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Harley Quinn Day 2017: Playing with Harley – A Guide to Harley Quinn’s Character in Video Games (Part 1)

In the comparatively short period of 25 years that Dr. Harleen Quinzel has been dressing a certain way, following a certain guy, and calling herself Harley Quinn, her relationship with video games has been complicated. Within the pages of Detective Comics #23.2, for example, Harley Quinn distributes hundreds of “Aceboy” hand-held game consoles to all the boys and girls. These over-joyed boys and girls are then obliterated when their video game systems explode. Here, with wide-eyes, I would like to gently back off and shift my focus away from that one reprehensible scene of carnage to concentrate on Harley’s representation within video games, where we will see how she has evolved during a Classic phase, appearing in the fold whenever an animated series or newly released product-line commanded her presence, through to the more mature games in which Harley’s narrative arc transitions from villainess to anti-hero via nurse’s uniforms and wedding cake.     

A Very Animated Harley

Created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, Harley first appeared in Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995). For the second season (1994-1995), the show was retitled The Adventures of Batman & Robin. For context, at this moment in entertainment history, the straight-to-video-game bandwagon was being intensified by the proliferation of critically and financially successful Disney animated adaptations; see: The Jungle Book (1993), Disney’s Aladdin (1993), and The Lion King (1994). Disney was driven by an ongoing pursuit of “synergy,” which is when a media conglomerate is able to utilize different branches of its business to both enhance and further profit from a franchise through ancillary methods. The classic case study for this is the release of the Batman movie in 1989. DC Comics is a subsidiary company to Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc, which in turn is a division of Time Warner (which was also created in 1989 from the merger of Time Inc. and Warner Communications), so in addition to comics, records, clothes, and action figures being released, 1989 Batman led to a flood of film-licensed games being successfully released across multiple platforms.

In fact, Time Warner’s 1993 Annual Report specifically uses the Batman franchise as a beacon of marketing excellence, so it’s no small wonder then that in the years immediately following the report, Time Warner gave some of their property licenses to various video game developers, and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment published The Adventures of Batman & Robin video game, or more specifically: between 1994 and 1995 they released four separate games across four separate platforms, but generously bequeathed them all with the same title.

Despite the homogenized title, the Batman & Robin games are diverse, catering to both the limitations of the platform and the expectations of the target audience. The SNES version is a side-scrolling beat-’em-up with the same silky lines as the animated series; the Genesis iteration is a techno-driven, Contra-like, bullet-hell game; the Game Gear one is a limited-pallet limited-platformer; and the Sega CD flavor manages to be both the greatest affront to the Batman name while simultaneously being one of its most spectacular, being both a fantastically poor racing game while equally lionized as a “Lost Episode” from the show itself (as with Batman: The Animated Series, the animated parts were written by Paul Dini and directed by Bruce Timm).

Irrespective of the different approaches to the source material, as a consequence of this structural synergy all four games also feature Harley Quinn; and not the Harley from later games with a tendency to be more “serious”, but the original Harley Quinn: the animated one from the animation. The one who wears the snug-fitting red and black jumpsuit with a jolly jester’s hat, who enjoys using toys as weapons, and oversized mallets as ways to knock a square bat into a round robin. 

Yet, because of the fundamental differences in genre, the Classic Harley also has different functions across the Batman & Robin series of games making these versions some of the most powerful Video Game Harleys by far. In the Genesis and Game Gear adaptations, Harley presents herself as a post-goon, perfunctory boss-fight that the player must dispatch before they can move onto beating the laughs out of The Joker. Game Gear Harley impractically flies on a toy-plane in a fun-house setting, dropping small fuse-lit bombs on the protagonist like Wile-E-Coyote was the third Wright Brother. Genesis Harley ups the ante in this regard, appearing as the first boss and in a sizable motorized robot, presumably powered by a ’90s hunger for things to be more “Xtreme” and/or more “Metal”. With a blue and red exterior, smiley face, and gun arms, Harley’s imposing Dr. Robotnik-inspired battlemech is quickly dispatched to reveal a chair that is capable of flight, and Harley again throws down her acme bombs to no avail.

Once defeated, Harley returns to a more familiar and characteristically juvenile action: lying prostrate on the floor, banging her hands and feet in a temper tantrum. With Genesis Harley, this seems in keeping with her comically whimsical ways – channeling Daryl Hannah’s gymnastic-figurine, Pris from Blade Runner; and we should enjoy this moment of 16-Bit slapstick innocence, as by the time this same set-up reoccurs in 2015’s Batman: Arkham Knight, the camera is prominently positioned on Harley’s realistically rendered butt, slung over Batman’s shoulder, reframing the dynamic, our eye line, and everybody’s motivations somewhat.      

