The Singularity of Spider-Man

~ I bought a PlayStation 4 just to play Spider-Man {Insomniac Games}.

Spider-Man is one of my favorite characters; I think this game is a near-perfect Spidey experience. I wanted to write about it and what I think makes the character so meaningful.

Swinging

From the jump {literally} of this game’s intro, it’s apparent that Insomniac understands deeply what will make a good Spider-Man video game. I will give you zero guesses to know what that is.

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It’s the web-slinging! Playing Spider-Man is all about the jumping and running, the momentum and speed and ingenuity and visceral feel of swinging throughout the massive New York cityscape. This game has been a long time coming and it feels so good.

Thank you Insomniac.

This is why everyone wants to be Spider-Man.

You can see it ‘why it’s good’ quite clearly in gameplay videos. It’s seamless from a technical perspective, it’s beautiful to witness. The physics of Spidey’s body are hyper-realistic. There is a visible ebb and flow to his deep dives towards the streets and the inevitable catch of the swings carrying him back up towards the peaks of the skyscrapers. There is a rhythm to it. All of it just works — the leaping, the wall-running, the flipping at the apex of a swing, and all the other creative methods they have cooked up for this uniquely satisfying manner of movement throughout the game’s concrete jungle. Spidey has a practically endless number of ways to keep up his momentum, and there’s a variety of unique animations to showcase this {and how much fun Peter Parker seems to be having, much like yourself}. All of this can be observed in merely watching the game.

Playing it feels unlike anything else. This is a game where the most basic form of moving throughout its environment feels like perhaps its greatest achievement. One can swing throughout the city for an hour, getting lost in the motion and the sights and sounds of NYC, without having felt that there needed to be anything else for the gameplay experience to be rewarding {but rest assured there’s a ton in this game}. In many open world games, moving from one end of the map to the other can often feel like a chore. As Spider-Man these long treks are a satisfyingly sacred art.

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Launch yourself into Times Square, web swinging with abandon through all of the lights and the cars and the gunmen, dodging all manner of architectural obstacles and homing rockets on your way; sling around corners with motion-blurring speed, making hairpin turns through narrow apartment alleys; slingshot yourself over Madison Square Garden and into the nightscape beyond; swing low, skimming the trees and the falling leaves of Central Park; run vertically up the Empire State Building’s full expanse, leap all the way down from its summit, to within a few meters of hitting the street, only to propel yourself into a mega swing, angling yourself and peaking just above the distant skyline, the setting sun shining through for a glimpse before gravity’s inevitable pull drops you back down into the city’s density — to do it all over again.

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Of course, the sheer novelty of this wears off as one progresses further into the game, moving beyond these simplistic presses of R2, and jumping into the full capabilities of everything the Web Crawler can do. But for those first few hours — the swinging is the opus. And it never really gets old, even as it becomes second nature. This is in part due to Insomniac’s easy to learn / difficult to master control scheme. By the time one gets deep into the game, you are so good at it — understanding each of the complex commands necessary to keep Spidey moving and grooving through the Big Apple — that you feel as though you are Spider-Man. And that’s clearly the whole point.

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Combat

Spider-Man is a comic book superhero. And something superheroes do is fight. Grasping the ingenuity of the skillful fighting that Spider-Man is capable of, and actually capturing it within the context of a game, is perhaps an even more impressive feat than the swinging. But Insomniac is now for two-for-two.

Canonically {theoretically}, Spider-Man can fight an endless number of armed goons, and teaming, hyper-powered supervillains alike, primarily via the use of one indispensable attribute — Spidey Sense. This sense, of course, alerts him to danger and allows for split-second reactions — which create opportunities to be capitalized upon. Just as in the comics, it is all over this game — consistently functional and constantly tingling. It’s the primary mechanism with which Spidey is able to fight against insanely stacked odds. The escalating numbers and skill sets of his enemies are necessarily offset by the deftness of Spidey’s gifts. Somehow no matter the odds, he always has the advantage.

