After Marvel’s Spider-Man by Insomniac set the record for the fastest-selling first-party PlayStation title by selling 3.3 million copies in its first 3 days, it’s hard to imagine how anyone couldn’t understand the lure of a good superhero. Developed by Insomniac Games, the PlayStation exclusive title sought to create a tale for the wall-crawler that was separate of any story told before. The result is one that spins fond sentiment and tender moments into the nonstop, run-up-the-wall, action-packed, amazing adventure that we join our hero on.
The introduction to a beloved character is tidy and seamless as the game is relying on the power of the player to understand what your role as Spider-man entails. However, this is not the power of the game’s success. Simply put: they took the root of why so many people love the wall crawler and turned it into something that could stand on its own. Tight controls and breathtaking graphics only aid this world that is teeming with characters from the past that have been remade to sustain a new future. Peter is an experienced hero, having had his powers for 8 years and has racked up some milestones. We know him and his wisecracking ways well. Seeing Aunt May and Mary Jane Watson onscreen is like visiting old friends, and as the story unfolds it becomes clear that time flowed on long before we joined, and will continue when we aren’t looking.
If you choose to explore the nooks and crannies of Insomniac’s Manhattan, you’ll see references to other Marvel characters dolloped on the island. Flash Thompson helps veterans, J. Jonah Jameson’s son tweets from space, Roxxon towers scrape the horizon, and college students dress up for Halloween as Spider-Man’s past villains. Other references are more heavy handed: Visiting Uncle Ben’s grave is a tender moment and one that is entirely up to the player to choose. It’s these little love notes that glue together the autumnal space our hero exists in, making it all the more powerful. There is something to be said about sitting above the bustle of a street in Chinatown, sleek from the rain and warmly lit by street lights reflecting the changing orange leaves. A feeling of coziness and security seems almost intentional. Separately, these components of setting, characters, and exposition are light-hearted and fun nods to the source material, but together they signify the craft and care that went into the history of what the player is seeing. These little notes bring us in closer, because it invites fans old and new to appreciate the past and create new memories that will last.
The challenge that Insomniac was faced with was bringing together all of Spider-Man’s storylines in a cohesive way. It’s not just about the world these characters inhabit, but how they interact within it and with each other. Mary Jane plays an integral part in Peter’s life, but her new identity as a hungry beat reporter brings her in close comparison with Superman’s Lois Lane as a way to help Peter gain perspective and information. Their relationship illustrates fatally flawed people whose motivators are not handholds in a larger story. Mary Jane’s lion-hearted independence is quickly overruled with stubborness, whereas Peter’s best intention at safety is blinded by obliviousness so the two butt heads when chaos ensues. Seeing Peter and MJ come forward and apologize for their respective behavior means they can move forward together as equal partners, with the audience in tow, gently reminding us that relationships of any kind are hard work.
The existence of Miles at the beginning of his own story acknowledges other universes without being reductive. The circumstances of Miles’ father’s death bringing them together means that Miles is learning how to deal with his own grief. Seeing Peter’s empathy for Miles and catering to his emotions cements the feeling that Peter wants to help and is learning how to do just that. Peter will learn what choice wisdom he bestows on his new ward while Miles navigates his new path, but Miles is eager to learn where Peter is willing to teach. Just as we are sentimental about them, they feel the same about each other. They breathe life into this game and that is why people are sticking around to platinum, pun intended.
Mary Jane and Miles serve to support Spider-Man and Peter, while also maintaining their own independent courses. Which is why Aunt May’s ending was exceptionally upsetting. Her constant presence as Peter’s moral compass is abruptly ended because Aunt May has taught Peter everything he and his partners need to progress forward: you help someone, you help everyone. Every character shows the embodiment of Spider-Man: they care for others, and want to be better.
With that, some of the game’s strongest notes come at a time when it is Peter, not Spider-Man, who is faltering; whether he’s getting evicted from his apartment or is trying to revitalize a misinterpreted text fight with Mary Jane, the game takes care to play on the insecurities that most players have felt at one time or another. In these moments, maybe we don’t want to feel like Spider-Man, we want to be more like Peter, or MJ, or Miles. The super power there lies in what we can learn about ourselves and our world. Everyone struggles, but those who attempt to be better get better with a little help from friends.These characters are genuine in their pursuit to help people and serves to point out that you don’t have to have a spider-sense to be greater. Spider-Man is the result of someone who has the ability to help others wanting to do good.
The close mentorship between Peter and Dr. Octavius is another vestige of nostalgia that is quickly pulled from beneath our feet. It was exciting to share in the positivity and optimism served up by Otto, so when it falls to Spider-man to stop the Doctor Octopus he created, we share the agony of Peter’s responsibility. The final fight scene between Peter and Otto makes us reflect on how we would react if we learned what our role models were truly capable of. The small detail of seeing Peter’s face shine through the broken mask lets us know that his shared life with Spider-man will always have holes that he will fall through. We all have demons with battle back and forth with in our mind, and the actions we take that affect others is what makes us who we are.
The biggest attraction of this game may come from the je ne sais quoi that is meaningfully esoteric for individuals that draws them all back to the same source. Insomniac did that for me, as for I’m sure for a generation of kids who made it through the Maguire / Garfield / Holland representations of the comics. Within the first few hours of playing this game, I was reminded of how I felt when I was a kid, seeing the first movie and learning that my father briefly inked Spider-man comics. That sense of spectacular discovery and unadulterated wonder was the same I felt during the hours spent hands-on with the game. If you grew up with Spider-Man and know how far he’s come then you’ll come to see Marvel’s Spider-Man does justice to the essence of what we fell in love with. If you’re a newcomer, I’m confident in welcoming you to the Spidey Squad after you’ve played the game. I can bring this game to my dad to see what our friend the web-head is up to these days. Spider-man is is woven into my family web, and I am forever thankful for his presence and the lines he’s created to others in my life.
The best, tightly cinched stories are the ones that are interwoven not unlike Spidey’s webs. Camaraderie, partners in love, and keeping the faith all string together what we’ve come to call home in this corner of the Marvel universe. Responsibility to do good, no matter what, is the constant reminder that Spider-man quips. Insomniac does well to remind us that we are what we love, and we are all greater for it.