in videogames

The moral clarity of Spider-Man

A few times each year, a videogame comes out that’s so fun and engrossing that it takes over my life for a couple of weeks. Beating the game becomes my obsession — I find it difficult to re-join a story-driven game after I’ve taken a week or two away from it.

Recently it’s happened with Horizon: Zero Dawn. Then a few months back with God of War. And now it’s happened with Marvel’s Spider-Man for PS4 (hereafter simply abbreviated Spider-Man), whose 20-hour campaign I just completed after about a week of play time.

Spider-Man is a revelation. Where previous Spider-Man games have been uneven at best, Spider-Man probably does the best job of capturing what it feels like to be Spider-Man: The constant pressure to do good in a city where crime is thriving, the challenge of balancing the mundane life of Peter Parker with the outlandish adventures of his alter-ego, the freedom of having Manhattan as your playground as you whiz through the air at terminal velocity. The game does this all while telling an engaging story that arguably does a better job of capturing the spirit of Spider-Man than even Spider-Man: Homecoming.

One of the reasons I think this game is so appealing is because it’s a throwback to a simpler time of storytelling. Spider-Man has a moral clarity to him that is absent in modern day stories (even those in the Marvel universe). He fights crimes. He tackles supervillains that are literally cartoonishly evil. In side quests, Spider-Man finds missing persons. He recovers lost pets. The guy even tries to solve global warming.

There’s something refreshing and pure about a character that just wants to make the world a better place. I wouldn’t describe it as naive; I’d describe it as emerging from a different time. There are the good guys (Spider-Man himself, the police, journalists), there are bad guys (privatized paramilitary organizations, Electro, etc.), and there are those that can be redeemed (no spoilers for the game here). There’s no such thing as collateral damage in this world — a phenomenon even Homecoming and the Avengers films have tried to reckon with. You see Spider-Man obliterate a city block to stop a villain but you never need to worry about the consequences of those actions.

We don’t really see stories like this anymore, and for good reason: the world is more complicated and endlessly politicized now. Our storytelling has gotten more complex and nuanced to keep up with it. The media’s position as a force for good in the world is complicated at best, as is the role of police. These days, the idea of a vigilante with superpowers who feels that he alone can solve everyone’s problems is more likely to raise alarm than put people at ease.

Maybe that’s why Spider-Man is so appealing: it gives us a glimpse into a world where simply having the best intentions and the willingness to sacrifice was enough to make a difference. I think we’d all like to see that world return. But I don’t think it will.

Here’s some other stuff I’ve appreciated from this past week: