Spider-Man and MJ are supposedly a team now. Spidey is swinging around, punching out bad guys while MJ sneaks into villainous lairs to swipe exposition from the bad guys. In the last entry I mentioned that Spider-Man saved Oscorp scientist Charles Standish from the Demon gang. MJ figures she needs to talk to Charles Standish to learn how to find Devil’s Breath. The problem is that he’s now in protective custody with Sable International. If MJ is going to talk to Standish, then she needs to sneak into their fortified military compound packed with heavily armed goons who have itchy trigger fingers.
Here is what the writer intended to accomplish with this scene:
MJ needs to do something risky. Spider-Man can’t allow her to do that due to his overprotective nature, so he swoops in, misreads the situation, and ruins her interview. They don’t get the information they need and the whole thing causes division between our two leads.
That’s good drama. They just agreed to be partners, and now they discover that they had different ideas on what that meant and what each of them expected from the other.
However, this is not what the scene shows us. For reasons I don’t understand, this scene was mangled in its presentation. Here is what we actually get:
Standish Ruins Everything
MJ sneaks through a massive complex of Sable guards. Once she’s reached the tent where Standish is being held, she greets him.
Standish knows what Demon guys look like because they tried to kill him earlier this same evening. But for whatever reason, he assumes this young unarmed woman who openly greeted him is a Demon assassinYou could excuse this by assuming he knows that Martin can mind-control anyone, although that doesn’t fit with him lowering his guard because she’s got a press pass.. He then grabs a gun and points it at her. She shows him her press credentials and he realizes she’s a famous journalist. However, he doesn’t stop pointing his gun at her. Instead he lowers it so he’s pointing at her belly rather than center-torso. Outside, Spider-Man sees the outline of someone pointing a gun at MJ. He swings in and enters through the top of the tentWhat? Is there a skylight in this tent? Whatever.. Standish is terrified of Spider-Man for some reason, even though Spider-Man saved his life a couple of hours ago and they even had a nervous laugh together. Standish then backs away in sheer panic, trips over his own feet, falls down, and knocks himself out.
The noise of Standish’s antics alerts the guards outside. They rush in. Spider-Man grabs MJ and jumps out of the tent with her before the two of them get shot. MJ protests because she’s still trying to ask Standish questions even though he’s out cold.
There’s a time-cut here where Spider-Man swings home with MJ, and the story hints that she spends the trip berating him for this terrible screwup. That’s hilarious if you try to picture it, like a couple bickering while riding a roller coaster.
Once home she storms off, then calls Spider-Man on the phone so she can bitch at him some more. She’s angry that he made a small joke after Standish knocked himself out and she’s apparently offended by the idea of using humor to break the tension. “IS EVERYTHING A JOKE TO YOU?” she demands of the stammering and apologetic Peter.
This situation is supposed to be the moment where Peter screws everything up because that’s kind of his thing. But as presented, he did absolutely nothing wrong. He acted reasonably based on the information available to him at the time. Standish was an incompetent dingbat and he’s guilty of multiple counts of willful stupidity. MJ misplaced her blame onto Spider-Man, was nasty to him, and unreasonably expected to be able to continue to interview an unconscious man while dozens of bloodthirsty armed paramilitary thugs converged on her position. Her outrage in the face of Peter’s profuse apologizing makes her seem like a vindictive bully.
This is a disaster of a scene. Elsewhere in the story we have sequences where Peter blames himself for things that aren’t really his fault. That’s fine, inasmuch as guilt and self-blame are his brand, but here the writer had an opportunity to have our hero make an actual mistake that was both serious and yet understandable based on his particular hangups. I’d even say that Peter needs to make this mistake in order for later scenes to work. Instead the scene depicts him as blameless. As a result, MJ comes off as foolish, emotional, unobservant, and verbally cruel. None of those attributes fit her character.
This is important because MJ is one of our heroes, and this scene makes her less heroic. She’s a reporter and she’s supposed to be good at gathering information and reading a situation. When her interpretation of the scene is so at odds with what we’ve been shown, it makes her seem like she’s failing in the area where she should be strongest.
As for her complaints about Spider-Man making jokes? Shit lady, did you date this guy or not? According to the story he’s saved your life countless times in the past, so you ought to have a pretty good understanding at how this guy works. If you’re ideologically opposed to quips in tense situation then you’ve got no business dating Peter Parker and you definitely have no business partnering up with Spider-Man.
How Did This Happen?
The thing is, this scene is pretty much an anomaly. It’s not like this writer has been struggling with characterization or mangling their scenes. They’ve been hitting their story beats and doing proper character-building so farEh. Not so much with Martin Li and Silver Sable, but those two will get their own sections later in the series and I wouldn’t blame either of these flawed characters on writer incompetence., which means this broken scene sort of comes out of nowhere.
I wonder if the script originally called for Spider-Man to directly knock Standish out? There’s nothing in the recorded dialog that conflicts with this. He even says “Oops! Sorry Charlie”, when Standish falls over, which doesn’t really make sense. Why is Spider-Man apologizing to someone who tripped over their own feet? Spider-Man disarms Standish and lands right in front of him, and I could easily imagine this was originally followed up by a punch.
Perhaps playtesters didn’t like the original version of the scene? I can empathize with a player that’s getting sick and tired of the writer grabbing the controls and turning Spider-Man into a dumbass. The problem of “win in gameplay, lose in cutscene” is pervasive in this game.
