Last month, a pair of masked vigilantes took to the streets of San Francisco to quell a citywide crime wave. The dynamic duo, led by a five-year-old boy named Miles Scott, successfully foiled a deadly plot by criminal masterminds The Riddler and The Penguin in a west coast version of Gotham City. Bombs were defused. Damsels were rescued. Wishes were granted.
More than 20,000 San Franciscans witnessed the crime-busting spree in person, a massive and complex day of fantasy fulfilled by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Millions more watched the heartwarming spectacle online and on television.
And while the hero of the day was Miles, a boy diagnosed with leukemia, currently in remission, who wanted nothing more than to be the Batman — or, as he's now famously known, Batkid — his daylong adventure of caped crusading could not have been accomplished without his unsung partner.
The Batman to Miles' Batkid was a man named Eric Johnston, a veteran video game programmer who helped create some of the games you know and, in some cases, deeply love and fondly remember. Johnston is a former LucasArts programmer who started his game career porting existing titles, like the developer's SCUMM-based games, to other platforms.
Johnston, or EJ as he prefers, started working with LucasArts while he was still in college at UC Berkeley. He ported the game Pipe Dream to Mac, handling the art, programming and sound production himself, later doing contract work on games like Star Wars: Rebel Assault, The Secret of Monkey Island and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis.
It was part-time work, Johnston says. His full-time work, after graduating from Berkeley, was at NASA's Ames Research Center and defunct game developer Spectrum Holobyte.
He later assumed a full-time role at the company, working on LucasArts' first hardware-accelerated 3D game engine, which "led to many games after that."
"I've always been a LucasArts fan," Johnston said in an email to Polygon. "I guess I just treasure surprise and whimsy above all else, and that was part of the vibe. Clever people, doing what they love."
Johnston's last "core-tech project" at LucasArts was on Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, he said, though he was later credited on The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition as a "code archaeologist" and in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 2, where he served as a stunt performer, drawing upon his gymnastics and acrobatics background.
"I've always been a LucasArts fan"
By the time LucasArts had effectively shut down as a game developer, Johnston had already transitioned to the Lucasfilm side, working on the special effects team. (Software optimization techniques learned from a career in making games, Johnston said, have transitioned to optimizing special effects software, reducing rendering times.)
"I'm intensely proud of what LucasArts achieved," he said of his LucasArts tenure. "In the games industry, it can be nearly impossible to create something which makes a deep, lasting impression. The new ground gained creatively and technologically, especially in the early projects, still makes me grin. I count the LucasArts alumni among my best and closest friends."
Johnston's video game background helped him in his work with Make-A-Wish a decade ago. In 2003, EJ co-developed the video game Ben's Game with cancer survivor Ben Duskin.
Duskin was eight years old at the time and in remission from leukemia. He wanted to make a video game that empowered kids with cancer, giving them a chance to fight back against their illness. The Make-A-Wish Foundation stepped in to help make that dream a reality.
"As they looked for a way to get it done (in 2003, a time when most games were really expensive to make), a close friend forwarded the message from [Greater Bay Area Make-A-Wish executive director] Patricia Wilson," Johnston recalled. "I was so impressed with eight-year-old Ben's wish to help other kids that I called them right away.
"Ben and I worked together to build the game, meeting once a week for about six months. The amazing part was that we finished at just the right time in the emergence of both casual games and games-for-health, and it made a larger positive impact than any of us had expected."
"[Ben's Game] was the best software project I've ever been involved with"
Ben's Game was released as freeware in 2004 and has since been downloaded more than 300,000 times.
"Ben's actually doing great now," Johnston said. "He's tall and healthy, and just started college."
Johnston called Ben's Game "the best software project I've ever been involved with." He and his wife Sue Graham Johnston, a mechanical engineer, have been close with the Make-A-Wish organization ever since, but hadn't worked on a large scale project until Miles' Batkid wish came along.
"When Miles' wish came in, I was delighted to be asked to help," Johnston said. "At the time, I was assuming it would be small-ish, maybe taking place in a hotel or a conference center. I was excited; [put] some armor on, do (and teach) some stunts... Miles will love it.
"What we ended up with was something amazing and fun."
"EJ was one of the first people we reached out to when we started planning the wish," Jen Wilson, marketing and promotions manager at Make-A-Wish, told Polygon. "He's more than a jack of all trades. We knew that he had so much talent to bring to the role."
Johnston was closely involved with the design and implementation of Miles' wish from the beginning, he said.
"When you're on a wish, you're all the way on," he said via email. "The planning team was small, starting with a core of five people. We went to the locations, threw around ideas, talked to awesome SFPD folks, and tried to think of people we knew who wouldn't mind getting arrested for things like bank robbery and baseball-mascot kidnapping."
That core group of people included Jen and Patricia Wilson from Make-A-Wish, program associate and tactical planner Teresa Clovicko, film director John Crane and Mike Jutan, another Lucasfilm programmer who played the part of The Penguin. Actor Philip Watt played The Riddler.
The Johnstons' involvement in creating Miles' Batman adventure went beyond designing his crime-fighting escapade and convincing friends to play supervillains. Sue's engineering background and EJ's software expertise combined to help create an array of props, from The Riddler's Device — to which Sue was bound and gagged in her role as the damsel in distress — to the wrist-mounted projector that Batman wore.
"We knew that Miles really liked the gadget side of the Batman character," said Jen Wilson. "EJ took that to heart and thought about it, trying to make that part of the experience ... We wouldn't have been able to do anything like that without him."
