I’ve spent several years now, studying how storytelling works in games and how the story and the gameplay align when they’re done well. But what happens when a game delivers on every promise it makes and does so with a level of polish that is objectively excellent, yet still doesn’t align its story and gameplay? Spiderman PS4 has been one of the most fascinating games for me to play in quite a long time, and I wanted to take some time and discuss what makes it so interesting for me.
I write this as a fan, but as a fan trying to understand the game on a deeper level such that future titles can learn.
In this article, I want to break down the introductory sequence of Spiderman. I believe the entire game can be summed up simply by looking at the first half-hour where Insomniac Games sets up the story by having you take down an introductory villain, and in covering only the tutorial, I can do this without any major spoilers or ruining the game for anyone (though I WILL be mentioning some villains by name, I won’t be spoiling anything the trailers/promo art doesn’t already).
So first off, what IS the tutorial sequence that I’m referring to? Well, it’s a battle against Wilson Fisk. Fisk is running a crime syndicate that Spiderman is finally going to take down after a long history of failing to do so. This nicely sets up a story that’s about trying to be a hero and how even our successes can cause hardships that we don’t realize immediately. It’s honestly quite a nice story, and the introduction is written excellently. However, just because it’s written excellently doesn’t mean that it works together with its gameplay, so let’s break these two things down.
The game starts with a panning shot showing us Parker’s life in his room and the villains he’s already dealt with. This tell us roughly where we are in the life of Spiderman. We see his room and his gadgets and get a strong feel for the character, then the suit comes on and it’s out the window! Nice, minimal set up and right into the gameplay! Great!
Then we get our hands on Spidey as he’s swinging through the city. We get this fantastic sequence where we get to learn how to swing while the story is told to us over a radio as we move towards a checkpoint. We learn about quest markers, about how the game will tell us story, and generally how the game will flow while travelling the streets.
Then we get a cutscene about the cops fighting some thugs and are introduced to combat. We fight a small group of generic thugs in an open space with little obstruction, allowing us to understand combat in the same way that we’ve just learned movement through the swinging section. After that, it’s off to Fisk tower for the first actual mission.
You walk into the lobby of Fisk tower and take out a bunch of guards, then another cutscene and you go into the elevator for a wall crawl up the building and into a vent. Out into a second lobby and to a balcony with more enemies. You make your way into a server room where you’ve got a timer on a screen counting down until the server wipes and you lose the evidence against Fisk that you’ve come here to find. Fisk comes on screen to taunt you, and then you’re fighting more guys in hotel lobbies until reinforcements arrive and it’s hero time as you walk through a firey room to help save survivors. You save them, crawl into another vent, then down and into another lobby, but this time with rocket launcher troops! Defeat them, walk down a hallway, fight some more enemies, and then it’s Fisk’s office and a final showdown. Fisk hides behind a glass wall and opens some turrets up to kill you. You dodge them, web them, then hurl them into Fisks’s glass wall. You fight Fisk until you deal enough damage and he grabs you and starts hurling you through walls. Then it’s part two of the fight, this time with minions! You fight Fisk for a while until he pins you down and punches you both through a hole in the floor. You fight a pitched battle through the air as you fall until you reach the lobby you started in, where you web him up and leave him for the cops to handle. There’s a cutscene where Fisk starts screaming and taunting Spidey, and then the tutorial is over and we’re back into the city but now with freedom to do as we please.
All in all, this is an exciting and tense narrative introduction. It’s using a technique where you begin a story with an exciting series of events in order to hook your audience into engaging early on. It’s a solid narrative trick that honestly works as well in games as it does in film or books.
Here is a chart where I loosely plot out the intensity of the various scenes within the game. As you might expect, it’s a pretty standard ramp up in excitement as the narrative becomes more and more complex through character action and interaction, most of which is conveyed through dialogue.
But what happens when we leave off the narrative fluff? What is the GAME telling us?
