Play Nice: A Games Journal

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What up worldwide web, I hope none of you all, unlike me, are back on your bullshit. I’m once again a month late in writing about the games I’ve been playing. Today is Marvel’s: Spider-Man which I wanted to write about multiple times during the month of October. I’m behind here and (if anyone is following) with my comic book reviews, but this probably isn’t the place to be talking about my procrastination failures. I’m hoping to catch up with my writing before the end of the year, and the plan for this column is to write about Spider-Man twice (maybe thrice) in the next three weeks and then begin playing and write at least once each about Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, and Wolfenstein: The New Order. That will take me into early next year and beyond that I shouldn’t say because I’ve not been real good at following through on my games writing. This is probably the best segue into talking about Spider-Man and Peter Parker who is notorious for not following through on things.. you know because he’s Spider-Man.

Marvel's Spider-Man_20180915190043
Marvel’s Spider-Man by Insomniac Games

I’m about half-way through the game and so far it’s light on Peter not being on time for things. You don’t respond to Dr. Octavius as promptly as he would like a few times, but this aspect of Peter is mostly extra textual. One of my favorite moments so far is MJ and Peter meeting in a diner to talk about the criminal and journalistic aspects of their investigation of Martin Li. From a few cut scenes and phone conversations Peter hasn’t entirely moved on from MJ and of the two, is the one much more interested in making a second go of things. The diner scene comes just as their investigation into Li is starting to get real interesting, specifically from documents that MJ found (in a scene where you play as her) while snooping around a particular art gallery. Peter talks to MJ on the phone a few times but her investigative/stealth scene functions as her real intro to the game, and notice that her POV in this game is valued. You can find takes that spin this, and other breaks from Peter’s POV, as tokenistic but I really push back on that. The developers/writers didn’t have to put these breaks in the game and no one would have second guessed them for it. We are used to following a single character for a whole game and having them be the only filter through which the game world is interpreted. This isn’t to say that non-playable characters can’t be fully realized and well drawn characters and that all playable characters are realized and well drawn. But the when the devs were making this game Peter’s perspective (say that five times fast) was not the only one they were thinking about. And if you take your time with MJ and listen to all her thoughts about the objects around the gallery, a woman with opinions, motivations and thoughtful insight emerges. My favorite bit is when she sees a set of Tatami Armor from the 15th Century and her response is to say

“Sometimes I feel like the whole history of the world is just boys playing dress up, getting into fights.”

It belies an insight and wit to MJ that I think a less well written or cared for character wouldn’t have, and evidences that Peter’s action as Spider-Man are not above critique. Soon after MJ leaves the gallery is the diner scene which she and Peter approach with rather different motivations. He, as mentioned above, thinks they could maybe get back together while MJ remembers their recent past a lot more clearly. It’s not that she doesn’t care for him but she knows Peter too well and knows the difficulty in a platonic. much less romantic relationship, with him. She isn’t interested in coming in second to Spider-Man, which is exactly what happens at the end of this scene when Peter dashes out the door after sone blaring sirens. Peter’s approach or understanding of their relationship in this scene betrays a certain simpleness to the character that affects another rather more sinister thread in this game. But before we get to that, the final seconds of the diner scene show an interaction between MJ and the owner, played by Stan Lee. Experiencing this scene back in September, when Stan was still with us, was joyous. Now, after his passing, it’s tinged with sweet melancholy. That Lee lived to see so many of the characters he helped create develop new relevance on the big screen and that he is immortalized in those movies is wonderful. But seeing him so wonderfully rendered in a game that brings one of is most famous characters to life in a new way is truly special.

Marvel's Spider-Man_20181124091903
Marvel’s Spider-Man by Insomniac Games

To finish up here I want to pick up the thread of Peter having a rather simple understanding of the world in which he slings web and how it becomes sinister in the way police and crime are rendered in this game. But before that I should explain why I haven’t discussed how good it feels to be the web-slinger. That opinion is everywhere else on the internet. Polygon, Waypoint, Kotaku, in both the written and podcast reviews of this game, spend a while discussing how Insomniac Games captured the kinetics of being Spider-Man and swinging around the rooftops of Manhattan. I agree that it is wonderful and one of the game’s huge draws, but what are all those people who come to this game for the web swinging go to take away from this game’s very uncritical depiction of policing. This too has been written about in length (this Ringer article is very good) but in a really enjoyable game I can’t ignore this watered down representation of the police that simply makes them ‘good’. On just an aesthetic level it’s jarring how much the police buildings stand out among a borough of skyscrapers. As you swing around the world one of the challenges is to take photos of famous Manhattan landmarks (Madison Square Garden, The Wakandan Embassy, Empire State University). As someone not from NYC these landmarks are mostly unrecognizable, but what does stand out as you swing though the city are the tall square building with the word police written in bright blue letters at the top on each side. They are an ever present reminder of government sanctioned law and order, a symbol that (at least through the game’s mid point) Spider-Man totally stands behind. As a favor to his main police contact, Yuri Wantanbee, Spider-Man goes through the city reactivating Oscorp signal towers that let the police spy on all digital communication in Manhattan. It’s a weird cooperation between the two, the culmination of which is Peter running around calling himself spider-cop. I’m not extremely well read in regards to Spider-Man comics, but from what I have read the relationship between Spider and the police is much more tense and antagonistic than the one represented in this game. Spider-Man is always leaving the scene before they show up aware that in their opinion he is is firstly a vigilante. And the game could have stuck with this relationship, there are weird goings on in the city that they are unable to handle and which Spider-Man has the skill necessary to investigate. At this point there is no material benefit for Peter from his cooperation with the police. Yuri doesn’t really have any intel for him and pretty quickly he is off on his own track with the investigation. A possible reason the writer have maintained it thus far is that it’s the status quo. The first mission of the game is a police organized raid on the Kingpin’s building which results in his arrest but creates a vacuum that other of Spider-Man’s villains begin to fill. But the status quo for the status quo’s sake is not particularly interesting (in this case), and leads to an uncritical (so far) look at policing and police power. Being only half way through the story there is the chance that this relationship might change (a government sanctioned paramilitary force has recently been introduced) and represent the detrimental effects strong policing has or the often antagonistic relationship that exists between police and their community, but I’m not holding my breath.

That’s probably enough for now, I need to get deep into the back half of this game and see where the story goes, and how Peter’s conception of who he is and serves as Spider-Man develops. I didn’t get into how this game represents crime (how it has rendered the people who commit crime them and the types of crime committed). This I’m (mostly) sure will not change as the game develops because of the way ’stopping crime’ is used as a skill boosting exercise. That will be a good place to start next time, but for now thanks for reading and be good internet.

Marvel's Spider-Man_20181101215323
Marvel’s Spider-Man by Insomniac Games

 

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