This isn’t the Harley Quinn you know.
As Gotham Knights creative director Patrick Redding puts it: “She is coming not from a place of, ‘Oh, I’ve got to be zany. I'm your manic pixie.’ She doesn't need to be the manic pixie anymore. She has gotten to a point where she knows who she is. She has a very clear sense of what her identity is, and she's going to present herself in this much stronger, developed supervillain way.”
Gotham Knights’ Harley Quinn is a very interesting case study in how to adapt a beloved comic book character. Her look, her voice, and her brand of villainy are immediately recognisable – but her story, and her reason to be is fundamentally altered. It came out of a general philosophy for villains that guided Warner Bros. Games Montréal throughout the design process:
“All of the villains that we've included in Gotham Knights were chosen for a few reasons,” explains Redding. “One, we knew we wanted recognizable members of the rogues gallery, but we also wanted specific villains who had an interesting relationship with Batman, where once you took Batman out of the picture, it would cause that character to question, ‘Well, what's my function now? In a world where I don't have my main nemesis, what do I do next?’”
Where for the likes of Mr. Freeze, that questioning seems to have led him to, well, just commit more bombastic crime, the story behind Gotham Knights’ Harley is more personal, and more interesting. For a start, the team chose to depict an older, wiser Harley than we’ve ever seen in a game before, one no longer led by others’ whims.
“We really did make a conscious choice of allowing her to be a slightly older version of Harley Quinn than we've seen elsewhere, and that informed a lot of choices,” says Redding. “It informed a bunch of the performance choices that were made in shooting cinematics. It informed her fighting style. It informed how she presents herself, how she costumes herself. And as we'll see in some of the middle chapters of the Harley Quinn arc, even how she presents herself to Gotham City.”
Crucially, though, this isn’t a different Harley Quinn – it’s one further down her personal timeline than we’re used to seeing. As Redding puts it, this Harley has “been through two main acts of her story already.”
“We are familiar with her as like the Joker's accomplice and girlfriend, and kind of pathological love interest. And we're familiar with her breaking free from that and finding herself in her Suicide Squad era, where she's kind of semi being coerced into doing the right thing or doing terrible things for good reasons, sort of anti-hero. People love this character [so much] that they kind of want to root for her. So they kind of want to see her doing things that at least ultimately have a positive outcome, even if she does it in an insane and chaotic way.
“For us, we thought, ‘Well, that idea of Harley kind of branching into the direction of good. That's been pretty well-explored in a lot of places.’ So we thought, ‘What happens if we take her the other way?’ What happens if Batman's absence and the rise of his successors inspires Harley to say, ‘Well, why don't I finally get to have my career as a super villain on my own? I have all sorts of ideas. I'm a brilliant psychiatrist. There's all sorts of crazy things that I can do, especially in Gotham City.’”
Effectively, this Harley Quinn’s superpower is self-actualization – after years spent working in the shadow of others, she’s now unleashing the true Harley on Gotham. For the art team, it was a fascinating process to find what this version of the character could look like – as you can tell from the many different concept sketches in the gallery above.
“I don't even know if it's about physically aging her up,” says character art director Jay Evans. “It's more like just a confidence that character has that maybe she didn't have before, in this stage of her life as a supervillain. But on the visual side it was cool because we got to do a fresh take. This hadn't been done.”
Initially, the team simply worked from what we’d seen from Harley before – the same kind of haircut, the same kind of clothes, even having her more closely tie in with Gotham Knights’ unruly Freaks gang, who will ally with her at points. Associate character art director Jianli Wu said that design was fairly far along before the team was told to scrap it try something new:
“The criteria we were given was to make her really fresh, new and iconic. That was one of those keywords I remember from going through that process. And it was very challenging, but also it was such an exciting opportunity for us to go about this character, because [it’s] not often we can deviate that much from her iconic haircut and all that. We were pretty much given, ‘Don't do that. We want something new.’ So that was really liberating from an artist's point of view, and very challenging. It's probably one of the most challenging characters we've designed in the team.”
The result is a Harley that references the past of the character in new ways. Her boss fight costume makes use of the black and red design with diamond accents that was part of her original appearance in Batman: The Animated Series, but pushed further, with the diamond design made more prominent. Her hair and make-up have changed, even her iconic hammer has ‘grown up’.
“This is Harley Quinn, even though from a silhouette or haircut perspective, she's really changed,” says Wu, “which is different from, say, Mr. Freeze. Mr. Freeze, we retained the dome, the goggles and all that. For her, we broke that.”
This constant balance between the Harley we know and the Harley we’ll get to know touched every part of her design, even how she fights.
“We had a very specific vision in mind for Harley,” says game director Geoff Ellenor. “She's more herself than she's ever been in her imagination in our Gotham. She has taken this opportunity to say, ‘I am actually a bad person. This is the version of myself that I want to be. I want the freedom to do whatever I want to Gotham and in Gotham.’ And when we got into designing her combat, we loved the old, ‘I have a big goofy hammer.’ But if you take that into the Gotham Knights aesthetic, it becomes an actual giant heavy block of metal that later in the boss fight has a lot of articulated, sparking, electrical equipment attached to it to make it worse.”
Harley’s not often one for straight up hand-to-hand combat. Indeed, her villainous plot involves providing implants to Gothamites that remove their inhibitions and allow them to live their best lives alongside her – which inevitably leads to them violently attacking you when you try to stop her.
“Her move set is really about moving through this crowd of enemies that she attracts because she has all these devotees just essentially to slow you down and distract you,” continues Ellenor. “And she constantly keeps that hammer in motion and she's very strong, she's very powerful, she's extremely agile, so she can dodge a lot of your moves. And it's always about the player or players trying to get the opportunity to interrupt something Harley is doing and deal damage to her before that big hammer comes back upon you.”
Ultimately, like any gaming boss, Gotham Knights’ Harley Quinn is first and foremost a foil for the player, designed to offer interesting wrinkles of story and gameplay. But the way the team has turned her into that foil is a wonderful way to honor the character herself.
Redding points out that it’s a neat reflection of what the Gotham Knights themselves are going through. These are four sidekicks being forced to grow up and take on a lead hero’s mantle. She’s doing the same for a supervillain. Where Joker was always a mirror to Batman, it seems Harley is aiming to perform the same favor for whoever steps up as a new Dark Knight. Redding sums it up in words that could have come from Harley’s own mouth:
“Hell, if they want to be the new protectors of Gotham City, they're going to need a villain. They're going to need a nemesis – and who better to do it than me?”