'Spider-Man' Isn't Just Good, It's a Game About Trying to Be Good
Spider-Man gets the Arkham treatment, with a surprising dash of empathy, humanity, and very good swinging.
Every day is a new shit show, and it always feels like the world is on fire, with no end in sight. Wait, what happened on Twitter? Hey, did you read that infuriating article in The New York Times? No, no, not that one, the other one. What did he do today? Who got hurt, and is there anything I can do about it? Where should my time, money, and emotional energy be focused today? It's tiring, and can often feel hopeless. What can one person really do, and even if we had the power to make a difference, would we even know what to do with it?
It's moments like this when we look for symbols and stories for direction—and, often, escape. This is a big reason Spider-Man, as an icon, has proven so endearing; Peter Parker represents the best possible version of us, an aspirational slice of humanity. Someone who, whatever the consequences, does the right thing for the greater good. A middle class nobody who became superhuman, and uses that power to help people. Parker is not perfect, and his desire to see the best in everybody is often his downfall, but he’s trying. And because he is overworked, underpaid, and struggling to make sense of his place in a world on fire, too, it’s easy to see ourselves in Spider-Man, or at least the version of ourselves we might wish to be.
Spider-Man, the latest game from Ratchet & Clank developer Insomniac Games, understands this core tenet of its central character, and it's what makes the game sing. Spider-Man is touching, thrilling, and, at times, dark. (But not grimdark.) All the while, it never forgets Spider-Man's humanity, his capacity for empathy, and the stubborn ideological hangups constantly undermining his goals.
There is a long list of bad superhero games, and fans have come to accept a never ending pool of mediocrity. It's a way for companies to extract money from fans wondering if maybe, just maybe, this time would be different. Cynicism was well-earned; often, such games were cashgrabs, given as much time and effort as a cheap toy on the shelf. It's why the release of Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham Asylum was so groundbreaking. Arkham Asylum was a good game, and a good Batman simulator. It was an experience that understood what makes Batman, Batman: he doesn't exist without the man in the mask, Bruce Wayne.
Spider-Man's had better luck with video games than most, with 2004's Spider-Man 2 one of the better attempts largely due to how much fun it was to swing. But until now, no one's really grappled with Peter Parker, the character's human grounding. What does it mean to be a nobody with superpowers? How would that change your life? It'd probably screw things up, wouldn't it?
Thankfully, Spider-Man manages to tackle those questions in an Arkham-like manner, while still carrying forward the focus on traversal that has made some past Spider-Man games so memorable. In fact, the two things that most carry Spider-Man are joyful swinging and its big heart.
The former is, bar none, the most fun I've had exploring a game space since Mirror's Edge. Insomniac's made it very easy to spot swingable points in the environment without overwhelming the screen with big, ugly icons, and as your skills improve, swinging becomes instinctual, and the cues melt away. It's overwhelming at first, but within an hour or so, you'll be soaring from rooftop to rooftop, diving off skyscrapers, running along walls, and squeezing between buildings, cackling the whole way.
Spider-Man eventually unlocks fast travel options, but it was only in the final hours, when the end was in sight and my writing deadline was nearing, that I ever used them. Even 20 hours in, it was more fun to trapeze across the map, snagging collectibles along the way. (There are a lot of collectibles. More on that later.) Barring something lovingly unexpected, I'll never know what it's like to actually be Spider-Man, but this game gets awfully close, and what more can you ask from a superhero game?
(A tip: It's possible to simply hold R2, which automatically swings Spider-Man from point to point, but time spent learning the advanced maneuvers is worth it, as they provide a deeply satisfying level of specificity to Spider-Man's aerial moves.)
If this is all Spider-Man accomplished, that'd be fine—better than expected, even. But what makes Spider-Man whole is how the mechanics go hand-in-hand with the story it's telling.
This version of Spider-Man picks up years into the job, and like Marvel's most recent cinematic outing, presumes you know the origin story. Warning: This contains some minor spoilers about the story setup, if you’re sensitive. It doesn't spent hours setting up Spider-Man, when Uncle Ben died, or why Mary Jane is an important person in Peter's life. This is an experienced superhero who knows how to fight, and has seen loss. It has some interesting wrinkles, too: Peter and Mary Jane have broken up, and his day job is no longer a photographer at The Daily Bugle. Instead, he's helping out Dr. Otto Octavius, the man who's become Peter's father figure since Ben passed, build some experimental new technology.
Me, a smarty pants, figured this meant Dr. Octavius was quickly going to become one of Spider-Man’s central foes. Spider-Man, an intellectual, counters with an early scene where it seems like everything's going wrong and a supervillain will be born, but nothing happens. It's one of many narrative head fakes Spider-Man deploys, moments that work because they betray our low expectations for stories in games, let alone superhero ones. Otto is a real character, not a plot device, and the audience's understanding of Otto's fate shades one of many close, well-developed relationships in the game. By spending meaningful time with him and the other people in Peter's life, it builds credible relationships—and credible stakes. The best superhero stories work because there's an emotional investment in the everyone's arc, even the villains. See: Killmonger in this year's Black Panther, a character who, by the end, you not only figured had a point, but might actually be right.
This is true of Otto, Mary Jane, Aunt May, and, yes, even Miles Morales, a character who is more than a cameo for hardcore fans of the comics.
Peter's supporting cast is given more to do than show up in cutscenes and cheer Spider-Man on, too, and support important narrative undercurrents. For one, making the world a better place is a communal effort, not a one-spider show. The other people in Peter's life, especially the women, often exist to give Spider-Man someone to save just in the nick of time. Here, though, Aunt May is a chief administrator at a homeless shelter, one trying to better the lives of New York's least seen people.
