Spider-Man presents great characters and movement in a problematic world
Before I start, read this article because it better lays out this argument with full research and facts.
This game was $20 during the recent sale, and I finally gave in to my intrigue and jumped in.
Jumping, swinging, webbing, seeing, speaking, and feeling - the verbs of person to person interaction in Insomniac's game are stellar. It feels otherworldly and natural to be Spider-Man, both in his role as hero and in his personhood as a fleshed out character. And being Miles and MJ also, I thought, felt thoughtful and powerful. Miles' sections focus on subverting social rules and growing authoritarian regimes. MJ's focus on doing some dangerous but responsible journalism and annoyingly having to prove her worth to her ignorant boyfriend give her the best arc and empowerment in the game. Games aren't usually great at doing 8 complex story things at once, and this one does that brilliantly. MJ's introduction as she explores an auction display of now-incarcerated Wilson Fisk's collection has these impacts:
- it tells us about Fisk's values
- it foreshadows Martin Li's story
- it shows Fisk's continued criminal reach
- it introduces players to observing objects and stealth
- it introduces players to MJ breaking up with Peter because he was paternalistic
- it introduces MJ's ethical drive to expose systemic corruption
- it introduces MJ's willingness to break laws and protocol for the greater good
- it demonstrates why we, the players, need to value MJ's personhood
The game is rife with singular and extended moments that filled my mind with theme, story, and character in surprising and thoughtful ways.
It's also deeply satisfying to zip between enemies in combat, to rip their weapons from their hands, to tie them up and throw them around. It's fun to plummet and rise in dramatic fashion in gorgeous Manhattan streets.
And the game fundamentally does not understand evil. It's trying to see humanity in its villains, but there is no satisfying explanation for a mystic, exoticized jekyl-hyde turn for Li, nor a personal grudge leading to a willingness to kill millions with mega germ-warfare. Meanwhile the "crime" system of running across "thugs," "demons," "escaped prisoners," and "SABLE" authoritarians thoughtlessly casts evil onto desperation. The people I spent the majority of the game hurting, then, are an endless stream of coded black and brown assaulters and thieves, Chinese-immigrants wearing dehumanizing masks and wielding magic powers, orange-jumpsuit wearing black and brown escaped prisoners who for some reason just want to go back to jail, and a stand-in Eastern-European authoritarian paramilitary group with sci-fi weaponry.
Spider-Cop fighting all these people is problematic, in part, because it willfully ignores the realities of police brutality and systematic racism. The game is a playground for the fantasy that criminals are always armed, dangerous, sociopathic, and deserving of cop bullets and spider punches.
The worst example of this is the Rikers prison escape and resulting evil prisoner faction. As Alexandra notes in the piece above, the reality is Rikers is filled with low-level, non-violent drug offenders who are black and brown. The game, made in 2018, written by people thoughtful enough about gender to have MJ and Aunt May be the most likable and valuable humans in the whole adventure, has a scene where black and brown prisoners are hanging onto a police car as it veers around the chaotic prison yard, their arms flailing as they presumably try to break into a fast-moving vehicle.
It's like the game was playing coy with its broken, racist depiction of crime and felt the need to really shove it in my face. Having a sequence where Spider-Man enthusiastically, and still quippilly, stops a prison escape with his fists while following the orders of the police while prisoners' barks and actions all prove they are no-gooders filled with hate and the need for violence is despicable.
Then it doesn't end. Added to my requirements for 100% district clearance are prisoner missions and bases, the latter showing black and brown prisoners, still in orange prison jumpsuits (which Rikers doesn't even have), building makeshift encampments from which to launch their crimes of hostage taking and assault.
It's ridiculously bad politics built on this idea of unrepentant monster criminals who only want to burn and hurt. If a magic octopus man broke me out of prison where I was most likely suffering for a minor crime a white kid would pay a fine for, first thing I'd do would be to change clothes, get the hell away from everyone else, find my family, and find a good ACLU lawyer that could take my case.
The ignorance and disrespect for unfree humans necessary to create this sequence blows apart, for me, the care and expertise put to all the rest.
And the game does understand corporate evil and wealth inequality. Norman Osborn, J. Jonah. Jameson, and Wilson Fisk are obvious split stand-ins for Trumpian evil - unlimited wealth aimed at political power, conspiracy theories for self-aggrandizement and public fear, and crony corruption and violence to control a country. That makes this total fuck-up around how crime and imprisonment and racism work all the more galling.
I want to know what Insomniac would say about all of this. I want to know if they thought a more critical and complex view of the injustices of the criminal justice system would be too heavy for a game where we see hundreds of civilians murdered, children kill their parents, and homeless people thoughtfully shown as people.
They include an entirely separate police-like force of SABLE International to set up border checks and imprison civilians for protesting. Beating down authoritarianism is allowed only when they are outsiders encroaching on America, not a police force rolling tanks into Harlem.
To understand that homeless shelters and job training are the public good where the game should have its hub, to understand that fascism and unchecked wealth and power are bad, but see crime and prisoners as animalistic acts of evil people needing violence is an astounding combination of social reality and unreality.
The deeply troubling fact is that I could jump back in right now and enjoy trying to get huge combos in combat. I completed all the side missions. I saw what this game was doing and completed it. If game designers can be so successful in so many ways that they can create this duality of dismay and delight, that is a responsibility that needs constant attention and care. I believe Insomniac is capable of doing better.
Play this game if you haven't. It's art worth engaging with and experiencing. It's deeply flawed. I hope Insomniac rethinks their conceptualization of evil and empowerment of violent law enforcement in their next Spider-Man game.