Spider-Man has been featured on the silver screen six times in the last sixteen years. That doesn’t include the web-crawlers appearance in “Captain America: Civil War,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” or any of his recent animated depictions. It’s safe to say this New Yorker has a deep connection with visual storytelling that has given creators a lot to build off of with each new attempt at telling the hero’s tale.
Even if Spider-Man doesn’t hit every note as well as he could in his latest adventure on PS4, that relationship with cinema has clearly influenced Insomniac’s newest game. The designers took filmmaking philosophies, including things like television point of view changes and show-don’t-tell filmmaking, and weaved the narrative of an experienced superhero into an open world version of New York City. Eliminating a lot of the disconnect between narrative and gameplay that plagues a lot of other open world games.
This story contains spoilers for the game.
“Karel Reisz wrote a great book and said that pace is only important as much as it holds or loses the audience’s attention,” Michael Knue, editor for Netflix’s “Daredevil” tells Variety. “So everything doesn’t have to be fast, you can keep that quick and still lose the audience, pacing is about how you release the story so everyone can enjoy what each scene is about. This applies to games too.”
One common trope that television shows use to mix up their pacing is a change of viewpoint. Usually in the form of a Lower-Deck episode, where the entire runtime focuses on a secondary character, or in something as simple as showing shots of other characters reactions during relevant scenes. An example includes “The Punisher’s” pilot “3AM” where we see the viewpoint of Donny, a one-off construction worker, to get a sympathetic view of Frank Castle that’s more than him grieving for his lost family.
“On one hand, it’s a way of preventing things from getting stale,” said William Yeh, the editor on shows like “Marvel’s The Punisher” and “Cloak & Dagger.” “It’s also about learning things that the main character can’t learn and gaining knowledge about the protagonist through side characters.”
Insomniac’s “Spider-Man” takes this approach when you take control of Mary Jane and Miles Morales in a few scenes across the game, ditching the superhuman abilities. Most of the segments come at a major point in the story, like when Mary Jane sneaks into Norman Osborn’s luxury apartment. While there, she discovers that Harry Osbourne has a terminal illness and is undergoing experimental treatment.
It’s a slow, tense segment filled with little anecdotes that the main story doesn’t cover, including bits about Parker, Jane, and Osborn’s childhood friendship. Everything builds up slowly as you go from item to item, learning about Norman and his relationship with his son and wife.
“It’s an effective storytelling tool, especially in a visual medium. You get different performance, a different experience,” Knue said. “Moving away from the most obvious characters point view, in this case, that’s Spider-Man, to learn something that he doesn’t know.”
Spider-Man could have easily broken into Norman’s apartment on his own and made this discovery — but playing as Mary Jane forces the player to take in the contents of the apartment as they build up the reveal (which has a bigger impact considering a certain post-credits scene).
These changes of viewpoint slow the story down to a crawl at a few crucial points in the game, really highlighting them as significant moments to build a life-like world. Most end up being great changes to the flow of the game, although it would have been nice to cut a few of the sections like the far-fetched segment where Mary Jane breaks into a heavily guarded paramilitary base.
“It’s very rare that you have a project with a neutral point of view, where you see everything from every characters’ point of view,” Yeh said. “So you need to find creative ways to fill in the blank information, and a change like this can give us more info on characters and set us up to care about them more.”
Insomniac goes beyond common tactics to change pacing, they commit to changing their open world design as the game moves forward. It’s a gameplay-centered version of filmmaker ’s show-don’t-tell philosophy. It emphasizes seeing action happen on screen rather than be told about it through dialogue or a separate cutscene.
“Watching the drama of the game is not as fun as playing through the drama of the game — creating the drama of the game,” Knue said. “It’s like in ‘Daredevil.’ They didn’t just want to show New York City, they used lighting and night shoots to showcase a mythical version of Hell’s Kitchen, Daredevil’s New York.”
“Spider-Man” takes advantage of this approach to correct a major flaw that’s present in most open world games. “A lot of the time, scenery in open world games doesn’t change as the story progresses,” said Jonathan Chibnall, the editor of shows like “Jessica Jones” and “Luke Cage.” “It can get to a point where sometimes the story cinematics break the flow of the game, because they feel so separate.”
Dozens of gameplay elements in “Spider-Man,” including things like collectibles, supporting characters, side missions, and enemy encounters all evolve as the story progresses. Which needs to happen for some of the late story beats to feel impactful, especially when you have a city under threat of chemical bomb and a prison break that has flooded the city with inmates.
The skyline features smoke and fire, the paramilitary group that Norman hires sets up bases and checkpoints throughout each neighborhood, prisoners line rooftops after the prison break and shoot at you as you swing by buildings. Early collectibles like the backpacks give you interesting context about Spider-Man and the stuff we don’t see him do and later collectibles, like the research posts, give you reasons to swing around and explore the city. It’s an extreme amount of polish, even the loading screens you see when you fast travel across town adapt to where you are in the story.
The chaos of the story is felt in the encounters you have outside the main plot.
“That’s something that ‘Spider-Man’s’ creators have done well, I know it’s a cliche but the city becomes a character,” Yeh said. “When something big happens the environment changes, which is something that we want to see in television more but can’t happen every time due to practical limitations.”
It’s easy to say that all of Insomniac’s success can be attributed to how fun swinging is or the popularity of Spider-Man, those are both valid points. But they disregard the amount of time and consideration went into molding the story into the Big Apple and how well that turned out in the final product.
We don’t know if these development choices were made with Marvel’s history on screen in mind since this story isn’t connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is, however, obvious to see how Insomniac took extra effort in making their Spider-Man story stand out from previous entries and other open world titles by trying to tell the story through more than segmented cutscenes and missions.
“Gaming, as a medium, is so much more customizable in terms of what the player brings to the story — like their skill level or the way in which they play can affect the pace of the story,” Yeh said. “When you get into the nitty-gritty of that there can be a lot of differences, but there is still room for parallels that can support both mediums.”