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The elegant solution to manifesting the power of the Spidey Sense, both in the comics and in this game, is to present a pulsing light around Spidey’s head. Easily and necessarily discernible as a warning sign of imminent violence in the height of the action, the O-button dodge action becomes vital to success in armed conflicts with Spidey’s many enemies.

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Thus, in using the Sense, Spider-Man is much like a rogue — a nimble, lithe, and shifting speed-demon that can simply dodge anything given he is lucid and can focus for a moment on the danger at hand. The combat experience of the game {not unlike the Arkham Batman games & Assassin’s Creed} pits Spidey as the central radial agent upon the spokes of diverse threats, demanding exacting counters, on all sides of him. Fortunately for the player, Spider-Man is decked out physically and technologically and his battle tactics are practically infinite. Over the course of the game, one becomes a Black Belt in the Spidey Arts.

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Everything starts with the punches & kicks, working your way up to loose one-stop-shop “finisher” moves in the midst of the brawl // not surprisingly, there are a laundry list of web tricks to push, pull, position and maneuver through swords and guns and grenades and blasts of dark energy // Of course, Spidey has his web shots locked and loaded — big ones, small ones, trap ones, electrical ones, area-of-effect ones, gravity ones… // You can always uppercut foes into mid-air combat, where Spidey juggles folks away from the rabble and can slam them back down into it // Feel free to dodge off the wall any time, for crowd-controlling punches, swing webbed up enemies and throw them like a grenade, engage your special suit powers for that game-changing X-factor during Wave 5, when your health is running low. // Or just start jumping and swinging around your foes, dodging bullets and thinking things over…

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From all of this, there is any number of directions your strategy could go during the course of a single bout. This is what makes the combat so satisfying. As you progress through the game, leveling up and collecting reward points to spend on new gadgets and feats, you add these new arts to your repertoire. Each one provides a unique and useful element to your combat proficiency, but often only in particular circumstances or on specific enemies. Thus, you must alight yourself to everything you know Spidey can do versus what the enemies or the boss you are facing can do — and develop a strat in real-time, taking into account your counters & vulnerabilities as well as theirs.

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And the game demands you use nearly everything at your disposal — especially in the later stages and on the highest difficulty. You will need both a mental and physical level of dexterity to consistently defeat Fisk’s bases of men, the energy-wielding “Demons,” the Sable spec ops agents, The Sinister Six… The most difficult stretches of combat involve Spidey jumping constantly, swinging around, dodging every third second, and generally using every single thing he has learned thus far to survive {or win with ease if you are good enough}.

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Once again, this is all to convey that playing this game feels like you have become Spider-Man. This level of depth imbued into the variety of what the character can do in motion and in fighting is in part why Insomniac’s game succeeds so thoroughly. If I did have any complaints, it would have to do with the repetitive nature of the side missions, the use of quick-time events in cinematic moments taking away your agency as a player, and the relative ease of the boss fights. However, in the grand scheme of the experience I believe these are minor. Sometimes simplicity can be a good thing in a game. Insomniac made this for everyone — much in the vein of what Spider-Man represents — and such aspects make the game more manageable and fun for people who might not be as experienced playing games in general.

Character & Story

Visual and gameplay feats aside, it is also evident Insomniac understands the character of Spider-Man. In the game, taking on this iconic character, you have all the same elements of his ability and his personality readily at your disposal. This is important, because I think that every great Spidey story is a complex interplay between the dual lives of Peter’s in tandem with his alter ego’s. Throughout this game’s story arc, Peter Parker is just as important as Spider-Man to the progressions of events and to the player’s understanding of the character and the world around him.

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Through playing this game, I have been thinking about it while also coalescing my previous understanding of the character, and I have come to the conclusion that there is something intrinsic that makes Peter Parker so timelessly fascinating and so mythically, vitally heroic:

He is relentlessly conscientious, but not effortlessly so. Spider-Man is both a paragon and an everyman.

