Before a recent press event in which I got to go hands-on for several hours with Marvel’s Spider-Man, Insomniac Games creative director Bryan Intihar said that the biggest influence on their new version of Spider-Man was Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man—not necessarily in how the plot moved, but in how Bendis created something recognizably Spider-Man while also reinventing the character in subtle but important ways.
Insomniac clearly took these lessons to heart, because playing the game and getting to experience the opening few hours of its story felt at the same time instantly familiar and completely new.
Sure, you can point to the suit as the most obvious example of Insomniac both honoring and reinventing the superhero’s iconic look. Replacing the black spider on his chest with a white one gives this Spider-Man a shockingly unique look. But, really, the biggest way that the developer is making its mark isn’t in what’s on the outside of the suit but in the character who wears that suit.
There have been so many iterations of Peter Parker that it’s easy to lose count. Just within the last 20 years, we’ve had three different actors play the character in big screen adaptations (four if you count the upcoming Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse). How, then, does Insomniac distinguish its Peter from the Tobeys, the Garfields, and the Hollands, let alone the Peter that we know and love from the comics?
First off, this Peter is a full-blown scientist, not just a science enthusiast. This might seem like a subtle, surface-level distinction, but it gives Peter a true choice to consider: whether he can help more people as Spider-Man or as a scientist, which he expresses early on in the game to his longtime confidante, Mary Jane Watson, who already knows his secret identity by the time the game opens.
At this point, Peter’s been acting as Spider-Man for eight years, and he’s seem to struck a decent work-life balance. He might be a tad late to work, but he shows up when it matters. Ditto for a party at the F.E.A.S.T. shelter where Aunt May works. This isn’t a constantly flustered Peter who’s disappointing his loved ones by arriving late. Now in his early twenties with a full-time job (well, two full-time jobs), Peter is a time-tested hero in a transitional period who’s got a good sense of self but is still trying to decide what he wants to be when he grows up. Giving Peter that conscionable out complicates his relationship with his masked alter ego and gives his do-gooding exploits more sympathy than forcing him to stick with it out of guilt ever has. This is a Peter Parker who doesn’t feel like he needs to rely on a web-swinging and beating up bad guys to become a superhero, nor is it a Peter Parker who’s getting bullied in the halls of his high school, and that’s a huge difference from what we usually get. Spider-Man isn’t necessarily who Peter Parker is. It’s just something he does because he can.
That’s not to say that there aren’t marked differences in Peter and Spider-Man’s personalities. Peter is down to earth, a little awkward, but still charismatic and confident in his own way. Spider-Man, on the other hand, is overly confident, brash, silly, a little cheesy, and a head-first risk-taker. A good portion of the demo I played involved swinging around Insomniac’s gigantic version of Manhattan, reconfiguring police satellites (powered exclusively by Oscorp technology), and fighting crimes as they cropped up. All the while Spidey narrated the action in an an over-the-top, fake police-procedural voice over, casting himself as Spider-Cop, much to the chagrin of NYPD captain Yuriko Watanabe, one of the only officers on the force who isn’t corrupt in this particular Spider-verse. Spider-Man is clearly feeling himself in these segments, even getting a little flirty with Yuri, which isn’t something good ol’ Pete would probably do. Nor is openly mocking Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin, as he’s led into the back of a police paddywagon at the end of the game’s opening segment. Spider-Man is a somewhat cocky but still lovable jokester, whereas Peter is focused, dedicated, and hardworking without being a show-off.
“Writing for Peter definitely came most naturally to us,” Intihar said when I asked him about developing a brand-new Spider-Man narrative. “That human side to the story—showing up late for work, his relationships with Aunt May, the awkwardness between him and M.J.—all of that is very relatable.”
Where Spider-Man and Peter Parker come together is when Mary Jane Watson showed up in the demo. Even though he’s donning the spider-suit when he runs into M.J. at an auction house under siege by the Inner Demons, he sounds like Peter when he’s talking to her: a bit nervous, a little unsure, but comfortable and happy to see a friendly face. Not having seen each other in six months following an as-of-yet unknown schism, the reunion is… awkward, but you can tell there’s still something there for both of them, with credit due to actors Yuri Lowenthal (Peter) and Laura Bailey (M.J.) for truly selling the loaded history the two characters have without even bringing it up in that moment.
“Yuri got that right away,” Intihar said. “He knew the difference between Peter’s voice and Spider-Man’s voice and how to play with that, how to create a subtle difference that brought both personalities to life.”
M.J. was one of the biggest surprises of the demo. She’s still got that classic girl-next-door charm that has become synonymous with her character, but Insomniac’s M.J. is a hard-nosed investigative reporter who will go to incredible lengths to uncover corruption. Out of all the characters, M.J. has probably gotten the most significant makeover, and it’s made her one of my favorite characters in the game so far.
While much has been made about how Insomniac’s Spider-Man differs from previous iterations, just as important is the superhero’s rogues’ gallery, and the mantra of “familiar but different” carries through with Spider-Man’s rivals. The main villain we encountered in the demo, Kingpin, was his familiarly bulky self, but there was something different about this Kingpin. He was a little more militant, openly defending himself against an NYPD sting at Fisk Towers by straight-up calling upon an army of henchman to fight the police.
Other villains we’ve seen—Electro, in particular—will perhaps even better showcase Insomniac’s design philosophy.
“There have been different versions of these characters before, like blue Electro, for example,” Intihar said, “but we wanted to put a fresh twist on the classics. We ditched Electro’s mask but used the design as inspiration for the scar, and we kept his classic green-and-yellow colors.”
Marvel’s Spider-Man instantly feels like a Spider-Man game, but it’s different, mostly in that it actually has the potential to be a good game, especially because it isn’t tied to a movie promotion or any of the comics. This is a new Spider-Man, but it’s still a Spider-Man you know.