They made that one videogame again but this time it’s called Spider-Man
Marvel’s Spider-Man sure is Spider-Man: The Videogame, as in it’s the one videogame that gets made these days.
If you’ve flirted at all with blockbuster videogames of the past decade playing Insomniac’s Spider-Man will feel instantly familiar. An open world littered with various kinds of collectibles, side quests, forced stealth sections, combat rooms, detective vision, repetitive disjointed puzzles and to help you navigate all that they even made you climb god damn towers. Every single one of the typical free-roaming distractions is introduced by a shot of the city’s map being filled in with dozens of markers for new tasks to complete, which to many experienced players will incite feelings of exhaustion rather than excitement. It seems most mainstream videogames come packaged with homework these days.
Not that there isn’t an audience for this kind of structure, nor is Spider-Man the worst example of it, but it’s hard not to be disappointed when you pop in a hot new release and immediately have flashbacks of experiences you had years ago potentially dozens of times. Why is the huge budget blockbuster game about a concept as unique as “man bit by spider who can climb walls and fights robo-limbed scientists” following the same template as other games do about assassins, undercover agents, mafia henchmen, trenchcoat dork and sad bat guy? If you’re one of those people who got burnt out of this kind of presentation years ago it’s easy to get frustrated. What was the point of taking this intellectual property that means so much to so many people and spending all this time, work and effort to produce something so repetitive, derivative and uninspired?
But typing those words sends a shock wave through my fingers and the impact riddles my nervous system with anxiety due to how dismissive and mean-spirited that sounds. Insomniac have been a reliable hand in the games industry for over 20 years and the amount of polish here to create a detailed New York City, fluid exciting swinging animations and cinematic set pieces is remarkable. As is typical for games of this scale more creative aspects of the game prop up in the side content including missions where Spidey solves environmental concerns for the city or helps a dude catch his pigeons that indicate that at least a couple of people on the triple figure staff for this game has some ideas in their head that didn’t involve punching dudes for 20 hours.
So why is the final product like this when there was every chance to do so much more? There’s a lot of little reasons such as publishers wanting their games to mimic design tropes from other popular titles in the assumption that success is traceable and the fact they want the game packed with as much content and longevity as possible to stop people trading it in (already have suckers). But perhaps the simplest explanation is those Batman Arkham games sold literally 87 trillion copies, and since Spider-Man is also a weirdo who punches people for a hobby your videogame damn sure needs to be using that as a framework or you’re doing it wrong.
Rocksteady’s Arkham series kicked off in 2009 with Batman: Arkham Asylum, which was a puddle of combat, stealth and puzzle mechanics in itself but was refreshing at the time for its strong use of space, tight narrative focus and almost Metroid inspired design. As the sequels went on the games got bigger and expanded into the design document that would be clicked and dragged around the world for years to come, featuring fully open world littered with distraction and a pack of goons on every street corner ready for you to scratch Bat-attack itch whenever you felt like it. Despite the change of focus and structure there was one sentiment (which probably escaped from a press release at some point) that kept cropping up in reviews over and over again.
“Arkham really makes you feel like Batman!”
“Spider-Man really makes you feel like Spider-Man!”
What exactly do these statements mean? That we get to punch people and toss gadgets around in a similar fashion to Batman does? We get to swing through the city and sulk on stop of lampposts like Spider-Man would? When you break it down you realise all these statements are referring to is the presentation of the mechanics and little else since these games are barely interested in what the franchises are about only what appears in them. If you’re legitimately trying to make a game that is an interactive interpretation of the character of Spider-Man it’s hard to think of a worse concept that an open world game that encourages you to ignore everything important happening to screw around with mindless repetitive tasks. It might make sense for the mechanics — but not for the character.
Great power means great mobility to piss about collecting backpacks.
This only gets more jarring the longer the central story of Spider-Man goes on, the writing keeps having Spider-Man show up late and stressing about how he’s short on time but it is never reflected in the game’s design. There’s one late section of the game where for the first time ever there’s two main objectives and an urgent need to get them completed as fast as possible because a crucial person in Peter Parker’s life was in need of urgent help. Not only does the game not care which way round you do these two story events, there’s no time pressure at all and the script doesn’t even bring up the possibility of Spidey dealing with his issue first or any real internal conflict concerning the decision. Even at a critical part of the story near the end of the game they would not dare to take the player’s precious fun and time killers away from them to make the audience be Spider-Man for a minute or two.