Spidey struggles with everything he is doing and it has everything to do with his heart and his empathy and his choices. Spider-Man and his superpowered actions in the world represent Peter’s great moral responsibility he feels has been thrust upon him. He knows that if he doesn’t act justly, then innocent people will end up dying — their blood on his hands because of what he could’ve done to prevent it but merely chose not to. And yet, despite holding these convictions and donning the Spidey suit, Peter still constantly struggles with this ethical imperative. Simply put, it’s because he simultaneously wants to live his own life, bearing out his interpersonal relationships in some kind of peace. Peter Parker’s story conveys the embodiment of personal sacrifice for the greater good — something, to some degree, we all know something about. This is the telos of Peter Parker’s mission as Spider-Man and his struggle as a human being. And this game gets it.

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The game picks up well into Parker’s career as Spider-Man {8+ years in the making}. By this point, Uncle Ben has dropped “W.G.P.C.G.R.”, he’s faced much of his rogue’s gallery, and there’s a lot of history within Parker’s familiar circle of influence {especially Mary Jane}. This is a significant decision Insomniac has made because it means all of the conflicts and struggles and the push and pull of Peter’s conscientious responsibility versus his own self-interest and desire to live a relatively peaceful life is still in play at this point where you pick up the character. All of the restless disquiet is still relevant almost a decade into the role of Spidey. One of the ways the game imparts Peter’s past misadventures as a nascent Spider-Man is by scattering collectible backpacks throughout the city, each with a small but meaningful memento. He’s grown into his role, but only in the context of a fraught history. It shows that in spite of Parker’s veteran status as NYC’s friendly neighborhood superhero, one can never fully escape the existential stress of trying to transcend oneself. This is the philosophical framework that the Spider-Man story explores and I think what makes him so compelling as a character. I will try to elaborate on this.

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~

A worldly philosophy equates striving and attachment with suffering; one creates the other — in your hope is your despair. Peter Parker’s {and Spider-Man’s} story are filled with these kinds of sentiments, demonstrably so. However, given the character and his journey — to both Peter and to the audience — it’s all certainly worthy of the effort. Ultimately, in every iteration of the character — Spider-Man is an idealized hero.

Peter Parker always does the right thing, even if it’s the hardest call to make and against the most challenging odds.

Peter Parker sees the good in every person.

Peter Parker always does his best.

Peter Parker never gives up.

This is the ideal. This is what inspires folks. This is the paragon.

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But because he cares so much, because he is so effective at doing good and directly as a result of him not allowing himself to give up — on his city, on his friends, on his foes, on himself — he gets himself into trouble. He strives to save everyone — he has to. And when every life matters, then his own personal attachments necessarily become lesser in the wake of the “greater good.” Because he dreams so big and his heart is filled with so much hope — inevitably, he experiences the greatest forms of suffering as the inadequacies and misfortunes and tragedies of reality set in around him. Sometimes, his conscientiousness and his conscience aren’t enough to save him from the worst kinds of fates. These ‘troubles’ are of the heart.

~

In truth, Peter is a mess. This is why we love him.

Peter Parker creates many of his own problems, even going as far as to play a hand in the origins of his worst enemies. Spidey’s sadistic supervillains are in fact all human beings driven mad by their ambitions, most of whom Parker knows personally. And of course, he knows and explicitly understands they have damn good reasons for existing as they are now, with a good faith comprehension of the tragedies which led them down the path where they must cross him. This makes fighting against them, or trying to turn them back, much more challenging — while remaining absolutely imperative. Peter is undoubtedly an empath. This is obviously something that makes him both endearing and constantly filled with a degree of discord, seeing that he feels the pain of those he must fight.

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With the many threads in play connecting these dangers to his personal life, Peter then chooses to hide his heart and his fear behind his mask. It’s a protective measure, but in more ways than he might initially realize. In his anonymous competence as Spider-Man, he is supremely confident. Under the guise, Peter’s inhibitions release, and the self-conscious Peter Parker of the day {diffident-neurotic-vulnerable} falls away for a time. His personality frees itself alongside his sense of humor, even under what would appear to be the tensest situations. And yet, under the cowl and within his alter ego, Peter still never sees his role as a consequence-free one. He understands what he represents and what his presence can be to the community — as a symbol and as an agent for change. {i.e. W.G.P.C.G.R.}

