Narratives are a two way street. What you bring to them is what you get out of them.
So let’s talk Spider-Man, the video game (again).
Spider-Man, of course, takes place in New York. Because, well, duh. Now, I happen to live in New York and have lived here for most of the past six years. I went to college at NYU Gallatin down in the Village and lived in a semi-crappy apartment (okay, pretty crappy, it was a six floor walkup and there was no sink in the bathroom, but, hey, roof access!) on 14th for a couple years and have called Astoria, Queens home for over a year now (this apartment has a sink in the bathroom, but no roof access — the tradeoffs you make). Needless to say, I have a bit of a soft spot for New York.
That Spider-Man offers up an open world with a terrific approximation of Manhattan is an absolute delight. It mayn’t be a 1:1 recreation, but it captures the idea of the island well enough that that I instinctively know my way around and get momentarily lost when things aren’t quite where they should be (the distance in between Union Square and Stuy Town is a touch too long). As such, right off the bat, I feel a personal connection with the virtual city, thereby creating a bit of an emotional narrative to my swinging around the city.
When I go through Washington Square Park I’m also going through a park where I’ve worked on homework and had snowball fights. I instinctively recoil when I realize I’m going through Times Square; Lincoln Center is where I graduated from college. In many ways, this open world is loaded, I’m not just exploring and beating up bad guys in 80s Afghanistan or a post-apocalyptic Colorado, I’m in the place I’ve lived and worked. Alongside that, I’m in a place that Peter Parker himself loves.
Though I will wax poetic about how wonderful Spider-Man’s open world is, it’s no real slouch in the narrative department either. Throughout the game it’s reinforced how much Pete loves the city; yes, he bears a burden to protect it — a burden that often interferes with his personal life — but it’s also a city he protects out of love. This can be small things like the quips he makes when taking photos of certain landmarks (Empire State University — the game’s ersatz NYU — is home to some of the best years of his life… and loans), or his dialogue while crimefighting. As players, we come to love the city because Pete loves it. There’s also the experiential nature of video games. Because you spend so much of the game swinging through Manhattan, you come to get to know the city and take a modicum of ownership over it (you chased out the Kingpin’s goons!). So when villains start trouble, they’re threatening your city. You get invested in the place, simply by being there.
That said, this is a place I know, and because I bring my own New York-related baggage to the game, it all takes on another level of import to me. Characters walking along the Highline isn’t just window dressing, it’s something I’ve done and so has personal meaning. Consider a tv show like Stranger Things; though it’s science fiction and something of a period piece, someone who’s lived in small town America will relate to a bunch of kids navigating the world; anyone who’s spent too-many-hours on an RPG campaign will immediately latch onto the kids with their all-day D&D campaigns. These little bits of projection/empathy aren’t necessary to enjoy the story, but they add another layer of depth to the story that, often times, makes it a little more personal.
I adore Spider-Man’s open world in a way I don’t usually. Part of that is probably due to how well crafted it is; but most of it is definitely because, hey, I’m exploring my city. I’ve talked with some friends who also have the game, and we’ve spent as much time nerding out about getting to explore the city we know as we have the more game-y side of it. My often lament about open world games is how they don’t really end, how there’s always something more to do and completion is less narrative closure and more 100% and a Platinum Trophy; but as I watch my completion percentage in Spider-Man steadily rise (I just passed 90%) I’m starting to dread the game ending. I want to spend more time in this virtual New York.