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...Spins a Web? Any Size?

Spider-Man, Spider-Man,
Does whatever a spider can
Spins a web, any size,
Catches thieves just like flies
Look Out!
Here comes the Spider-Man.

Spider-Man has been a pop culture stalwart since the early 60s, with no signs of that slowing down. He's had numerous comic series, spin-offs, cartoons, blockbuster movies and, of course, video games. His appeal is unquestionable, as most people can relate to his dilemma of power and moral responsibility. The Atari 2600 Spider-Man from 1982 may not have been a masterpiece, but electronic gaming has come a long way over the years. After a break from video games since the PS2 generation, Marvel's Spider-man seemed a perfect fit for Captain Jumpy Andy's return to consoles. Little did he know when he picked up a PS4 and the game early in the 2020 pandemic just how appropriate the game's plotline would be... Prophetic or not, what does Never Say Dice have to say about this incarnation of the world’s favorite web-slinger, and how can it inform and inspire our tabletop games? - A

A: As mentioned above, before Marvel's Spider-Man, I don’t think I’d played a new game all the way through since about 2010. While I’ve popped in some classics from time to time, I hadn’t really tried anything new. A lot can change in ten years spent mostly away from games. But the reviews were good, and since I was getting a "free" copy when I finally decided to purchase a PS4 during a holiday sale, I figured I'd give games a chance again. Having last played a Spider-Man game in 2002, there's a lot I wasn’t prepared for. Falling, for one thing, was significantly deadlier back in 2002. With that fear still imprinted in my mind, my first foray into this new Spider-Man game was both exhilarating and terrifying. Spidey was fast. I could barely keep up with the webslinger as he traversed the tops of New York buildings, even though I was the one in control. I started to question if I even had the coordination and reflexes to play video games anymore.. something I've questioned many times in my approach toward middle age. My heartrate climbed quickly, and, before long, I took a break to calm down and approach the game later, when I'd have more time. Would I even be able to continue? My second attempt was calmer, and I quickly learned that falling was not nearly as bothersome as it used to be. Not only that, but, in general, this game was more forgiving of failure than I was used to. Bugsy, what brought you to this video game entry in our favorite wall-crawler’s universe?

Is he strong?

Listen bud,
He's got radioactive blood.
Can he swing from a thread?
Take a look overhead
Hey, there
There goes the Spider-Man.

B: I didn't have a lot of engagement with Spider-Man as a kid, aside from his entry in my beloved Encyclopedia of Superheroes and the occasional pop-up appearances in the pages of Marvel's Star Wars comics... and in Hostess ads, of course. Most of my interaction with our webslinging friend came, appropriately enough, in the form of video games in the "2D Beat 'Em Up" genre, starting with the (rightly) much-maligned Dr. Doom's Revenge on the Commodore 64, where Spidey shared top billing with Captain America (a character I had even less exposure to). I never made it all that far - the game was incredibly punishing (you had a single life and an unreplenishable health bar to last the whole game... not to mention a number of "instant game over" traps) combined with ridiculously long load times. I think the only reason I put as much time as I did into this superhero-themed Tomb of Horrors is that the graphics were so good, but to this day, the phrase "Robot Gorilla" makes me twitch.
 
A few years later, I had acquired myself a Sega Genesis and a handful of games, including two Maximum Carnage and its sequel Separation Anxiety, both featuring Spider-Man and Venom as playable characters. Being the "dark and edgy" 90s, these had a very different feel from the lighthearted earlier incarnations I'd previously experienced, with a muscular, meaner-looking webslinger and enemies that were either creepier and horror-influenced, or run of-the-mill 90s street criminals. The (now rather dated) newness provided a thrill of its own... but certainly didn't help me get any farther in the games the the first few levels.
 
Like Andy, Marvel's Spider-Man was one of the first games I purchased for the PS4. I had heard universal praise for it, and wanted to really flex the machine's muscles. Since the Sega days, I had become somewhat more familiar with the character, seeing the first two monumentally popular Sam Raimi films in the theater (with Andy, naturally) and having even had my own brief Marvel phase in college. While that had focused primarily on the X-Men and Doctor Strange, I still came out of it with a better understanding and more familiarity with our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

Something else I'd become familiar with was this style of game through the first two Batman Arkham games, which made comparisons inevitable, but also meant I was quickly able to get the hang of flinging both webs and punches. For a long time, I didn't actually bother progressing the story at all, and would just spend time swinging around the city and fighting small crimes as a way of winding down at the end of the day.

