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Spider-man 2

(Activision; US: Jul 2007)

With Great Power Comes a Great Deal of Boredom

Lo, several decades ago, Stan Lee penned Spider-Man’s creed, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” What Lee failed to mention—but clearly understood—was that responsibility kinda sucks.


In fact, the notion of the trade off between power and responsibility and the idea that taking up both leads to a difficult and at times frustrating life was one of the Spider-Man comic book’s major themes. Being the amazing Spider-Man made Peter Parker’s life—well… amazing—but also hard.


Stan Lee focused on the idea that being a good guy—and a powerful superhero at that—required a sacrifice of personal desire for the greater good. Hence, Lee’s Peter is often mopey and despondent. He doesn’t get the girl. He isn’t popular—both in school or the media. Despite being a hero, he is often seen as a freak and a menace. He sometimes wants to quit being Spider-Man because—put quite simply—responsibility kinda sucks.


This is the theme of the comics and the recent film, on which this game is based. Peter in the comics and now in the film occasionally feels like throwing in the towel, giving up the responsibility by quitting being Spider-Man.


Perhaps, unsurprisingly, the video game, which follows much of the action-oriented plot of the battles between Spider-Man and Dr. Octopus, fails to include this theme of personal and ethical crisis in the narrative of the game. Yet, the theme is embedded, not in the narrative of the game, but in the game play itself.


The comic book Peter Parker wants to quit being Spider-Man. The movie Peter Parker wants to quit being Spider-Man. And, you, playing the role of Peter Parker in the video game, will want to quit being Spider-Man.


Spider-Man 2 is another sandbox action game in the mold of Grand Theft Auto with a free form world to explore and interact with—with various random missions and narrative driven missions which can be taken to advance the plot.


While having a good chunk of the Big Apple to explore and fight crime in sounds like a fascinating idea in theory—in practice, it really just serves to highlight the misery of being a responsible hero.


As I wrote in a review of True Crime a few weeks ago, this sort of game play style, while conducive to games representing the player as a law breaker, does not lend itself well to games in which the player takes on the role of law enforcer. The freedom of doing what you want, when you want to, makes sense in a game like GTA where you play a criminal, but it fails to work well when you’re required to restrain yourself as a good cop or a superhero. Hence, GTA‘s completely free form game play becomes primary and the plot and missions take a back seat to the chaos, while True Crime takes the more restrained linear model of telling its story in chapters, while the free form mechanics take a back seat to a slightly more restrained game play style.


Spider-Man 2 follows the GTA model of “anything goes in my sandbox” as the game opens with a brief tutorial (voiced by cult movie god Bruce Campbell—personally, one of the more enjoyable aspects of the game for me, as Campbell takes some adequately scripted one liners and spins them into comedic gold with his beautifully B-movie vocal stylings) that teaches you how to get web slinging, and then sets you loose in New York to do what you want to do as Spider-Man. As Campbell’s narrator explains, though, near the close of this tutorial, the city is yours to do with as you will with a single caveat “but you have to be the good guy.”


This bit of responsibility is enforced by mechanics that only allow you to harm the villains and help the citizens. While True Crime encourages good behavior with a karma rating that allows you to see how good or bad your behavior has become based on whether you tend to shoot to kill before attempting an arrest or whether or not you carelessly gun down civilians when trying to take out the bad guys, Spider-Man can do little more than brush past civilians—irritating but never harming them. While they may mill about during street conflicts with bad guys, there is never a chance to hurt them as you can not interact with them physically.


Additionally, the game is split into chapters, in which you are given a set of goals that, when completed, allow the plot (based both on the major events of the film, as noted previously, as well as some new subplots involving meeting the heroic bad girl, the Black Cat, and battles with classic Spidey nemeses like the Rhino and Mysterio) to advance. The goals are often missions directly linked to the main plot and, more often than not, an additional requirement to acquire “hero points”—points gained by defeating bad guys in random encounters while you web sling through New York or by mini-missions found randomly around the city, in which, for example, you are asked to stop an armored car robbery or transport an injured citizen to the hospital.


These missions become the dominant time sink in the game with you, as Spidey, less so desirous of stopping crime when and where you see it and more so forced into a series of tedious responsibilities in order to accomplish your purpose—continuing the plot and completing the game.


Hero points are also used to purchase upgrades to your powers (so you become more effective at completing your responsibilities—great power, great responsibility) and, when you first learn about how to shop in the Spidey store for said powers during the tutorial, Campbell tells you that you are required to buy the web slinging speed upgrade, and then sarcastically adds that, if you choose not to, you can go ahead and stop playing now. While Campbell’s voice drips with sarcasm, there is some real truth to this comment, you have to play the game the way you are told and be the good guy; your only real “choice” despite the seemingly free form style is to turn off your PlayStation and “be Spider-Man no more.”


Web slinging is fun (although I miss the better combat and wall crawling mechanics of the Spider-Man games for the original PlayStation—here combat is mere button mashing and you’ll never get the chance to cling from a ceiling in order to drop down on unsuspecting villains as you did in those games) and makes you with its incredible rush of speed and power feel for moments like you are Spider-Man, nevertheless, given my limited choices, I might have traded some of the power in the game for a little less responsibility.

G. Christopher Williams is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


Tagged as: spider-man 2 | treyarch
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