Everyone who ever grew up playing video games has a favorite, a treasure that they enjoy coming back to year after year, even when the game is outdated and forgotten by the gaming public at large. Having gone from playing The Oregon Trail’ on black and green apple computers in grade school, to experiencing the power of the PS3, there are many games I count as personal favorites, but when it comes to superhero games, there’s only one choice for me: ‘Spider-Man’ for the Playstation 1. In the 19 years since it came out, I continue to pop it into whatever Sony console I have at the time (hooray for backwards compatibility!) and give it a go every now and then, and every time I’m delighted that it still holds up. Yes, the graphics are outdated, the camera and controls a little wonky, but it’s a fun, colorful, light-hearted game that offers so much for Spidey fans, including an often hilarious ‘What if?’ mode that tweaks little things in the game, including giving having one of the bosses be voiced by a little kid.
If I had to take only one superhero game with me to a deserted island for the rest of my life, ‘Spider-Man’ would be the one packed inside my bags. But enough nostalgia-gushing. Let’s see what writers can learn from Spidey’s successful leap into the third dimension.
If the situation is right, consider bringing all your A-list characters together in one story
Doc Ock. Venom. Carnage, Mysterio. Scorpion. The Rhino. Captain America. The Punisher. Daredevil, Black Cat. ‘Spider-Man’ didn’t hold anything back when it came to filling out the roster of Spidey’s foes and friends, giving each one at least a satisfying cameo, or a pivotal role in the game. The sheer weight of all these characters – with their backstories, history, and personal grudges against Spider-Man – shows that that Activision and Neversoft held nothing back when it came to bringing in familiar faces for fans and newcomers alike.
In our own stories, it’s tempting to hold back when starting out with multi-part epics, and not put all our most prominent, heavy-hitting villains and allies in the first story, either from a desire not to have the plot be overstuffed, or not wanting to use up all our best characters at once. Both are valid concerns, but ‘Spider-Man’ proves that you can have multiple A-list characters: Only a few (Doctor Octopus, Venom, and Carnage) have prominent roles, but everyone else still has their moment to shine, even if only just a cameo – the important part being that those one-off appearances does impact the plot, and Spidey’s journey, and aren’t just there for fan-service.
Have both the villains and the good guys come after your hero
Like all good stories, ‘Spider-Man’ raises the stakes for our hero by having not only all the bad guys of New York City going after him, but the good guys as well: The police, thinking that Spidey’s the one behind the heist that starts the game, unleash everything they have to catch him (including the world’s most relentless helicopter). Even heroes like The Punisher and Daredevil aren’t sure if Spidey is innocent or not. Thus, not only does Spider-Man have to stop Doc Ock’s diabolical plan to rule the world, but also have to clear his name at the same time.
In our own stories, it’s typical for the hero to have to take on more powerful villains, but having him or her have to take on the good guys adds an extra layer of danger and moral complication. As the hero, our protagonist can’t just kill the forces of good, as this would make his or her situation even worse, forcing them to be creative when it comes to incapacitating good guys without killing or harming them. Our audiences enjoy seeing that creativity at work.
For extra points, this trope can also apply to villain protagonists. If your protagonist isn’t trying to redeem themselves, they can go to war with both good and bad guys; if they’re trying to redeem themselves, they have to struggle against their corrupt nature to try and do what’s right, ensuring even more drama.
Consider giving your villain a code of honor
Of all of Spidey’s villains to appear in-game, it’s Venom – in my opinion – who fares the best. Unlike Doc Ock, Carnage, Rhino, or Mysterio, who just want to get Spider-Man out of the way so he won’t interfere with their plan, Venom isn’t out to conquer the world, but to bring Spidey to justice for (supposedly) stealing Doc Ock’s machine. Yet, after Venom learns that Spidey is innocent, he immediately joins forces with him to find out who really caused the heist.
In our own stories, villains with a sense of honor – and even a willingness to team up with protagonists if the need arises – are far more compelling and interesting than those who are just cruel, evil, and have no redeeming traits. While he’s clearly not a nice guy, Venom’s contrasts make him fascinating to follow, especially his sense of humor: I never fail to chuckle at seeing him surfing the internet and asking for Captain America’s autograph.
Consider a sudden genre change at the climax of your story
Compared to many superhero games of the past nineteen years, ‘Spider-Man’ is a lighthearted tale. Yes, it has the occasional serious moment (Black Cat being impaled by Rhino’s horn certainly takes the cake), but by and large it’s a kid-friendly game that anyone can enjoy.
That is, until the final level.
Back when I first played ‘Spider-Man’, I was wondering who the inevitable final boss would be. Doc Ock was an obvious choice. If not him, then Carnage. To my surprise, both were defeated, but the game wasn’t over. Then I saw who the real final boss was: Monster-Ock, a combination of Doctor Octopus and the bloodthirsty personality of the Carnage symboite, who chases after you in darkened tunnels while howling at the top of its lungs.
Like any kid of the late 90’s, I did what any other kid in that situation would do: Have crippling nightmares for life.
Okay, not really. But the final level of ‘Spider-Man’ is such a radical departure from the rest of the game. There’s no jokes from Spidey, no quippy one-liners, and no humor. It’s a segment out of a horror game where you have to outrun an unbeatable foe. There’s no one to help you, no one coming to save you as you fight to outrun this screaming, multi-toothed, skinless-looking monster that will cave your face in if it catches you, and all the while trying to escape an underwater base before it explodes.
Awesome, right? And what makes it so memorable is because it’s so unexpected. First-time players expect an epic boss fight against one of Spidey’s legendary villains, with him finally winning the day and swinging off into the sunset with a witty joke. Instead, he has to run for his life, so scared that he doesn’t even try to be humorous. In our own stories, such shifts in tone shows the audience that things have gotten serious; the stakes are at their highest, the danger has never been more immense, and failure will bring catastrophic consequences. Doing such a shift can be difficult, and if done wrong, it can ruin the immersion. But when pulled off correctly, it can create moments our audience will remember for years to come. To this day, the ‘fight’ against Monster-Ock remains one of my favorite boss encounters in any video game, and is a great ending to a great game.
If the conditions are right, putting in all your A-list characters in one story is a surefire way to please fans who want to see their favorite characters team up, and having your hero having to not only face off against their most powerful villains, but against other good guys, will make the stakes higher than ever, especially if one of those villains has a code of honor that they follow religiously. And to cap off such a story, consider making a genre shift at the very end to catch your audience off guard and surprise them with something they didn’t expect, like horror.