I've been playing a bit of Arkham Asylum recently, behind the main swell as I opted for the PC version. To add to the echo, yes, it's bloody fantastic. But more importantly, it's quite possibly the purest example of how exactly to take a license and make a game that captures the license's spirit exactly.
Many deride licensed games, and fairly so. But the condemnation is often categorical, both on the part of developers/publishers who churn out uninspired rubbish for the lowest cost possible, and audiences who assume anything licensed is terrible until proven wrong. This leads to self-fulfilling prophecy and the licensed ghetto continues.
There are still plenty of excellent licensed games (even going back decades). Their excellence is largely due to two characteristics- they allow players to inhabit an interesting world and craft their own story. The latter is doubly important. So often, license adaptations are merely translations of some existing story (usually, a movie). This basically robs the player of almost everything interesting about games: agency, exploration of the new space, suspense, etc. Recreating the footsteps of a big screen protagonist is the last thing most players want.
I don't think it's any coincidence that some of the best licensed video games are licenses of other game properties. D&D, Vampire: The Masquerade, Warhammer 40K; these properties are built expressly for allowing players to craft their own stories. And this includes the best licensed game ever made, and one of the greatest games ever. Planescape: Torment worked in part because Chris Avellone had all the richness of the setting to draw upon. But Black Isle didn't just recreate an existing Planescape adventure (and there were plenty of excellent candidates), they created a new journey through Sigil and the planes.
For those familiar with the setting, we were getting to see familiar things through a whole new lens. The first cranium rat, the omnipresent razorvine, the rebus speech of the Dabus; all of these evoked both familiarity and appreciation. For those new to the setting, they were able to marvel at the depth and diversity of content.
This is where Arkham Asylum succeeds as well. For me at least, Batman has always been about the villains (and part of the triumph of Burton and Nolan's Batman films was finding ways to make Batman himself interesting). Rocksteady fully embraced this and found ways both overt and subtle to make the villains the primary backdrop of the game. Mark Hamil's Joker, with his constant boasts, taunts and straight madness, is fantastic. More subtly, small moments involving the other villains, even ones not featured in the game, give Arkham more substance and atmosphere. Seeing Catwoman's equipment in a glass case or seeing Hush's name on an X-ray are great nods for those more familiar with the Batman setting.
The Batman of Arkham Asylum is fantastically boring, but as a cipher for the player, this actually works rather well. The gameplay focus on the experience of Batman, rather than the character. Between the plethora of gadgets, relatively single but incredibly fluid combat, reasonable use of stealth and the extreme vulnerability to firearms, Arkham Asylum nails the feeling of Batman. And it's far more rewarding than watching some 3D model in a cutscene tell you what it's like to be Batman.
One of the hardest parts of creating a new IP where setting and character are central is simply getting people to care about your world at all. Creators very, very often fall dangerously in love with their own creations. It's the quintessential DM who has written tomes about his world and carries on about "the impacts of the Third War of Succession due to Prince Bakolar's betrayal of the Treaty of Darkfall," oblivious to his players being bored to tears.
Game designers working on new IP can easily fall into the same trap and avoiding this requires great discipline and restraint. Probably the most telling acknowledgment of this is when Ken Levine said "Nobody wants to reading your fucking design document." He wasn't condemning the work that should be put into background worldbuilding, but rather that what actually ends up in the game should be relevant to the player. The rest is a latticework the team can use in creating environments and interactions that are consistent and rich. Bioshock was commendable in its restraint. I didn't have to listen to three minutes of audio diary explaining how Andrew Ryan made his money, because that doesn't really matter. But a 15 second anecdote about how he'd rather burn down a forest he owns rather than grant it to the government to make public? Telling and pointed.
At the end of the day, a great deal of licensed games are still drek. The economics of releasing a game in coordination with a major movie more or less encourage cutting corners whenever possible. But there are lots of excellent licenses being wasted because developers are trying to hard to recreate an experience, rather than allowing the player to have their own. My sincere gratitude to Rocksteady for delivering the best use of a major license and demonstrating it doesn't have to be pandering garbage. A few more successes like this and maybe we'll see a few more minds opening toward some of the truly excellent licenses out there, just waiting for treatment like Arkham Asylum.