DC's Geoff Johns Talks Batman: Arkham Origins
As chief creative officer of DC Entertainment, Geoff Johns handles the company's properties across a variety of multimedia formats while still writing comics and other projects. We spoke to him recently about his work on Batman: Arkham Origins, Injustice: Gods Among Us, and his graphic novel Batman: Earth One (shown above).
Can you describe the many facets of your job in a nutshell?
I’ve been writing comics for a long time now - over 10 years - mostly for DC Comics. Since I was a kid I’ve always loved DC Comics. I’ve written for games, TV, and film. I work at DC Entertainment in a role where I am still a writer by trade, but I work with Warner Bros. and all the divisions like Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, theatrical, television, and consumer products on anything DC. I guess I’m kind of an evangelist and liaison from the comic books to all the media stuff. That includes games. I’m a huge gamer; I love games.
Can you talk about your first exposure to Arkham Asylum back when it first came out?
Well I bought it and played it as a fan. I was blown away like everybody else by what Rocksteady did and what the game entailed. I love superhero games not because they were any good, but back in the day... I don’t know if you remember the Death and Return of Superman SNES game, even though it was just a simple 2D sidescroller I still loved it because it was based on the lore. All these years later to have a superhero game based on the mythology I really love be executed so brilliantly and be a great game, it’s like the Christopher Nolan movies. They’re great films and then they also happen to be Batman films. And this was a fantastic game that also happened to be a Batman game.
You became chief creative officer in 2010. Did you do any consulting on Arkham City, or did you play that as a fan as well?
We worked on Arkham City. I mean it was already started, but we worked on Arkham City during that time with the guys.
Can you describe the early discussions on Arkham Origins?
We talked about what would be interesting to explore, what story they wanted to tell -- it was all character based at first. The story is the first thing we spoke about, and what the world would be like, what Batman would be like, what certain characters would be like. You would see characters roll back like Penguin or characters you’ve seen before, what they looked like, what their relationships were, and how that would eventually evolve into the Arkham games.
How did it progress from there?
It’s a lot of conference calls at first when we’re talking big, big picture. We try to do at least video conference calls and talk about it. Eric [Holmes, creative director] was out here and Ames [Kirshen, executive producer WBIE] and I would go out and have drinks or whatever and talk about it in general. The day-to-day is really trying to support them and let them tell what their vision is. With all my friends that love comic books it's just the same type of thing - "Wouldn’t this be cool?" It was an absolute pleasure. We're constantly talking about things that are either story-driven, character-driven, or game-driven. It changes all the time.
How would you compare your comic take on the origin of Batman in Earth One versus what WB Montreal is doing?
It’s really different. In Batman: Earth One...the first time you see [Batman] he tries to make a jump off a rooftop and can’t make it. This is really beta Batman. It’s Batman before he’s good. The Batman in Origins still kicks ass and he’s learning kind of trial by fire. Batman Earth One was tackling a Batman who was doing it for the wrong reasons and not doing it very well. He's ultimately learning that maybe the reason he’s doing this or why he should continue to do this aren’t quite the same reasons as when he started to do this. This story is very different. The [Origins] story is further along. He’s very confident in what he’s doing. It's called Arkham Origins and it really is the introduction of what Arkham means. Arkham evokes a sense of insanity and chaos embodied in the twisted minds and colorful villains of the Batman universe. That had to start somewhere. This is really more about Batman’s initiation into that insane world, where my book’s more about Batman as a vigilante and really deciding which path to go down.
Would you say that Origins is more closely tied to the traditional Batman comic canon than Batman: Earth One?
Yeah, I would. Obviously it’s got the DNA of Arkham and Arkham City. That stuff springs forward from the comics. Batman: Earth One is almost like Arkham Origins Origins. It’s even before this.
One of the cool things to see in a new Arkham game is the take on character designs. What was your impression of the new Batman?
Character design was something we talked a lot about and went through very meticulously. There’s a lot of debate on all sorts of characters. Every single character in there, you’d start with the Arkham and Arkham City version and then look and scroll it back and say, "Well, where were they back then?" Those designs reflect that. I’m excited for people to see them. There’s one in particular I found very interesting that evolves throughout the first game. You’ll see a character start somewhere and eventually end up and match right up with Arkham, which is cool.
