Tag Archives: Spider-Man

The Joy of Exploring

I continue to be endlessly fascinated by Breath of The Wild’s open world. Since the last time I talked about the game I’ve taken on one more Divine Beast, but I still spend so much of my time exploring Hyrule and trying to find everything.

Which of course makes me wonder why I find this wandering so satisfying. I have a completionist streak in me, a part of me that wants to finish everything. Get all the dang feathers in Assassin’s Creed II, unlock every character in LEGO Avengers, get the Platinum Trophy in Burnout Paradise. Open world games are thus a scary beast for me; sure, it’s fun to explore and stuff, but I also want to Do All The Things. I’m terrified of missing something, of there being some little nugget of fun that I glossed over.

In many ways, I’m very grateful for the map and its icons in Spider-Man. One glance and I know if there’s still stuff to do in any given neighborhood, I know if I’m missing anything. There’s a bit of a freeing feeling when you have that reassurance that you’ll be able to get to it later and there’s no harm in running up the Empire State Building again. Since it’s so clear what I ‘have’ to do in the game, the potential shenanigans are too.

Conversely, Breath of The Wild is absolutely taciturn with its goals. Sure, there’s a quest tracker, but beyond that you’re in the wind. The map is barebones, displaying only region names and the occasional marker for towns once you discover them. Those shrines and Korok scattered everywhere? Yeah, they’re only added after you find them. Massive monsters, treasure, and all those other little secrets will forever remain unmarked, unless you manually add a note to the map.

Hyrule is yours to explore, there’s very little in the way of guides to where things are or even how many of something there is (how many Shrines are there? I haven’t a darn clue). It’s kinda terrifying, there’s So Much to this world, and no way to know how much there is — unless I break out a guide or something.

Yet I’ve made peace with knowing that I might not be able to find Every Last Thing. Wandering Hyrule and discovering its secrets is fun enough in and of itself, plus there’s usually one of those Koroks hiding on the top of that really-hard-to-reach pillar. In Breath of The Wild I’m enjoying the journey.

Maybe this is because the Switch doesn’t have Trophies, and I know that it won’t make a difference if I’m missing one or two shrines in the run of it. I don’t have the pressure of a checklist of things to do while I play. Now, I do like Trophies; I like challenges to do on the side as I play the game. But the lack of them in Wild means I can really do whatever I want and not have some background concern that I’m not doing everything as it should be.

There’s also not really too much of an overbearing narrative in Breath of The Wild. Sure, there is the whole assemble the Divine Beasts and fight Ganon thing; but there’s little pressure beyond that. Link doesn’t say to himself “Hm, I oughta get to saving Hyrule.” In practice, doing whatever you want may as well be the story as it happens, and it’s so much better for that.

Hyrule is a world for you, as Link, to explore as you please. It’s baked into its DNA in a way that no number of expertly crafted side quests could ever muster.

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Spiders

Comics are weird. Especially superhero comics. There are people who come back to death, people with weird powers, people who lose those weird powers but then get them back when they come back to life. Also, y’know, aliens and monsters and crazy science crap.

Like I said, weird.

There are also multiple universes, and so multiple versions of characters. There’s a version of Captain America where she’s the biracial daughter of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones and beats up a version of MODOK who looks like a certain American politician. There’s one where Mr. Fantastic is a villain, like, the villain.

And, of course, there is a ridiculous number of variations on Spider-Man. A lot of them are, of course, Peter Parker in one form or another. Spider-UK is a British Spider-Man. The Ultimate universe saw a return to a younger Peter, one who, incidentally, dated Kitty Pryde for a while. And out there somewhere is Spiders-Man, wherein Peter Parker’s consciousness was passed on to a horde of spiders (it’s weird).

The Spider-Verse event from a few years ago saw a whole mess of Spiders teaming up to fight the Inheritors, a group of pseudo-vampires who feed on the essence of spider-powered beings across the multiverse. A variety of new (and old) Spiders were (re)introduced; including Spider-Gwen, from Earth-65, where Gwen Stacy was bitten by the radioactive spider and so got the powers. Spider-Verse saw these Spiders teaming up together, so the Spider-Man from Marvel VS Capcom used fighting moves, and the Spider-Man from an old Japanese show had a giant robot.

