When Spider-Man took the stage at the end of Sony’s E3 2017 press conference, Insomniac showed that they were definitely up to the task of creating an experience worthy of everyone’s favorite web head. In a demo that fell just under 10 minutes, we got to see Spider-Man take to the skies above the streets of a bustling Manhattan, kicking enemies in the face, and stopping Mr. Negative from wreaking any more havoc in the city alongside the Inner Demons (a new enemy faction for Insomniac’s superhero game).
But there’s only so much you can get from watching a single video. Thankfully, during E3 2017 we got to see the game up close, and speak with the developers in both a group and private setting. Walking away from that conversation left me with the feeling that Insomniac has a huge challenge that’s been handed to them, yet they’re ready to face it head on.
Bryan Intihar, the creative director of Spider-Man over at Insomniac, is well aware of the burden of producing a great game. “One of the greatest things about this game is that everybody knows Spider-Man” he says, acknowledging the privilege he and his team has been given, but then remarks “and one of the hardest things about this game is that everybody knows Spider-Man” the double-edge sword that casts a shadow over all popular characters. There’s a responsibility that goes with taking the helm of something so recognized and so celebrated. That pushed the team to really do their best to represent that in a way that fans will both accept and love. A large part of that comes in the form of respect, according to Intihar, and also a willingness to not be afraid to mix things up and make them Insomniacs own.
“What we’ve been talking about internally is: Respect the traditions of the franchise but don’t be afraid to mix it up. I think the suit is a good example of our philosophy on the game. You see that suit, you see the character, right? No one would not say that’s Spider Man… But we want people to see him and go oh that’s the Insomniac Spider-Man, we want them to be able to identify that.” said Intihar
There’s a delicate balance there, one that Insomniac is not intent on throwing off. To help keep themselves in line, as well as keep Sony and Marvel happy, everything in the game, whether classic or new, has a very specific story reason. These reasons allow the dev team to tie their additions to the already established Spider-Man mythos in a way that feels natural. All things from the reason the suit looks the way it does, to the appearance of Miles Morales at the end of the gameplay trailer has the full support of all involved, and that’s due to how the developers weave everything together.
Of course, there’s more to creating a solid Spider-Man experience outside of just respecting everything that came before. Like all of the best superheroes, Spider-Man has a very long history, with many different aspects of his life to explore. But Insomniac knew that there was one avenue that needed to be tread. Intihar recalled a conversation with Bill Rosemann, the creative director at Marvel, around the time when they first started discussing the project, and how the focus of the upcoming narrative just clicked.
“One of my very first conversations with Bill… we talked about what makes a great Spider-Man story, and he said ‘the best stories are when Spider-Man’s world and Peter’s world collide.” said Intihar
Now, this isn’t the first time that a developer has toed the line between common citizen and celebrated superhero when dealing with Spider-Man. Games like the classic movie tie-ins from the PlayStation 2 era and Web of Shadows all sought to incorporate Spidey’s human counterpart into the plot. It didn’t always work out for the best, but Insomniac is determined to get it right. One of the ways that Insomniac plans to accomplish that goal is to explore the personal side of villains as well.
In the trailer, you can see Spider-Man chasing down Mr. Negative, but he calls him by his real name, Martin Lee. He knows Lee, who runs some shelters that Aunt May happens to volunteer at. He’s a friend, yet here, while the mask is on, and the city is in danger, Lee is an obstacle that forces Spider-Man to put Peter Parker aside for the moment in order to save the city.
Moments like those will pop up, focusing on those relationships that Spider-Man, Peter Parker, and the combined identities have formed, to put the life of the human hero front and center. It’s not clear if we’ll ever get to actually roam the streets as Peter sans his slick Spidey-suit. When asked, all that was shared was that “he’s as big a part of the story as Spider-Man, and I’m just gonna leave it at that.” It would be interesting to explore the city from the ground level as one of the civilians, so I’m intrigued to see how, if at all, Insomniac decides to tackle that element of the game.
Speaking of the city, it’s massive. From the moment the game is booted, players will be able to explore the entirety of a beautifully rendered Manhattan. Scattered throughout will be activities, challenges, and story missions that you can undertake right out in the open world. Of course, the city is only as good as how Spider-Man can explore and utilize it. Looking through the long lineage of Spider-Man video games over the past couple of decades you’ll notice a correlation between those that were loved and how they had amazing combat and traversal mechanics. Having done their homework, the development team knew they had to hit some key points in order to make the solid experience.
“… the gameplay, it comes down to really the three things we showed today… the mastery of traversal, the improvisational nature in combat, and those big, big set pieces that you feel should be a part of this, that you’d see at the end of a Marvel movie.” Intihar said.
I must admit that I was a bit worried about the copious use of QTEs in the set pieces shown off at E3 2017, but Intihar assured me that they wouldn’t be so prevalent throughout the game. The core of the experience is that classic experience that fans of PS2’s Spider-Man 2 would probably expect. Rapid traversal that uses a physics system which requires slinging web onto surfaces to get around, quick, combo-based combat, and just awesome stunts as you move through a deep story. When Intihar brought up Spider-Man 2 it was interesting. The developers aren’t shying away from recognizing their inspirations, and there are quite a few of them.
The most obvious is, of course, Spider-Man 2, because “that’s the game that made you really feel like Spider-Man.” But other notable influences are Arkham, which really pushed superhero games into the spotlight. Though when it comes to storytelling, Uncharted and The Last of Us serve as inspirations, which is interesting when you consider that Naughty Dog’s two most recent releases featured mature tones, and darker stories. This isn’t to say that Insomniac’s Spider-Man will necessarily be dark, but the fact that they’re looking at such titles is intriguing.
One other game that was brought up was Sunset Overdrive (also developed by Insomniac), the Xbox exclusive that had players relying on over-the-top traversal to fight and survive. Intihar shared a memory from back when Sunset Overdrive first released about a reviewer that said it’d be really cool if Insomniac made a Spider-Man game. He told us how he sent a link directly to Sony just so they saw there was a demand. Of course, Spider-Man’s traversal is unique, as it should be, but we can expect to see elements of the break-neck speed and quick navigation of Insomniac’s last major title.
As it was all winding down, and time was running out, I sat across from Intihar and I could see that he was just as big a fan of Spider-Man as I am (if not more so). The passion and excitement, the commitment to respecting what came before, and that desire to leave a memorable mark on this hero that means so much to so many is all there. He sat there, no longer burdened by the secrecy he had to uphold, but a new stress crept over him as he spoke about how much he and the rest of his team wants to do right by the property and the fans.
After checking out what they have so far, it’s clear to see that Insomniac knows what they have to do, and they are confident that they are doing it right. “I’m just a big kid, man” he said before our interview was up, and he remarked on how he’s just still in shock that they’re letting him make a Spider-Man game, something he’s only dreamed of before. But, as everyone in the studio, and every Spider-Man fan in the world, knows, with great power comes great responsibility, and the studio is dead set on upholding Uncle Ben’s powerful mantra.