Interactivity one of the most important tools for bringing open-world maps to life, and it’s the one place where most developers seem to skimp on the details. Even Grand Theft Auto, the series that revolutionized open-world games, basically boils its interactivity down to murder and destruction, with later iterations adding some flavor and character to NPC interactions without really diving deep into human psychology. That’s why one of the first things I did during my recent time with Marvel’s Spider-Man was put the web-shooters away and go for a stroll.
The vast majority of the time spent in the game’s open-world Manhattan is experienced closer to the skyline than the streets, and the only reason to ever really get down to street level is to beat up bad guys or save civilians trapped under violent car wrecks. So, even though New York is the most congested city in the U.S., I wasn’t expecting a whole lot of interactivity and detail when it came to street-level exploration.
To my surprise, NPC interaction is surprisingly fun, if not incredibly deep. Right away, as soon as I landed on the ground after dive-bombing a few dozen stories, I caught a group of New Yorkers by surprise and they stumbled backwards, humorously falling onto their butts and scrambling for safety before realizing it was just their Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.
I waved and gave them a thumbs up. Most of them were fans and cheered me on. Some of them couldn’t believe that I was the real Spider-Man, despite the fact that they just saw me plummet to earth like a human comet. One or two of them called me a menace.
As I was walking down the street, handing out thumbs up and finger guns like I was putting on a one-man parade, one person stopped me and we performed a complicated handshake. Another person gave me a high five. Everyone stared.
I felt watched. I felt admired. I felt like the center of the universe because, as the player taking on the role of the world’s most recognizable superhero, I was. Even when a random stranger came up to me with a gun, hoping to be Spider-Man’s version of Mark David Chapman, it seemed like it was all for me.
When I’m playing Grand Theft Auto, I feel like an invader of someone else’s home, stomping around the sandbox and destroying a sandcastle like a spoiled child. My violent desires feel like violations against a pre-existing world. But in Spider-Man, everyone is aware of Spider-Man. Everyone is watching Spider-Man at all times, and it made me uncomfortably aware of how artificial their attention was. It felt like a superhero’s version of the Truman Show. And, sure, it holds up… as long as you look where the game wants you to look.
But one of the most shocking moments of my time with the game was a comparatively quiet one when I was simply crawling up the walls. I peered into the window of someone’s apartment and noticed a vaguely narrow kitchen with a simple table and a refrigerator. It looked like a scene out of an Ikea catalogue. The next window over showed a similarly empty bedroom.
I peered into one window, and then another, a super-powered Peeping Tom, and not one room had any people in it whatsoever. Every apartment was similarly generic, similarly desolate, similarly fake. The entire world felt like a facade, like a set built just for Spider-Man.
The kind of interactivity I’m looking for in games is something that’s nearly impossible to pull off. Few games even try, and I don’t expect a superhero game to blow my mind with uncanny immersion. Thankfully, Spider-Man‘s New York is huge and incredibly fun to navigate, and you’ll spend most of your time swinging around it at a hundred miles per hour. Just don’t slow down to smell the roses, because they probably won’t smell like anything at all.