"Everything that I did, Sue and I worked on together," EJ said. "She has all the really good shop tools and the experience using them. Everything we ever do is a collaboration."
In addition to Johnston's software engineering background, his gymnastics and acrobatics skills were instrumental in his role as Batman. Johnston's interest in gymnastics has been a lifelong one, shared by his siblings.
"I've got two younger brothers, and we were all gymnasts," he said. "We kind of grew up with no respect for gravity, so today one of us is a pilot, another is a performer for Cirque du Soleil, and I train at the Circus Center here in San Francisco.
"On the evening before Batkid's big day, we brought him to Circus Center for some acrobat training. That night, all of the acrobats who normally train on Thursdays decided to come in dressed as superheroes. So Miles walked in and there they all were, at the superhero workout place."
When Eric Johnston isn't crafting gadgets and playing the part of superhero, he's working on software optimization with his company, Machine Level, a San Francisco-based firm that helps others speed up their software.
"The idea is simple: make stuff go faster," he explained. "Everyone wants that, and it's a challenge. If you like logic puzzles, this is a great one."
These days, Johnston's work involves working with tech start-ups to optimize their code, a crucial component for companies looking seeking funding for software. Machine Level's other work includes optimization training, custom mechanical devices and fabrication.
Johnston said he encourages software and hardware engineers, and other technically savvy people, to donate their time and talent to charitable purposes.
"I'm always astonished by what people in the tech field do for the fun of it," he said, "since so many skills are acquired just in the name of seeing what you can do."
"I would definitely encourage people with any kind of technical skill to contact Make-A-Wish, for sure, but there are so many of the things most charities do involve donated time. If you've got a special skill, it's really important.
"I think if it's something you love doing, then you will love it way, way more when you're doing it for something like that. It's a ways to get in touch with deep down why you got the technical skill in the first place."
On the day of Batkid's adventure in San Francisco-turned-Gotham, the event had blossomed into something larger than Johnston had expected, he said. When his wife heard Make-A-Wish executive director Patricia Wilson being interviewed the morning before the event, it hit them how huge the Batkid adventure was going to be. Tens of thousands would watch from the street as Eric and Miles saved "Gotham City."
It could have easily been nerve-wracking and potentially overwhelming for young Miles.
"Sue very succinctly put it, 'You're doing it for one guy, and that's Miles. It's all for him,'" EJ recalled. With that in mind, the dynamic duo's adventure was on.
"From Miles' point of view, from the minute I walked into his room, it was kind of unclear what he thought about me," Eric recalled. "Did he recognize me from the night before at the gym? There was a lot happening all at once. But as soon as I handed him his armor, he grinned."
"Goal number one was making sure he's safe and happy the whole day"
"I had rehearsed a bunch of things with the crew," Johnston said. "But Miles had not. He had no idea the day was going to happen until it started. He thought that he was on his Batman trip to San Francisco and knew nothing more."
Throughout the day, EJ would check in with Miles as they adventured, ensuring that the five-year-old wasn't scared or overwhelmed by the attention he was getting.
"I would get out of my car and go to his and we would just sit there for a second," Johnston said of his and Miles' crime-fighting exploits. "We'd just look into each other's eyes and I would try to make sure that energy-wise he's OK and not getting freaked out by what would freak out pretty much anybody.
"When he gave me the all-good, the last thing I would do before he got out of the car would be that I'd say 'Who are you?' And he would say 'I'm Batman!' That was my signal for, 'OK, let's go.'"
The first half off their day involved rescuing the Damsel-In-Distress, putting a stop to a bank heist and bringing The Riddler to justice. Miles took his role quite seriously, Johnston recalled. He sounded like he was in disbelief that they had been the ones to put Batman's nemesis behind bars. At lunch, Batkid and Batman, still in costume, recharged with burgers and fries.
"At lunch, his attention actually waned a bit ... because he's five," Johnston said. "He got a little worried about the prospect of having more adventures. He was just about ready to wind it down. And since it's all for him, if he calls it at lunch, the whole thing's done at lunch.
"But then when he looked outside and saw all the people in Union Square, and the chief of police's message projected on the ceiling, we started to get his armor back on [and] he hit me on the arm and said 'We gotta go!'
"It's hard for anyone to imagine this day through the eyes of a five-year-old. It's difficult to think what he thinks is normal in that situation."
Throughout the Batkid adventure, Johnston said he chatted with Miles to gauge where his head was, keeping his focus on protecting Miles. He was "somewhere between Batman, a teacher and a big brother."
Together, they also took down The Penguin, rescuing San Francisco Giants mascot Lou Seal from his clutches. Miles even managed to snatch a trophy from his catch: The Penguin's trademark umbrella.
The adventure ended with a commendation from Mayor Edwin Lee and the adulation of thousands of grateful citizens. "Batkid Saves City!" read the headline of the Gotham City Chronicle, a faux newspaper front page designed for Miles' day.
"At the end of the day, there was a party in the Hyatt, so we all met up there," Johnston said. "We all got to hang out together, including the Penguin, Riddler, Damsel, Miles and his whole family. I'm not sure what he made of it all.
"By the end of the party I was still in my armor, but without [my] mask," he said, having revealed that EJ, one of Miles' new friends, the one who had tutored him in acrobatics the night before, was the man behind the cape and cowl.
"At one point when he and I were chatting I said 'I bet no one will suspect that the acrobatics coach is actually...' and he said 'You're right!'"