In the chill of night
At the scene of a crime
Like a streak of light
He arrives just in time.


A: I found jumping back into gaming with this game fairly impactful. I’ve been a huge fan of Spider-Man for a long time, and this is the best adaptation I've played -  probably one of the best electronic games I’ve ever played, period. Still, my passion tends to turn towards the tabletop. While I’ve toyed with the idea of creating Spidey himself in D&D, I’d prefer to focus on the other things we can learn from this game. One thing that stands out are the sheer number of abilities and power customization that comes with being Spider-Man. It did find myself struggling on occasion,though, with picking the best tool for the job at hand. This can come in tabletop RPGs as well. Many times I've pictured multi-classed characters with bandoliers of potions and loaded down with various weapons. This kind of inventory isn’t something normally talked about in gaming sessions (or, at least not mine). This might be something to keep in mind when describing critical failures: "You thought you were shooting the fire-imbued crossbow bolt, but you accidentally grabbed a poison one instead." These changes might not make much difference in how your games are played in terms of rules and mechanics, but you can see how they offer greater options for description, while also reminding the players that their suits of  armor and gadgets gear are important, and shouldn't be taken for granted. Bugsy, what aspects of Marvel's Spider-Man did you find inspiring for our own games and stories? Should we be incorporating more open-ended mini-quests like taking down King Pin’s bases or finding all the pigeons? 

Spider-Man, Spider-Man
Friendly neighborhood Spider-Man 
Wealth and fame 
He's ignored 
Action is his reward.
 
B: It's a funny thing, but sometimes trying to work out why something doesn't quite work for you can be just as, if not more, educational than studying something you really "click" with. This case with me and Marvel's Spider-Man. While the game was relaxing and fun for those short sessions I mentioned above, it never fully grabbed me enough to make it my gaming focus until about two-thirds of the way through, when there are a number of villains active and chaos is breaking out in the city. Looking back at my records, I see that I didn't finish the game until about a year and a half after starting it - and that was only with the increase in available time because of COVID and after starting and finishing a few other games since the start of the pandemic. That moment never happened, the switch that gets flipped and makes you go "this is what I want to be doing right now, this is what I want to immerse myself in."

Why was this the case? There didn't seem to be anything ostensibly wrong with it, and I certainly didn't dislike playing. I found myself thinking about this regularly, trying to quantify why one thing might "work" for me and another might simply... "fail to launch." In this case, I had the advantage of having a comparison point, as I had completed Arkham City almost exactly one year before starting Spider-Man. I admit that this might, itself, be a factor - that the games were similar enough for me to consider the newer title "more of the same," but there are differences in presentation and feel, both subtle and obvious. Of course, there should be, the two are ultimately going after different tones and different approaches to their source material. Spider-Man seeks to be an "ur-version" of the franchise, taking beloved elements from different iterations and uniting them into a whole work intended to please everyone. It manages to pull-off a surprisingly complex trick, satisfying both those looking for the feeling of jumping "in media res" into an ongoing story the way one might if they picked up an issue of the comics, but also satisfying those who want to see beginnings in the first installment of a series, by setting it after Peter has been Spidey-ing for a number of years and having experienced a lot of story, but also presenting the "origin story" of several notable villains. (I found the Doc Ock arc to be easily the most affecting in the entire game, and, as much as I love Alfred Molina, probably the best portrayal of the story I've seen yet.) The Arkham games, on the other hand, strive to be their own, unique version of the Bat-verse, showing their influences, but ultimately standing on their own in the tradition of numerous Batman graphic novels and limited run series over the decades.
 
