At the Warner Bros Games studio in Montreal, a 7ft Batman statue greets visitors at reception. Comics are crammed into every shelf between each desk. And rather than images of lattes and flat whites, the coffee machine proudly displays the bat symbol.
So, it might surprise you to learn that the people who work here have killed Batman.
For the team behind the new video game Gotham Knights, their murder was the answer to a big question: how do you do something new with a character who has been throwing the Joker in jail for 83 years? If you’re thinking that Batman has been done to death, you’d be right. Literally, in this case.
“Yes, he’s dead,” says creative director, Patrick Redding, breaking the news to me at the scene of the crime. “Like, dead, dead,” he adds.
In this new cooperative game, Batman’s cause of death is a mystery to be unravelled. In his place, instead of one Dark Knight, we have a team of four: Batgirl, Nightwing, Red Hood and Robin, who must step forward as the new guard of Gotham to protect the city from petty crime, organised mobs and supervillains. You can control and switch between the four as you wish, venturing into the five boroughs of the open-world on your Batcycle or swinging around the city by grappling hook to take on missions. By night, you fight crime and collect clues, by day, you level up and customise characters in your belfry HQ.
The most recent Batman video games – the Arkham series, in which players took control of the caped crusader – enjoyed enormous global success, selling more than 30m copies and earning mass critical acclaim. It’s natural to compare the two – particularly as those games were partially developed by the same studio – but Gotham Knights feels significantly different. You can still play the whole thing solo, switching between the characters, but you can also play with friends online.
“Sometimes you tackle a problem, realise that the solution is to take one important piece out and it flips the script on the whole thing,” says Redding, of the team’s Joker-like decision to bump off the Dark Knight. “Gotham City continues to be Gotham City, but now there’s no Batman keeping it in check. Then what happens? Who fills that vacuum? As soon as you start asking that question, it opens doors.”
Surprisingly, they met with little resistance from DC Comics.. “Nobody wants you to kill Batman,” says Fleur Marty, executive producer on the game, “but they were surprisingly open to the idea.”
Of course, finding a new way to interpret classic characters is nothing new, particularly in the comic-book world. One of the most prolific comic book writers, Mark Millar, is someone who has tackled it countless times before – and has learned exactly how to breathe life into characters entering their ninth decade, as the man who revamped Marvel’s franchises 20 years ago. He is now a senior studio executive at Netflix, having sold his company Millarworld (which published Kick-Ass and Wanted, among many others) to the giant in 2017. His books were the main inspiration for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from The Avengers to Logan. In his opinion, eliminating the world’s most beloved heroes isn’t just permissible but, well, great.
“Killing off much-loved characters is wonderful. Killing off ones you don’t care about is the death of drama,” he says. “Game of Thrones is the perfect example of this. There’s an old editorial edict at Marvel that we shouldn’t kill characters because everyone is someone’s favourite. I couldn’t disagree more. Imagine the Red Wedding where they just had a lovely dinner and went to bed.”
Without Bruce Wayne taking on bad guys, it’s other DC heroes, the villains, and Gotham itself – a dynamic, interactive city full of citizens – that keep Gotham Knights situated in the Batman universe you would recognise. That’s especially true of its bad guys: a particular highlight is Harley Quinn, who, while not totally reformed, is revealed to have been working with Batman pre-demise. I follow her mission through prison, fighting criminals, stealthily eliminating guards and searching for clues. It’s suitably madcap, with a final, bonkers jailyard fight set to a pop punk cover of Ricky Martin’s Livin’ La Vida Loca. It would be just as at home in a Suicide Squad movie.
The team cite the Court of Owls Batman comic run from 2012 as a specific inspiration for this plot. That series tells the story of Gotham’s secret society and crime organisation, with themes of lineage and family which are also explored in this game’s narrative, with its found family of four heroes.
Different creators apply their own treatments to iconic characters all the time, be it in print, or on PlayStation. It’s part of the grammar of graphic novels. “You could think of us as one other self-contained standalone story in that universe of stories,” says Marty.
“We’ve been fortunate to live in a time when comic book characters and concepts have really found their way into every corner of the mass market. The comfort level that the consumer has with the idea of different versions and characters has never been higher – we live in a world where everyone saw Into the Spider-Verse, so they don’t even balk at that any more,” adds Redding.
But is there really no chance that Batman will somehow turn out to have cheated death? Or – like Buffy the vampire slayer – that his friends will bring him back?
“Nobody believes it, but he’s dead,” says Marty, definitively. Ah well. I guess 83 years isn’t such a bad run.
• Gotham Knights launches on 21 October for PlayStation 5, PC and Xbox Series X.