Troy Baker: What it’s like being The Joker
“We’re all broken, wandering souls that are desperately wanting to be in a relationship with each other,” Troy Baker tells us as he sits across from us in Warner Bros. London offices, “Games are different from movies because where films are objective viewing, games are an interactive experience. If I’m playing as a character, I want to be in a meaningful relationship with other characters.”
We feel Baker has become somewhat of an authority on inter-character relationships in games, after taking the lead in BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us, as Booker DeWitt and Joel, respectively, Baker has been at the forefront of games that give offer a legitimate, in-game relationship with characters you come to empathise with, come to trust – come to care about.
It was Booker and Joel’s interactions with their respective companions that gave those relationships meaning, that made them so resonant with so many gamers. “I think it’s very indicative about where we are as a games culture that we’re crying out for relationships, and we want to explore relationships that, by their very nature, are volatile, are painful at times, are dangerous at times.”
We asked if this longing for chemistry extended into the recording booth – if what we’re hearing through our games’ audio is indicative of two people that share a similar, unseen relationship behind the microphone. “I think that 99% of a successful performance is in the casting, and bringing people together,” Baker explained.
“There are situations where it’s going to take you a while to find that chemistry with a particular person – and that’s because you’re dealing with actors; you have egos involved, and insecurities and trust issues and all of that kind of stuff. But when you find the right people for a role, something magical happens. It’s evident in games like The Last of Us; the relationship between Joel and Ellie, that resonated with me – sometimes painfully so. If you bring together an incredible writer that has a story to tell and you get the right people for the right roles, it’s lightning in a bottle.”
Baker has been voicing characters in videogames since 2003, working his way from licensed anime tie-ins to the AAA-blockbusters he’s featured so heavily in throughout 2013. In an industry that shifts so wildly year-to-year, Baker has been a constant – he’s a pleasantly down to earth guy, considering his videogame-ography spans further than most film and TV actors’ credit lists.
In our conversations with him, we learnt that he’s a keen gamer – a genuinely passionate industry veteran, and one that’s keen to see where we can push the narrative aspect of the form. “I think that as story and narrative has developed within the game space, that’s necessitated the need for actors’ performances to rise,” he tells us.
“We went from platformers – on the Commodore 64 and the Atari 1600, really old-school – we went from pretty decent stories with decently designed gameplay to a situation where story decreased and gameplay increased. And then we saw story increase and gameplay decrease. And since then we’ve seen a cycle where that reverses constantly. But now we’re at the advent of new consoles, games need both; the sky’s truly the limit with what we can technically do.”
Baker attributes the lengthy development time games are allowed to the feats they achieve – his involvement with BioShock lasted two years, and The Last Of Us had an extra six months on that.
“Those games were in development for up to five years,” he tells us. “That amount of time’s great if you can get it, but at some point you have to go ‘guys, just put the game out!’ But I think the advent of new consoles will be easier to program and develop for, so that means the developers have really wow their audience. We as gamers want nothing short of spectacle – it has to be bright, shiny, full of explosions, Jesus backflipping over ninjas the entire game otherwise it’s a letdown because our Metacritic will drop below 85 and we’ll be a failure.
Gamers are hard to please, and I think that has instilled a new desire within developers to say ‘we’re going to put all our energy, time and money into doing the best we can do.’ And I think because of that, we’re going to see the calibre of available games rise. Maybe that means fewer titles coming up, but maybe that’s not a bad thing.”
It’s refreshing to hear this from the mouth of a man inside the industry who’s breathed life into so many notable, durable characters – characters that would have otherwise been stale, lifeless mannequins, existing only in polygons and programming, characters that have survived the rapid turnaround of IP and year-after-year release paradigm the industry’s become obsessed with.
“I feel that storytelling, narrative and performance – all of those elements need elevating to a high level, because with the next-gen, we’re going to have a truly great opportunity to tell great stories and we have to find all the right people to form the teams that make the best games we can possibly make. The problem is, we’re greedy gamers, we always want games in our hands, so developers have to come to a point where they have to cut their losses and move on.”
Baker explains how Arkham Origins producer Ben Mattis would hold ‘baby-killing’ meetings – scenarios where he’d gather Warner Bros. Montreal staff and cut out entire story points, levels and ideas because they were ‘fine’, but the studio didn’t want ‘fine’, they wanted ‘perfect’.
