Remember that Spider-Man game from 2018? Of course you do. It was really popular. Then again, it was a Playstation 4 exclusive which means a lot of you couldn’t play it. And this wasn’t one of those pretend exclusives that comes out on one platform and then a few months later it gets released for realsies. This is an old-school style exclusive where you have to buy one specific machine, or you can’t play the game. That sucks, but I guess that’s how things work in This Dumb Industry.
It’s a shame, because I think this game was amazing. It told an original story. Well, as original as stories get when you have the same hero fighting the same bad guys for over half a century. The point is that the writers were free to create their own version of the character and his world, and that version wasn’t chained to the convoluted lore of any of the comics, movies, cartoons, or breakfast cereals that came before it. It was its own thing, but it was also true to the spirit of the original works. Unlike some games I could mention.
I say the game is fantastic, but it’s fantastic with a couple of inexplicably bad scenes.
It’s not like I’ve never seen a bad cutscene before. I even covered a stupendously terrible cutscene a few months ago. I’m used to games where the story is good and so the scenes are mostly good. And I’m used to games where the story is terrible and incoherent and so the scenes are also terrible and incoherent. It’s just that I get confused when otherwise good stories have bad scenes that make clumsy, amateur-level mistakes. So let’s go over this scene.
The setup is that Mary Jane needs to…
Oh hang on. I want to make it clear that this isn’t remotely the worst cutscene in the game. That honor belongs to all the scenes with Silver Sable in them. Silver Sable is a disaster of a character in this game. She’s basically a big bundle of terrible ideas in a boring costume. But it would take another entire article to explain everything that’s wrong with her. So for the moment let’s just shove her off to the side and focus on this scene with Mary Jane, because unlike Silver Sable, MJ is actually important to the plot.
Anyway, the setup is that Mary Jane needs to talk to this…
Oh, before we get into this I need to explain something about MJ for people who are more familiar with the classic supermodel / actress version of the character. In this story, she’s actually a reporter for the Daily Bugle. So she’s basically Lois Lane with red hair. Some people like this change, some people don’t. You know how it goes on the internet.
On one hand, it diverts really hard from the design of the original MJ that audiences have grown to love. I don’t just mean that she’s no longer a swingin’ 60s party girl with a splash of mod culture. I mean, her entire personality is different. Instead of being a gregarious free spirit in the body of a Hollywood bombshell, she’s now a serious, driven, career-minded woman who majored in journalism with a minor in breaking and entering. The only things left from the original character are the name and the hair color.
On the other hand, this redesign moves her closer to the action. When she was an actress, there wasn’t a lot she could do in the plot aside from getting kidnapped and menaced once in a while. But now that she’s a reporter, she can be involved, meet villains, discover new information, deliver exposition, and generally be a proactive character within the story.
The change makes a lot of sense and I understand why the writers did it, but I’m also an old guy who grew up with the Steve Ditko and John Romita versions of the characters. The new MJ design is probably a good idea, but it still bugs me because I’m a neurotic and possessive fan that freaks out when things change.
So where were we?
Oh right. The setup is that Mary Jane needs to talk to this scientist guy…
Oh, hang on. I thought of one more thing you should know. In the old stories, Spider-Man’s original girlfriend was boring milquetoast Gwen Stacy. The Green Goblin killed her because he wanted to hurt Spider-Man and also because covers like these are a great way to sell comic booksNo, that’s not a spoiler. It happened in 1973. If you’re that far behind on your comics reading then it’s not my fault.. After that, Spidey settled into a stable relationship with the aforementioned glamorous party girl version of Mary Jane. (No relation.) They got married in 1987, resulting in yet another attention-grabbing cover. They were happily married (by the standards of comic books, anyway) for 20 years and then the Devil made it so that their marriage never existed. Then some other stuff happened and some other stuff and who cares anymore?
The important thing here is that the plot of this game is taking a very different path through their relationship. They were apparently dating at sometime in the past, but then they broke up because he was overprotective and that interfered with her career plans to break big stories by sneaking into dangerous bad guy lairs to spy on them. So at the time of this story, they’re no longer a couple.
Ok, now if you’re done interrupting me, let’s look at this cutscene.
The setup is that Mary Jane needs to talk to this scientist guy named Charles Standish. The problem is that Standish is currently in protective custody with the paramilitary fascist thugs enforcing martial law in New York for reasons that are too complicated to get into. The Sable agents are a bunch of trigger-happy idiots and will casually shoot you on sight if they catch you sneaking around their base. So MJ has to sneak into the Sable base in one of the game’s many insta-death stealth mazes.
The bad news is that Standish is basically at the center of this goon commune. The good news is that these guys have the hearing and visual acuity of your typical Skyrim bandit.
So you guide MJ through the maze and reach Standish. He assumes she’s working for the villainous Demons and that she’s here to assassinate him. That’s a really strange leap of logic. He was attacked by the Demon gang just a few hours ago, and he knows what they look like. They’re an army of Chinese guys in scary masks that attack with swords and assault rifles. Thinking that MJ is a member of the Demon gang is like assuming that Kirsten Dunst is a member of the Blue Man Group.
Also, she’s obviously not an assassin because she’s unarmed and openly greeted you when she entered the tent, Standish. You dummy.
But whatever. Standish probably has a case of the jitters, so he grabs a nearby pistol and points it at MJ.
The problem is that Spider-Man is just outside. He apparently borrowed Batman’s detective vision from the Arkham games. That’s fine. Batman doesn’t seem to be using it these days. Spidey sees that MJ is in the middle of the Sable base and that someone is threatening her with a gun. So he leaps into action. He enters the tent and lands in front of Standish. Now, Standish should be glad to see Spider-Man. Spidey saved his life a few hours ago and he should be glad to see a friendly superhero. But for whatever reason Standish acts like Spider-Man is the Baba Yaga and awkwardly backs away while neither MJ or Spider-Man make any effort to de-escalate the situation. He then trips over his own feet, falls over, and manages to knock himself out.
Then Spider-Man says, “That’s not a Sable guy. Definitely not a Sable Guy. Sorry Charlie.”
Standish’s self-knockout attracts the guards, which means Spidey and MJ need to leave right now before the goon squad starts shooting. But MJ is still trying to continue the interview for some reason. She gets angry when Spider-Man grabs her and leaps out of the tent. They escape safely, but MJ’s investigation is thwarted because her interview ended before she got the information they needed.
Then we cut to MJ’s place where Spider-Man drops her off. Once he swings away, she calls him to berate him, and the dialog makes it sound like a continuation of an ongoing tirade, as if she was shouting at him as he carried her across the city.
This cutscene is a disaster. People often talk about how much they hated MJ in this game, and when you ask them to explain it usually comes down to this scene in particular. MJ is unreasonable in attempting to continue to interview someone who is out cold while paramilitary goons converge on her position. She’s furious with Spider-Man and accuses him of knocking Standish out, but the cutscene very clearly showed that he didn’t do that. As presented, Spidey didn’t really do anything wrong. Standish is the idiot in this scene. First he thinks the unarmed woman who greeted him is an assassin. Even after she proves she’s not a threat he continues to irresponsibly point his gun at her. Then he’s afraid of a friendly superhero and knocks himself out. His antics are so ridiculous it almost feels like slapstick.
But even though this is obviously Standish’s fault, MJ lays into Spider-Man. I mean, she really goes off on him. You can hear the full audio of her dialog at 6m29s in the YouTube version of this article. The short version is: Spidey keeps apologizing for a mishap he didn’t cause. His presence at the scene was the result of his concern for her well-being. Despite this, MJ keeps yelling at him anyway. She ends with “This is exactly why we broke up!” which takes this professional disagreement and makes it very, very personal. Considering that Peter is still pining for her, this is one of the most hurtful things she could say.
This makes her feel like an unreasonable bully. Also, she’s yelling at Spider-Man for telling jokes, which is one of his most endearing qualities. And she continues berating him despite his profuse apology. Wrongfully accusing someone of something they obviously didn’t do and refusing to accept heartfelt apologies are behaviors we associate with antagonists and abusers. It’s no wonder people don’t like this version of the character.
The thing is, this is an important scene. This is supposed to be the low point of their relationship in the game. This conflict is central to their shared arc. The problem isn’t that she’s angry at Spider-Man, the problem is that this scene isn’t doing its job of advancing their conflict. Let’s take a step back and look at what’s going on between Peter and MJ.
The problem with these two is that while they’re both good people that want to do the right thing, their individual goals push them apart. MJ’s drive as a reporter compels her to go after the big story. Poking around villain hideouts is dangerous, but it’s a danger she willingly accepts for herself. She’s also got a dash of pridefulness and she’s a little sore that Spider-Man has saved her so many times. She’s tired of always being the one to get rescued.
