What we can learn from ‘Spider-Man’ (2000 video game)

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up playing video games has a favorite, a treasure that they enjoy coming back to year after year, even when the game is outdated and forgotten by the gaming public at large.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 Yes, the graphics are outdated, the camera and controls a little wonky, but it’s a fun, colorful, light-hearted game that offers so much for Spidey fans, including an often hilarious ‘What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.

The Takeaway:

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.

Favorite Moments: The saga of Dervorin, the… ringbearer?

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The game

‘War in Middle Earth’

The video

(Skip to 27:35 to reach the relevant part of the video)

Why it’s great

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: In the land of Middle-Earth, the Dark Lord Sauron seeks to reclaim his Ring, which will give him the power to enslave the world. After the Ring is found by Frodo and his friends, they head for Rivendell, only for Frodo, Sam, and Merry to be cut down by Ringwraiths, leaving Pippin to be the Ringbearer.

Wait, what?

Afterwords, Pippin eventually makes his way to the city of Minas Tirith, where he personally commands the defense of the city, but during one of the seemingly endless assaults, Pippin falls in battle, leaving only heroic Dervorin to take up the ring, at which point he bravely sets out to reach Mt. Doom with 881 of Gondor’s finest infantry. But the quest runs into disaster when all of Dervorin’s troops are mowed down by 500 trolls; now alone, Dervorin must continue alone, sneaking through the mountains of Mordor before finally reaching Mt. Doom and chucking the Ring in, defeating Sauron and saving Middle-Earth!

Okay, so that’s not how The Lord of the Rings played out. But thanks to the computer game, ‘War in Middle Earth’, we have this curiously compelling tale of what might had happened in the tale to save Arda. Aside from the obvious deviation of having all the hobbits die – save Pippin – we get a story where it isn’t some legendary or heroic figure who takes the Ring to Mt. Doom, but some random guy most Tolkien readers have never heard of. I don’t blame any of them either; Dervorin appears only briefly in ‘The Return of the King,’ where he leads 300 men to the defense of Minas Tirith… and that’s all he contributes to the story. We don’t even know if he dies or not, which makes him an odd choice to entrust the fate of all Middle Earth to.

So why do I like this video so much? There’s the novelty factor of seeing a beloved tale being changed so drastically that it’s almost entirely new, of seeing favorite characters take on new roles and getting into interesting situations (like Gimli somehow evading 492 trolls by himself in the wilderness), but what captivates me the most is Dervorin himself. In a film, he would be an unnamed extra, someone in the background who doesn’t draw attention to himself. In battle, he would be one of the countless mooks who’s only purpose is to provide cannon fodder for the enemies, and to die to emphasize how dangerous the battle is. In every aspect, Dervorin is a nobody, an unimportant character who doesn’t have the luxury of plot armor to keep him alive.

Now, imagine what it must be like to be one of this unnamed, unimportant background characters, and suddenly be entrusted with the fate of the world.

When he gets the ring, Dervorin goes from being a nobody to being the most important person alive in Middle Earth. If he fails, Middle Earth is doomed. He’s the ultimate underdog, and we suddenly become invested in his survival, eager to see if he triumphs. And aside from the aforementioned skirmish with all those trolls, Dervorin somehow manages to pull it off, making his way to Mt. Doom all by himself, and managing to throw the ring in, all while apparently being immune to its corruption. That makes him awesome, and a fantastic example of an underdog rising to the occasion and saving the day.

What we can learn from: ‘Half-Life 2: Breen’s Redemption’

 

 

 

 

Valve’s 2004 game, ‘Half-Life 2’ is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest first person shooters ever released, featuring (for its time) unparalleled physics, a gripping story, and one of the most oppressive atmospheres ever encountered in a video game.  Playing as silent scientist Gordon Freeman, the player fights to free humanity from the Combine, an inter-dimensional alien empire that has conquered Earth (instead of, as you might think, a race of sentient grain harvesters).

Throughout the game, the player often hears from Wallace Breen, a human who has allied himself with the Combine as humanity’s ‘administrator’. Though he presents a friendly, almost grandfatherly face to the public, complete with speeches explaining why humanity should work with the Combine, it eventually becomes clear that Breen is not a nice guy. But is he truly a villain?

In-game, we’re told that, during humanity’s hopeless, seven-hour war against the Combine, Breen intervened and managed to negotiate a surrender, where, in exchange for not being wiped out by the Combine, humanity is allowed to exist, but as a subservient race who has to endure a life of nonstop oppression and helplessness. But did Breen do this to save the human race, or to gain power for himself? We’re never told, leaving it up to the player to come to their own conclusions. I like to think that Breen did want to save humanity, and hates the Combine, but he also wants power, and realized that working with the Combine was the way to get it. But in the end, it was all for naught, and he met his end falling to his death from the top of the Combine tower.