When Spider-Man saves the world, that's great, but stopping The Scorpion doesn't exactly fix income inequality. Spider-Man's pursuits get splashed all over the front page of newspapers and TV, but it's not the hard, thankless work of helping someone fill out the right paperwork so they can (hopefully) get a job. In Spider-Man, Peter spends his free time volunteering at the shelter—chopping vegetables, cleaning clothes, catching up with the regulars. A few have stories that develop over time. Spider-Man doesn't come with policy prescriptions, but in making Peter's homebase a shelter, rather than a workshop to make gadgets, it reinforces a larger message not often seen in games like this: real change usually comes from the bottom up, and it's not easy.
The game backs up its humanity in smaller ways, too, whether it’s cleaning up spills in the shelter for no reward, letting a stranger rest their head on your shoulder while taking the subway, or taking a selfie with someone you've rescued. Spider-Man is a "man (or woman) of the people" sort of character, and the game constantly finds ways to reinforce this virtue.
Spider-Man isn’t a visual novel with swinging elements, though, and the rest of the game is less successful.
Supporting its desire to bring folks off the sidelines of storytelling, for example, some characters are given the occasional interactive sequence. These moments, while well-intentioned, are frustrating, underdeveloped, and almost always (groan) stealth-focused. They’re also mercifully short.
The Arkham-like combat is given new life by Spider-Man's speed and verticality, but quickly becomes clear there's no real reason to engage with some of the higher-level mechanics and gadgets, outside of wanting to look cool. (Which you do.) The same goes for the specialized power-ups associated with each suit, and the augments (i.e. automatically heal when near death, stay in stealth longer) you can assign Spider-Man over time. I found myself playing around with them in the beginning, only to settle on a few useful ones a few hours in, and ignoring it after that. Outside of some combat-specific side missions, the game never pushed me hard enough, or presented enemies that truly required me to re-think my strategy. Combat starts out thrilling, but eventually, I was phoning it in.
The side missions, though, are mostly a mess from the start. Spider-Man (again) follows the Arkham model of stuffing Spider-Man's encounters with a wider rogue gallery into these optional quests, and while it's kiiiiiinda fun to track down a toy hidden by Black Cat once or twice, or tackle a time-based bomb challenge from Taskmaster a handful of times, it's far less enjoyable the 12th time. The main story isn't overly long (12 hours or so?), so the game tries to beef things up by stuffing the world with lots of trinkets and mini-games. I'll admit to collecting way more of the game's 55 hidden backpacks than I figured I would, but that's owed more to being endlessly enchanted with swinging around the world. (It's why I did every challenge involving chasing a super fast pigeon, too.)
Every time the game leaned on making me do something interesting or challenging with web slinging, I was there. Fighting the 20th "base" with waves of enemies? Nah. The quests themselves aren't "bad," really, but there's too many of each, and it becomes a slog to start filling out everything there is to do. I flirted with 100%'ing the game, but the objectives I'm left with are ones I'd avoided on purpose. I'm good, actually.
It's frustrating, then, because the game's upgrade trees are gated by participation in these side missions. Want a specific suit based on your favorite version of Spider-Man? You might have to wander around and wait for randomized "crimes" to populate around New York, and hope you nab one that drops more than a single "crime token." There are a lot of different currencies the game doles out, and it would have benefited from streamlining. What at first is one of the game's strengths becomes a sour source of repetition. (One positive side note: Each suit has a specific power, and it's cool the game lets you apply that new power to any other suit.)
The small moments stick with me, though. Mary Jane doesn't put up with Peter's shit, and instead of crawling back because that's what Spider-Man's girlfriend is supposed to do, she does her own thing—and succeeds. At one point, Peter outright calls someone a facist for being, well, a fascist. J. Jonah Jameson now hosts an Alex Jones-like radio show to spout his conspiracy theories about Spider-Man, and like Jones himself, his fear-mongering is occasionally correct- ish just enough for him to be dangerous. It’s a character played for laughs, but one with some notably disturbing real-life overtones. It's all refreshingly pointed, especially in a game that, despite being set in New York, seems to avoid any reference to the pseudo-fascist currently in the White House.
Don't take the mention of fascism as an indication Spider-Man is overtly political. I mean, Spider-Man has an ideology, one that frustratingly presumes, over and over, that people deserve another chance, that forgiveness and empathy are necessary in every situation. Too often, Peter defers to the institutional powers around him, hoping they'll do the right thing. They usually don't. In the game, people die because of these choices, his presumptions and cowardice. The game doesn't spend much time overtly engaging with this notion—in a lot of ways, naivety is foundational to the character—but it's nonetheless striking when Peter ignores the evidence in front of him, to the danger of the city he professes to love and protect. Not everyone is good. It’s pragmatic, Obama-era gullibility: always assuming the other side is acting in good faith. It'd be refreshing to see whatever story comes next take note of this.
It's common to finish a game and be excited about the prospects of a sequel. This is true for Spider-Man, too, but for different reasons. Sure, there are obvious weaknesses to improve on, but importantly, I want to see what happens next with Peter and the people around him. There are some surprisingly bold storytelling decisions in Spider-Man, especially relative to what happens in this genre, and I'm invested in seeing the inevitable fallout. It helps, obviously, that Spider-Man was tremendously fun to play, too. The future of superhero games, at least in this corner of the universe, is not only bright, but interesting. I didn't expect to be saying that.
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