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Spider-Man 2 takes Naughty Dog’s house style and makes it its own

Insomniac levels up as a storytelling studio — and its inspiration is clear

Two Spider-Mans, Miles Morales and Peter Parker, stand next to each other and look toward the camera in Spider-Man 2 Image: Insomniac Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment
Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

There’s a celebrated scene in Naughty Dog’s 2009 game Uncharted 2: Among Thieves in which the protagonist, Nathan Drake, just wanders around a village. He’s high up in the Himalayas; after a dramatic action sequence on a train, Drake fell unconscious and was rescued by a Tibetan Sherpa, who brought him to his home. Drake strolls around the village, exploring it, chatting with the locals even though they don’t understand his English. He pats a yak, kicks a football with some kids, disturbs the chickens, looks at the (stunning) view.

Amid all the high adventure of Among Thieves, this scene gives the player five minutes of total downtime. It’s deliberately purposeless, only of course it has a number of very important purposes: giving the game a sense of pacing and rhythm; spending time with the lead character being charming; rooting the player in a convincing world where everyday life is still a thing; letting that player soak up the vibes.

The scene was profoundly influential, and not just at Naughty Dog, where moments of calm in gorgeous environments became a signature part of the studio’s storytelling style: Think of the equally famous giraffe encounter in The Last of Us. Many other game designers have imitated these moments, at least those among the elite tier of AAA action-adventure studios that have the budget, freedom, and confidence to put together expensively rendered interactive scenes that don’t advance the gameplay. Often, scenes like this are used as a casual setting in which to deliver exposition or build relationships while the player ambles about and the characters chat.

Spider-Man 2 is absolutely stuffed with moments like this. Early in the game, Peter Parker tidies up his catastrophically messy house with MJ, then takes a bike ride with Harry Osborn to their old high school. Later, Peter and Harry explore the latter’s lavish research facility at his new humanitarian foundation, with Peter stopping often to learn about each research project (by way of playing different mini-games in each department). There are many more examples I won’t spoil, with some involving a few surprising playable characters. Always, the mood is chill, the walking pace is slow, the camera is close behind the character — shooting from the waist up in classic Naughty Dog style — and the level of detail in the environment is far beyond the (already impressive) standard the game sets in the normal run of gameplay.

Peter Parker seen standing from behind in a detailed, cluttered, messy living room in Spider-Man 2 Image: Insomniac Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

Developer Insomniac is hardly hiding its influence here. Insomniac has been a PlayStation Studios stablemate of Naughty Dog’s since it was acquired by Sony in 2019, but the two studios’ games have been closely compared for much longer, ever since Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank and Naughty Dog’s Jak and Daxter coincided on PlayStation 2 in the early 2000s. Still, Insomniac’s games have tended to be more overstuffed, anarchic, and gameplay-focused than Naughty Dog’s carefully controlled, story-driven, cinematic approach.

In Spider-Man 2, though, Insomniac intends to have its cake and eat it. Throughout the game, the studio revels in its growing ability to set scripted, cinematic scenes within its bustling, activity-peppered, open-world New York City — and to move seamlessly between the two, often in one swooping camera motion. It’s quite the power move, making Naughty Dog’s whole thing just one of the tools in Insomniac’s blockbuster toolbox.

It must be pleasing to Sony, too, which across its Los Angeles studios — also including God of War developer Santa Monica Studio — is building a kind of house style of blockbuster game-making on the foundations Naughty Dog laid in the PS3 era. Naughty Dog’s execution is arguably the most refined version of it — or the most consistent with its overall game design ethos. But with Insomniac, Sony has a studio that is willing and able to apply this dazzling formula to giant licenses like Spider-Man and the forthcoming Wolverine. It’s a guaranteed money-maker.

More importantly, it works. Spider-Man 2 is such an immensely confident and enjoyable game because it delivers on every part of the Spider-Man mythos: the web-slinging freedom, acrobatic action and colorful rogues’ gallery, certainly, but also the mixture of big and small stakes, the soapy melodrama, the stumbles of young people finding their way. And to do that, sometimes you need to bring the camera in, slow things down, and just take a stroll.

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