Playing Spider-Man on the PlayStation 4 over the weekend made me feel as if I could breathe for the first time in months, and that’s not the reaction I expected from a superhero game. It took some time before I realized why the game feels like such an oasis in a country that seems increasingly insular.
America has always been an individualistic and self-interested country, but in the past there was at least the spoken ideal of self-sacrifice and participation in a worldwide community where economic and social growth wasn’t a zero-sum game. For the past few years, however, the focus has been firmly on what America, and Americans, can get for themselves. We’re going to win, dammit, and that means everyone else has to lose. It’s a stifling worldview that rewards fear and distrust.
The power, and limitations, of being Spider-Man in New York
But Spider-Man on PlayStation 4 discusses, and wrestles with, what it means to help others. Spider-Man himself, like Superman before the most recent movies, is often portrayed as saving people as often as he’s fighting the bad guys. You save your first citizen in the game’s opening hour, and Spider-Man is always painfully aware of what his actions are doing to other people, both directly and indirectly.
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Spider-Man’s campaign.]
It’s not enough to stop each supervillain, he has to make sure the destruction doesn’t kill people as he does so. A quick-time event may not be focused on landing punches, but instead show you the difficulty of stopping a massive crane from falling into the street below.
There is no in-game mechanic that punishes you for ignoring a crime or putting off the next part of the main story, but you’ll still often feel like you’re getting phone calls while you’re chasing a car filled with bad guys and worrying about completing all the side-missions. Spider-Man is always dealing with more problems than he has time to contain, which is why letting down those around him is so important to his characterization.
Tony Stark’s life is made better by being Iron Man, a job which doesn’t come with a secret identity. Peter Parker’s life is usually made worse by being Spider-Man, but taking a break is rarely an option. The sense of “if not me, than who?” runs through the character, to the point where Mary Jane doesn’t seem to question his priorities anymore.
Mary Jane Watson has her own life away from Parker as a journalist, and Aunt May is quietly helping the poor in a shelter that operates as Spider-Man’s home base once Parker is evicted from his apartment because ...
Which is helpful for this version of the character, because Peter Parker is inspired to do good and to help others due to the example and lives of those around him. Spider-Man also exists as a symbol, even if he’s a controversial one, of the power in helping others.
Having May work at the F.E.A.S.T. shelter — which is an acronym that stands for Food, Emergency, Aid, Shelter and Training — means that you’re going to visit those less fortunate than you often throughout the game. It’s unlikely to be an accident that Peter Parker has to walk through the shelter and speak with the people there in order to see May; there’s no way to avoid meeting at least a tiny part of New York’s homeless population.
Parker is later able to get a young Miles Morales a job at the shelter after his father is killed, partially due to getting involved with Spider-Man’s mission. Both May and Parker both agree that Morales needs to remember that life is worth living, and helping others is a good way to both find purpose and work through grief. This is something that Parker himself, and Spider-Man, knows very well.
But it doesn’t stop there. Dr. Octavius, after a fun bit of misdirection about his origin story in the game’s opening, takes part in a much longer character arc that involves his desire to improve the world through better prosthetics. Peter Parker continues to work for Dr. Octavius even after their funding is caught off and Octavius can’t afford to pay him, despite the fact that Parker is broke and has no home. Helping to create technology that will improve the lives of soldiers and civilians with missing limbs is more important than getting a day job that pays more.
Harry Osborn’s research stations that are sprinkled around the cities rooftops aren’t just a way to deliver side-quests, each one is there to improve and guard the lives of New Yorkers in some way; part of your work with them is to make sure they continue to receive funding from Norman Osborn.
The game makes a point that that is largely absent from the films: Spider-Man wasn’t made into a hero by getting bitten by a radioactive spider; he was just given the power necessary to support and expand the work already being done by those around him. He was raised in an environment where service to others was both taught to him and modeled for him.
If Elon Musk often seems like a sour, real-life version of Tony Stark who reportedly busts unions to build cars and may be sued for claiming a rescue worker is a sex criminals, I can’t think of a real-world analog for Peter Parker who tries to elevate others in so many aspects of their life.
The game’s scope also helps it to feel personal. Spider-Man isn’t trying to save the world; he’s trying to improve New York City. It’s a place everyone in the game clearly loves, as shown by scenes like the one where a sanitation worker and Spider-Man — who is racing to save a prized USB stick containing his research — share an encyclopedic knowledge of mom and pop pizza places. This is a version of the world in which the supervillains are news because they’re the exception; ordinary people tend to care about others.
And that’s why the game feels like a cold drink of water on a hot day. It’s the rare modern release that deals directly with both the power and limitation of individuals helping each other, released during a time in America when the headlines are often about leaders shrieking about what they can get for themselves.
We’re a divided nation that is being pulled apart by differing ideas about values and identity, and we are rarely offered pop culture that shows the value of service to others and the power to create that feeling of responsibility in families and across generations. Spider-Man on the PlayStation 4 shows the power of going out and doing something about the problems in your community instead of feeling hopeless due to the continual nature of bad news.
There’s no way Insomniac or Sony could have known what the national mood would be when the game went into development years ago, but it couldn’t have been released at a better time. This isn’t the sort of game that offers a mirror showing what we are, it’s the rarer pop culture experience that offers an open door through which we can be better.