On the flipside, Peter Parker is pathologically driven to protect the people he cares about. Uncle Ben died because Peter failed to do his job as a superhero. (Don’t worry, this game doesn’t re-hash the origin story yet again. The game assumes you’re already aware that Uncle Ben died because Spider-Man wasn’t responsible with his powers.) He’s spent all the years since then trying to atone for that mistake and making sure it never happens again. He CAN’T look the other way and let MJ put herself in danger.
He’s compelled to rescue her from doing her job, and this behavior is what drove a wedge between them in the first place. It’s a wonderful conflict that comes from their virtues and their personal histories. They’re not fighting because they’re ignorant or selfish, they’re at odds because of their different approaches and motivations for doing good. This is good drama.
Or it was, until the scene where Standish was a clown and MJ turned into a dumb bully. Suddenly the supposedly brilliant Standish is a cartoon goof, MJ is way out of character, and Spider-Man is almost completely passive. This is a very frustrating scene for the audience, and the blame for that frustration usually ends up landing on MJ. That’s not really fair to MJ, but before we talk about what went wrong with this scene, let’s jump ahead and see how this plot is resolved.
Near the end of the game, MJ and Spidey try again. She has to sneak into the penthouse of Mayor Norman Osborn. It’s probably the most dangerous and heavily guarded location in the city. She has to sneak in and steal some plot exposition from Osborn’s computer system.
But this time, they figure out how to cooperate. Spider-Man is able to hang back and let her do her job. At the end when things go sideways, she calls for his help and then jumps off the building, trusting that he’ll catch her. Which he does, because superhero. He lets her do her job, she learns to ask for help when she needs it, and their cooperation both repairs their relationship and gets them the info they need to stop the bad guys. This reconciliation is perfectly symbolized by the two of them embracing as they swing away together. It’s a brilliant scene that advances these two two character arcs, moves the overall plot forward, and gives us a really fun visual. This is gold.
So if the premise of this arc is so strong, and if the conclusion of this arc is so good, then what happened in the middle? How did the Standish stand-off end up being such a disaster? Well, I have a theory. Imagine how this scene would play out if the whole situation really was Spider-Man’s fault. Imagine if he had jumped into the tent and POW…
…knocked Standish out with a quick punch.
Now, I haven’t seen the script, I don’t know any of the developers at InsomniacFor some reason I had Rocksteady, not Insomniac in the script. I don’t how I never caught that in editing. Maybe it’s because my next script talks about the Batman games. Oh well. Now that mistake is part of the video and people can correct me on it. FOREVER., and none of the Spider-Man writers have replied to the love letters I’ve been sending, but I’m willing to bet you a deluxe No-Prize that the original script called for Spider-Man to actually knock Standish out himself.
Think about it: Spider-Man, driven by his fear that he’ll lose yet another loved one, dives into the tent and blasts Standish in the face without thinking. It’s not until Standish hits the floor that the Web-head realizes what he’s done. Suddenly his “Sorry Charlie.” line would make sense.
It doesn’t make any sense that Spider-Man would apologize to someone who just tripped over their own feet, but it makes sense as something he’d say after realizing he just decked their most important lead. Suddenly MJ’s anger would make sense. She risked her life to get in here, and Spider-Man ruined everything at the last second by thinking with his fists. Her anger at him making a joke suddenly makes sense. To her it would seem like Spider-Man wasn’t taking his mistake seriously. This would also clear up the problem where a supposedly functional adult could somehow knock himself out.
There’s even this awkward pause right after Spider-Man lands. It’s accompanied by the kind of musical cue that would lead up to a punch. It FEELS like there should be a punch there, but instead the two guys just look at each other and then Standish falls over.
My theory is that someone removed the punch from this scene, and they did so very late in development. The script had been written, the dialog had been recorded, and the scene had been mo-capped so that Spider-Man decked Standish, and then the punch was removed.
So if the original version of the scene works so well and the one we got in the game is such a disaster, then you have to ask – Who changed it? More importantly, why?
So let’s talk about the…
At several points in Marvel’s Spider-Man, you play as non-superhero characters Miles Morales or Mary Jane Watson. You have to sneak through some sort of obstacle course filled with guards. Judging by the discussions I’ve read, these sequences are not popular. Public reactions fall somewhere in the range of indifference, boredom, or outright hostility and irritation. And it’s not hard to understand why. The gameplay is just not very interesting.
