How To Make ‘Aliens’ Even Better

Ever since the release of ‘Aliens’ back in 1986, it’s been hailed as one of the greatest sci-fi action horror films of all time, as well as one of the greatest sequels ever. While I agree with both sentiments, I still prefer the original, 1979 ‘Alien’. Where ‘Aliens’ is about highly-trained warriors taking on a threat they can kill, ‘Alien’ is about everyday people struggling to defeat an opponent who’s stronger than them, faster than them, and can kill them in an instant. ‘Aliens’ has a stronger focus on action, while ‘Alien’ has a better formula for horror.

Recently, that got me thinking: What would ‘Aliens’ look like if we were to, say, take away all the marines, guns and military-grade equipment?

In this parallel universe, ‘Alien’ ends with Ripley, Parker, Lambert, and Jones escaping the Nostromo, which explodes and kills the Xenomorph. Sixty years later, the three survivors are woken by the escape shuttle’s computer detecting a nearby colony. Ripley and the others set down on the planet, only to discover that the colony is in ruins. Sneaking inside, Ripley, Parker, and Lambert (Jones remains on the parked shuttle) find Newt and realize that the colony has been overrun by Xenomorphs. Needless to say, the group tries to get back into space to avoid facing any more penis-monsters from beyond the stars, but the shuttle is overrun by said penis-monsters. While they just barely manage to rescue Jones, the shuttle is rendered inoperable via acid blood, stranding Ripley and the others on the planet.

Lambert, predictably, freaks out. Parker’s not happy, either, but Ripley manages to calm them down: if they can use the colony’s communications grid to call for help, they can then hunker down and wait for a rescue, as Newt managed to survive on her own without any training. But due to damage to the colony’s atmosphere processing unit, power is out throughout the complex. Parker and Lambert jury-rig the system to let them send off a single broadcast, and then all they can do is survive until help arrives. But as in the original film, the processing unit begins to melt down, and without any means of escaping into space, everyone will be forced to flee into the inhospitable wilderness of LV-426 and fend off any Xenomorphs that come after them.

Would Ripley and the others be able to survive? Would they be able to drive far enough away from the plant before it explodes? Would they be able to last months before help arrives? And, most importantly, would they be able to discover why kids like the taste of Cinnamon Toast Crunch? I’ll leave that up to you, but this thought experiment changes the tone and feel of the movie completely: by replacing marines and their weapons with untrained civilians, ‘Aliens’ becomes a more frightening movie because surviving becomes so much harder without smartguns, pulse rifles, and APCs. Ripley and her friends would have to scavenge whatever equipment they could find and improvise in order to fight for survival. And where they had to only face one alien last time, now they have to face dozens, if not hundreds. Survival is still a possibility, but much less likely.

The bottom line from this thought experiment? Untrained, unprepared, everyday people are almost always the best protagonists to have in horror movies, as the fight to survive will feel more authentic than if our protagonists are highly-trained, testosterone-filled, well-armed soldiers. Take away the big, powerful guns, the body armor, the apcs, grenades, missiles, and fighter craft, and you’re no longer the alpha predator; you’re prey, and your fight to survive will be all the more intense.

What We Can Learn From A Nightmare I Had Last Night

Normally most of us try to forget our nightmares, especially the more distressing ones, and I’m no different. But after a particularly vivid nightmare last night, I decided to instead remember it and see what nuggets of writing wisdom could be unearthed.

In the nightmare, I was in a future where poverty, suffering, and desperation was out of control in the United States (in other words, the present-day). But in this nightmare future, kidnapping is a frighteningly common occurrence, and I was only the latest victim. I was kept inside this grungy, run down house by a group of young 20 somethings who didn’t see me as a person but as a product to be used, sold, or traded. Thankfully, I managed to sneak out of the house and tried to run to freedom, including going through the backyard of a house owned by a bear and asking her for help. However, when I was being pursued and realized there was no way to escape, I used the back button on an internet browser to go back in time so I was back at the house to try and figure out a smarter way to escape.

Then, to make matters worse, I was shown why all this suffering was so commonplace: the kidnappings were done in such a way that if you resisted your captors or tried to escape, they responded by digging out your eyes, cutting off your limbs, then digging out your ears, ripping out your teeth, then your tongue, and finally tearing off your nose so you would become little more than a living sex toy to be used however rich people wanted to use you. It was no wonder so many people just meekly went along with whatever their captors wanted.

But it wasn’t just what happened to individuals: the kidnappings were all being orchestrated by an unspeakably powerful gang that was making headroads into the United States, and threatened all members of law enforcement that the fate of being turned into a blind, deaf, mute, and crippled sex toy was what would happen to their loved ones if they tried to stop the gang in each city they went into, and the gang had the power and ability to do so, meaning it was not an idle threat. Against such malevolence, police and federal law enforcement were all but powerless… and that’s when I woke up, thank God.

What did the nightmare do well?

