Space and Place in Gotham

He snuck away like a thief in the night. The shadowy figure’s destination was a tall tower, though - not a hole in the wall. He left behind a lengthy trail of badly bruised bodies, but his less-than-innocent victims could all walk it off in the slammer. Justice was served. The man’s name? He’s known by some as the Dark Knight, the Caped Crusader, and even the Masked Manhunter, but almost everyone just calls him Batman.

The man under the cowl, Bruce Wayne, leads a complicated life. Businessman by day and crime fighter by night, he moves between high society and shady company with surprising regularity. The man often slips from dive bar to ballroom inside of only a few short hours. Playing into a somewhat murky commentary on the ethics of economic inequality, the sharp contrast between such locations always receives emphasis. This is definitely the case in the comic books, television shows, and movies, but you can see it in the Batman video games, too - Arkham Knight in particular.

Bruce Wayne lives between two worlds

Arkham Knight’s version of Gotham is defined by several different things, but the main one is definitely wealth disparity. This is quite clearly communicated in the physical properties of its various districts. Each space has a distinct sense of place.

People turn spaces into places by investing them with meaning through various processes of modification, transformation, and change. Known as placemaking, the shaping of space involves a transfer of ideas and values into the world around us. Places in other words are always a reflection of the people who inhabit them. This holds true in video games, too. (The best levels generally communicate something about their fictional inhabitants).

In designing Gotham, the developer behind Arkham Knight, Rocksteady, marked a clear division between rich and poor. The city’s upper crust was made to inhabit a very different world than its lower classes. Power and prestige are on display in Ryker Heights, Kingston, and Grand Avenue. Humbleness and humility by contrast emanate from Drescher, Otisburg, Bristol, and Chinatown. Rocksteady accomplished this feat by introducing three oppositions into the level design: up/ down, clean/ dirty, and curvy/ rectilinear.

Hop into the Batmobile and zoom over to Founders’ Island. Rumble around Ryker Heights for even a few minutes and you’ll pick up on something strange: the buildings in this part of Gotham are quite a few stories taller on average than elsewhere in the city. The contrast with Bleake Island in particular is notably sharp. There’s a pretty good reason for all of this, too: they’re supposed to be owned by the city’s wealthiest individuals. Wayne International Plaza is a pretty good example, but it’s actually Simon Stagg’s airship which most clearly communicates their obsession with altitude. This penthouse in the sky perfectly reflects the hubris of its owner - and the arrogance of his peers. Floating high above the city, it proves that purchasing a plot of land isn’t the only way to acquire a piece of prime real estate with a million-dollar view in Arkham Knight’s Gotham.

Most of the buildings in Ryker Heights are apparently under construction. Wayne International Plaza is definitely done, but the majority of them are covered in scaffolding. The LexCorp, GothCorp, and AmerTek buildings only seem like they’re about halfway down the road to completion, so it’s clear that Rocksteady wanted Ryker Heights to look like a relatively new development. Could anything have come before it, though? Several different things point to an earlier occupation of the area. The nearby districts of Otisburg and Drescher for example sit well below the foundations of buildings like Wayne International Plaza. Settlements always accrue a series of stratified layers over time, so these low-lying districts are presumably some of the oldest in the city. They’re also supposed to be some of the poorest. While the skyscrapers in Ryker Heights nearly defy gravity, the tenements in Drescher and Otisburg are literally down to earth.

The buildings in Gotham vary in height

Drive on over to Miagani Island when you’ve seen all the sights in Ryker Heights. You’ll want to get out and walk around, though - Miagani Island’s remarkable sanitation is a lot more easily appreciable on foot. The districts in this area could hardly be called spotless, but Grand Avenue and Kingston in particular seem like they’ve been rather nicely maintained. The contrast with Otisburg and Drescher is rather poignant. The heaps of litter and trash are somewhat more difficult to come across in these much fancier districts. The streets and other public spaces look like they’ve been recently cleaned. The private property seems like it’s in pretty prime condition, too. The neighborhood was attacked by Scarecrow in the game’s prologue, but even the area near Pauli’s Diner is in fairly decent shape.

While Grand Avenue and Kingston are actually quite clean, the nearby district of Bristol is definitely a mess. This presumably poor part of Miagani Island is full of nothing but run-down buildings like the Cyrus Pinkney Orphanage. You can see piles of garbage on almost every street corner. Rocksteady clearly wanted to give this district a dingy atmosphere, but the same could certainly be said for other parts of Gotham, too. There’s a very similar ambiance for example in Chinatown. Clutter can be found in all the nooks and crannies of this apparently destitute district, but the signs of poor sanitation hardly stop there. Roam around for even a few minutes and you’ll come across rubbish and rubble in almost every street, lane, and back alley. There’s fairly copious amounts of graffiti and a few broken windows, too.

Some parts of the game world are much dirtier than others

With its curving streets and winding alleys, the roads in Chinatown are unquestionably irregular. They actually make driving around in the Batmobile surprisingly difficult. (You’ll be much happier on foot). This characteristic of the street system is hardly unique to Chinatown, though - you can see it in almost every supposedly poor part of Arkham Knight’s Gotham. Drescher, Otisburg, and Bristol for example have the exact same irregularity to them. Limiting your line of sight like this creates a relatively intimate feeling which seems rather appropriate for such unassuming districts. The effect was likely engineered by Rocksteady on purpose. Reflecting the character of their inhabitants, the idea was probably to contrast figures like Simon Stagg and James Gordon. The former seems like he wants to stand out from the crowd, but the latter can only ever be seen trying to blend in.

The street system in Ryker Heights, Grand Avenue, and Kingston looks pretty much nothing like it does in Otisburg, Drescher, Bristol, or Chinatown. The latter districts are characterized by their curving streets and winding alleys, but the former have mostly rectilinear avenues and long boulevards. This definitely comes with a few gameplay advantages. Prowling around such open spaces in the Batmobile for example is a relatively simple affair. You’ll find that’s often easier to bypass areas like Chinatown completely when transiting from one part of the game world to another, but these districts are a driver’s dream. The long sightlines afforded by their planned layout also make it possible to spot enemies from incredible distances. (Being able to swoop down on them from afar is always delightful). The viewsheds available in Ryker Heights, Grand Avenue, and Kingston aren’t just about good gameplay, though. Rocksteady clearly wanted to communicate the pretensions at power and prestige of the people who supposedly enjoy them.

The street system varies from curvy to rectilinear

Simon Stagg and James Gordon seem like the archetypal residents of districts like Ryker Heights and Chinatown. But where does that leave Batman? You’ll never actually visit his home in Arkham Knight, but you can climb all over his place of work: Wayne Tower.

Separated from the rest of Miagani Island by a narrow canal, Wayne Tower’s relationship to the city as a whole is ambiguous at best. This ambiguity shows up in some of its other characteristics, too. The building may be physically closer to blue-collar Bristol than ritzy Ryker Heights, but Wayne Tower still dwarfs almost anything else in its immediate vicinity. It must rival the Stagg airship in terms of altitude. Batman doesn’t shy away from getting blood on his boots, but the building also happens to be immaculately clean. You can scrutinize the parking garage and examine Bruce Wayne’s office for as long as you like, but you’ll be hard pressed to find even a single blemish.

This really is the sort of medial space which Bruce Wayne has always occupied, though. Wedged between the worlds of the rich and poor, he has one foot in a ballroom, but the other in a dive bar.