The areas are entirely linear. No branching paths to explore. No alternate routes that offer a faster approach for higher risk. The whole thing is very binary. If you make a mistake and get spotted, it’s an instant game over. The obstacles in your path are simple and obvious. Something blocks your progress, so you press the button or activate the object to remove the obstacle to continue on your way. Your progression is literally one-dimensional. You move forward on a linear path and press buttons when you’re told to. In terms of interactivity, it falls somewhere between a cutscene you can’t skip and the world’s slowest quick time event.
I’m not against the idea of these sections. I think brief interludes of playing as normal people can make us appreciate the exhilaration and mobility of the superhero stuff even more. And seeing the world from the perspective of a different character is a really useful narrative device. My problem isn’t the lack of superpowers. My problem is the lack of gameplay. These sections aren’t interesting enough to justify the time we spend with them.
Your foes are all brain-dead and half-blind. These sequences are time-consuming yet easy, and for the most part the only way you’ll get caught is if you get impatient and move when you’re obviously not supposed to. Which means this is basically a contest of patience where the player is pitted against their own boredom and desire to get back to the fun parts of the game.
So imagine you’re a playtester and you slog through this boring stealth section, and your reward at the end is a cutscene where Spider-Man – the hero, the main character, and the character you’d rather be controlling – leaps in and negates all of that effort with a quick uppercut.
The Idiot Ball
I’m sure you’ve heard of the idiot ball. It’s the trope where a character is suddenly and unaccountably stupid for the purposes of advancing the writer’s intended plot. People talk about it in terms of the writer “giving the idiot ball” to a particular character for a scene, or passing the idiot ball around a group of characters. The most common examples are sitcoms where an entire episode hinges on a continuing misunderstanding that could be cleared up at any time if the writer wasn’t forcing everyone to take turns with the idiot ball.
You can see an example of this in Avengers Infinity War. (Oh and by the way, I’m about to spoil a pivotal scene in Infinity War. If you’re still waiting to see this 2018 movie, then you might want to skip to the next section.) Near the end, the good guys are just seconds from defeating Thanos. He’s partly sedated and they’ve nearly managed to pull the Infinity Gauntlet off of his hand. If the glove comes off, they win and the universe is saved. But then Star Lord ruins everything when he finds out Thanos killed his girlfriend Gamora, and in a fit of adolescent rage he begins punching the villain. This wakes Thanos back up, and as a result the good guys lose and billions of people die.
Now, you can argue that this moment was justified by Star Lord’s character. He’s immature. He’s not the smartest guy in the galaxy. He’s not even the smartest guy in the Guardians of the Galaxy, and that’s a low bar to clear. Gamora was his first attempt at an adult relationship. So you can say that it’s totally understandable that he would lose control like this. And fine. You can argue about that all day. The problem is that – justified or not – the audience generally has a very limited patience for plots that rely on idiocy. It’s not always wrong to have otherwise reasonable characters behave stupidly to advance the plot, but it’s usually not ideal and it’s really not ideal in stories like Marvel’s Spider-Man where the foolishness is coming from our main character.
Adversity is More Interesting than Idiocy
Movies like The Big Lebowski get around this by making dim-wittedness central to the character, but in a broad superhero action story there’s a lot less room for anti-heroics driven by stupidity. We don’t want the hero creating their own setbacks. That’s the villain’s job.
And so we come to the Standish scene, where Spider-Man’s idiot ball creates multiple setbacks at onceThat is, assuming we’re talking about a version of the scene where Spidey punches Standish.. Not only is Spider-Man punching out an innocent civilian, not only is he further sabotaging his relationship with MJ, not only is he scoring an own goal by thwarting MJ’s investigation in a situation where the clock is ticking and millions of lives are at stake, but he’s also committing the unpardonable sin of antagonizing the player by negating the tedious stealth section they just got through.
My guess is that this was just too much. It probably pissed off the playtesters. Perhaps feedback on this scene was so harsh that the designer felt compelled to change it. However, if the scene was already scripted and the dialog was already recorded, then their options would have been incredibly limited. The best they could do is remove the punch and have Standish trip himself unconscious.