Well, let’s walk through the mechanics. We get a nice introduction to the game at the very beginning. I have nothing to say about the intro cutscenes or the first swinging section. Those work great to introduce us to the basics of the game and story! We get a very brief introduction to combat, first, fighting a small group of enemies as our first dip into fighting. After that combat intro, we walk into the Fisk Tower lobby and it’s our first mission, and our first full combat arena. We fight a set of basic enemies that gives us a nice test of our skill we’ve just learned outside, but this time we’re doing it in a more involved space. This is probably what we’re going to actually be seeing in the real game, while that fight outside was probably just a blank slate tutorial to get us used to the mechanics. Great! That’s exactly what we needed here, we’ve officially graduated from the basics and are being trusted to do more advanced things. Then control is taken away from us, we watch a short cutscene, and we’re placed in front of an empty elevator and told to walk up the walls, which requires that we hold a button and press forward. We reach the top, press triangle, and enter a set of vents. This is just us pressing forward again, this time without holding down a button. We exit the vents and go out into the lobby where it’s another combat arena, except… no, actually, there’s no except. It’s just another combat arena, equally as complex as the last. We once again fight a group of enemies, which lets us practice our combat a little more, and they toss in a tutorial pop-up that stops the fight to tell us about a new interaction. The focus bar gives us another layer of information to juggle, but this combat encounter isn’t particularly designed to show it off. We simply learn by the game pausing in the middle of combat until we read some text, and then we return to fighting another pile of the same baddies we’ve been fighting. We fight and then we get a pop up telling us to go to a vent. We go to the vent, press forward for a while, see an open grate where we learn we can web a baddie into a vent with us to subdue them, and then it’s more vent crawling via pressing forward. At the end of that we get a timed combat sequence, which does a fine job of acting as a final exam for our fighting skills, really. Control is taken away for a cutscene, and then…. Another fight? This time it’s a ramp down from the timed combat, as it’s just another wave of guys for us to beat up. We leave, zip upstairs and…. Yet another generic combat encounter. After that combat, we go upstairs, we walk around an empty corridor for a while and then press Square during a quick time event. Then we walk some more until a blip pops up to show us that there’s another vent. Which we enter and press forward for a while until we get to the end with no new mechanics covered. Once we leave that vent, we enter another lobby and this time there’s a new enemy: rocket launcher troops! We get a simple ramping combat scenario, 1 enemy, 2 enemies…. No wait, that’s 3 enemies, but one of them is behind us? So we go from 1 rocket enemy to 3 rocket enemies, one of which is hidden, so that’s a huge difficulty spike here. Then it’s another hallway with yet another generic enemy encounter. We get a tutorial about dodging off walls, but the space isn’t really catered to doing that more than maybe once or twice just to see how it works. Walk through this space and it’s outside into another lobby, but this time it’s shield enemies we’re introduced to! We get an open combat space to explore this fight, thankfully, and then it’s right onto Fisk’s office. At which point it’s immediate panic as a set of turrets pop out and try to destroy us. We have to dodge and use all of our abilities that we’ve learned to survive them and destroy Fisk’s glass wall. Then we fight Fisk himself. He tests our dodge skills, primarily, but in a much less intense way than the turrets just did. He’s basically just a long loop of dodging, spamming web shots, and then zipping over for a quick flurry of punches. If we hadn’t just been fighting so many generic enemies, this might be a test of our knowledge of general combat, but given we’ve already been tested on these exact mechanics so many times, I’m not really sure what the goal of this fight would be. That said, the second half of his fight, where you have to deal with a bunch of generic enemies AND a boss is sufficiently more difficult and interesting than previous combat encounters, and I’m not sure this second half would work without learning Fisk’s moves alone (I would argue that this means this fight needs to be redesigned, but that’s another conversation entirely). After this fight, you press a few more buttons in a timed sequence, and then Fisk tower is over.