SNES and Sega CD Harleys are more precious creatures, choosing to keep out of the fight with Batman while offering a more nuanced version of the Jackanapes of Jesters. SNES Harley is the first villain we see in the game, with her PSA of an “urgent message” from “The Joker channel”, and later gives a refrain comparable to Harley Quinn’s first animated introductions to her partner: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m pleased to introduce your favorite and mine, the one and only… Joker!” Here, SNES Harley is performing a role that is echoed throughout her career: the side-kick ring-side announcer to the main, overshadowing act.

Fully Animated Sega CD Harley doesn’t quite get that far though. In cut scenes, she shouts at Batman from a reclining position atop a popcorn stand, throwing down handfuls of sweet and salty treats before skipping off (at which point the stand explodes, of course). The next time we see Harley, she’s behind a clown-red sports car with front-mounted cannon, accidentally careening through the wall of the funhouse before she’s had a chance to do much of anything, never to be seen again. This Harley also enacts another side to her essential character: the ineffectual joker who fails through ineptitude, preferring the amusement of a quirky jest over anything else, and entirely lacking the targeted maliciousness of The Joker.        

The New Batman Adventures (1997 – 1999) is exactly as described: a new animated series that continued from the previous 85-episode run. Work on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Night Trilogy began in 2001, the same year that Harley Quinn was given her own ongoing comic series by DC (38 issues from 2001 to 2003). In either an act of cosmic coincidence or further corporate synergy, 2001 also brought three new games to feature Harley: the first Batman games to feature her since 1995.

Batman: Chaos in Gotham was released on the Gameboy Color and briefly features Harley, again in her classic costume, as she breaks into the Museum of Fine Art with The Joker. She juggles what may be either deadly knifes, pancake spatulas, or bowling pins, and possibly lets one of her hyenas run aimlessly at Batman until everyone calls it a day (Bud and Lou don’t take the center stage again in a game until 2017’s Injustice 2). The only other notable point about Gameboy Harley is her setting, again in an elevated position (a reoccurring dynamic between Harley-friend and Bat-foe), next to The Joker, who is above a twisted version of the Muse mask for comedy (the laughing face), with Harley above the Muse of tragedy (the weeping face). The theatrical point is as labored as a 160 x 144-pixel screen can make it, but at least it’s nothing like the pie-in-the-face you get with Batman: Gotham City Racer for the PSX, a game where anything of note is lazily delivered through re-edited footage from The New Batman Adventures.

If you’re a fan of the Gangster Gothamites, you’ll have already seen the moment, more than once, where Harley breaks The Joker out of prison. It was in one-shot comic, The Batman Adventures: Mad Love, and it was in the series finale of the animated show in an episode also entitled “Mad Love”, now trimmed and shoe-horned to fit within the terrible PSX game. The car designs don’t even match-up between scenes. The most incongruous element of this arbitrary rise-and-fall narrative technique is that when it does come to the climax of the multi-staged battle, you’re not given another elaborate animated scene but a brief text-based commendation from the Batmobile: “Good work. The Joker and Harley are headed back to Arkham Asylum”. I don’t wonder why this critical piece of “M@d Love” literature hasn’t made its way into the Batman canon.

With Gotham City Racer the framework of a shoddy game running on aged hardware was clearly built around having ready access to footage; a prime example of synergy gone wrong — for the consumer at least; however, 2001 redeemed itself with Batman: Vengeance, a “next-gen” 3-D game (for PS2, Xbox, etc.) that had the common decency to be fun and original, while still being heavily based on the source material.

With Vengeance, Harley is still contained within her sidekick role, but now there’s a greater relationship dynamic between herself and The Joker, with Harley beginning to evolve as a result of this multi-media maturation process. Gotham City Racer features cut-scenes in which Harley is violently chastised for trying to capture Batman and make jokes, stealing her lovers’ limelight by directly emulating him and his modus operandi. In Vengeance, Harley is finally capable of playing her own distinct roles, unique to her own specific skill sets.

