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:

The madness of GameStop

Most experiences I’ve had at GameStops have been positive. The staff has been knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and helpful. But between the piles of used games, the warranties, and the endless tchotchkes everywhere, I’ve always felt like employees are tasked to upsell like their lives depended on it.

I had no idea. Jason Schreier over at Kotaku has written up a pretty nutso description of what GameStop employees are expected to do:

The program, called “Circle of Life,” gives each GameStop store different percentage quotas for 1) pre-orders; 2) reward card subscriptions; 3) used game sales; and 4) game trade-ins. Each of these quotas is based on the store’s total transactions. Pre-orders and reward cards subscriptions are based on the number of transactions, while used game sales and trade-ins are based on the total dollar value of transactions. If a store’s quota for used game sales is 30%, and the store sells $1,000 worth of merchandise, GameStop expects at least $300 of that merchandise to be pre-owned […]

The more new games an employee sells, the more used games they’ll have to sell to make up for it. In other words, according to salespeople speaking to Kotaku and elsewhere on the internet, GameStop is incentivizing employees to stop people from buying new games and hardware. GameStop staff say the company has threatened to fire people who don’t hit these quotas, which is leading to all sorts of scuzzy tactics.

“We are telling people we don’t have new systems in stock so we won’t take a $300 or $400 dollar hit on our pre-owned numbers,” one GameStop employee told me in an e-mail, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to press. “This is company wide and in discussions with my peers it is a common practice. We also tell customers we don’t have copies of new games in stock when they are on sale—for example, Watch Dogs 2 is currently $29.99 new and $54.99 pre-owned. We just tell them we don’t have the new one in stock and shuffle them out the door.”

I have a few friends at GameStop who confirm that these details are largely accurate. It’s a sad state of affairs and I hope the company puts a stop to this.

If a company structures its incentives incorrectly, sub-optimal behavior will always follow. For another example of this, see: that infamous Comcast phone call. Also, Wells Fargo.

Thoughts on Ryan Davis

I was absolutely stunned to hear today that Ryan Davis has passed away at the age of 34. The cause of death was not released.

I followed Davis’ work — in writing, audio, and video — since his time at Gamespot, through the departure of Greg Kasavin, Rich Gallup, and ultimately Jeff Gerstmann and Davis himself, as the latter two went to set up shop at Giant Bomb. It is not an exaggeration to say that the /Filmcast and any of the shows that have come afterwards would likely not exist without the inspiration of people like Davis and all the fine folks over at Giant Bomb (as well as the now-defunct 1up network). Their shows didn’t just serve as templates for the work that I would end up doing; they also provided endless hours of free entertainment and detailed analysis that have enthralled me for years.

Davis and crew blazed a trail for a style of podcasting that was loaded with hilarious tangents, entertaining riffs, and non-stop pop culture references. His demeanor was utterly relatable, yet harsh when a game/film called for it. Through it all, you could always sense his desire to entertain and deliver high quality content at the same time.

The online world has lost a great this week. R.I.P., Ryan Davis.

Another Argument for Videogames As Art

Michael Mirasol (via Matt Zoller Seitz) has written up a great defense for videogames in the “Can videogames be art?” debate:

I grew up on movies and on video games, and love and respect what they bring to the table. Though I enjoy them on different levels, they both have given me moments of wonder and serious reflection. As an avid gamer and film lover, I find it a shame to see how one medium has gained artistic acceptance while the other continues to be derided by the mainstream. There are many reasons why they are looked down upon, but if you give them a shot, you just might conclude that video games should be considered art.

Mind = Blown

The past week the Xbox Kinect went on sale and while some reviews haven’t been overly kind, it shows a lot of promise. Certainly the fact that this technology is available at the consumer level is impressive and encouraging. But the fact that the Kinect has already been hacked opens it up to some interesting applications:

I recently purchased my own Kinect and I’ve been having lots of fun with it, although I’ll be curious to see if more games come out that take full advantage of it. One thing’s for sure, though: whenever I’m using my Kinect, I feel like I’m living in the future.