Essentially, the Marvel universe has a bunch of different Spider-People, and sometimes they hang out (and one version of Gwen Stacy gets to complain about getting, and I quote, “fridged off a bridge”). It’s definitely pretty outlandish, and also something pretty unique to comics.

And now we have the movie Enter The Spider-Verse. I’m going to forgo talking about how the film’s animation style is a love letter to comics and just focus on the story of it all, namely how multiverses play a huge role and we’ve a bunch of different Spiders.

Quick rundown of the dramatis personae: in addition to Miles, the Spidey-in-training, you’ve Peter Parker, an experienced Spider-Man from his universe; Gwen Stacy, Spider-Gwen who knows what she’s doing; Spider-Man Noir, a hard-boiled guy who’s literally in black and white; Peni Parker, who’s basically from an anime; and Peter Porker, who’s, um, a pig, but also Spider-Man (Spider-Ham, to be exact).

Miles, our protagonist, gets to interact with four alternate versions of Spider-Man, each of whom provide a different take on the character, and, for Miles, a different version of who he could be. Much of Miles’ arc revolves around him learning how to be Spider-Man and what all that means. For a good chunk of the movie, that means he’s trying to emulate a Peter Parker, wearing a knock-off of another Spider-Man’s costume, playacting at being someone else. He is not his own hero yet, rather he is attempting to be someone else. It is no spoiler, then, that Miles’ self-actualization sees him making his own suit; one that is uniquely him. He’s the only one who can really decide what to do with the powers that’s been given to him — and with it the responsibility.

The central tension in so many great Spider-Man stories is that of power and responsibility. How does Peter (or Gwen, or Miles) navigate that space between the two, that fatalistic flaw of needing to use that power to protect, but at the cost of one’s own well-being? The multiversal nature of Spider-Man allows for a multitude of interpretations and interactions, tackling these themes from a host of different angles. Events like Spider-Verse let these characters team-up and has their takes on power and responsibility clash or feed off each other. So then we have Into The Spider-Verse, where Miles sees these different takes on who he could be. It’s up to him to figure out just who that is, what is expected of him and what he will do. By having all these different versions of Spider-Man, Miles is given the space to create his own.

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Mary Jane Watson

One thing I love so much about Spider-Man is how so much of the narrative can be stripped down to its archetypes. Peter Parker is an unlucky kid who’s suddenly had this great power thrust upon him. Otto Octavius is a genius scientist doomed for tragedy. And Mary Jane Watson is the girl next door.

A lot of the fun of the various incarnations of Spidey, be it different adaptations or reimaginings across the multiverse (see: Spider-Punk or Spider-Ham), is seeing how the play with the familiar narrative. Spider-Man is so deeply embedded in the popular consciousness that it’s a barrel of fun seeing what each new story will do.

All this to say I absolutely love Insomniac’s take on Spider-Man in the eponymous video game. Peter is a wisecracking twenty-something who always seems at the very end of his rope. Octavius is a down-on-his-luck scientist who genuinely wants to make the world a better place. And Mary Jane, well she’s a particularly great part.

The classic Spider-Man mythos is has a bit of a problem with its women. Gwen Stacy was, up until recently, best known for getting fridged by a death that haunts Pete. Mary Jane’s primary feature is that she’s the hot girl Peter has longed for for ages. This has been rectified a bit recently: an alternate universe Gwen Stacy was the one who got bitten by a radioactive spider and, upon finding out about the main universe’s Gwen’s fate, outright expresses disgust at being, and I quote, “fridged off a bridge.” The Spider-Gwen comics also had her confronting the fact that so many versions of Gwen Stacy die falling from a bridge and reclaiming that aspect of her character’s history. It’s all really cool and Spider-Gwen has long been one of the comics I most look forwards to.

Insomniac’s Spider-Man does work to make MJ more of an interesting character (though not to the extent that Spider-Gwen remains instructs Gwen Stacy). In this story, she’s not a model or actress, but rather an investigative journalist for the Daily Bugle. She’s someone who’s decidedly good at what she does, and her job gives her opportunity to get up close with the action.