In terms of implementation through setting and gameplay, though, the similarities are unavoidable, and finally comparing the two back-to-back (I had avoided Arkham City while playing Marvel's Spider Man to give the newer title a fairer chance) allowed me to better key in on the places where the games' respective creators had taken different paths. In examining the differences, I don't mean to say that one is inherently better than the other - quite the opposite. This is about how the differences affected me as an audience. If I were to pick one word to describe the differences in actually playing the the two, it would be "distance." There's the literal distance of the games' map sizes and display capabilities (these are from two different console generations, after all), but these greatly inform the design philosophy behind their respective settings. Spider-Man's New York is wide and expansive, and learning the to navigate the spaces between skyscrapers is a major part of acclimating to the game. But even at ground level, the streets are wide and there are open spaces to run across and move in. Arkham's Gotham City, on the other hand, is close and cramped, full of obstacles and complex routes. Gotham, of course, is inspired by New York in its various forms throughout the twentieth century, and, when viewed in close proximity, almost seems an alternate nightmare version of antique architecture and decay, abandoned buildings haunted by the cruelties and crimes of those who had once occupied them.
 
New York in Spider-Man is quite the opposite of that, it's bustling and lively... yet, also, oddly static. The trade-off of detail versus scope is understandable, development time and system resources are both limited, and Insomniac chose to emphasize freedom of movement and long-distance travel over specific, individual details - a lot of the city zooms by as you move through it, after all. But it's also populated with locals to engage with, whereas Gotham is starkly desolate, save goons to fight and a few civilians to rescue. Populated cities are always an issue in games like this, and many that focus on action tend to be inexplicably deserted. Arkham City at least provides a reason (albeit one lifted wholly from Escape from New York) and leans into the eeriness of a former urban center turned open-air prison. The locals also allow the player to get into the mindset of their respective characters: Spidey is part of his community - they comment on his presence, ask for selfies, and the player is even given the opportunities for "high-fives." For Bats, though, the only people in the world are criminals and their victims, and the game makes this very literal. It's cold, dark, lonely, and mean... but definitely made me feel like Batman (this version of him, at least).
 
On the other hand, I never much felt like Spider-Man, and distance can also describe the relationship of an audience to a work. The physics in Spider-Man feels somewhat weightless to me, intangible. In comparing the two, it occurred to me that this is intentional, and is the case for the same reason that the game's brilliantly conceived, omnipresent score - the game isn't really a superhero simulator, it's a superhero movie simulator, and movies, especially of this genre, require a certain distance between audience and subject. For the hero to feel powerful, we need a perspective a little closer to the mere mortals around them, and part of the fun is seeing the threat just before the heroes do so we can appreciate how they react to it. Arkham, though, takes great pains for players to experience being the Caped Crusader. In the bit I played before writing this post, I was amazed at the quality of the foley work, especially in combat. The punches sound close, thick and heavy, and the controller vibration is far stronger than in Spider-Man. The combination conveys a sense of weight to each impact, which, combined with close camera work, keeps us contained within the scene, in this fight, in this alley, in this cape - this time, the distance is negligible. The difference here doesn't solely come from narrative philosophy, of course, our fearless webslinger is a different character, with a different attitude and a different fighting technique: he's lighthearted, fighting playfully and cracking jokes, confusing and confounding enemies through constant motion, rather than the Dark Knight's slow, careful force. If we were zoomed in too closely here, the effect would be harder to convey, and likely present an overall less enjoyable experience.

So, what do we take away from all this, into our own stories and games? One thing to remember is that you can't make something that's perfect for everybody. I could very easily see someone coming away with the exact opposite experience from these two games - judging from reviews, plenty of people do. But that's okay. I still had fun playing the game, and I certainly don't regret the time I spent swinging around the city. So even if you can't make it just right, if you present something with care and keep the experience of your audience and players in mind, it will still be fun even for the folks that won't find themselves thinking back on it in the days to come. Another is that there are different approaches to narrative distance, and that keeping the distance you choose in mind will help to provide a more consistent experience. As discussed in our post on pain, there are degrees to which someone is inhabiting the body of the characters they are playing, watching, or reading about, and the required distance will be different for different genres, tones, and personal preferences. Some people will want the webslinger's wide view, and some will prefer the closeness of the Caped Crusader. Knowing which you're going for and structuring the narrative experience around that will draw your audiences and players in, metaphorically or otherwise.

To him, life is a great big bang up
Wherever there's a hang up
You'll find the Spider-Man!

Send comments and questions to neversaydice20@gmail.com or Tweet them @neversaydice2.




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