This is a huge factor for one of the larger points of post-release discussion regarding Spider-Man’s embarrassing police boot licking which leads to some uncomfortable moments and god awful writing. After all, in an open world game of this scale with a cinematic approach you need some kind of in-universe justification for building the sidequests so it doesn’t feel too “videogamey”. So what they ended up going for was having Spidey buddy up to the cops and decrypting their radio towers allowing him to spy on the entire city unlocking an omnipresent knowledge of any collectible or crime in progress throughout the entire city. Insomniac flirted with the idea of using the story to make a point about surveillance, but it falls flat spectacularly when a private militia show up in the second half of the game and start erecting checkpoints across the city. Any commentary Insomniac could have made about Spidey’s methodology in the first half of the game is tossed into the dumpster when the actual critique is shunted onto this second group that oppress everyone including the cops themselves absolving everyone else of any blame.
You can discuss how this is awful writing and it’s important to make note of how tone deaf this is to include in a game about New York City in 2018, but that misses the point that the writing didn’t matter. Insomniac needed a way to build their open world and make sure the player knew it was bursting with Things To Do, and to make it work they accidentally turned Spider-Man into a fascist.
What we’ve snagged on here is an inherent problem in the priorities of these kind of huge mainstream games. Every other form of media these characters appear in are concerned with how to portray the property on screen or in print through use of themes, form and world building. However here in videogame town all developers are concerned about is how to translate in the most user friendly way possible what the title character literally does.
In many cases this translates into “how do we have this guy fight and sneak up on dudes”. After that’s figured out they have to think of Things TO Do based around these limited parameters which in this case means combat rooms for the fighting and collectibles for the swinging. Then to justify those parts of the game existing at all you need to blow them all over the world map and tally up how many need to be done so it can be presented as a side activity. Now you want to incentivise the player to participate so you need some kind of reward such as experience points that unlock more abilities, which makes the people who are willing participants feel like they’re not wasting their time but also has the counter effect of making those less motivated feel like they’re missing out on something. An absurd example of this is how Batman: Arkham Knight made a huge song and dance out of the inclusion of the Batmobile since it was the biggest Thing Batman Does that wasn’t already in the series, and in order to have Things To Do they had The Riddler set up a bunch of Crash Team Racing levels in the sewers.
This all adds up to an exhausting experience that feels more like a chore list than a game to some players and the perfect time waster for others who enjoy the mechanics enough to complete everything. To be clear Spider-Man is by no means a terrible game, it has its moments and the swinging (maybe even the combat) is fun enough to carry the experience for a lot of people. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth asking the question: is this really what we want to pass off as exceptional interactive entertainment? A game that has no interest in doing anything other than moving units and making each button press just “fun” enough to keep you on the endless cycle of pressing buttons for hours?
Whatever you think of Sam Raimi’s earnest love letter to the aesthetic and tone of 1960s comic books Spider-Man movies or Christopher Nolan’s straight-faced adult-focused crime thriller Batman trilogy there is no arguing against their pop culture penetration or their status as iconic versions of the characters which will be cemented for decades. Videogame publishers on the other hand want to pump out the same commercially approved framework in different skins where all the releases blur into a hazy mist of punching, shooting, travelling and sneaking that can kill a weekend but are forgotten within days of completion.
The worst part of this isn’t that games like Spider-Man aren’t only derivative they’re insular as well. Spider-Man has a built in extra appeal where the character has unique movement and being able to swing around the city is a huge draw for a lot of people. Insomniac decided to streamline the swinging into essentially holding and releasing a button, which is disappointing to many people who still grasp their Gamecube copy of Spider-Man 2 when they sleep at night but it’s understandable why they wouldn’t want to have a fiddly prohibitive mechanic in a product aimed squarely at a mainstream audience. It’s a pointless gesture though as the people only in town for the swinging will still be chased away since they couldn’t escape from the assumption that combat had to be the focus. Fighting dudes even on easy mode is too complicated, anyone who doesn’t have experience in action games is going to struggle to decipher this messy potpourri of button actions, combinations and verbs.
Oversights like that keep happening as most developers are making their games purely for an audience that already knows they like the exact game they’re making (or are assumed to), and whenever they’re presented with a unique opportunity to do something new they run screaming in the opposite direction. It’s frustrating to get excited about a new title like Spider-Man then finally play it only sigh about how other than boosts in graphics and crunch hours most mainstream games haven’t budged an inch in a decade.
When an highly anticipated event game like Spider-Man drops day one reviews and initial reception fawns over the small details, we gush about the swinging because it’s exciting for the first few hours, we appreciate the small quality of life changes and subtle differences from other similar games. We’ve had a decade of these time killing open world games, and it’s been so long our press and our taste has internalised that this is just how games are now. So instead of considering what this game could of been or perhaps should of been, we judge it within the limited scope and structure that we’ve been beaten into accepting. Yea, Spider-Man’s got a lot of boring distractions in it many of us got sick of doing years ago, but this time it’s not as tedious to complete because the traversal is better! This is why all anyone is talking about right now is that it’s a good game because of the swinging.
Not that anyone’s going to be talking about it for much longer.
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