We know about Deathstroke and Black Mask.
We talk a lot about Deathstroke because he's not traditionally a Batman villain. He’s a DC Universe villain. You’ll see how the DC Universe actually opens up a little bit in some of this stuff coming up like [Batman: Arkham Origins] Blackgate. There’s a reason Deathstroke’s in the game and there’s a story that he has that opens us up to a bigger DC universe. There are some nice surprises in there. You want to keep people guessing and keep them unsure of what’s around the next corner. Part of the reason the Arkham games work so well is the storytelling is just phenomenal. The gameplay’s amazing, but the storytelling’s just as good.
[Next page: Geoff Johns talks working with the Injustice team, more Arkham Origins, and writing DC Universe Online.]
Batman: Arkham Origins
I understand you’ve been playing a decent amount of Injustice?
I love Injustice. I grew up on Mortal Kombat. I would stay up late in college, and we’d play all the Mortal Kombat games. NetherRealm’s a fantastic studio – so for them, give them free reign with the DC characters and work with them. Ed Boon and everyone there has been amazing to work with. It’s really fantastic.
How would you compare working on something like Injustice versus Arkham Origins?
Well, they’re very different games, but the basic conceit’s the same for me. NetherRealm, obviously they really know what they’re’ doing. They’re an amazing studio. They make the best fighting games there are. So to have them tackle the DC universe, really you want to give them free reign. We talk a lot about character choice. We’re all about which characters are going to be featured in the game, how are they going to be featured. We get as specific as what’s in the background.
As a DC fan I think you’ll go crazy in Injustice because of all the detail. It’s very, very detailed. The story aside, which is crazy on its own merits, but the detail in the backgrounds and interactivity of these arenas is unlike anything anyone’s ever seen. Even the finishing moves and the combo moves, everything is so detailed. The entrances of the characters, the exits, everything’s so detailed to the character's lore, and that’s what we worked with them on. It was really rounding out the mythology and building that world as much as we possibly could. It’s just a different type of game. One’s all Batman.
With Arkham Origins, you know where it goes. You’re in a world that’s already established, going back to the early days by telling an origins story, obviously. And in Injustice it’s creating a whole new DC universe in a very specific style, with a very specific setting and story to get you into this arena. Each character from Green Lantern to Aquaman, they feel really big. They feel like they should – modern day gods. When you do Aquaman’s finishing move, or you even see Aquaman coming or fight, he’s got that regalness and that power that the character deserves. So they’re different games because they work in different arenas and they want to accomplish different things. Again, the sentiment’s the same: let the people who have the talent use that talent to execute the best DC fighting game or Batman video game that they can. We’re here to support that.
Injustice: Gods Among Us
Speaking of totally different takes on a DC universe, you wrote the core story for DC Universe Online. Was that your first major video game writing project?
Yeah. That was the first one I really tackled. My goal was to do the engine of the story. There are many stories so obviously a lot of writers came in and built upon that. My goal with them was to write the engine of the game as what scenario would spark off something like this where all these heroes had to amass. It’s been a while now since I did that, but I do remember my first instinct was to make the world feel really big. I just love the idea of the symbolism of the rocket ship landing on Earth and Ma and Pa Kent finding young Clark kicking off the DC universe. For me I wanted to do something that would twist that and so it was a rocket that crashed in Metropolis and Superman saved it and out came Luthor from the future. I remember his first words in the document were, "I’ve come back in time. We need to save the future, Clark." I just thought that was cool. We built from that the Brainiac story and everything else, but I really want to play with the idea of having Luthor travel back in time and suddenly try and become a hero. So I wrote the core concept of that and then other people came in and wrote all the side missions and things like that.
Are you interested in writing for another video game in the future?
It all depends on what my schedule is and what the game is. I’d love to. I absolutely love games. There are certain characters I think would make great games that I’d love to tackle, but it all depends on my schedule. I like playing them a lot. When Halo 4 comes out, my weekends disappear a little bit.
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