From the outside, Blackgate Penitentiary looks like any other correctional facility you've seen before. Its trigger-happy guards patrol its perimeter, and will freely gun down trespassers on sight. Its towering masonry walls are unscalable, even for the Batgirl, and its chain-link fences are lined with barbed wire. Several blinding searchlights sweep up and down the yard that links the outside world to the front entrance, and so, in order to access the imposing prison as it appears in Gotham Knights, I guide Barbara Gordon past the barricades through an underground tunnel. And from the inside, Blackgate Penitentiary looks nothing like any other correctional facility you've seen before.
That's because Harley Quinn is in residence, which means railings adorned with makeshift toilet paper decorations, bunches of multicolored party balloons floating the height of five-story cell blocks, bonfires occupying communal areas, and brainwashed escapee prisoners answering her every whim and spray painting her name on the walls. Clearly the rules don't apply here. And, after going face-to-face with the one-time Joker protege deep within the bowels of Blackgate, the same can be said of how WB Games Montreal has chosen to interpret Harleen Frances Quinzel in Gotham Knights.
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With Batman dead, The Joker gone, and the Suicide Squad off doing other things, Harley Quinn could have turned her back on crime – as much is hinted at before making this pilgrimage to Blackgate. With that, she could have disappeared. She could have sided with another of Gotham City's many unhinged antagonists, living once more in someone else's shadow. But instead, she's doubled down to become the star of this twisted show.
"That character, as a pop culture icon, has become something more than a villain," says the game's creative director Patrick Redding. "There's a natural tendency for people to embrace characters like that, they want to redeem them, search for their virtuous aspects, and become buddies with them. I get that. But we're like, 'Nah, let's go the other way'. Like, Harley's self-determination could take her in the opposite direction, but we have her saying: 'F**k that, I'm being evil'."
"Yeah, screw that virtuosity," executive producer Fleur Marty adds. "With that thinking, people are assuming she's only a villain because of The Joker. But she doesn't need him to be bad. Yes, she's emancipated, but she's emancipated as a villain!"
Bad vs evil
Let's be clear: Harley Quinn has always been a badass. In every one of her myriad interpretations across TV, film, comics, and video games, she's been a constant thorn in Batman's side. She's cool, explosive, and unpredictable, but has always been (somewhat) contained by her superiors. Here, in Gotham Knights, she's untethered, free to carve her own perverted path through the crooked streets of Gotham, and write her own story into the annals of the city's villainous history. I hardly scratched the surface of Harley's character evolution during my hands-on time with Gotham Knights, but it's already clear this freedom comes at the cost of being exposed, and of being more vulnerable than this character has ever been before.
"So much good content has already been done for Harley, and we wanted to make sure we didn't retread any of that," explains narrative director, Ann Lemay. "If it's been done, well, why would we go there? So, we sat down, looked at all of the options, and one of the really cool things we realized we could do was let her take up the mantle as the principal criminal in her life. Then it becomes: 'Okay, how would she go about that?' And obviously, it's Harley Quinn, so she would have fun with it. And basically, we said: 'Is it fun? Then she'll do it!' And it always needs to be fun a la Harley."
In doing so, Lemay explains that while steering Harley Quinn in an entirely new direction, working to the framework of, 'if it's fun, Harley will do it', was made easier by the fact the antagonist is building an entirely new relationship with four new heroes. Just as the Gotham Knights have taken on the mantle of protecting the city, of becoming the best versions of themselves, and the best superheroes they can be; so too is Harley committed to becoming the best crime queen Gotham City has ever seen in response. Constant communication between the studio's narrative, gameplay, art, audio, cinematics teams, and more was essential throughout the development of Harley's character so as to strike the perfect balance between plausible and impossible – "this isn't too crazy, is it? What is too crazy?" – but sometimes it was the constraints of video games as a medium that helped steer that ship.
Lemay adds: "Video games give you different tools to tell stories. The way a level is designed can say more than lines of dialogue, and the whole experience is interactive. At the same time, there are constraints. There's definitely stuff we could have done with Harley, but while comic books can do certain things in three panels, that same process can equate to six months of work on our side. Still, the fact that we're dealing with interactive media, and that reactivity between the player and the character; as well as the relationship we're building between Harley and four other in-game characters with different personalities, each of who will have different reactions to her – that's so, so exciting."
Now on the other side of several years of development, a handful of delays, and the disruptions levied by the still-ongoing global pandemic, WB Games Montreal, obviously, wants Gotham Knights to succeed. But putting PR, and how the final product may or may not be received come release to one side for a moment – this is clearly a team who are not only passionate about what they do, the audience they're serving, and the characters they're creating. Having faced, and fought, Harley Quinn as she appears in Gotham Knights myself, it's hard not to share Lemay, Redding, and Marty's sense of excitement for the antagonist and the direction she's now heading. Clearly, crafting a Batman video game sans Batman is a pretty risky move, but I'd argue positioning Harley Quinn at the top of a criminal empire, without simply becoming a one-dimensional Joker clone, takes an equal amount of guts.
Not that doing so was always a straightforward process. Redding says: "We went through a long process of concepting out how she would look in each phase that you see her in the game, because there's a really clear story there. We wanted that to be reflected visually, we didn't just want to kind of do slight tweaks, we wanted each one to be absolute. When we got to the sort of final form, we had gone deep down a path of a very particular look for her. There was a moment when we were looking at her, and DC was looking at her, and we were like: 'Nope, that's not it.' The design we had was a good design, but it wasn't telling the story. That was a difficult decision to make, but it was the right one."
"And you have to be committed to each decision, for the sake of that story and the character itself," Marty adds. "It's funny, because I get asked all the time: 'Oh, what's it like working on a Batman franchise, that must be amazing', and my reply is always: 'No, I get to work on Harley Quinn!' I love what the team has done with her, both in terms of character design and character development. She's her own person. Finally. When you meet her in Blackgate, she mentions that she's a brilliant psychiatrist. She's not just a villain. She's not just The Joker's girlfriend. She's a star in her own right."
Going back to his original point about the evolution of Harley Quinn as a character, Redding reiterates how easy it'd have been to have guided her down a safer path as an antihero, and, eventually, a hero. This emancipated villain slant, however, is surely far more interesting, and how Quinn reacts and evolves alongside superheroes that we're generally less familiar with – compared to Batman, at least – is another exciting prospect. Yes, this is a deeper, more mature, and potentially more vulnerable take on Harley Quinn. But in the absence of Batman, was she ever likely to turn down the chance to run Gotham her way?
To this end, Redding says: "There's definitely a more sophisticated side to Harley here in Gotham Knights. But Harley's also like: 'This new generation of punks, they're gonna become the new Dark Knights? Well, okay, they need a proper nemesis. And who's better qualified than myself?'"
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