When Marvel and DC launched their respective cinematic universes, the studios had to assume that viewers had no idea who these characters were. This led to around a decade of whole chunks of movies, or the entire movies themselves, telling us details we already knew about heroes we were already familiar with. It was great for people who weren’t aware that Iron Man was a thing, but watching Batman’s parents get killed has happened so many times, it’s now almost a joke.
That’s changed in recent years, however. Spider-Man: Homecoming ditched the origin story altogether, and made sure everyone remembered who the character was by introducing him in Captain America: Civil War before his solo movie came out. But the actual question of how he got his powers was hand-waved away. It happened; he’s still figuring out what it means. Let’s move on, because that bit isn’t very interesting. One of the best takes on Batman had a good rule for its early run: no origin stories.
Which brings us to Spider-Man on the PlayStation 4, a game that is strangely brave with its story and how it introduces its characters.
The game doesn’t start at the beginning
PS4’s Spider-Man begins with a version of the character who uses mature technology, knows how to fight and has already put away a good assortment of supervillains. Peter Parker is working with a man named Dr. Octavius, who is trying to improve what we can do with prosthetic limbs. His relationship with Mary Jane Watson is more or less over.
Norman Osborn is mayor, and J. Jonah Jameson is an Alex Jones-style podcaster spouting conspiracy theories and misinformation. Aunt May is working in a homeless shelter, trying to help the community. Mary Jane is a reporter for the Daily Bugle.
That should about catch you up.
This version of the Spider-Man mythos — for want of a better name — is close enough to what we’re used to from the movies and comic books, but the story takes place in a very particular time in all their lives.
Based on the game’s writing and pacing, Insomniac has faith that the player will be able to figure out what’s happening without having their hand held through all the changes to the characters, and will be patient enough to be told the things that aren’t made explicit in the game’s opening hours. Spider-Man on the PlayStation 4 has its own story to tell, at its own pace. It realizes that being Spider-Man is a much more interesting story than becoming Spider-Man.
Spider-Man’s history with his enemies is discussed or hinted at throughout the game. There are characters we know are going to arrive at certain places in their lives — I’m trying to avoid spoilers here — but the manner in which they do so and the amount of game you get through before things happen turn reveals that should be rote into legitimate surprises.
With others in Peter’s life, you believe and understand their relationships without needing the specific details about how they got to this point, which is a hard trick to pull off. It’s revealed why Peter and M.J. didn’t work out as the game progresses, and the way it’s discussed feels realistic. But until that point, it’s easy to believe that they dated and it fell apart.
And the smaller details support the larger arcs: Mary Jane is frustrated with feeling as though she always needs to be saved, and while looking at a collection of Wilson Fisk’s art, she notices a katana that was used to slice Spider-Man open in a prior fight. She remembers the aftermath: He arrived at her house nearly dead, and she just barely got him to the hospital on time. This is a thing, she notes, that happens too often.
It sets up the argument she’s having in her own head: She feels like a damsel in her own story, while also having the responsibility of taking care of Spider-Man when he falters in combat. The fight with the sword and its fallout are just memories. We never see them; they’re only used as a way to get inside Mary Jane’s head.
Spider-Man on the PlayStation 4 both relies on your knowledge of these characters and this world while also using it as a weapon to subvert your expectations. And the best part of that strategy may have been the decision not to start at the beginning.