If this is the case and they re-designed the cutscene so that Standish fell over instead of getting knocked out by Spider-Man, then they didn’t really fix the scene. They just moved the problem around. (And made it much worse.) Having Standish knock himself out with a pratfall allows Spider-Man to emerge from the cutscene blameless, but it does so at the cost of passing the idiot ball off to Standish and turning MJ into a shrill and unreasonable antagonist.
I think a better solution is for the designer to stop using cutscenes as a blunt tool for creating gameplay setbacks. Stop teaching players that cutscenes are always screwups. Save the screwups for moments like this one where it really matters to the story. The player will probably be more accepting of cutscene incompetence if these events are rare and they tie into moments of character growth rather than using them to un-do your progress during boss fights and chase scenes.
Or maybe I’m totally wrong about why this scene is such a mess. In any case, it really is best if you can ignore the nonsense presentation of the scene and just imagine that the mishap was somehow all Spider-Man’s fault. This moment is an anomaly in the story and the relationship between Peter and MJ will get a lot betterBetter as in “more interesting”, not necessarily “more amicable”. from here.
A Polished Experience
To take the edge off of all that complaining, I should point out that this is a ridiculously polished game.
First is the obvious stuff: There’s an enormous variety in the detail spread around the city. The cars, pedestrians, buildings, and infrastructure are different enough that you don’t find yourself looking at something and saying, “Oh, there’s another copy of that thing.” Yes, Rockstar pulls this off all the time in their Grand Theft Auto series, but it’s still really hard to do.
The animations are fantastic. I realize you come here for text and not video, but if you’ve got 7 minutes you’re willing to spend on a video, then I highly recommend this one:
Professional animator DanFormerly the pitch-shifted squeaky voice of Extra Credits fame. looks at just one small move in Spider-Man’s move set and shows how much goes into making such a fun traversal system.
In the past, open-world city games have used flat windows on the surfaces of their buildings. If the blinds are open, then the window has to be drawn as if there was a black void inside. If it’s nighttime, then the whole window becomes a featureless glowing yellow rectangle. Even if some lunatic had the budget to model the interiors of all these buildings, there’s no way your graphics card could handle rendering it all.
Spider-Man has a very interesting solution to this problem. A special shader is used for windows, and that shader creates the illusion of having a room on the other side of the glass. According to this article at Gamasutra, the technology was first envisioned way back in 2007, but hasn’t been put into general use until now.
Hopefully you’re familiar with the concept of a skybox in videogames. This is a texture that “wraps around” the camera and contains details like the sky and distant hills. In rendering terms, imagine you put a box over the player’s head (or more accurately, over the camera) with a picture of the sky on it. This box is always the same distance from the camera, which makes it seem infinitely far away. A texture designed to cover all directions like this is called a cube map, and it gets used in a lot of different rendering tricks. The fake windows in Spider-Man are a bit like this, except the cube map is a picture of a building interior and it originates at the center of the virtual room instead of at the camera.
Obviously generating an entire room from a single flat polygon involves some cheating, and that cheating creates limitations and drawbacks. The trick with these virtual rooms is that they all have to be perfect cubes of a fixed size. The fake rooms can’t relate to each other to connect in any meaningful way. This can get a little weird when all the rooms are 3^3 meters in size, but the windows are less than three meters apart. Two adjacent rooms will appear to be larger than the surrounding space allows, meaning they should overlap. Also, the various rooms don’t agree on where the connecting doors and windows are located.
Still, these rooms aren’t supposed to depict a coherent building interior. The point is to give buildings the illusion of depth and detail to make them seem more lifelike. Complaining that these rooms don’t match spatially is like complaining that you can’t fly off and visit the mountains in the skybox. The windows look a little odd if you land on a building and look inside, but they look fantastic when you’re swinging by at high speed.
The last detail is the fact that the game has distinct vocal takes for when Spider-Man is exerting himself. If Aunt May calls Peter while he’s sitting still on a rooftop, then he’ll give a more or less normal response. If you decide to web-swing around while the conversation plays, then Spidey’s voice will reflect this and you’ll be able to hear the exertion in his voice. I don’t know if everyone in Peter Parker’s life is used to the fact that he always seems to be moving furniture when they call, but it’s a lovely extra touch.
This feels really extravagant. Gamers are pretty used to their avatar talking in a conversational tone in the middle of player-directed chaos, so it’s not like anyone would have faulted the game for not including this. Still, I appreciate the team’s fanatical dedication to their craft.
 You could excuse this by assuming he knows that Martin can mind-control anyone, although that doesn’t fit with him lowering his guard because she’s got a press pass.
 What? Is there a skylight in this tent? Whatever.
 Eh. Not so much with Martin Li and Silver Sable, but those two will get their own sections later in the series and I wouldn’t blame either of these flawed characters on writer incompetence.
 Better as in “more interesting”, not necessarily “more amicable”.
 Formerly the pitch-shifted squeaky voice of Extra Credits fame.
The Best of 2016
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2016.
Batman v. Superman Wasn't All Bad
It's not a good movie, but it was made with good intentions and if you look closely you can find a few interesting ideas.
Starcraft: Bot Fight
Let's do some scripting to make the Starcraft AI fight itself, and see how smart it is. Or isn't.
Games and the Fear of Death
Why killing you might be the least scary thing a game can do.
Batman: Arkham City
A look back at one of my favorite games. The gameplay was stellar, but the underlying story was clumsy and oddly constructed.