So here’s a chart of this ramp:
I kept all generic combat encounters at the same level, and I consider that the baseline for everything else in the game, so I’ve denoted that with a line across the graph at that mark. Above that line, Server Room 1, the lobby fight with a rocket launcher, and the first fight with Fisk represent particularly difficult moments in the gameplay, which also introduce at least one new mechanic, so I would consider them roughly equally difficult, which I denoted in the chart. The Triple rocket fight and the turret fight are moments of panic which introduce surprise mechanics that you can’t anticipate before being confronted with them. I denoted these two as the next mark up in intensity. Then the second half of Fisk’s fight, with minions included, marks the climax of this sequence, testing everything that’s come before in an overwhelming environment. Also note that I marked all Quick-Time Events on the same level as the original combat introduction. In this game QTEs are handled with long sequences of action held on screen while you’re asked to press a single button or move a cursor to a spot on the screen before pressing a button. These aren’t frantic moments where you must react with speed, at least no more so than basic combat in an open environment where enemies are highly visible, so I marked those two as being similar levels of intensity. The QTEs also do not vary significantly in their difficulty. At best, it could be notable that the Fisk QTE at the end is longer than others, but the interactive parts are highly spread out to give a very relaxed pacing for the player.
The last observation I want to make note of, specifically, is the vent sequences. Walking is about the simplest interaction in any game, so I set those at the bottom of the chart. However, we can’t just include these without noting that you’ve gotta travel in space. There’s simply no way to create a game where you don’t have dead space between important locations. With that said, I acknowledge that these moments are breaths between more significant events, as is present in the written story. However, I want to draw your attention to the fact that there are multiple moments in the story where things ramp down in intensity so the viewer can take a breath and digest what they’ve just seen. Lobby Fight 1 is an intense story moment, followed by an elevator sequence that ramps down a little bit before building again as voices convey story to us. But in the narrative, there is always something new to focus on. We take breaths, but the story keeps building. The game mechanic equivalent of these breaths would be to introduce us to semi-passive mechanics. We could get little tips about how to recover from damage, or be given obstacles that let us explore movement in a space.
With all that said, let’s compare those two charts:
Now. My charts are pretty subjective. I chose the story ramp marks somewhat arbitrarily in relation to each other, but I did precisely the same thing with the game mechanic marks. The server room scene, narratively, is a big first reveal of our enemy and a moment we’ve built into by explaining the situation and increasing the intensity with visuals, sound, etc. It resolves with us learning that Fisk is going to escape if we don’t get to him soon, which is slightly less exciting than the moments before, but is still pretty objectively more exciting than any moment before that mini climax it follows. The story continuously builds in that same way, and it never dials back down at any point. The game design, however, is not as well ramped. We repeatedly revisit the same combat scenarios that we’ve seen before, or moments where we aren’t required to do anything except hold a joystick or press a single button. My chart is, admittedly, imperfect. I’d rather not try to decide an objective distance for how much more intense a given moment may be, and I’ve opted for matching the narrative markers instead. That is to say that Fisk Fight 2 is quite a lot higher on the graph than the turrets in Fisk Office, but the vertical distance is less important than the fact that one is higher than the other. I’d rather not quibble about HOW much more intense a given scene may be, I’m more concerned with a somewhat-objective statement that one is more intense than another.
So, looking at the chart here, we see quite a lot of disconnect between the narrative intensity and the game design intensity. The most egregious example of this disconnect is the final scene. Fisk and Spiderman are locked in a climactic battle as they fall through the ground and into various structural elements of the building as Fisk’s fists break through everything in an attempt to take out Spiderman. Meanwhile, the player is…. Just watching… This is the climactic scene, and we aren’t participating. Sure, the game designers throw us a bone and let us press a couple buttons, but it doesn’t really matter. We’re just watching. The story is at its absolute peak, while the gameplay has dropped to the simplest of all possible interactions.