In fact, it’s some such investigation into the rise of a new gang in the city that leads to her and Peter running into each other again. You, as player, are also given the opportunity to play as Mary Jane as she sneaks around. So not only is she given a more active role in the narrative, but the mechanics of the game are used to put MJ front and center. In games like Spider-Man playing as ay character is an important thing. Strong characterization is mixed with the immersive nature of games; the goals and fragility of the character become your own (consider how powerful it is in The Last of Us to play as Sarah during the opening).

Gameplay-wise, the MJ segments aren’t perfect. Compared to webzipping Spidey, MJ’s sneaking and waiting varies a lot in how good it is. Much of the action is very scripted, with there usually being one way to get through the stage which leaves little room for player creativity or choice. But they are heavy in atmosphere and shine the spotlight on MJ who, as it happens, is quite wonderful.

Her journalistic chops and contacts make her a valuable ally of Peter’s (she knows he’s Spider-Man in this one, which also means for a complex and interesting dynamic). She’s a bold character, someone who willingly sticks her nose in trouble, even when it’s inarguably a bad idea. Her relationship with Peter is a complex one; they were together for a while and have been broken up for a while when the game begins. What’s real neat though, is that even still there’s a mutual attraction; MJ isn’t some unattainable goal for Peter, they’re both really into each other and things just didn’t work out last time. This distinction is important: MJ’s not the prize for Peter being good at Spider-Man and/or life, she doesn’t date him because he does x-y-z to impress her; she’s into him, she likes him for, well, him. Their whole chemistry is very mutual. All in all, she’s an interesting character and is a delightful reimagining of her.

It’s always interesting to see how stories reinvent themselves. You’ve the retcon of how Captain Marvel got her powers from a few weeks ago that was really cool, for example. And Insomniac’s Spider-Man puts a spin on Mary Jane that made her into one of my favorite characters in the game. Her and Spider-Man’s friend in the NYPD, Yuri Watanabe. Also Aunt May’s really cool in the game too.

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Spidey’s New York

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.

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I’m Swinging Here

It wasn’t long after I first moved to New York that I found myself really wanting to be Spider-Man.  Not for having spider-like strength or the responsibility entailed; nah, what I really wanted were those web-shooters. Confronted by the architectural chasms that make up the city’s downtown, I figured that being able to swing from building to building would really help me get to class quicker. I’m sure there’s something to be said there for how ingrained the mythos of Spider-Man has become in my consciousness that that was my first response to figuring out a quicker commute (and not, I dunno, a bike), but this isn’t what this rant essay is about.

This one’s about New York.

I played The Division because it was set in Manhattan and I wanted to explore a virtual recreation of it. Much of my disappointment of the game is due to its failure to really capture the essence of New York. Granted, The Division is set in an apocalyptic envisioning of the city, where society has very much gone to the dogs, but there’s still something missing. A lot of this has to do with the visuals; the draw distance of the game is frustratingly short, with anything more than a few blocks away obscured by the fog. This means you can’t look up and see the Empire State Building poking up above the buildings over the horizon, and a lot of the sense of place that New York can afford is hampered due to the sameishness of buildings and neighborhoods with drab colors (again, fitting for the genre, but disappointing that it’s a staple). New York didn’t feel like New York. It felt like it could be any old city, albeit one with certain landmarks. I know the city, and I didn’t really recognize it.

 

Enter Spider-Man, a new game by Insomniac that just came out. It’s, obviously, set in New York because, well, Spider-Man. To my immense joy, the New York of Spider-Man feels like New York. The big question though, is why.

 

Part of it’s the vibe. When you’re on the ground there are people everywhere, yelling at you or ignoring you (as New Yorkers are wont to do with any oddity). You’ll find people doing yoga in the park, hanging out on rooftops, and stuck in traffic. Food carts are all over the place; there’s that verisimilitude that makes the city feel real.

But let’s strip the city of its people; as Spider-Man you’re swinging through the city and seldom walking the sidewalks. What is it about the virtual city that makes it feel like the real one? Why does it feel right?

