The evolution of Harley Quinn through video games
Harley Quinn’s come a long way from her origin as the Joker’s girlfriend in the ‘90s-era Batman Animated Series. Over the course of her 20-plus year existence, she has slowly grown from abused girlfriend, to anti-hero, to equal partner, and girlfriend to Poison Ivy. With each step away from her origins (and the Joker), she gets closer to autonomy, empowerment, and a full three dimensional representation of her character. Her portrayal in the video game medium has also evolved, from Rocksteady’s Arkham series, her nuanced portrayal in Telltale Games’ Batman: The Enemy Within, and the fantastic Injustice 2.
For those of you who don’t obsessively follow DC Comics, Harley Quinn’s story starts in the Batman Animated Series, as Harleen Quinzel, a psychologist at Arkham Asylum, intent on treating the Joker.
During the process, she falls in love with him. She helps Joker break out of Arkham and becomes Harley Quinn, Joker’s partner in crime. The Joker is portrayed as an irresistible seductive force that can transform even decent people into villains. Throughout their relationship, the Joker abuses and gaslights her, blames her for the failure of his plans, and even attempts to kill her.
Harley Quinn’s portrayal in the Arkham series largely leaves this relationship intact. Harley is the Joker’s sidekick, doing her usual shtick, but this time in skimpy outfits instead of a PG clown onesie. Rocksteady’s character designs have gone on to influence popular portrayals of Harley Quinn, including 2016’s execrable Suicide Squad.
Turning the tables on the Joker
Telltale Games’ The Enemy Within takes the next logical step of turning Harley into the manipulator and Joker into the victim. In Telltale’s point-and-click adventure game, the Joker (known as “John Doe” throughout most of the series) is fragile, impressionable, and visibly mentally ill. She’s a trained psychologist who exploits John Doe’s juvenile crush on her. Their reversed power dynamic feels both refreshing and realistic, but it’s actually a much more accurate and believable portrayal of their relationship. It is considered unethical for psychological professionals to pursue sexual relationships with their clients because of the way in which it violates the client’s trust and preys on their vulnerability. Even sexual relationships undertaken long after therapy is completed are ethically questionable and highly fraught.
Again, you can see Rocksteady’s influence on Telltale’s design.
This iteration of the character’s design also draws clear inspiration from Arkham City’s Harley Quinn.
While fighting in heels will always be silly, Telltale’s outfit manages to capture the character’s sex appeal while refusing to turn her into mere eye candy for the male gaze. When she does use her sexuality as a weapon, she does so in order to disrupt Bruce Wayne and John Doe’s complicated friendship and control her gang, not merely to titillate the (assumed straight, assumed male) viewer.
It’s weird that a violent, manipulative character can be seen as an imperfect but positive step forward for the portrayal of women in video games. It’s a reflection of where we started and how far we still have to go. In Telltale’s Enemy Within, Quinn exists as a powerful, complicated woman but is unfortunately defined by her relationships to the men around her - Bane, John Doe, and Bruce Wayne.
Harley in Injustice
However, as much as I love Telltale’s portrayal, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the adaptation of Harley Quinn in NetherRealm’s Injustice 2. Quite a lot happens in the Injustice series’ exciting plot, so let me try to summarize things as they relate to Quinn. In Injustice 1, the Joker tricks Superman into killing Lois Lane and blowing up Metropolis so Superman goes off the deep end and kills him. Superman then decides to become a super-fascist and take over the world. Heartbroken, Harley Quinn joins forces with Batman to stop Superman. By Injustice 2, Harley has joined forces with Batman, even sporting the Bat-branding on her leather jacket.
While on a mission for Batman, Scarecrow doses her with his fear gas. She hallucinates the thing she fears the most: the long-dead Joker, who orders her to slit Batman’s throat. But she overcomes her fear and trauma-induced obedience, and beats the everloving crap out of her Joker hallucination, reclaiming her independence and autonomy.“Ain’t no slick fella with a cheap suit and cheaper grin telling me who I am EVER! AGAIN!” she shouts in one of the most satisfying moments of Harley Quinn history. Combine this with a quick scene between Quinn and Poison Ivy, and you have the most canon-loyal representation of Harley Quinn yet.
While in the end Harley doesn’t play a huge role in Injustice 2’s story mode, due to the nature of fighting games, she is a fully realized, playable character that you can take into battle in the game’s versus mode. The player is allowed to fully inhabit her persona in a way that is usually reserved for DLC and side quests in Rocksteady games. Injustice 2 is a ton of fun, and Harley’s move set (which include shooting people, hitting them with bats, and sic-ing her pet hyenas on them!) is one of the game’s most in-character and viscerally satisfying. Hero or villain, the game designers kept Quinn’s maniacal, unpredictable edge intact.
From victim to sexpot to empowered protagonist, Quinn’s journey mirrors the journey of female portrayal in games overall. It’s an exciting and wonderful time when so many people can see themselves reflected in the medium of games, regardless of gender. The journey’s not done, but seeing the distance traveled is heartening.