Ok, so let’s walk through this sequence one last time, but with thoughts in mind for how to approach editing it to keep the gameplay and story more aligned. The game starts you off with an introduction to the movement mechanics. After that you’re given a group of 6 or so enemies to practice combat against. That 6-or-so group immediately becomes the standard, and all future fights generally feature waves of 6-or-so with various environmental obstacles, and the weapons the enemies are holding, to differentiate. This is setting up the rest of the game, where this size of group is easy to toss on top a building, or spawn in any random street. Adding weapons to those groups helps ramp up intensity over the course of the entire game. However, this tutorial section doesn’t feature those things yet. 6 enemies is a manageable introductory fight, given the game mechanics here, but we introduce the standard fight in the very first combat. We don’t build up to this standard, we just jump right into it. Once there, you can’t really go back down, and you can’t ramp too much higher without out-pacing what’s available in the overworld. So we see this same group over and over again, and this repetition works in place of a tutorial. By repeatedly exposing players to the same enemies, we teach them to deal with those enemies. Once we establish this standard, we can build on top of it with expanded mechanics (such as shields or rockets). And this is exactly what we see in the game. Unfortunately, that’s not echoed in the narrative. The narrative builds slowly over time, with little moments of ramping down to help people digest what they’ve just learned. There’s never a narrative moment where we reset back to a standard set of stakes. The stakes are always rising.
So why did this disconnect happen? Well, that’s fairly simple: We haven’t, as an industry, decided that we SHOULD be tracking this. In film, it’s a foregone conclusion that a story should ramp up over time, leading to a climax, and then ramping down quickly afterwards. We’ve even established smaller ramps up and down over the course of the main ramp. This is done because thousands of years of stories have told us that this is generally what people enjoy the most. Games have been used to teach for thousands of years, but they aren’t usually used to directly tell stories. Instead, we’ve got to figure all this out as we go right now, and not every studio agrees on the process for that just yet.
But we can learn by looking at other media. The principles of good storytelling have been proven that “arcs” are incredibly important. You want your story to follow an arc, you want your character development to follow an arc, you want your intensity to follow an arc. We’ve got charts for days that break down exactly how this works in other storytelling mediums.
And while we’re all closely following those charts for our narrative as we write it and present it all visually, when it comes to mechanical storytelling we’re all just wandering blindly through the dark. There have, however, been some few examples of games that tell stories in a way that is universally agree upon to be quite stellar. The games, like Shadow of the Colossus, that everyone always talks about and brings up as being the best around. In those games, the narrative and mechanical ramps are 100% matched, and I believe that we can elevate all games by trying to match those arcs together.
In Spiderman, we find an example of a game that is by all measures excellent, but which somewhat consistently gets the review of “Spiderman is at its best when you’re roaming the city”. This means that the story sequences don’t quite engage as well as the city segments, and my education in film techniques tells me that pacing is likely the reason why. What we show our players makes no difference. We can tell them that they’re fighting Wilson Fisk, but if the gameplay doesn’t represent that, it means nothing. If we show them an epic battle that they aren’t participating in, we can’t expect them to remain as engaged as when they ARE participating. Our goal, then, must be to consider our game mechanics in the same way as we consider our narrative. We must keep the gameplay as exciting as the story happening on screen at all costs.
So how do we accomplish this? How do we marry player action with the actions happening on screen without having to rewrite everything or redesign the entire game?
Well, let’s walk through the mechanics first, and then see what changes in the story.
Intro to combat: Nintendo has an established formula we can look to for introducing mechanics. You start off with introducing that mechanic in a safe space. So for our combat here, perhaps we only have one enemy in an isolated situation for us to first learn how to punch.
Expansion to combat: The second combat would then follow with a slightly more complex variation on the last combat, so perhaps this time it’s a group fight. In order to keep a steady build at a sustainable rate, let’s make this 3 basic enemies.
Twist to combat: Nintendo’s third mark on its mechanical ramp is to add in a twist. So let’s introduce more complicated terrain. While the first two fights would be in a simple environment, perhaps there’s a hidden enemy or three during this combat, or multiple waves of enemies.
After you’ve finished a three-point ramp of mechanics, it’s time to reset. At this point, we take a breath and introduce simpler mechanics. We can teach players about vertical movement through the elevator sequence here, teaching them how to navigate in a new direction.
Intro 2: Now that players are learned in how our combat works, this is the time to introduce the next level of difficulty: The standard combat. Here we give them a complex environment to battle in, with a standard assortment of entry-level enemies.