The New York of Spider-Man is far from a 1:1 recreation. Washington Square Park is way too close to Houston Street and Union Square is tiny, with the blocks between it and the church south of it excised entirely. It’s totally fine, though, because Spider-Man knows it can’t possibly recreate New York exactly and instead aims to capture the feeling of the feeling of the city. There’s just enough of it there and in the right place to evoke New York; a vision of the city authentic enough to please, well, me.

As Spider-Man, I’ve swung myself up to a rooftop and used the relative location of the Empire State Building or the game’s ersatz One World Trade Center to quickly orientate myself. While exploring downtown I tried to get my bearing and noticed a building I’ve walked past countless times in real life and instantly knew I was on Houston and Lafayette.

The game keeps you moving, the swinging mechanic is so much fun that exploring is a delight in and of itself; Propel yourself up in the air and you’ll see buildings all the way to the rivers and tall landmarks (including fictional ones like Avengers Tower!) tower over their surroundings. As Manhattan whizzes by, though, you see the neighborhoods change. FiDi looms over downtown, Chinatown’s signage is appropriately in Chinese, the High Line is there running near the Hudson. Because traversal in the game is so much fun — and fast — you will see so much of Manhattan and, much like in the real city, you’ll stop paying too much attention and suddenly find yourself in a new neighborhood with a new vibe.

I actually haven’t played too much of Spider-Man’s story. Every time I start up the game I get captivated by the city and swinging it around. Part of it is because, like I said before, the mechanic of swinging is so much fun. But a lot of it has to do with that wish fulfillment of the game; finally I’m able to swing from building to building and maybe get where I’m going on time. It’s in a game, yes, but it’s in a game that captures the New York I know and love.

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Haven’t We Heard This Before?

Spider-Man’s a superhero whose central theme is conveniently spelled out for us: with great power comes great responsibility. And it’s a great one too. A nobody gets given amazing powers and has to learn what to do with them. It’s a pretty essential part of most incarnations of Spider-Man, be it Miles Morales or even more recently when it’s Gwen Stacy that gets bitten by the radioactive spider and becomes Spider-Woman. It’s always that balance of power and knowing what to do with it.

When there comes time for a cinematic Spider-Man that’s the theme of the (two) hour(s). In Sam Raimi’s original film, Peter Parker’s irresponsibility is what gets Uncle Ben killed, and his acceptance of his responsibility leads to him fighting Green Goblin. The conflict of the second Spider-Man is him giving up the mask, only to take it back up because he’s the only one who can stop Doc Ock. In Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man we see Uncle Ben die (again), providing the impetus for Peter to use his powers to stop crime. Powers, responsibility, and Peter Parker reluctantly being the hero.

So Spider-Man: Homecoming seems to have its theme waiting for it: responsibility and all that (most likely through the death of Uncle Ben). Except Peter is already Spider-Man. And Uncle Ben is already dead. And Peter really likes being Spider-Man.

Right here this sets up a different sort of superhero narrative. The usual internal conflict for a superhero is their unwillingness to do the heroing (and so the climax is them deciding to hero). Tony Stark becomes Iron Man out of a sense of guilty responsibility, not for the fun of it. Thor’s a self-serving blowhard who learns humility. Batman operates out of a just vengeance. Spider-Man usually Spider-Mans out of a sense of responsibility. But this Spider-Man really likes crimefighting; he gets a thrill out of the heroics. In fact, he wants more: he wants to be an Avenger. Like Iron Man.

It’s hard to give an eager hero internal obstacles. Tony Stark is hung up on guilt and the idea that he has to do it alone which makes things difficult for him. The Guardians have to overcome their infighting and greed to fight Ronan. Even Captain America questions if it’s worth it. But Homecoming‘s Peter is go-go-go. He’s got the power, and he’s fighting crime with it. Where’s the classic Spider-Man theme?*

Here’s part of Homecoming‘s genius. Responsibility in this movie doesn’t just mean crimefighting and heroing, it’s the reason for doing so. Peter, in the aftermath of taking part in Civil War‘s airport battle, wants to be an Avenger. He wants in on the big leagues. He bugs Happy Hogan to tell Tony about what he’s doing and he chases the Vulture because this is his chance to make it big.