For the first time in a Batman game, we don’t see Harleen playing “Harley Quinn.” Instead, we first see her performing as a damsel in distress, bound and gagged to be rescued from a ticking time bomb by Batman, all under the guise of being one “Mary Flinn.” The unfolding narrative soon shows the traditional Harley sat in front of a stage dressing room mirror (again returning back to the inherent theatricality of Harley’s performances), but the interesting twists in the reflexive characterization continue to follow quickly: we see Harley’s earnest attempt to kill an entirely incapacitated Batman almost succeeding until The Joker angrily interjects, telling her: “You’re my henchwench. you catch him, I kill him. Less wench, more hench, you molly-coddling little twit. Nobody kills The Bat but me.” However, reflecting Harley’s more independent persona from The New Batman Adventures, we then see her refusal to aid The Joker in combat against the aforementioned Bat.

We also experience a faked scenario where Harley’s Mistah J appears to have fallen to his death, with Harley in civilian clothing, lamenting: “I’m through. No more love. No more crime. No more nothin’. I’m through!” This theme of life without The Joker is picked up again and explored in the more mature Arkham and Injustice series of games, but Vengeance Harley is the first video game Harley to take a one-note, caricature villainess and develop her into something more nuanced and complex, where she isn’t just an inept boss-fight or a minor cut-scene distraction, but is also a rounded character that toys with the empathic strings of the player, leading up to the critical question: Is Harley capable of change? Heck, we already know she’s likable; now give us a reason to love her.     

Despite being eventually crushed by a heavy-framed goon falling on top of her, Classic Harley wasn’t “through” after Vengeance, although she did go once more on a brief hiatus and emerge slightly differently, slightly blockier in the… everywhere.

Harley’s resurgence in a number of comic books in 2007 was due in part to the 2004-2008 animated TV series, The Batman, which presented an alternate-world version of the classic iteration, and the LEGO Batman play-sets, initially introduced 2006-2008. Building on their successes, starting with LEGO Batman: The Video Game in 2008 and followed up with LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes (2012 – when another line of toys was released), LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham (2014), and LEGO Dimensions (2015-), these action-adventure games also inspired a series of made-for-TV animated films and 2017’s The LEGO Batman Movie.

Looking at Harley’s LEGO video game presence throws up a few interesting points. Throughout all four games, Harley only wears her traditional costume, wields her mallet, and constantly cartwheels when moving – entirely in keeping with the Batman: The Animated Series Harley. This may have been for consistency across the product line, but it could also be because these games are classified as for all ages, whereas the Arkham and Injustice games are rated for teens or above (although, Batman 3 does allow the consumer to purchase The Squad DLC Pack, where The New 52 Harley – inspired by Arkham Harley — can be played with).

LEGO Harley is also far more slapstick than these other iterations, reflecting the comedic direction of the game franchise as a whole. In LEGO Batman: The Video Game, Harley is a tricky boss-fight set in Joker’s Funhouse. She is The Joker’s sidekick and chief demonstrator of the horrible ways in which their captive, Commissioner Gordon, may die (squashed by an elephant being a particular highlight). Despite using a firearm against the Caped Crusaders, Harley’s capture is as silly as it is inevitable, with her being crushed under the weight of the crocodile she was wielding at Robin. By Batman 2, Harley is now an easy boss-fight. As with earlier Harley battles, the setting is a theatre stage and Harley is quickly dispatched, seen falling off a podium through a stage-door as she is too preoccupied with blowing kisses at the imagined audience than she is seriously concerned with the combat scenario at hand.

In Batman 3, Harley is no longer a threat, instead offering the player missions to complete such as being a crash-test-dummy for her newly acquired bike, and helping to round up patients for “Harley Quinn’s 100% Good Time Shrink Clinic”: a booth set-up exactly like that of Lucy’s from the Peanuts comic strip. The reward for completing these missions is that she becomes unlocked, allowing the player to control her. With LEGO Dimensions, Harley is available in an add-on Team Pack that can be purchased alongside The Joker and her vehicle, the Quinn-Mobile. Dimensions Harley does not feature in the main story of the game and has little-to-no dynamic impact as an add-in to the game, but she carries on her with quips and curious sense of humor at a time when video game Harleys have generally taken a more sober direction.

Gradually stripped of her fully-villainous status, Classic Harley, with her shelf-life extended by a Lego lifeline, has now cornered herself into a position where she needs further narrative direction. This explains why there is an increasing number of Batman games that remove Harley from traditional story structures as a boss to be beaten and present her as a player-playable goof-ball, there among the super heroes and their epic battles with their deadly foes to keep the tone lighter when required. Classic Harley’s character arc has now stalled. 

