Big licensed video games aren’t a creative or financial gimme. The latest Spider-Man adaptation on PlayStation 4 had to overcome fan expectations of successful games, tell a story that rivaled beloved films and do something new with a character that’s done it all before. Developer Insomniac Games could have done almost everything right and still ended up with a game that felt like yesterday’s news.
Instead, Marvel’s Spider-Man exceeds expectations for a licensed superhero game by expanding upon the moments that have little to do with superheroes.
A new Spider-Man title won’t please fans without fantastic swinging mechanics and a beautiful recreation of New York City, but what grounds this particular game is the stuff that happens on street level, in the lab and at home. Plenty of studios have produced fine Spider-Man games. Insomniac made a great Peter Parker game.
GOTY #9: MARVEL’S SPIDER-MAN
For our 2018 guide to the best games of the year, Polygon has been counting down our top 10 each weekday, ending with our top choice — hello! — as well as the full list of our top 50 favorites from 2018. And throughout the month, we’ll be looking back on the year with special videos, essays and surprises!
Spider-Man’s biggest problems don’t stem from his powers
Peter Parker’s relationship with Mary Jane Watson is central to his character, but Marvel’s Spider-Man begins after their relationship. Normally, Peter must try to build and maintain a relationship while he saves the city. This time, Peter spends most of the story trying to repair damage already done.
The game’s writing handles Peter’s balancing act with depth and maturity. It fairly puts the couple on comparable footing. Spider-Man’s work saves lives directly, while MJ’s job as a reporter serves the integrity of the city and its institutions. In many Spider-Man stories, Peter’s prioritizing of his superhero life above being an attentive partner dooms the relationship. But here, it’s more interesting. The trouble seems to be that he’s actually too attentive in the wrong ways.
Peter’s always trying to protect MJ without trusting that she can solve things on her own, no superpowers required. It’s a relatable story: being overprotective to the point of being patronizing and belittling.
Mary Jane has learned how to juggle her own needs with her job, and is finding her own path in the city. She’s learned who she is and what she wants. Peter must learn and grow before he has any hope of rekindling their romance.
Peter Parker is still struggling with growing up, finding a way to pay the bills while also being a hero. He spends part of his time at a homeless shelter while also doing unpaid scientific research. He takes on way too much, and being spread so thin, he does very little of it well. He becomes homeless over the course of the game, unable to help himself because he’s too focused on helping everyone else.
His problem in the outside world is directly mirrored in the relationship: The same need that makes it hard for him to see Mary Jane as a person is what reduces the people of New York to victims that always need to be saved.
The game’s story is sympathetic to Mary Jane instead of Peter through all this; she knows he’s got to get his shit together, and she isn’t interested in drowning with him. She doesn’t want her identity to be tied to him and his moral obligations. She’s asking a question of maturity, not powers. That’s good drama, and it doesn’t rely on supervillains for its crackle.
For all the technology that you can upgrade in Spider-Man’s suit, the most important piece of equipment for the story is still his phone. Between exciting missions that give the game the classic Spider-Man feel, Parker can be found hanging upside down off a skyscraper, worrying over text messages.
This isn’t to say that you could take away the superheroes or supervillains and you’d still have a good game; you spend the majority of your time in Marvel’s Spider-Man saving people and fighting oversized battles. Interpersonal drama never crowds out the sense of scale and adventure that makes up the best Spider-Man movies, comics or games.
It’s the humanity that Insomniac Games was able to find in these characters, relationships and well-worn reveals that made Spider-Man stand out in the middle of such a crowded year. The studio made only a few small adjustments to the familiar Spider-Man stories, but execution can be as important as originality. Insomniac Games created some of the most grounded representations of these iconic characters, and by spending so much time on the details that aren’t super, the team called even more attention to the ones that are.
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