The film’s climax, and Peter’s self-actualization, comes when Peter decides to hero not for the glory or to impress Tony, but instead to save the day. It may not sound like a huge difference, but, without spoiling anything, the film makes the distinction clear. It’s when Peter heroes for the greater good and not for himself, that he becomes a real hero. Spider-Man Homecoming is still a movie where Spider-Man learns a lesson in responsibility, it just plays out differently than usual.

We’ve had enough versions of Spider-Man over the past fifteen-odd years for the idea of a new Spider-Man to be met with a hint of tiredness. Here we go again, Spider-Man has to learn how to Spider-Man and responsibility. And Homecoming is about that, but it handles it in a much different manner than prior renditions. You don’t need an edgy and avant garde narrative with brand new everythings to tell a new story. Sometimes just digging into your core theme is enough. I think that’s why Homecoming is able to be quintessentially Spider-Man while still feeling incredibly refreshing. Jon Watts and the team didn’t feel the need to completely reinvent Spider-Man, rather they explored the story a bit more and found something new.

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Not Another Peter Parker

I’ve had a relatively busy couple weeks, which means less time to see movies and play new games, so more yammering on about recent events (either that or wax on about Agent Carter again, but I’m waiting on that one.

So let’s talk about new news, comic book news. Namely, Spider-Man’s going to be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as opposed to standing alone. Which is cool, because we’ll finally get to see Spidey swinging on the big screen while Iron Man and Cap stare disapprovingly. But then, a new Peter Parker’s being cast, thereby throwing out Andrew Garfield and giving us what’ll be the third live-action Peter Parker in barely twenty years. In other words, we’ve got ourselves another Spider-Man reboot.

Another!?

I really enjoyed Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, more so than Tobey Maguire. He struck me as feeling more like a teenager, felt a bit more true to my idea of Pete. Then there’s the question as to why we even need a reboot in the first place. The original Amazing Spider-Man would have worked in fairly neatly with the MCU, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, though a narrative train-wreck, hit a key moment of the Spidey mythos that could really deepen future installments. But fine, an all-new Spider-Man. Again.

I think some of my disappointment/frustration on this part stems from the fact that we’re getting another Peter Parker. I do wish Marvel had been willing to really shake things up. Why not have Miles Morales as Spider-Man? Sure, they’d have to play around with his backstory some, but it’d be really interesting to have someone else in the suit (and also because I still want to see Donald Glover as Spider-Man, even if he’s steadily outgrowing the role). We’d get a really new Spider-Man with a new inner-life and a new arc. And a little diversity doesn’t hurt once in a while. Granted, Peter has his, well, Parker-ness – but that’s been done. I want things to move on. Heck, at this point, why not really upend things and throw Spider-Gwen in, or even Mayday Parker or, heck, anyone but Peter Parker.

What’s especially bothersome, is that because of Spider-Man’s inclusion on the Marvel slate, Black Panther, Inhumans, and – most importantly – Captain Marvel have all had their release dates pushed back (And Thor: Ragnarok, but that’s not important at the moment). We’ve just had Marvel turn a bunch of no-name superheroes into megastars, and Ant-Man, another lesser-known hero, has a movie due out in a few months. It’s disappointing to see them take such a safe bet.

Now, yes, Spidey in the MCU is really cool. If they use him right, he can bring a new point of view to the series; he’s usually the kid, he’s a bit naive, and he’s not as mature as the other heroes of the MCU. Like Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel who’s arguably the new Peter Parker of the comics. A movie about her would be a welcome addition.

But hey. Kevin Feige’s involved and he’s proven that he knows what he’s doing and Spider-Man brings with him characters like Jessica Drew and Venom, so that’s cool. I’m bummed that the new movie will be pushing back fresh faces and I do wish that if we had to have a new Spider-Man that it’d be someone else after under the cowl. But the movie’s not out yet, so who knows, maybe it’ll be really good.

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