These playable Mistresses of Close-Misses can all be found online within broader DC Comics ensemble projects that look beyond the Batman franchise. The New 52 was the 2011 overhaul and relaunch by DC across its entire superhero comic book line. As we’ve seen before, this means more video games, in this instance the DC Universe Online: a massive multiplayer online game (MMO). The dynamics of the MMO Harley are largely modeled on the Dini-created Gotham City Sirens comic book series (2009-2011), where in DCUO she collaborates with Poison Ivy to free their third amiga, Catwoman, from the Penguin after a heist gone wrong. In the game, MMO Harley still dresses like Classic Harley, still wields a massive mallet, still cracks terrible jokes, and is still obsessed with The Joker. Despite being blown up in an attack on the Justice League, Harley is still appeased by a huggable balloon, offering the popular refrain: “So maybe I’m a little crazy, but ain’t we all a little crazy in love?”

Notably, in DC Universe Online Legends: Volume 1, the comic book “Inspired by the best-selling Sony Online Entertainment Game!”, Harley’s presence is far more significant than in the game as she actually dies, explaining why The Joker doesn’t “feel all tingly” at the apparent death of Batman, and reversing the later exploration of similar scenarios in the Arkham and Injustice games, perhaps showing the pre-destined differences between the two competing threads of Harley development.   

The mallet, the quips, and the costume are also transferred across into the short lived multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game Infinite Crisis (2015). Lasting just five months, this game allowed the player to carry out thematically consistent moves such as “BFFS,” where MOBA Harley would be able to confer a stat boost on both herself and allies in close proximity, and “Best Medicine,” where a game designer actually remembered that Harleen Quinzel has a Ph.D. in psychiatry and isn’t always detrimental to those around her.

The characterization of Online Harley suffers from the brevity of narration that the formats offer, and while this may seem to be further compounded by the interchangeability of her costumes or “skins”, it also paradoxically attests to the very flexibility of her character beyond surface appearances. MOBA Harley also comes in Bombshell (based on the retro ’40s DC Comics Collectibles series of statues), Slumber Party, and Candy Cane flavors, with the Beach Party outfit being designed but unreleased. These lingerie-sets masquerading as crime costumes may understandably be construed as cheap and easy titillation (The Joker by comparison has designs based on Arkham Origins, The Killing Joke, and his classic gangster look), but it says something that Classic Harley is still recognizable in these games, irrespective of how little she may wear.

The mobile game, DC Legends (2016), exemplifies the differences between the comical Classic Harley that we’ve seen so far and the punk Post-Arkham iterations of the same character. In DC Legends, you can play as “Harley Quinn: The Mad Jester,” but you can also unlock “Harley Quinn: Quite Vexing:” the Suicide Squad Harley based on the film of the same name. In this game, where a DC team fight through several battle encounters for overwrought and micro-transactional reasons, there are stark differences between the two Harleys.

Classic Harley has a stance like a pugilist, ready for combat, and she has moves such as the “Big Smasheroony” (she uses her oversized mallet in a comically exaggerated leap to hammer down on the opponent), “Come and Get It” (a cheeky taunt to annoy the enemy), and “Pop Bang!” (Harley fires a green glob from a toy gun). By contrast, Quite Vexing Harley, features a copyright-dodging Margot Robbie clone who stands with her weight shifted onto one leg in a sexy, non-combative pose, and has a vanilla set of similarly functioning moves, including: “Weapon of Choice” (she strikes with a normal bat in a standard swing), “Distract and Destroy” (the floor is hit with a bat while the partner attacks), and “Love/Hate” (Robbie-Clone Harley shoots the enemy with a regular handgun).

The contrasts between these two versions of the character are clear, with Classic Harley representing the end point of an entirely different strand of video game Harley development. If the Classic Harley can also be considered the Animated Series Harley, then the Arkham and Injustice Harleys are Hollywood Harleys: characters that are clearly fictional (they still exist in a world of super heroes and still inexplicably manage to survive in it), but they make decisions and perform actions based less on the slapstick elasticity of a comic book multiverse where mortality is a concept as foreign as not dressing in Spandex, and more on realistically motivated concerns that follow film narrative conventions. Expect to see epic self-sacrifices… and less Spandex.

Continue to Part 2 of “Playing with Harley: A Guide to Harley Quinn’s Character in Video Games.”

Carl Wilson hails from Sheffield, UK. He has written on subjects ranging from Armenian Cinema through to the X-Men for the Directory of World Cinema, World Film Locations, and Fan Phenomena book series. He is currently a staff writer for PopMatters, where he has also contributed to edited collections on Doctor Who and Joss Whedon.

Carl Wilson, Fanbase Press Guest Contributor



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