Susan Bonds and Alex Liu are the CEO and CCO of 42 Entertainment, the world’s premier alternate reality game creators. They are best known for the Halo 2 tie-in I Love Bees, the Nine Inch Nails ARG Year Zero (named after the album of the same name) and The Dark Knight tie-in, Why So Serious.
Their latest product is a Batman escape room experience in a box called The Arkham Asylum Files: Panic In Gotham City. We caught up with Susan and Alex to find out more…
STARBURST: What’s the pitch for The Arkham Asylum Files: Panic In Gotham City?
Susan Bonds: We’re actually following Harley Quinn, who is on the road to redemption herself. She is headed back to Arkham not as an inmate but this time as a therapist. So she got her old job back. And so, through her eyes, we actually open up the files of Arkham, and we get to explore the backstory. As you know, all of the roads go through Arkham at one time or another. So we get to explore who’s behind the latest crimewave in Arkham. But do it through the eyes of a therapist.
Alex Liu: Essentially, you’ve got the iconic Arkham Asylum, which we know that many, many, many Batman villains have either been involved or have passed through those doors. It’s a revolving-door psychiatric hospital where our villains don’t always stay put. That gives us the world-building ability to see into all of the different villains in the Batman universe, whether they’re really well-known ones or some of the more comic-book-based ones. The Arkham Asylum Files essentially lets players dig through and learn about all of these iconic villains while there’s a major mystery unfolding within Gotham City itself.
The Arkham Asylum Files: Panic In Gotham City is a big box of toys that’s full of cool physical things. Why add the Augmented Reality aspect? Why does a board game need an app?
Susan: I think one of the things that it does is it unlocks digital assets, like live-action and animation. And as you know, when you’re watching those kinds of assets, you can really get connected to the characters and to emotions – you can see things happen dramatically. It gives you a lot of licence to take the idea of, “Hey, I’m playing a game with a lot of different pieces, I’m building a city, things are happening in the city”. You can overlay a lot of drama onto that by adding digital assets. The other thing that allows you to do is, you know, it allows you to immerse people deeper in the world.
It’s like, yes, you can build a building and that can move the story forward. But augmented reality actually allows you to penetrate the ceiling of that building and see what’s happening inside. And I think that breaking that plane is really just putting someone closer. It’s almost like a TV series, but like you’re actually in it. There are a lot of things that you can do that are just below the surface or that are brought to life. You can read the police report and hear that someone has let all the animals loose from Gotham City Zoo. Or you could use your augmented reality app and search the city and actually find all those animals in different places around the city. It opens up a different type of experience for people. And what’s great about it is that unlike virtual reality, where you put yourself in an artificial environment, here, you’re seeing the physical environment, and you’re still getting the benefit of all this digital content overlaid on it.
Alex: We didn’t want just to create another murder mystery puzzle box. What we do is tell stories, right? So, the reason for AR is that we found that it helps us really do these things well. There are over 45 minutes of animated content and live-action content. When we go from beginning to end, the experience itself with all the puzzles is much longer. But there’s this full episode of television in that box that you’re actually watching and engaging with. Even though the main storylines really are about Harlequin or villains from Arkham and Batman, it’s all brought to you by the Joker.
What obstacles did you face when creating a Batman-style mystery game?
Susan: The world of Batman, as you know, is incredibly fast. And there’s been a lot of characters in the comics that haven’t really had their moment to shine. I think that one of the advantages of storytelling is that you can tell the backstory of somebody’s character in pretty creative ways. That creates empathy with the audience.
I think that AR really brings a lot of opportunities and challenges you to think about the narrative differently. You know, because as you’re going through this experience, it’s essentially seven chapters. And you can either do each chapter at a time – it’s about the same time as a TV show – or you can binge it all as you do with your Netflix series on the weekend.
What was the biggest surprise that you had when you were playtesting this game?
Susan: What we knew going in was that there were going to be high expectations of the role of Batman. We’re targeting Batman fans and multiple generations of Batman fans, people who love mysteries and people who love escape rooms and board games.
But when we were playtesting, a group that came to the top was parents, and especially moms. While their kids may have gone into their digital caves with their Switches, PlayStations, and Xbox, the parents couldn’t really keep up. Family Game Night is something that we all went through collectively over the past few years. And I think this is a great kind of solution for that, where it brings a lot of different skill sets together.