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“When you help someone you help everyone.” ~ May

Spider-Man’s ability to dispense of solutions to the problems on the violent streets of the at-times unfriendly neighborhood via some well-aimed webs and surgical punches necessarily appears simple compared to those of the deeply interpersonal kind he skirmishes with in his daily life. These are the kinds of problems his powers cannot actually help with, {i.e. juggling school/career(s), girl problems, keeping secrets from those he most wishes to tell, giving up on his newly villainous friends, etc.} All the time, through his career as a part-time vigilante, part-time scientist, part-time community center volunteer, part-time nephew and boyfriend and friend to those he cares about — he, like everyone else, contends with his own shadow self {what if my power afforded zero responsibility? What if I could do whatever I wanted? What if Spider-Man was someone that acted utterly pathologically?}. He agonizes over the life and death decisions he has forced himself into making on a daily basis while at the same time being ever-presently self-aware of the opinions of his friends and foes alike upon his person.

“You’re more than your past. Don’t let it control you.” ~ Peter to Li.

“Do what you think is best. It’s all any of us can… even if it hurts like hell.” ~ Peter to Otto.

Ultimately, Peter is so vitally concerned with his choices because he knows he can do anything — accomplish any goal, achieve any objective, defeat all the villains at once OR save all of the people in need of saving. Thus, he has to choose wisely {i.e. great power + great responsibility}. His actions matter so much to him because with his power he is potentially culpable for so much. In any given situation, in everything Spider-Man is choosing not to do, there are the highest possible stakes. To consistently think in this way is perhaps unreasonable in many respects, while at the same time being admirable. In fact, you could argue Spider-Man’s depth of introspection is his greatest power.

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I think all of this {and much more} is accounted for in this game’s depiction of the character. For Spider-Man vets and newcomers alike experiencing this game, the power of the character and his story is essentially present in these ways. The forms and methods and the good Spider-Man does in Insomniac’s beautiful game is fundamentally eclipsed by why Peter chooses to be doing these things.

~

There is no doubt a level of singularity and complexity to Spider-Man and Peter Parker and this character’s many stories. But at the same time, this all sounds rather familiar to us, right?

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Spider-Man creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, in their enumerations on the character’s origins, bring light to the simple fact that they were ‘trying to create a character that young people could identify with.’ In the sense that everyone is young once, Spidey is a character for everyone. Whereas many superheroes of the day were dealing with cosmic conflicts of a kind too big and earth-shaking to relate with, Spider-Man, on the other hand, was a teenager. Peter is a person before he is a hero, and is one contending with the loss of a loved one, the endeavor of first love, the trials and tribulations of trying to make a living in a harsh and unforgiving world, and those crises of conscience one labors over when faced with a difficult choice. Peter Parker is a person endlessly and imperfectly striving towards a better tomorrow, in spite of all of the adversity coming his way.

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Maybe we could all be Spider-Man.

It’s practically impossible not to see some of yourself in Peter Parker. Everyone struggles to balance our sense of self and our relationships with our responsibilities and our passions. I think to some degree everyone tries to turn their personal tragedy into worldly motivation. We all struggle in trying to do the right thing. We all wish to make something of ourselves, we all wish to make the world a better place — in spite of our insecurities and our self-doubts and the beckoning of our shadow. In our moments of grandiose idealism, we know there is a path for us worthy of the suffering that certainly lies ahead. If only we could sling our way into it with the necessary animation.

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In all these ways, “with great power comes great responsibility” is just the beginning. Peter’s journey is filled with these burdens we can relate to. His superpowers simply escalate this struggle to at-times more monumental and cinematic proportions; the core of Peter’s passionate conflicts remain those of heart and empathy and choice.

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Ultimately, despite everything I have just recapitulated — no one can do what Spidey can do {physically, morally, realistically} — but everyone thinks they would do what he does if they could. This game lets you experience exactly what it would be like.

In an effective coalescing of the compelling singularity of the character of Spider-Man into a video game — his aesthetic, his movement, and his moral agency — Insomniac’s game is an incredible feat in design and execution. Everyone should play it. ~

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