image. By the 1960s, Gotham had truly become a patchwork of industry and architecture – the Arkhams settled in North Gotham, building their famous asylum (yes, it’s in the game, and no, it’s not as you’ve previously seen it) near the leafy university. The Waynes, meanwhile, invested their billions in New Gotham, helping advance the town into a new technological age.

Which brings us to the present day, and the Gotham you’ll be exploring as Batman’s proteges in Gotham Knights – an open world as soaked in history as it is by neon light and vigilante-friendly shadow. Warner Bros. Games Montreal created that centuries-long history early in production; a whole new timeline for a whole new version of Gotham City.

And it isn’t merely window dressing. The timeline informs everything from the plot, to the gameplay, to the game’s biggest mystery, the Court of Owls conspiracy. The team didn’t just build an open world to play in – it’s truly trying to build a city.

From Waynes to Kanes

Key to this take on Gotham are those five boroughs, and the worldview of the families that historically controlled them.

“So for us, the five boroughs, it started with the families,” says open world level design director Kristofor McMahan. “The families moved there, they built imposing structures within those districts. So then we build around that to where the identity for those districts really is based off of that family.”

The result is a Gotham that drastically changes depending on where you are in the city. Each borough includes a signature building, the founding families’ monuments to themselves, and each of those buildings informs the history, architectural style, and level design around it. Wayne Tower is a modern skyscraper, set amid a landscape of high-rises, perfect for surveying crime from above and swooping in. Cobblepot Steel on the other hand informs the industrial nature of its borough, with squat, flat-roofed buildings and towering chimney stacks.

Within those boroughs, the team tries to tell stories without simply having someone speak them out loud:

“If you visit a city in real life, it’s hard to tell some of that history,” explains McMahon. “So because we’re making a game, really what we want to do is kind of obviously reveal some of that stuff. So there’s a lot of areas that are kind of stuck in time. Even something as kind of generic as construction, it becomes interesting when it’s halted construction or it’s now abandoned and overgrown, or it’s ruins. All those things are more interesting for the player than just a modern city. So we tried to have a lot of those areas where it’s almost stuck in time, so the player can really experience what it was back then a little bit too, and see how the city evolved without actually just having to read lore alone.”

Each borough includes a signature building, the founding families’ monuments to themselves.

The team has a historical and gameplay basis for every new environment. Take the Cauldron, built into the Cobblepots’ Lower Gotham area:

“We always would like to tell a story with every borough,” says environmental art director Daniel Kvasznicza, “and there’s one specific one that is not necessarily related to the family, but is an effect of some of the projects that those families undertook, which was a mining operation that happened in the Riverbed. So they decided to wall off the two sides of a portion of the water, and they dredged it for mining operations. So this had a specific consequence on the environment around it. It would attract workers for the mining operation. It was low cost housing. It remained actually a slum.”

The Cauldron’s history is written into its walls, with tumbledown buildings and cramped, unplanned streets, all set in the shadow of the more prosperous districts around it. But all of this is a distinct gameplay choice, too:

“This spot is kind of like a transition area between the Financial District and the Southside,” continues Kvasznicza. “So we have two very different themes while being in a third theme that is very organic, and has a completely different way for the player to navigate over. It [requires] a lot more parkouring. So the player always has the choice to pick the best tool and the best navigation verb to be as efficient as possible, and with different neighborhoods that will give you different experiences.”

This interplay of history and gameplay can be seen across the city. The once-beautiful Robinson Park is a symbol of the city’s decay – but it’s also an open space where your usual stealth tactics may no longer work in the same way. The enormous Elliot Center is a literally gilded reminder of the family patriarch (complete with a museum exhibit about the family inside) – and it’s also a complex, multi-layered bit of vertical level design, built to house the Mr. Freeze boss battle later in the game.

It’s not just that timeline that acts as history here, either – while this is a new take on Gotham, it includes many references to the comic books it’s drawing from. Of course, there are buildings you’ll know – right down to deep-cut references like Noonan’s Sleazy Bar, from Garth Ennis’ Hitman series – but the very fabric of Gotham itself acts as an Easter Egg in places:

“One that comes into my mind is the way how the city was built,” says Kvasznicza.” The Downtown area actually got expanded over the Trigate Bridge, and that was something that was in the comics. […] I think that’s part of the fun, once players go in that world and actively see some references: ‘Okay, they paid attention to this detail and they expressed it in a certain way or they rethought some parts.’ That’s what I’m really excited about.”

Court Summons

Perhaps most interesting is that this Gotham has a public history and a secret history. We already know the game will center on The Court of Owls, a shadowy, manipulative group born of the founding families. Gotham itself will reflect that conspiratorial past, too.

“One of the things that we love about the Court of Owls, aside from the fact that it’s a new, fresh addition to the Batman canon, is that they represent a threat that is so embedded and so intrinsic to Gotham City because of the historical origin that they have, that even Batman doesn’t know about it,” says creative director Patrick Redding. “And the notion of a threat that is so intimately tied to a city that he considers to be his city, that he knows like the back of his hand, that he’s been patrolling for literally decades at this point; that’s a very intimidating and scary idea. That they’ve been operating behind the scenes in the shadows, pulling strings, manipulating things, using their power and wealth in this fashion, and that they’re quite content to just not have Batman notice them. That’s a terrifying idea.