It used the ‘If you try anything we will harm your loved ones’ trope to devastating effect

It may be used time and time again in countless stories, but there is no faster way to make a good character capitulate to evil than by having evil threaten his or her loved ones with horrific suffering. That taps into our deep-rooted desire for our loved ones to be safe, and the terror of something awful happening to them. While simple, it’s always a devastatingly effective storytelling tool (and an excellent way to make your audience eager to see the villains get their equally horrific comeuppance).

It showed evil as cold and indifferent

It’s easy to imagine evil as smug, cruel, and enjoying tormenting people. But the other side of flashy, smug evil can be equally frightening, if not more so: The kidnappers I faced in the story didn’t care about me or my feelings. They were unaffected by screams, pleas for mercy, threats, and begging. To them, captives were just products, and using torture didn’t bother them at all. They were indifferent to human suffering.

That kind of evil is, in my opinion, more frightening because we expect people to be swayed by emotions, even if it’s only to be more cruel and to laugh at our pain and suffering. But people who aren’t moved are like aliens or robots in human flesh: they may look normal, but we realize that something about them is wrong, and we instinctively fear them because they’re unpredictable and could do anything to us without any warning. They are like spiders, always watching you, never betraying any emotions, waiting to strike when you least expect it, and when they do, it’s unexpected and overpowering. At least with people who relish watching you suffer, you know what to expect and can try to prepare. But with these people? You can’t.

Cold and impersonal is the opposite of smug and selfish. Both work in different circumstances, but in my opinion the former is more frightening.

It threatened the protagonist with a fate worse than death

While death is often seen as the ultimate bad ending, there are fates far, far worse: Does spending decades as a limbless, blind, deaf, mute, and helpless living sex toy sound like fun to you? In any case, threatening a character with such a fate is a quick way to show that the antagonists aren’t messing around.

What could be done to improve the nightmare?

The bear could have had more characterization

The bear I encountered was a fascinating individual, as it was a single mother, had a house, and dressed in human clothes. Clearly, it was an intelligent being who was able to hold down a job and afford a house, but when it saw me and heard my pleas for help, it did nothing but stare at me with its stupid bear-face. The nightmare missed out on the chance to show what it would be like to interact with an intelligent, talking animal, but instead chose to do nothing. How lazy.

There was no explanation how time travel worked

In an otherwise rational, logical, and cruel world, there was no dwelling on the fact that time travel was real, or how it worked. There wasn’t even an attempt to explain how pressing the back button on an internet browser allowed me to reverse time and only have me be the one to realize it. What a disappointment.

Conclusion

Though there were some missed opportunities with regards to the bear’s characterization, and being able to time travel using the back button on an internet explorer was out of place in such an otherwise consistent and grim world, the nightmare did an amazing job showing how indifference can be terrifying, and how threatening ourselves and our loved ones with a fate worse than death is evil’s greatest and most powerful tool. That being said, I wouldn’t recommend revising this nightmare, as it really wasn’t fun to watch or experience. I’d recommend something like this instead.

Great Quotes About Writing: Survivors Aren’t Fearless

There are a lot of great quotes about writing out there; these are some of the most insightful, thought-provoking, or ‘ah ha!’ ones I’ve come across.

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‘Sigourney Weaver is such a great actress. I love how unlike some “women” (I used quotes because they don’t really seem that human , just “perfect”) in film, you really believe her terror but at the same time really see her in that adrenaline rush and just doing everything she can to survive. Those are my favorite types of characters in horror/thriller films in general. Their not made of stone with no sense of fear, but they also don’t sit around weeping and waiting for the killer to get them. These characters are terrified and can barely think or move, but they dig as deep as they can into their primal survival instincts and they just do what they need to do to survive.’

David Ganderson, commenting on Ellen Ripley’s escape from the Nostromo in ‘Alien’ (emphasis mine)

Not much to add here: This is one of the best summaries of survivor characters I’ve ever come across, and a reminder that even a character who is brave and works to save themselves can still be scared out of their minds.

‘The Force Awakens,’ ‘Underwater,’ and the power of Expanded Universes To Enrich Your Story

Note: This post contains spoilers for the 2020 thriller, ‘Underwater’

The year is 2015, and the end credits have just started rolling on ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’ I sit back in my seat, mulling over the first live-action Star Wars film in over a decade, my mind full of questions, so many questions, and few of them good:

*Where did the First Order come from? How did this group that’s supposed to be smaller than the Empire (and possessing a fraction of their resources) get more advanced ships, weapons, and a galaxy-killing planet?

*What’s the political state of the galaxy? How has it changed in the thirty years since the end of ‘The Return of the Jedi?’ Is the New Republic struggling? Has it been successful? Is it on the verge of becoming an empire itself?

*How did Maz somehow get a lightsaber that tumbled into a gas giant, ensuring that no one could possibly retrieve it?

*Why, when faced with a new fleet of space-Nazis, does the New Republic dispatch such a pitifully tiny group to fight it? What happened to all the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers we saw in ‘Return of the Jedi’? Shouldn’t a galactic government have the means to defend itself?

