Play Nice: A Games Journal

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12/31/2018

What up world wide webs (webs cause I’m gonna talk about Spider-Man, I know its a bad joke). Bad jokes aside how’s it everyone, here in the new year. A year where I am hopefully much better at keeping this journal updated and the site in general. I guess this is coming late, but not too too late which is good change. We are going to get into some thoughts about Marvel’s Spider-Man today. I finished that game about three weeks ago and should have written about it then, but between finishing that game and now, I saw Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse. That movie is great, which is besides the point, but I think it also helped explain something related to the scope of Marvel’s Spider-Man on PS4. Towards the end of this game I started thinking about what message can be interpreted from the world depicted in that game. I wrote a little in my last entry about this, but mostly pointed towards other outlets who wrote more eloquently about the specific problems related to its depiction of policing (this piece at The Ringer is very good). To summarize, Spider-Man has a weird mostly one-sided relationship with the police (he almost exclusively helps them) who are portrayed, I don’t think this is an overstatement, benevolently. They don’t seem particularly effective at preventing crime which also makes them sort of too harmless to in any way be a detriment to the community. Paralleling this depiction, but on the other side of the consideration, the people who commit the crimes that Spider-Man is constantly being alerted of are given no depth. You start out fighting ‘thugs’ progress to fighting ‘demons’ and end up trading blows with a paramilitary force that descends upon Manhattan. To just begin with the names (thugs and demons) they are dismissive, telling the player that these are not people we necessarily have to care about. There has been a lot of conversation in recent years around the word ‘thug’ and how it ignores the context around and affecting those who commit violent acts, and has a racist connotation depending on who’s using the word. In the game it’s deeply coded word that tells us who we do and do not have to care about. It covers up a person and relieves us of the responsibility of feeling empathy. The clothing of many of the characters creates a similar effect. All of these character types have their faces covered by hoodies or balaclavas which is another coded way to tell the player that we don’t have to care about this person. They are faceless and nameless and there for you to beat up again and again in order to earn the necessary tokens to buy new suits or upgrade your gadgets. It kind of inverts the traditional notion of ‘crime doesn’t pay’ and tells the player ‘stopping crime does pays.’ A related stereotype is employed when fighting groups of ‘demons.’ This enemies type also always has their face covered (by wooden masks) and are able to attack Spider-Man with channeled ‘dark energy.’ We understand from hearing these characters speak Mandarin (although apparently it’s a very poor attempt) that are of Chinese heritage. The masks and denotation of ‘demons serve the same purpose as the hoodies, balaclava, and use of ’thug,’ in that they obscure the person and tell not to care. Their vague sort of mystical abilities also play into stereotypes about Asia and people from that part of the world as mystical or erotic. In summation the game others these two groups of enemy characters allowing the player to detach and not care about the people you beat up again and again in the grind for tokens. This representation of crime is also at odds with the more understanding representation the game offers of people with difficult housing/living situations. The wide variety of activities given to the people at F.E.A.S.T. (the shelter that Aunt May helps run and one of Spider-Man’s alternate bases) lend a lot of humanity to people who are having difficulty finding housing or employment or just need some help. They read, watch TV, talk to each other, play chess, cook, do crosswords, talk on the phone, sleep, get employment counseling, and fill out job applications. They are people doing the things, even if they are mundane, that fill up a life.

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Marvel’s Spider-Man by Insomniac Games

I mention the problems of how this game represents crime because it enforces harmful stereotypes, is very uncritical, and I want games to be better with this type of stuff. The game could and should have done a better job, and I don’t want that statement to be undercut by out next discussion of how this game is maybe asking us to judge it in a different manner (whether or not it deserves that is a different question). For most of Marvel’s Spider-Man crime happens irrespective of context (most memorably I stopped a drug deal feet away from large group of people standing around a fire in a trashcan who had no reaction to the gunshots fired near them), as disparate events scattered around Manhattan until the final act when Manhattan turns into a pseudo war-zone after a group of super villains are released. Almost all civilians disappear from the sidewalks, trash is suddenly blowing down empty streets, and Sable soldiers and Mr. Negative henchmen engage in shootouts all over the borough. Suddenly it almost doesn’t matter that you’re in NYC any more, it could be any large metro are because most of the humanity has been wiped away. The redeeming through line in this part of the game are Peter, Mary-Jane, and Miles’ attempts to secure food and medical supplies for the residents of F.E.A.S.T., but apart from that there is little joy found in this part of the game. During this part of the game I started thinking about whether maybe this game is more of a comic book event than a comic book story. For anyone unfamiliar with comic book events, they are the yearly or bi-yearly culmination of events in one or several different comic books. These are the type of comics where the world, or universe, or reality itself are at stake and only a certain group of heroes can stop everything (literally everything) from being destroyed (think about the small scope of Iron Man vs intergalactic scope of The Avengers). These events happen on a sort of elevated/cosmic/galactic level and take heroes away from the more mundane aspects superheroing. They often don’t involve ordinary people or too many concerns about individual lives. This is sort of what happens for the last six-ish hours of Spider-Man. The world might not be at stake, but the whole of Manhattan could be destroyed if the villains are not stopped. Basically the stakes are extremely high in a way that is more reminiscent of a comic book event than a regular issue. I think this is an important distinction because if this game wants to be understood as more of an event, then the focus shifts towards, action adventure, high stakes, and big twists. Ultimately the game tries to have it both ways with how it humanizes the people of NYC and sets up this very personal story for Peter, until the big final act action turn.

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Marvel’s Spider-Man by Insomniac Games

This is where seeing Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse crystallized a few things for me. That movie is definitely a comic book event as the fate of multiple parallel dimensions is in peril (one of the versions of Spider-Man even say at one point something to the effect of ’the world is always at stake’). But what it always manages to balance the stakes at the ‘biggest’ levels (realities being destroyed) as well as the ‘smallest’ (the strength of family connections). I think Marvel’s Spider-Man loses that balance at the end when the city empties and what and who you are fighting for is taken away. Spiderverse also manages to make NYC feel like a dangerous place without depicting it as overrun by crime. Miles has to watch himself as he makes his way towards school or when he goes out tagging, but the city is not out to get him. There’s a version of the Spider-Man game that balances this better where Taskmaster challenges (a really fun inclusion of an interesting b-list villain) are of greater importance, Black Cat, Hammerhead, and Tombstone are more nefarious and the importance of stopping ’thug’ and ‘demon’ crimes is diminished. The sense of danger in the city could be maintained for Spider-Man and decreased for the average citizen as they are no longer constantly getting caught in shootouts in broad daylight. It’s a difficult line for developers to walk as they want to put a lot in the game for players to do, but need to be careful about what their depiction of the place, especially when it’s represents a place in our world, communicates.

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Marvel’s Spider-Man by Insomniac Games

Well that’s probably all I have to say about Marvel’s Spider-Man. Despite its flaws I had a lot of fun playing this game and don’t entirely regret that this is maybe the first game I’ve ever bought on day one. Up next (hopefully in the next week) is an entry about Wolfenstein: The Old Blood. I have one chapter left in that game but my thoughts are mostly ready. I intended to play Wolfenstein: The New Order afterwards, but my living situation has changed and my PS4 is no longer an option for playing games. This means a lot of Switch gaming and the opportunity to finally beat Breath of the Wild. Before that though I’m going to be playing Hollow Knight and seeing if I can do better with that game than I did with Bloodborne. Anyways that’s all for now, thank you for reading and be good internet.

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Marvel’s Spider-Man by Insomniac Games

 

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