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When people talk about what makes Marvel’s Spider-Man and its follow-up about Miles Morales so great they usually talk about things like how it feels when you swing as Spider-Man, get into a fight, or look to grab all the collectibles scattered around the world. But without the depth supplied by truly amazing stories at the heart of both games, this would all feel like empty calorie experiences instead of the full meals that they are.
As you doubtlessly know, there’s a long history of Spidey in pop culture — in the comics, as Saturday Morning cartoons, earlier games, and across four distinct franchises — but these specific games rank right up there with some of the best in terms of story. Further, they distinguish themselves in such a way that they help to avoid some of the fatigue that can set in with superhero stories. Because these games lean into the charm of Spider-Man as a character and concept, offering stories that aren’t always larger than life or devoid of the kinds of entanglements and anxieties that we all feel. These are stories about people going through life, working through relationships, and coming to terms with who they are and what they can become.
So you’ve got your mechanics and your storytelling, but the key to these games and why they excel comes from the concerted effort to blend the two.
Let’s go back to those swing mechanics as an example since that’s part of these games. The cliche response is “You FEEL like Spider-Man,” but let’s go deeper: why do you feel like Spider-Man? It isn’t just because of the weight of each swing on the controller, but the different way that these characters move around. Peter Parker moves flings himself from building to building with the expertise of a longtime superhero that knows the city’s streets and alleys like the back of his hand. Every movement is determined and confident, born from years and years of experience.
Compare this to his eventual protege, Miles Morales. When players take a stroll in his shoes they’re now in the role of a teenage hero who doesn’t have quite the same level of mastery that a seasoned veteran like Peter Parker does. Not yet, at least. As a result, his swinging feels more awkward and he has moments where he looks like he doesn’t have full control over his movement, stumbling when he lands on ledges. But as time goes by, not only does the player become more skilled with his movement, but in turn so does Miles. An expert player utilizing Miles can transform his swinging action from awkward to stylish in a way that defines the experience of playing the game, aligning the player’s rising confidence levels with Miles’.
That’s not the only place where story and action meld masterfully. Where the game’s animation is at its best unsurprisingly comes from its cutscenes. Specifically, the emotional moments where you gain so much from being able to read — through body language and expressions — so much more than mere words can reveal. It’s these subtle moments that make these stories about Peter Parker and Miles Morales pop, leaving an impact that won’t soon fade from the player’s memory as they continue on.
There are a few specific examples that come to mind as the perfect example of this. One occurs when Peter Parker is texting his longtime lover, and current ex-girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson. They’ve been trying to potentially rekindle their relationship, but there are mixed feelings no doubt drawing on their long shared history that stand in the way. You can just feel the awkwardness in the scene as you watch Peter move around, weighed down by anxiety and other heady emotions.
This scene only works as well as it does because of the animations that play throughout it. The pacing, the way his eyes don’t stay static despite being in a suit. This is a minor moment in the overall story, but it’s so powerful for its vulnerability and relatability that you can’t deny its value to the game and your experience.
Another example of this is a huge spoiler, so turn back now if you haven’t already played these games, but when we see Peter’s face after defeating Doc Ock in the first game when he sees his mentor, the person he looked up to more than anyone else who has been trying to kill him throughout the game’s final act. This is the villain, and he’s heartbroken.
Peter’s face contorts and you can tell that he genuinely does not know what to do in this moment. Despite years of being Spider-Man, nothing has prepared him for this, and when he finally makes his choice you can feel the pain through the screen. It takes an already very emotional scene and connects you to this character in a powerful way. Once again, the game is blending story and action to pull the player in closer, aided by subtlety.
Fair warning, we have to spoil a key moment in Miles’ story as well. One that raises the bar on poignancy as we see the death of Miles’ friend, Phin.
Miles is doing his best to hold the energy he’s absorbed, but we can sense his anguish and the determination on Phin’s face when she decides what she needs to do. All before that final, heartwrenching sad smile.
Again, these games provide a total package that’s hard to pull off. It’s no wonder that a sequel starring both characters is on the way. Will that game be as successful as these two, both in terms of copies sold, craft, and complex storytelling? One only hopes because it’s a winning formula that elevates not just the material but blockbuster games on the whole.