Spider-Man has a problem, beyond his fondness for spandex and the need to shed his skin every six months. Marvel’s web-slinging superhero suffers from an over-developed sense of responsibility and, if Insomniac’s Spider-Man game is anything to go by, it’s going to be the death of him.
The game opens a window into the hero’s everyday life in a way that other media has only touched upon, making it abundantly clear that Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, doesn’t have much of a life. His existence is so consumed by super heroics that, unable to pay his rent, he’s evicted from his apartment and ends up sleeping at his Aunt’s homeless shelter. His relationship with Mary Jane Watson, his on-off-on-off girlfriend, is in pieces. And he’s so frequently late for work that even the kindly Otto Octavius is losing his patience.
Why would you want a stable relationship with MJ when you could be spending every waking hour webbing up masked goons?
But it’s the sheer amount of crime-busting busywork in Insomniac’s Spider-Man that really highlights how overstretched the hero has let himself become. Even before the game’s heavy-hitters make their appearance you’re urged to tackle every little crime or car crash that might happen in New York. And for a while you might even be on board with this notion. As police chatter fills your ear and an insistent, glaring hazard sign appears on-screen, you swing into action.
These missions are optional but, when you're a superhero, they don't feel that way: there’s that tug, that nagging feeling that you must intervene. Not because of the associated rewards, but because you’re Spider-Man and that’s what heroes do, right? Yet the more villains you capture, the more people you free from crashed cars, the more you start to wonder whether it’s really an effective or appropriate use of Spider-Man’s time. That’s particularly the case when encounters end with Spidey’s corpse rag-dolling across the screen, Spider-Man’s super-powers including a lack of bones. Start totting up the deaths that occur because you swung into a situation that the police were already handling, and you’ll easily hit double figures.
Predictably, rockets to the arachnid face = Spidey death.
It’s questionable whether Spider-Man should be tackling these crimes at all; he may do whatever a spider can but arachnids aren’t generally known for their bomb disposal or hostage rescue skills. Spider-Man even remarks that hostage situations are, “Always tricky. Gotta make sure no-one gets hurt,” but the game’s solution is to just punch everyone in sight. Equally suspect is the way you deal with explosive devices by just hurling them away, likely turning pedestrians two streets over into a red smear. Not to mention the people who coughed up their spines because Spidey was a little heavy-handed when extracting them from underneath a car. Then there’s his clearly road-safe method of stopping vehicles by throwing himself in front of them.
This is totally road-legal, right?
Nor do the police ever ask for help with these day-to-day crimes. The game points out that Kingpin’s lawyers would have a field day if Spider-Man was seen to be interfering in his arrest. You can only imagine the kind of legal nightmares that must occur on a daily basis, the criminals who walk, because a vigilante decided he was going to “assist” the police. The comics tend to skirt around this because they only have so much space to tell a story, especially one which focuses on the relatively mundane. But it’s reasonable to assume that, between issues, Spider-Man spends just as much time fighting street-level crime, with the same potential consequences.
Insomniac’s game wisely doesn’t delve into Spider-Man’s origin story or repeatedly wheel out the “With great power comes great responsibility” mantra. But one of the game’s writers, Dan Slott, also penned the excellent Superior Spider-Man, in which a dying Otto Octavius swapped minds with Peter Parker, picking apart every aspect of his personal code. By letting the police handle day-to-day crime and, when necessary, working in concert with the NYPD, Octavius gave Spider-Man a respectable work/life balance, something which had eluded Parker for so long. In turn, this gave him the time to earn a (new) Doctorate, find love, and start a cutting-edge research company, which Peter Parker ran into the ground once he got his body back.
The game doesn’t deconstruct Spider-Man to this extent; doing so would likely alienate those expecting a traditional super-hero experience. But it does sometimes call Peter out on his self-destructive behaviour, with Mary Jane rebuking Peter for refusing to let the emergency services do their job. Predictably, he pays her no heed.
At least Peter finds a spot of time to whisk up the occasional "I'm a terrible friend/confusing love interest" curry for Mary-Jane.
Like the Superior Spider-Man, Peter does have a relationship with the police but he’s little more than a dogsbody; he’s working for the police, not with them. While they don’t invite him to crack down on crime, they’re happy to call when they want a radio tower fixed. It’s not like he’s got anything else on his plate. And there’s that insistent, constant, unsubtle push to leap into the fray each time Spidey’s police radio sputters to life.
Given the sheer amount of busywork in the game, crime-foiling and otherwise, it’s apparent that Spider-Man’s choice to be responsible for anyone and everyone is anything but healthy. And despite years in the superhero business, he’s seemingly unaware how damaging his own outlook is. “With great power comes great responsibility” is all well and good, but it kinda sucks too.
The player, however, has another choice. Spider-Man affords no real opportunity to directly influence the game’s narrative but you can at least shape your own story, and focus on collecting pigeons or backpacks instead of beating up another gang of hoodlums. Spidey probably has as much meaningful dialogue with Scorpion as he does Aunt May.
It's hard to ignore those in-game rewards, of course. What wins between preserving Spider-Man’s mental and physical wellbeing, or unlocking a costume that lets Peter Parker swing around in his underpants?
We all know the answer. You don’t have to inherit Spider-Man’s over-developed sense of responsibility every time you pick up the controller; you can be a different Spider-Man; a better Spider-Man; a Superior Spider-Man. But in the end, we all choose the Spider-Pants.