Spider-Man – How a game about superheroes got super real.

So, in case anyone missed it, the new Spider-Man game on PS4 is just gosh dang fun. Every little detail of pretending to be Spider-Man swinging through the streets of Manhattan Island is one of my favorite experiences I’ve played in a game in a long time, and Insomniac keeps showing me why they continue to be amazing at what they do.  It’s just so much fun to swing around, to beat up gangs of bad guys, or even to hop down onto the city streets and high-five a fan or finger guns a tourist as they snap a picture of you. It’s not only the systems and mechanics but also the atmosphere of the game, with decent portions of the game taking place on bright, sunny days and with wonderful and fully realized characters going about their lives across New York.  So it came as a surprise to me, a person who was just enraptured and thinking about the gameplay, that after a few hours of playing, I found myself crying.

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Let me back up a bit and give some context.

In this game, Peter Parker has been Spider-Man for about eight years now, with plenty of history as well as new stories to explore. Because Spider-Man is already experienced and grown up from his high school days, we not only avoid another reboot (thank goodness given the three we’ve gotten just from movies) but we also get a full list of rogues and experiences to learn about and pull from throughout this adventure. However, what I personally thought very clever about this decision was that because Peter is much older than his typical teenage or college life self, we also get a person who’s dealing with a lot of young adult issues.

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We’re failing as adults… but I think Buzz Lightyear would agree we’re failing… in STYLE!!!

The first scene in the game is Peter donning his Spider Suit (with a bit of disgust at the smell) but then hesitating when a notice from his landlord shows he hasn’t kept up with his rent.  This one scene introduces the player to the tone of this story. The peppy rock song playing in the background is undercut by the realities of life that this Spider-man has to deal with.  Peter sucks at balancing his life, just like most young adults, but it’s only complicated by his second job as a superhero. Peter himself calls his work as a lab assistant his “real” job rather than his antics as New York’s most famous arachnid, and how often he’s late or causing issues for others because of his secret life shows how much he’s failing at balancing saving random civilians while also being there for those in his own life who need him.

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I have to admit I’ve been late multiple times but I can’t say I’ve ever accidentally caused my employer to be electrocuted because of it…

This isn’t exactly new ground for Spider-man.  Throughout the comics as well as the movies, we see this constant theme of Marvel’s arguably most down-to-earth character dealing with the daily stresses of living a double life.  Very unlike Batman and his alter ego, Peter was intended from the get-go to be a realistically representative person who suddenly is thrust into the unrealistic role he finds himself in.  As such, the various media about Spider-man have shown this allegory of personal sacrifice in the face of the overall good to various success depending on what you read, play, or watch. However, this game I would say is one of the best ones to show that and I think that comes down to a few particular choices.

One of these is fleshing out the story and Peter’s life with the well-rounded and playable other characters in the game, Mary Jane and Miles.  Mary Jane is a fully realized and capable character herself, who is able to get out of most situations on her own, even when threatened by multiple mercenaries with guns.  The story even shows on occasion situations where because Spider-man tries to save her, he not only puts her in more danger but also ruined their chance to get information.  Because we get to play as her, we’re able to experience her perspective when Spider-man swoops in and messes things up and we believe and empathize with her when she explains to Peter the reasons for why they’re relationship is so estranged.  And the same can be said about our time with Miles Morales, as our hero-to-be is still very much only human and our experiences seeing him deal with these extraordinary situations as a normal kid accidentally caught in terrorist attacks and evil villains’ plans shows how brave a single human can be.

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It’s not the weirdest found family story out there… But I’d still watch several seasons of this sitcom.

These wonderful characters and the rest of cast do so much to not only make this world feel believable but also humanize Peter himself as he deals with his relationships to all of these people.  This is true for non-playable characters as well. The straining relationship between Dr. Octavius and Peter, as well as their friendship throughout all that is happening is both heart-felt and heart-wrenching, something that I have to applaud the actors on for just how damn good they make this all feel, both the highs and lows between these two.  On top of this, the constant love and support that Peter and Aunt May have throughout the game is a two-way street I loved to see. I genuinely can’t remember the last time I played a game that showed both the child and parental figures unironically and unapologetically say they loved each no matter where they were or who was around.  And these experiences extend to even smaller characters throughout the story, making the world feel more and more believable even in the face of moments where I’m backflipping off a dude and falling twenty stories to then swing out of it and punch an old man in a vulture outfit in the face.

These characters are coupled well with the game’s emphasis in the main story itself on Peter dealing with all of this outside of his suit rather than just all action set pieces as the Spider.  The developers show a dedication to telling a story with heart and respecting the characters in it, and as various issues in Peter’s life are shown to us, we can better empathize. I’d even forego a lot of side missions (something that can be done at any time regardless of time constraints) all because I just wanted to make sure Peter made it to various life events of his friends on time.  I wanted to make sure he was there for those that needed him, Peter, and not the hero in the suit.  As the story went on, I related very strongly with the struggle of barely scraping by on money and the issues of constantly apologizing to others because I just can’t seem to get my own shit together.

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Actually, considering the heroes and villains of this game, I think Aunt May is literally the only adult in this cast who has their shit together.  The true hero.

All of this culminated for me when (mild spoilers) early on in the story, Peter loses his apartment. Not having a place to go and not knowing what to do, he asks Aunt May if he could stay at the homeless shelter somewhere that wouldn’t take a bed away from someone who needed it.  Aunt May takes him in for the night and allows him to sleep on the couch of her office. When he wakes, she’s there working at her desk and on the coffee table next to him is a cup of coffee and an envelope with a couple hundred dollars in it.  Peter looks at the money and tries to give it back to Aunt May, saying he can’t accept it. However, Aunt May shoots him down, causing Peter’s voice to crack as he says he’ll pay her back, realizing he has no way of keeping that promise.  Aunt May tells him that he needs to admit that he’s human, insinuating to him that it’s okay to make mistakes in his life. After this cutscene, there’s an optional moment I found where one of the homeless individuals at the shelter that Peter had helped before noticed that he had slept there.  When Peter explains his situation, she just smiles and says that it happens to all of us, and that he’ll make it through.

It may have been a small cutscene in a larger game but it had hit me hard on a personal level. There was a time when I had lost my job and almost didn’t have a place to stay. However, my father not only took me in but even helped me to get my feet back on the ground.  I was filled with so much shame and guilt that after everything, I had failed as an adult. That I wasn’t able to make it but my father very much told me something similar to Aunt May in this game:  We all make mistakes but that doesn’t mean that we failed. The genuine care and love that this game showed between these two characters hit very close to home for me and not just in this one scene. Multiple moments in this game about fighting supervillains and defeating terrorists are actually dedicated to just showing the struggles adults face in their own personal worlds, whether it be the death of a loved one or the issues of helping a friend when you can’t even ensure there’s food on your on plate.

Insomniac made this not only a part of the overall story but the actual main missions that the player must go through, forcing the player and this version of Spider-man to experience these struggles rather than talk around them through auxillary missions in the game.  It’s because of this and the amazing detail to this world and its individual characters that had me enthralled and emotionally invested throughout. I mean, they even made it so that rather than a loading screen, the fast travel system is Spider-man literally taking the metro, checking his phone, occasionally talking with others, and (my personal favorite) sometimes awkwardly having someone fall asleep on him while waiting for his stop.  This is completely unnecessary but this and other small little details show how much the developers cared about this world, their love for Spider-man, and most importantly, their dedication to telling an emotional story about Peter rather than the mask he wears.

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