You can see how this change would appeal to someone focused on the gameplay. If the punch upsets people, just take it out! Mechanically, the result is the same. The team doesn’t get the information they need. Just remove the punching animation and Spider-Man is instantly absolved of all wrongdoing.
Except, this doesn’t actually fix the scene. The player’s effort is still negated in a cutscene. (Which incidentally, is a thing this game does way too much, but that’s another article.) Sure, we took the idiot ball away from Spider-Man, but as a side-effect MJ and Standish are now each holding idiot balls of their own.
Spider-Man has an in-character reason to punch out Charles Standish in a reckless panic, but there’s no in-character reason for MJ to senselessly blame and berate him if he didn’t. We’re trading an unfortunate but understandable mistake for a jarring and inexplicable one. Worse, this change doesn’t just break this scene. Having Spidey NOT punch Standish creates problems that reverberate throughout the rest of the story. Like I said, a lot of people really dislike this new version of MJ, and a lot of that dislike comes from scenes like this one where our supposedly intelligent, perceptive, morally grounded and nobly intentioned heroine comes off as irrational, dim-witted, and mean.
Again, this is mostly conjecture on my part. I don’t have any proof that the original script called for Spidey to KO Standish. But I think my theory explains why we have this one disaster of a scene in what is otherwise a really solid subplot.
Appropriately, the plot of this game feels like we’ve been dropped into a ten-issue series in the middle of a long-running comic. The game doesn’t have a single overarching story. Instead there are several different plots that aren’t just concurrent, but deeply intertwined. Several plots simmer in the background and then shove their way to the foreground when needed. There’s the Doc Ock origin story, the stuff with Norman Osborn, Peter and MJ’s relationship woes, the stuff going on in the Morales family, the stuff going on with Aunt May at the homeless shelter, the Martin Li story which has a subplot with the Shocker, the bioweapon, the prison break, the Sinister Six, the Kingpin stuff, and all the dumb bullshit with Silver Sable. And that’s just the main story missions! I’m not even counting all the side content.
The takeaway from all this is that plots are often big, complicated machines with lots of moving parts. That’s particularly true in the case of Spider-Man, which has two or three entire movies worth of plot. It probably seemed like a small change to remove the Standish punch, but this change interfered with the Peter and MJ plot, made Charles Standish into a clown, made people feel hostility towards one of our central hero characters, and broke the intended mood of the following scenes. Removing the punch was a small change that did a lot of damage.
I’m Just Guessing
Or maybe I’m totally wrong and this scene was badly written from the start. I don’t know, but Spider-Man really should have knocked out Standish or the entire scene should have been excised.
The other change I’d like to see in this scene is for Spidey to stand up for himself a little more. Assuming we’re talking about a version of the story where he punches Standish, it would be nice if he tried to stand up for himself. Then it would seem like the two of them are having a proper disagreement, rather than just having MJ continue to yell at somebody who’s already apologized. In fact, that’s what the writer does the next time they team up, and it works so much better.
Speaking of changing the script: I’d originally planned to end this article with, “Oh well, I guess we’ll never know what the script originally said”. But then literally the very next day someone sent in a question to the podcast asking if I knew that Insomniac actually published the script for this game. On one hand, I’d love to know if my guess is right. On the other hand, I’m not going to pay $45 and wait for shipping to get a hardcover of a book when I just need to check one line of the script.
Regardless of what the script said originally, if it was changed, or why it was changed, I maintain that having Spider-Man punch out Standish would make for a more dramatically straightforward and less nonsensical scene.
 No, that’s not a spoiler. It happened in 1973. If you’re that far behind on your comics reading then it’s not my fault.
 For some reason I had Rocksteady, not Insomniac in the script. I don’t how I never caught that in editing. Maybe it’s because my next script talks about the Batman games. Oh well. Now that mistake is part of the video and people can correct me on it. FOREVER.
 That is, assuming we’re talking about a version of the scene where Spidey punches Standish.
The Best of 2014
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2014.
id Software Coding Style
When the source code for Doom 3 was released, we got a look at some of the style conventions used by the developers. Here I analyze this style and explain what it all means.
Resident Evil 4
Who is this imbecile and why is he wandering around Europe unsupervised?
Could Have Been Great
Here are four games that could have been much better with just a little more work.
Juvenile and Proud
Yes, this game is loud, crude, childish, and stupid. But it it knows what it wants to be and nails it. And that's admirable.