Baker’s enthusiasm towards engaging with that vision of perfection is part of what allows him to deliver his roles with such vigour – such zeal. The process of effectively acting in games requires an awareness and understanding of the form, something Baker fully appreciates.
“There are some people – and I don’t fault them for this – but there’s some people that are like ‘I don’t need to know what the output for this game is going to be.’ I like to know those things. As a gamer, I want to know what type of game what I’m working on is going to be, what platform it’s going to be on; is it cross-platform, is it an FPS, is it an RPG, is it open-world, is it linear? I need something that acts as a codex – that acts as a way to understand the character. If you can get me that, I can show you what I and I alone understand about this character.”
Baker’s roles within games have seen him become more than just a mouthpiece for protagonists and antagonists – having passed through so many studios and seen the processes of so many different creators, Baker has achieved a deeper understanding of game-making that, really, only someone in his position could see.
“All of the questions I ask help me understand what I’m working towards, and that way I get to become more of a collaborative partner, and not only in the story element. When I’m working on a game, I can say to developers as a gamer, you know, ‘this is that point where I get pissed off’ or ‘this is that point where I’m throwing the controller at the screen because it’s very, very game-y.’ I get the opportunity to say ‘is there a way we can not do that?’ I seek out opportunities to work with directors and developers that are open to that kind of process.”
It seems like working with Warner Bros. Montreal offered exactly that kind of opportunity, although Baker told us he was initially cautious about taking on the role of the Joker – understandably so, considering he was stepping into the shoes of Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson.
“They’re all incredibly prolific actors, far more proficient and capable than I,” he leans in and tells us. His humility is reassuring – there’s no ego about Baker, just a comfortable sense of satisfaction and appreciation when he talks about his roles.
“I had no idea who I was auditioning for at first – all I knew was I had an audition at 10.15am for some character called ‘Jack’. I walked in, was handed the materials and I was like ‘oh, that’s from Arkham Asylum. Oh, that’s Arkham City. Oh, that’s Killing Joke… oh my… oh my God. This is the Joker!’ I immediately wanted to run. I just wanted to run away because I wasn’t sure I could do it.”
Baker’s turn as the Joker comes after Mark Hamill retired the role after a decade-long run – during which time he amassed a huge following as the clown prince of crime. “There are probably as many people following Hamill for the Joker as there are for his role as Luke Skywalker,” contemplates Baker. “I watched him on the animated series and everything; he’s my Joker, you know?
I knew that even if I did take on the role, I could be facing a lynch mob that wanted my head on a silver platter because, y’know, ‘how dare you try to usurp Mark Hamill?’ I turned to page three in the script, and there was the Killing Joke monologue. I just went for it – it was completely self-serving; I didn’t care if I didn’t get the job, I just wanted to hear this thing spoken out loud. I did it. And there was this silence. It lasts. One of the casting guys says ‘OK, just give us a minute’ and they have this quiet conversation between themselves, and I’m just sat there in this vacuum of silence, and self-loathing and judgement of my own self.”
It’s clear from how Baker relates his experience how much this role meant to him, and how daunted he was by the opportunity. “When they offered me the role, I said no. Turned it down flat. But the team at Warner Brothers told me they didn’t want an imitation of other Jokers – they didn’t want an impression of Mark Hamill – they didn’t want anything replicated. They told me they were doing something different, and it was such a unique opportunity to bring a fresh perspective to such a familiar character. That’s what got me – realising I had the freedom to look towards creating a more raw, unformed Joker.”
Throughout our entire meeting with Baker, we were reassured by just how effortlessly enthusiastic and humble he was – the man is one of the biggest actors in gaming, responsible for making a slew of triple-A games the blockbusters that they are. And yet, to him, the games come before anything else; before ego, before notoriety, before money. “It’s incredibly exciting to be given the opportunity look for the little morsels – the weight and the meat behind the lines.
As an actor that’s incredibly rewarding.” If there’s a lesson to be learnt from the success story that is Troy Baker, then it’s that. “If you’re excited about a game,” he told us, “and you’re excited about the story, and you’re excited about the entire project… it just bleeds through into the game experience.”