Frenemies and Frappés: A Coffee Date with the Proto-Joker
posted by Emily Grace Buck December 1st 2017
When I started working on the first season of Batman - The Telltale Series in March 2016, one of the first questions discussed as I was rolling onto the project was, “What on earth are we going to do with the Joker?” We all knew we should use him somewhere, at some point. But we also wanted him to be different. We wanted him to be insanely fun.
Obviously, for this to be the case, there had to be a fundamental (get it?) shift in how we looked at the character. Having him come in as a villain would never work -- what player would trust him? He had to be functionally (I’m not remotely sorry) useful to the player, but also have a charming naivete about him, darling qualities that we could latch onto. And boy did we. We all fell in love with John Doe.
What do you do with people you fall in love with? You take them out on a date. What’s a good first date? Coffee.
The moment I found out I would be the design lead for episode three of Batman: The Enemy Within, Fractured Mask, I started dreaming up a scene where you’d have some downtime to really get to know your best-buddy-best-pal John. A scene that was theoretically low-stakes, but that would be heavily branched, delightful to play, and have far-reaching effects. A scene that would be so casual and innocent, it would lure you into a false sense of security that would allow us to spring traps not just within the episode, but further down the line as well.
Ross Beeley, the lead writer for Fractured Mask, might be the most hilarious person I’ve ever met in my life. I hadn’t worked with him before this project, but I hope that, if I didn’t drive him completely bonkers, we get to work together again. On our first day working together on the episode, we discovered we were rather simpatico. Much to my delight, we were in almost complete agreement about how to handle John. Ross took all of my thoughts and improved on them by adding brilliant character details. A coffee date, yes… but in the middle of the night. John orders the most ridiculous, whipped cream-smothered frappucino available. It’s pink. Bruce gets the most boring, classy drink possible: a plain espresso in a ceramic cup with a saucer. John’s dressed bombastically, Bruce is in mostly black. You’re giving him dating advice, ostensibly to help him attract Harley’s attention… but is it really Quinzel’s attention he’s trying to land?
Miraculously, this day-one idea not only stuck, it gained traction. Pitching it was bizarre. “It’s 4 am, you’re drinking coffee, and Bruce is going to imitate Harley to teach John how to talk to people” is a sentence that garnered some “What??!?!?”...s. But we didn’t just get buy-in, we got support from everyone on the team.
We’ve been promising since our season announcement that you’d get to influence who John Doe becomes. At the start of The Enemy Within, he’s a little lost puppy who rolls over whenever Harley is… anywhere in the vicinity, really. She manipulates him in ways that neither one of them particularly enjoys. John likes her, but you can tell from their first scenes together that he hopes to prove to her that he could be her equal. She finds him moderately interesting, but he’s so easily manipulated that she mostly approaches him with scorn or violence instead of respect.
In any case, Bruce is a known playboy, while John is a hopelessly puppyzoned schmuck. You can help him learn to be who he truly is so that he can attract the love of his life!
What’s scarier when faced with a nascent Joker: teaching him how to manipulate people or encouraging him to be himself? Those are both terrifying. So, we made you pick one! With no silent or timeout option! Mwahaha!
On one branch, you cause John to spring across the table and yell at you about love! Then he follows it with an unexpectedly tender monologue about the lights of Gotham. I’ll be honest, I teared up the first time I heard Anthony Ingruber’s performance of it. Ross told me it would work, and damn him, he was right. On the other branch, you take a Rorschach test and hear a sufficiently creepy story about hamsters. Both branches are about five minutes long, and they are completely different from one another.
At the end of the scene, when the bat signal flashes in the sky, John either agrees to get Harley’s laptop for you or he turns you down. Plus, he tells you exactly why he decided to help you or not. Each choice throughout the scene contributes to his reasons for helping you, making the stakes of this seemingly chill coffee date surprisingly high. But like I said before, Trapping you by making you feel all comfy? That was the intention. Not just mine, as the evil designer… but John’s too.
Batman: The Enemy Within is an exploration of what it means to be undercover, sure. Yet at its core, it’s a dive into the intense relationship between John and Bruce. And the Cafe Triste scene is your first big hint that John is about ready to become the man you know he can be. The man he wants to be for you. His best buddy.