The Virtual Life – Why Telltale's Joker Is So Fascinating
Minor spoilers for Batman: The Enemy Within ahead.
Let's make no bones about it. Telltale is a developer with a spotty record when it comes to quality. While it certainly has champions like The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and Tales From The Borderlands in its catalog, for every great game, comes a couple of clunkers (Guardians Of The Galaxy, Game Of Thrones). And then you have games in the middle, like the developer's take on Batman, which completely upends Bats' universe by giving familiar characters' new origins, twisting fan's expectations of character relationships, and carving out its own unique version of The Dark Knight's universe. While some of the choices don't pan out (like The Riddler basically being turned into a weird version of Jigsaw for some reason?), there's no denying that Batman is likely one of, if not the, boldest work when it comes to Telltale taking liberty with creative license.
Among the biggest, most interesting creative choices in Telltale's Batman is the Joker. The Joker is obviously a character with a huge history and a lot of characterizations. From Crazy-For-The-Sake-Of-Crazy clown prince of crime to the sympathetic and downtrodden misfit we see in The Killing Joke, a lot of versions of the Joker exist, which is fitting given that one of his most famous lines is, "If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice." However, even with that grand tapestry in mind, Telltale's version still emerges as one of the most interesting takes on the character.
The series knows that The Joker is its trump card too. In the first season, he's introduced as John Doe, a fellow inmate that shows up to help Bruce Wayne out when he ends up in Arkham Asylum (long story). From there, a sort of budding relationship emerges between Bruce and John. Both are outcasts. John, in particular, is wounded. You can see the pain on every inch of his face, hear the inescapable loneliness in Anthony Ingruber's brilliant voicework. Despite everything I know about The Joker, I surprisingly became his friend during Telltale's series, taking his side and even tending to his needs over Bruce's classic allies. In this version of the Joker, we find someone who's not a maniacal monster, but instead, someone clearly battered by trauma and being pulled between two desires.
In this version of the mythos, Joker loves Harley and wants to desperately impress her (a fun subversion on their typical relationship, where Joker is often an abusive partner), often on the verge of going to horrific lengths to do so. At the same time, if you make the right choices, John clearly feels indebted and loyal to Bruce. This makes a pivotal scene in the fourth episode haunting and even a little mesmerizing, where John's capability for violence is suggested and whether or not he has the capacity to be a functioning person is called into question. All the evidence in the surrounding area suggested that John had committed a violent crime, but, despite the evidence, I still believed his pleas of innocence and a desire to be a good person. I took a leap and trusted him, and it was easily one of the most gripping moments I've had in a narrative-focused game in the last few years. I was left wondering what the consequences of that choice would be down the line and what it said about me that I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Telltale's version of the Joker works on a number of levels. Telltale games have received a huge amount of (earned) criticism about the lack of meaningful branching choices in various series. The way Batman gets past this is that it anchors your choices not in the melodramatic landscape of who lives and who dies, but instead in a single emotionally-driven concept: the evolution of your relationship with The Joker. As your relationship evolves with him, it goes to several uncomfortable places. Is he your friend? Someone you're using to get what you want? John is very clearly mentally ill and you need him to stop Harley Quinn, but how does that damage him? How do you damage him? Every choice you make carries consequences that affect the relationship, with John often remembering how you've treated him and reacting to your choices.
All of this ties back into the larger question often presented by the Batman mythos but never answered: does Batman actually help Gotham or does he make it a worse place by simply being there? The relationship hook is also an excellent way for Telltale to get you to buy into the company's 'shake-up' mentality of Gotham, rewarding you with a fascinating, unique take on the classic Bats/Joker relationship. In many ways, you work against everything that Batman has ever told you about its characters and are willing to make choices that the other versions of Batman would never make. That's how Telltale's version of Gotham truly becomes its own.
Telltale's second season of its caped crusader saga is set to end this month, and I'm honestly super excited to see where Bruce and John's relationship goes in the conclusion. At this point in the series, I consider John as a friend of Bruce and yet I have a certain amount of dread thinking about how their relationship will culminate in the conclusion. Can Joker be saved and become an ally of the Bat, truly? Or is he doomed by other forces at work? Regardless of how everything ends, I'm really impressed with how Telltale has manipulated me into getting emotionally attached to one of comics' most horrific monsters and making me see him as a person. The emotional tethering and manipulation here is a neat trick, and something I hope to see more developers of narrative-based games use in the future, or at least this sort of lateral thinking when it comes to adapting works into video games.
For more on Telltale's Batman, be sure to check out our review of the latest episode here.