“So with that in mind, what we knew is that we needed to give you a sense of Gotham’s history in order to be able to show all the ways in which the court is embedded in that. That feeling that Gotham is kind of an adversary in a way, and that the Court of Owls is the embodiment of that, the personification of it.”

“The Couts of Owls represents a threat that is so embedded and so intrinsic to Gotham City that even Batman doesn’t know about it.”

The phrase commonly used at the studio for this is that they didn’t just build up – creating those hugely visible landmark buildings, and visible stories for every new district – but they also built down:

“We started to imagine how the form of the city could be affected by that,” says Redding. “And it helped suggest an urban geography to the city going all the way back to like the late 1600s, and then we started to think, ‘Okay, well, what were the major events in history that they would’ve reacted to? Is it the revolutionary war? Is it the kind of exploitation of the west? The building of the railroads?’ All of these ideas became part of that conversation and allowed us to build layers of created history. And we built it up and we built it down. Like we said, ‘Okay, what’s buried under the city? What are the hidden secrets that you can find in the course of investigating the Court of Owls?’”

Naturally, the team isn’t talking too much about what those buried secrets might be, but we see hints of it as we’re shown Gotham’s open world – a seemingly nondescript building might be a gang hideout, which leads to a tunnel system that brings you to an exit into Gotham you would never have guessed at, for example.

“We want the Court of Owls to feel like they’re involved in everything,” says McMahon. “If you were to go to a major city in North America, often they’ll build a city on top of another one. Like Chicago, like they had the fire, they just built on top of it, because it’s not worth rebuilding, destroying and rebuilding.

“So what the underground allows us to do is kind of reveal that cross-section of the city. So we have areas like that where you drop in, you keep going and you see things that you didn’t know were there, that you didn’t know the city was built on top of. I think that’s a really cool element often you don’t get in most games – we try to allow the player to see kind of behind the scenes of the city, go under the surface, as well as seeing it from up high, from the bigger landmarks and stuff like that.”

These underground elements won’t just be tied to the story, or sequestered off in boss dungeons – some are designed to be a part of the fabric of the world, areas you can discover on your own if you go looking for them:

“We have a lot that’s accessible early on,” confirms McMahon. “Some things you kind of stumble on later […] A big part of it is we have the bike, and sometimes it’s difficult to have a road. You know, ‘I want to bust through this wall,’ or something like that. Because when players experience an open world, it’s often like water flowing: you go where you want to go, you go where you’re being led. So we have some that are like that, where it’s just we really wanted to have a cool route from one place to the other, so we put a little bit of a network there. And some of them, we kind of treat it like there’s a bigger space behind the scenes.”

Highway Code

The result of all this work is that this take on Gotham aims to feel like a legitimate place, not just a sandbox for spandex crimefighting. The team has taken into account real-life town planning (as soon as you add a rideable vehicle, you need to make sure the road systems work well enough), and even used VR to aid construction.

“It was basically like playing a chess game,” says Kvasznicza, “because the difficult part of it is [judging] from all directions, in real time, if your skyline has an interesting composition and whether the player knows where they are. In VR, it is literally possible to have your city on the palm of your hand, and you can use sightlines to place buildings manually. So we often exchanged with the level design team back and forth ideas, like, can we raise this building over here? Or can we lower this so we can see through here?”

That micromanagement of both look and navigability makes for a city that wants to balance being big with being interesting – you shouldn’t have to travel far to see something interesting, or diverting. We’ve heard before that this will be the largest Gotham ever made in game form, but that’s not what the developers are proud of.

“I think we made a very big Gotham City, but what I think is really unique to Gotham Knights is the density of it.”

“I think we made a very big Gotham City, but what I think is really unique to Gotham Knights is the density of it,” says game director Geoff Ellenor. “Sometimes, I will be searching for something or fighting a crime and not realize how close to me something else is happening that I’m going to want to interact with afterwards or before. There’s just such a depth of nooks and crannies to explore inside our city and I think that’s really unique to Gotham Knights.”

The idea of a Gotham packed with references, miniature histories, and sinister mysteries is alluring. After all, this is the promise of a town with real backstory – that it’s not just the people living there who’ll help tell you the story, but the city itself.

Gotham has been many things to many people. It’s appeared in comics, movies, and gaming worlds. It’s been reinvented repeatedly, traveling through time with us, from block-color ’40s issues of Detective Comics to the grey monoliths of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. But all of those versions of Gotham have been snapshots of a city in its current form. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Gotham Knights’ version is that we won’t just see the city as it is, but hopefully learn what it’s been.

Joe Skrebels is IGN’s Executive Editor of News. Follow him on Twitter. Have a tip for us? Want to discuss a possible story? Please send an email to [email protected].

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Author: Joe Skrebels

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