I’m playing. A lot of thoughts are swirling round my head. Most of these thoughts are pretty normal.
“Wow what a beautifully crafted, extremely good-looking video game.”
That’s thought number one.
Thought number two: “Man they really nailed the whole ‘swinging through the city like Spider-Man thing’.”
That’s crucial. You suspect that was a priority for Insomniac, the game’s developers. A game about being Spider-Man would probably struggle if they made a meal of the web-slinging.
Thought number three: “Boy oh boy does this video game feel familiar.”
In fact, outside a few key details, Spider-Man feels alarmingly familiar to a number of video games you’ve been playing for the last 10 years.
For the players
Over the last few years Sony has done an incredible job of releasing must play, high profile exclusives for the PlayStation 4.
These exclusives have made the PlayStation 4 the “must-own” console of its generation. There’s little competition here. The Nintendo Switch is a wonderfully new thing — a catch-all handheld that travels well — but if you’re sitting in front of your large 4K television looking for a high-end, big-budget video game experiences, your best bet is a PlayStation 4.
, and now . These games are all published by Sony, available exclusively on the PlayStation 4. But that’s not all they have in common.
What else do they have in common?
Open world structure. Check.
Level-up systems, more suited to traditional RPGs, but shoehorned into an open world action game. Check.
Skill trees, which allow players to unlock core abilities after accumulating experience points for missions instead of just giving you access from the beginning. Check.
Crafting, the ability to upgrade armour and provide (often imperceivable) advantages during gameplay. Check.
Spider-Man is very much a Sony video game.
And then there’s the ideas Spider-Man borrows from non-Sony published titles.
Assassin’s Creed towers, which unlock maps and side-missions, providing a whole new set of mini-map icons to chase after. Timing-based combat, clearly borrowed from the Batman: Arkham Asylum series. The trailing missions from The Witcher 3.
Spider-Man is a game that effectively cobbles everything that we’ve come to expect from big budget video games and distils it into one single, homogenised entity.
Video Game: The Video Game.
Spider-Man intuitively understands what players and reviewers have come to expect from Video Game: The Video Game and caters to it expertly. It’s a polished, expertly made piece of technology that literally ticks all the boxes.
But shouldn’t video games do more than just tick boxes?
Thought number four: Why can’t more games be like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild? Or as I like to call it, the Anti-Spider-Man.
After the release of Breath of the Wild in 2016, I honestly believed the age of games like Spider-Man (where you chase icons on mini-maps, and level up and unlock skill trees) would dry up and turn into dust.
Here is a video game that took everything we know about how open world games are supposed to work and rebuilt it from the ground up, to craft an experience that solved problem unique to its intentions.
Breath of the Wild was absolutely its own video game and was revolutionary for it. It asked similar questions to games like Spider-Man or Horizon: Zero Dawn, but the answers were different.
That’s how game design should work, right?
Not all games have to be like Breath of the Wild, but that’s the point. Considering the amount of money, time and resources that go into creating video games like Spider-Man, wouldn’t it make sense to spend time in preproduction crafting unique design solutions tailored specifically to the type of game you want to make?
It’s difficult, I get it. There’s a risk/reward at play. When budgets are huge and the stakes are high it makes sense to mitigate risk with design decisions you know work because you’ve seen them work in other video games.
But the end result of those choices is mediocrity, an endless suite of big budget video games that look, play and feel the same.
We’ve been trained to not only accept video game tropes uncritically but — in a strange way — celebrate them.
I want video games to be better than that.
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