But what if he had lived?

‘Half-Life 2: Breen’s Redemption’, by Youtube user Crunchy Soap, examines what might have happened had Breen survived the events of Half-Life 2. The result is a  hauntingly beautiful look at a man who realizes the misery his actions has caused, and a prime example on how to redemption a villain:

How to redeem a villain

1. Have the villain lose everything they gained from becoming evil:

Breen loses his position of power with the Combine and becomes an ordinary person with nothing to his name.

2. Have the villain reach their lowest point:

Breen is injured and alone, and knows that he’ll probably be shot on sight by the Resistance, or any member of humanity with a gun.

3. Have the villain face the consequences of what he/she has done

Unlike other stories, Breen doesn’t face imprisonment or execution for his actions: instead, he comes face to face with the suffering his alliance with the Combine has caused, regardless of any good intentions he might have had when he made said alliance.

4. Have the villain turn against the organization he/she created

Even though he’s an older man and past his physical prime, Breen takes on the Combine elite with nothing but a pipe to save the lives of two Resistance members, and later, three of them with only a submachine gun. In doing so, he reaches a point of no return: by killing members of his organization, he cements his decision to change sides, for good or ill.

5. Have the villain help his former enemies/work to restore what he/she has destroyed

Breen saves the lives of two Resistance members, then a child, and then becomes a full-fledged member of the Resistance, joining their fight to save Earth from the Combine. By doing so, he now does what he can to undo the damage he caused on behalf of the Combine.

While there are deeper villain redemption stories out there, ‘Breen’s Redemption’ is a short, effective tale that’s told without any dialogue(outside of the opening). While he probably would not be given a chance of redemption based on how much the in-game characters despise him, I like seeing him get a chance to turn back, making this video a personal favorite… but if you’d rather see Breen get his comeuppance in hilarious ways, this should help scratch that itch:

 

 

 

 

Perfect Moments: Fighting with Gabe Logan

 

Once in a while, you come across a moment in a story that is so perfect that it stays in with you for years, or even a lifetime. These are moments that, in my opinion, are flawless; perfect gems of storytelling that cannot be improved in any way, and are a joy to treasure and revisit again and again.

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The Video Game:

‘Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain’ (skip to 8:36 to reach the relevant part)

 

Why it’s perfect:

‘Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain’, while ambitious in design, is, at best, a mediocre game since its release in 2004, due to the lack of an online mode, frustrating trial-and-error gameplay, and a story that has the unenviable task of extending a series that ended perfectly at the end of the previous installment. However, it does have one segment at the end that makes the game worth playing: The player character fighting side by side with series hero Gabe Logan.

When I was growing up and playing video games, Gabe Logan was my favorite gaming character, beating out the likes of Mario, Sonic, Solid Snake, and so many other video game mascots. I played through all three games of the original Playstation One trilogy, so, when I finally played ‘The Omega Strain’ years later, I was looking forward to seeing how the series had continued. Unfortunately, I wasn’t that impressed, due to the limitations mentioned above. Still, I trudged on, creating a digital version of myself to help fight the reformed Agency’s villains and save the world, trying to find what fun I could.

That is, until the final level.

Near the end of the final mission, I ran into a terrorist base to help stop the nuclear destruction of Russia. It’s a pretty standard mission, with plenty of running, gunning, and dying over and over again, but then something happened that made me pause the game to stop the sudden surge of my inner child screaming with glee: my in-game self was face to face with Gabe himself, who needs my help to save the day. And when I had calmed down enough, I unpaused the game and experienced gaming bliss: Gabe and me running through the base, blowing away terrorists in a fight to save millions of innocent lives.

I was fighting side by side with my favorite videogame character, and to this day it remains one of my favorite videogaming moments.

One advantage video games have over all other forms of storytelling is that they give the player to chance to actually interact with their favorite characters, but player-created characters doing so is extremely rare; the only other time I can think of it happening is ‘Sonic Forces,’ but ‘Strain’ remains special for me. I tried playing the ensuing sequels after this one, but didn’t like them, and thus, ‘Strain’ remains the series finale of the Syphon Filter franchise for me, if only for the final level. I began the series as an impressionable teenager guiding Gabe Logan in his quest to defeat the agency, and I finished the series fighting side by side with him, a treat that no movie, book, or tv series has ever come close to duplicating.