Expansion 2: This time we’ve got an even more complicated combat scenario. Perhaps this is in the upper floors and there’s a gap in the middle that the player must learn to navigate around while being shot.
Twist 2: This is right around the server room sequence, so the twist here could be the timed combat found there. We’ve officially mastered basic combat scenarios, if we can complete them under a set time limit!
Whew! That was intense. Let’s rescue some civilians for a while. Here, we can learn how to recover health lost from the fire we keep running into, and how to dodge along walls and do some more advanced parkour. This could also be a good time to introduce stealth combat.
Intro 3: Once we’ve learned these new techniques, it’s time to put them to the test! Let’s introduce rockets that the players must dodge and recover health from.
Expansion 3: Let’s take that rocket enemy and put him into a standard combat encounter. OH! And what’s this shield enemy?!
Twist 3: Ok, now there’s rocket launchers you can’t see, and several groups of enemies you must navigate between while being fired upon, some of which are holding shields! INSANITY! But we can handle it by now.
A final denouement as we approach Fisk’s office. We got a basic introduction to combat, we learned that sometimes the space we fight in can be really complex and require us to travel it at high speeds, and then we learned that enemies can be given weapons, making them far more deadly, and that those weapons can both hurt us and interrupt our flow. With all that under our belt, it’s time for the boss.
We enter Fisk’s office and he taunts us before unleashing deadly turrets on us. We must dodge the turret fire, and then throw them at Fisk to destroy them. Now it’s time for Fisk himself.
Fisk acts like a regular enemy, except he hits super hard, and barely flinches when you punch him, putting the player much more on the defensive than they have been thus far. In order to keep excitement up above the previous sequence, Fisk should also continue summoning turrets throughout the fight, forcing the player to deal with those WHILE fighting Fisk (we’d want them to be simpler than they are in the game currently), making this second part of the fight an expansion on the previous section.
The twist here comes when Fisk’s minions arrive and make us juggle between fighting regular enemies, turrets, AND a boss all at the same time.
Combat ends when you use your webs to throw a turret at Fisk, knocking a hole in the floor, queueing a cinematic showing Fisk as he falls through the tower, where Spiderman swoops in and saves him by tying him up before he hits the lobby we started in, wrapping the whole sequence up nicely.
And that’s that. We’ve got a slow ramp up in our combat that echoes the slow ramp up in the narrative. Obviously, this would require reworking the level design for this to work, but I think the only narrative change here would be that the first sequence would have to be a more stealthy entrance into Fisk Tower, because it’s a bit unrealistic to think that you’re gunna walk in the front door and be greeted by only a single guard. The last cutscene would also be a bit different, as we knock Fisk through the floor in this version, rather than fighting him all the way down (obviously this doesn’t have to be written in this way. The important part here is just that the player be the one to actually finish the fight with Fisk, rather than having it happen after control has been taken away, so that the narrative and mechanical ramps remain in sync).
And, of course, there are any number of ways to approach all this. The specifics of what I’m suggesting here are really not at all important, and will have to bend to the enjoyment of playtesters, and the will of investors, IP holders, and various other forms of management, as they do in every large production. I won’t pretend to know, from the outside, what will and won’t work in the trenches. I only claim to know that as an objective observer, these are the solutions I would offer.
The critique of the Fisk sequence also applies throughout the rest of the game. Several other boss fights are mechanically much simpler than the gameplay leading up to them. Several story sequences are almost painfully simple compared to the gameplay immediately before and after them. A number of entire missions, such as those when you play other characters, are simpler than even the first introduction to movement discussed here in this article. While the open world of Spiderman has a consistent ramp that works fantastically, the game design within the storytelling segments of the game are mechanically all over the place.
Just as a great film will play all its various elements off of each other, a great game must do the same. Story and Gameplay are not opposing forces, they are one in the same. We must learn to use them together. It’s a complex task, not easily accomplished, but the pursuit of this will push us all forward.
And as a last note, I would just like to thank anyone at Insomniac who might be reading this. Spiderman is an excellent game, the craftsmanship of which really shines through. Well done!
And thanks for reading, all.
Until next time.