Making A Monster: How Telltale Brought Its Joker To Life
Note: There are slight, general spoilers here for The Enemy Within.
When Telltale launched its take on Batman in 2016, the developer faced an uphill battle. Rocksteady's Arkham series established itself as the best Batman video game adaptation around, and players' growing frustration with Telltale's lack of meaningful choices in its games resulted in a title that received more side-eye than anything else. Despite some hefty skepticism, the first season proved to be mostly strong, with a fantastic villain and daring gambits with Batman's characters making good on Telltale's promise to introduce players to a version of Gotham they had never seen before. However, it wasn't until the recently released season two, The Enemy Within, that the series hit its stride, focusing on the relationship between Bruce Wayne and John Doe, the man destined to become The Joker.
The Enemy With has been praised for letting players play a central role in the clown price of crime's origin story. I found the relationship, which changes constantly and unexpectedly throughout the season based on your choices, to be one of the most fascinating bits of interactive storytelling in the past few years. John Doe feels like a person in a way that many video game characters simply don't, weighed down by mental health issues, desperate for your approval, while also prone to manic fits of self-doubt and poor impulse control. In spite of all that turmoil, there's a sense of desperation that emerges from Telltale's Joker, a legitimate yearning to be a good person, resulting in a captivating, emotionally engaging tale.
We spoke with several members of the development team, including the man behind the voice of the new Joker himself, about how they made one of comics' most twisted, evil characters so sympathetic and memorable in a new way.
The Joker's debut in Telltale series is surprisingly quiet. He shows up near the end of the first season, helping Bruce escape from Arkham Asylum (it's a long story, ok?) after taking a vested interest in the billionaire-turned-inmate. He's introduced to the player as John Doe, and while he has pale skin Doe doesn't have the trademark maniacal laugh, opting instead for amused chuckles as he manipulates his fellow prisoners into doing what he wants. "They really wanted me to tone everything down for the John Doe segment in Season one, which was kind of tricky," recalls Anthony Ingruber, who provides the voice of John Doe. Ingruber auditioned for the role, sending in his own original voice alongside impressions of Mark Hamill, Jack Nicholson, and Heath Ledger's infamous takes on the character. "Telltale ended up saying 'no, we want the original take that you came up with. Very subdued. Save your Joker voice for later. Don’t make the laugh too crazy.'"
Joker's appearance in the first season was more of a cameo than anything else, but fans took it as a sign that Telltale would make him a huge part of the next chapter in this particular incarnation of The Caped Crusader's tale. They weren't wrong.
"We kind of took a step back from the introduction of John Doe, with season two," lead writer James Windeler says. "We definitely knew that the season would be structured around the player’s relationship with him and how it would create The Joker. We also knew that we would have to basically make him super sympathetic to fight against the understanding of who Joker is in popular culture." The earliest pitches for the story were inspired by Donnie Brasco, Windeler recalls. "The earliest pitches were a kind of story where John Doe is Lefty and Bruce is a Donnie, and we were sort of building to a point where we would use him to infiltrate a group of villains. At some point that deception would unravel and that would be catalyst for John to turn [into The Joker]. We moved away from that starting point, but from the early days in forming season two, [the relationship between Bruce and John] was definitely the direction."
Narrative Designer Emily Grace Buck says the writing and design team found they had a lot of room to work with thanks to that subdued introduction. "One of the smartest choices we made in season one was to make Joker a bit more of a blank slate, to make a him a bit younger. He’s not a fully formed Joker yet. He had a lot of the unpredictable qualities that people know and love about that character, so as you became closer to him throughout the seasons, you were able to steer him in various directions. We wanted to make sure the choices you had with him affected not just how he acted in each individual episode but down the line as well. We knew that we wanted him to end up on different trajectories and were able to plan choices as early as Episode One based off that sort of thought process."
The Enemy Within's strongest, most captivating quality is easily the ever-unpredictable nature of Bruce and John Doe's relationship, resulting in something that feels alive, with resentment, love, gratitude, and yearning all colliding together into something messy and surprisingly real. Indeed, even The Joker and Batman's arguments feel like a couple fighting, with the brutal language of a bad break up landing alongside their punches. "I did need you. I cared about you," Bruce says to Doe at one point. "But you took what I gave you and and twisted it into something ugly and wrong."
"Definitely as a love interest, "Ingruber responds when I ask him how Doe sees Bruce. "Well, more complicated, I guess. There’s an underlying genuine affection for Bruce but yeah, I see it more as Joker is the guy Bruce wants to be and it’s evident by episode five. I think he’s the guy Joker wishes he was. Bruce has Alfred and I don’t think Joker has had anyone, though it’s really sad. There are parts in the game were John will throw himself over Bruce to save him, to save his life, so I do think he really loves him in a way. A sick, twisted way. But ultimately in a sad way too."
Both Buck and Windeler lean away from an explicit romantic relationship between the two while also acknowledging the subtext that's been there in comics for decades. "There isn’t any explicit romance between the two of them," Windeler says, "But there is clearly an obsession on John’s side and we put the player in positions where they play with that and manipulate it or lean into it, but yes, those overtones are… We always framed it as what John does after you’ve broken his trust with him."
"I would not say that they are a romantic couple," Buck says. "I would also say that we are not the first Batman product to notice that there is a romantic subtext between those two characters, and whether the players read it as a romantic love or deep friendship or type of brotherhood, I think their relationship (and the fact that those two characters have such a deep connection with one another) is intentionally designed to be one another’s foibles. So many different films, comics, and games have explored the idea that these two need one another to persist and we wanted to do a different take on that, so yes, we did plan their relationship like one that had turmoil in it. There are betrayals! There are moments where you can stand up for him and he’ll react differently depending on whether or not you side with him at different moments in the narrative and we wanted to allow players to lean into that relationship and leave it open to their interpretation."
A Crooked Path, A Crooked Ending
Drawing as much attention as the nuanced and unique relationship between Doe and Wayne is The Enemy Within's last episode (review here). While Telltale has received plenty of criticism over the years regarding whether or not choices in its games actually matter, with many series often ending in the same place, The Enemy Within upends that structure. The last episode of the series, "Same Stitch" is essentially two episodes in one. The path you get, vigilante or villain, depends on how you've treated Joker throughout the series. Have you cared for him? Used him? Acted in your best interest or his? Both episodes are radically different from one another, with separate stories, beats, and conclusions while being equally impressive.
"It really came out of the story we wanted to tell," Windeler says of the finale. "We knew we were always going to create a Joker in this series, but we wanted to give the player an opportunity to have control over what the Joker would look like, so it called for an extremely branched episode. We were lucky in the sense that the resources of the studio were available to us, for us to make it. It was lucky timing in some ways."
"I would say it was less challenging and more thrilling and exciting, to be honest," Buck says. "Knowing we were building toward an ending that could be that branched. That we would take into account so many player choices throughout the series was wonderful to me as a designer because we could look forward and think about that in each choice building up to the finale. Even though obviously it’s a huge episode that took a ton of work from a large team of people, for me, it was wonderful. There’s always a desire to make choices pay off, and I’m thrilled we did it as well as we did."