Content Warning: I'm going to be talking about the 2018 Spider-Man game in an explicitly political context. A lot of points here were made back in 2018 by more talented writers than I, but I just finished the game, and it hit very differently in 2020. If political stuff in games isn't your bag, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. Oh, also, spoiler warning.
Lukewarm takes in 3... 2... 1...
I just played through Marvel's Spider-Man for the first time. It's a ton of fun, but holy shit, is it clueless about the police, and structural power in general. I know that a -- lot -- of -- people -- have brought this up, but it hits like a ton of bricks given the current nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality. I'm not interested in setting the forums on fire and insta-locking this thread, but it's sufficient to say that the police as a whole, and the NYPD in particular has come under intense renewed scrutiny after the murder of George Floyd.
Having seen these protests unfold, it's safe to say I viewed Spider-Man's actions and totally uncritical support of the police in a much harsher light than even the previously linked writers. As noted in the Deadspin article, one of the earliest side activities is breaking up drug deals and beating up everyone involved. Peter has a few quips here, and they're mostly innocuous if a little tone deaf, like (paraphrase), "Beating drugs is what I'm the most passionate about!" or something like that. But every once in a while, he'll say, "If you just got real jobs you wouldn’t have to work so hard at being criminals!" which, ew. Ew ew ew. It's also real weird playing a game in which you help the police repair surveillance equipment built by a private contractor, in the same time as Baltimore getting literal spyplanes (that catch very few criminals, and mostly keep tabs on protesters, BTW). There is some definite copaganda-lite in the portrayal of Jefferson Davis, the Rikers Island riots (notice how most of the thugs you fight or see are intentionally white, when the population of Rikers is overwhelmingly people of color?).
The urgency in portraying these issues more responsibly in our media has been renewed by current events, but again, these issues have all been brought up before. What struck me most, and that didn't seem to get much attention back at the time of release, was its portrayal of protests and pandemic.
Oh yeah, we're going there. Remember how that game has a deadly disease threaten New York, putting the city in lockdown? And not like the usual comic book "oh no, Joker is going to put clown poison in Gotham's water main!" but an actual disease, Devil's Breath, gets out and threatens the lives of thousands and (SPOILER) AUNT MAY DIES OF IT.
OOOOOOOF that was the last thing I expected to see while unwinding with an open world game.
The portrayal of New York's reaction to the pandemic is totally fine, there's nothing that rubbed me the wrong way there. That being said, there is a side activity in this section of the game that has you rescue protesters who have been unlawfully detained by Sable International, a trigger-happy PMC occupying New York at Mayor Osborn's behest. After you beat up the bad men with lasers, the protesters do the usual superhero prostrations, "Thank you Spider-Man," etc., Peter lays out one of his quips. He says, and I kid you not,
"Love the spirit of protest! But maybe hold off until after we're in a state of emergency."
It's a small thing, and it's not close to the weirdest part, politically, of this game, but that was kind of the straw that broke the camel's back for me. Telling people to not protest until things are safer is a seemingly innocuous request. After all, individuals, in general, shouldn't put themselves at undue risk -- but our trying modern times have revealed the fallacies in this thinking. In the context of COVID, Black Lives Matter protesters are out en masse at a time when people of color are the ones disproportionately being exposed to COVID anyway, due to their prevalence in "essential" and service jobs, and the lack of a financial cushion to stay home from work. That protests are increasing COVID cases is an unapologetically anti-protest argument, disproven by the data. If that's a little too "outside the text", even grounded within the game's events alone this quip makes no sense. These civilians are protesting at a time when Sable has the city under, essentially, martial law-lite. Sable Outpost missions show that people who aren't protesting are being detained and robbed of their valuable possessions, as well. So what else can the ordinary, non-web-swinging citizens of Virtual New York do but protest? To tell them to do otherwise is to tell them to do nothing, to continue to put their faith and immediate well-being in the hands of the institutions that failed them in the first place. In Sable, who locks them up. In the NYPD, who, throughout the game's runtime, seems powerless to stop even simple muggings, let alone super-villainous schemes. In Mayor Osborn, who is responsible for bringing those super-villains about through his actions. In Spider-Man, who in this portrayal is not "one of the people" so much as the staunchest defender of established power.
Sure, outside of the suit, Peter Parker has blue collar woes. He isn't paid for his work; he gets evicted from his apartment; he's clearly outside the nexus of privilege. But when he does don the suit of Spider-Man, he spends less story time defending ordinary citizens, and more time tirelessly defending the rich and powerful. He fixes the NYPD's surveillance towers, he spends the entire back half of the story trying to convince Mr. Negative and Doc Oc not to kill Norman Osborn, proclaiming that he will see justice for what he has done. Yet -- and this is a very important "yet" for a game that tries so hard to be a movie -- we never see this "justice" on screen. We never see any trials, any legal or political action taken against Norman Osborn. In our last shot of him, we see him wearing the same incredibly expensive-looking suit and tie in his nice apartment, so... in visual language, and what we actually see on screen, he faces zero repercussions for his actions. There isn't even an implied reckoning, just Spider-Man's word. Which is usually pretty good, but in this game, I'm not so sure.
I feel kind of bad taking a comic-book/video-game story to task so hard, in a story that otherwise has lots of great things going for it, and indeed, the game as a whole was a pleasure to play through. Maybe I'm overthinking it. It's nothing new for a game story to accidentally trip into hot water when trying to say nothing, especially in regard to charged topics like the police. I suppose, in the long run, this game isn't the worst offender, like The Outer Worlds. (Maybe both sides are right, and there's a compromise down the middle? Um, not in this scenario you've presented, Obsidian, no.)
If it's not the worst offender, though, then what Marvel's Spider-Man is, is complacent.
A line about Oscorp harvesting user data here, a mission calling heavily armored goons walking the streets in the name of law and order "fascists" there. Moments like these show that the writers and narrative designers of the game had their finger on the pulse -- they just chose not to do anything with it. And not having hot takes in your game isn't a crime, in 2018 it was pretty unremarkable. I'm also sure several elements of the game, story included, had to go through Disney approval, of "here's an off-screen guy saying he's gay in Endgame so we can edit it out for Chinese markets" fame. This is a game that was willing to say, "yes, militarized policing of communities is fascist," but wasn't willing to point out that we were already there. The folks throwing protesters in vans and arresting them without cause are not laser-wielding, jetpack-adorned Sable troopers -- they're plain clothes officers and Federal troops. Here. Now.
And in the here and now, complacency helps no one but those already benefiting from the status quo.
Sidenote, I'll be incredibly curious to see how Spider-Man: Miles Morales follows up on these issues, given that Miles is black and Insomniac are smart enough designers/writers to not drive straight into the same thorny discussions again, especially in our current moment.
If you stuck through and read the whole way through, thank you! Please be civil in the replies. I'm not saying the game sucks (again, I really liked playing it), some of the story and theme decisions just left a sour taste in my mouth. I'm not looking for every videogame, especially every mass-marketed AAA video game, to be some nuanced meditation on its subject matter; that being said, this felt like one of those cases where the creatives involved thought they were saying nothing controversial but were actually putting forward some, both contemporarily and in hindsight, kind of awful takes, and that frustrated me.