These questions left me frustrated because the film had no interest in answering them. Even more frustrating was that to get answers to many of these questions, I would had to buy tie-in novels, visual dictionaries, and encyclopedias to get answers that should have been in the movie in the first place.

Fast forward to 2020, and the end credits have just started rolling on ‘Underwater,’ an underwater horror-thriller (and the final film released by 20th Century Fox before being rebranded by Disney) in which drillers and researchers struggle to escape from the bottom of the Marianas trench while being attacked by fearsome underwater critters. While you won’t be able to remember the character’s names or any witty dialogue a week later, it’s still a satisfying and enjoyable way to spend 95 minutes. Later, I look online to satisfy my curiosity at any interesting behind-the-scenes trivia and read a few articles, including one promising a major revelation about the big monster who shows up at the end.

A few minutes later, and I’m blown away: It turns out that the big monster in ‘Underwater’ is none other than Cthulhu himself, the most famous character from HP Lovecraft’s fictional mythologies. In an instant, ‘Underwater’ goes from a generic creature flick to a movie about humanity’s first encounter with unspeakably powerful gods who could easily wipe humanity out without any effort.

Since reading that Cthulhu is the main monster of ‘Underwater,’ I’ve come to realize that the movie does one thing ‘The Force Awakens’ failed to do: use its expanded universe not to explain an incomplete story, but to enrich it.

For those who are unaware, expanded universe material is any secondary publication outside of a movie, television, book, or video game that further explores the world and characters of that story. Star Wars is the most famous example, with hundreds of novels, video games, and comics released over the decades that explores its fictional universe, but it’s now common for blockbusters and other big franchises to get expanded universe material of their own.

However, there’s one important thing to remember: Expanded Universe material is meant to enrich and enhance the franchise it’s a part of, not explain away problems that should have been addressed in the original movie, book, video game, comic, or TV show. ‘The Force Awakens,’ tells a story with a beginning, middle, and end, but there are substantial gaps (such as the ones mentioned earlier) that require reading said dictionaries and novels to understand.

Conversely, ‘Underwater,’ is a complete, self-contained movie that uses its expanded universe material to add another layer of depth that’s not in the film. The first time you see it, ‘Underwater’ is about scientists and drillers trying to escape underwater monsters. The second time you see it, it’s a movie about scientists and drillers trying to escape from a demigod, who’s just one of hundreds who have come from a place outside of time and space, all created by an insane god who could destroy everything if it wakes up. Our protagonists live in a world where gods are real, and none of them are our friends.

Yikes.

What does that mean for writers? When we write our stories, our audiences should get all the information they need from following our works instead of having to consult a wiki to understand what’s going on. While it’s fine to leave some mysteries and teases of a larger world in our stories, it’s important that those mysteries don’t come at the expense of the main story, and when a viewer has to do research to understand a story, that story needs help.

Try looking at it another way: Your story is a gourmet dish, and the expanded material is the sauce. If your dish is missing several ingredients, the sauce can’t salvage it. But if your dish is well-made, the sauce enriches and adds onto it, elevating the dish to something truly magnificent.

Perfect Moments: One Of The Freakiest Endings I’ve Ever Seen

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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Please note that this is the ending to the 2013 film, ‘Enemy,’ and will spoil it if you haven’t seen the film, even though it’s… well, I really can’t talk about this scene without giving anything away.

The Scene:

Why it’s Perfect

Has your heart slowed down? Good.

As an arachnophobe, seeing a room-sized spider made me jump back when I first saw this. Making it so photo-realistic didn’t help, and neither does the fact that this thing screeches. It’s a fear-based screech, yes, but it’s still a giant spider screeching and scrunching up like its about to pounce and staring at you with soulless eyes AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGG.

Okay… Well, giant-freaking spider aside, what I admire about this ending is that it’s a perfect jump scare. There’s no hints, none whatsoever, that Jake Gyllenhaal is about to encounter a room-sized tarantula that used to be his wife. There’s no creepy music, there’s no sudden silence, only a normal scene building up to what you think is going to be a tense conversation between Adam and his wife, and then BOOM BIG FREAKING SPIDER THAT’S ABOUT TO EAT YOU RUN RUN RUN SUPERMAN SAVE ME.

While jump scares don’t age well after you see them, the first time you watch them are some of the most intense and memorable moments of cinema. This spider certainly counts as one of the best.

 

Du-duh Duh -duh: The Genius Of ‘Jaws,’ And The Merits Of Its Sequels

Back in 1975, Steven Spielberg made a little movie called ‘Jaws’, creating not only the era of the summer blockbuster, but also the best shark movie of all time. Even after 45 years, no other shark film has managed to surpass it, and Hollywood, recognizing what a gem they had on their hands, wisely and respectfully allowed the franchise to end with just one movie.

Just kidding. This is Hollywood we’re talking about, so we got three sequels of increasingly lower quality, ending with one so reviled that Universal hasn’t tried to make a new ‘Jaws’ sequel in over thirty years. Perhaps no other film franchise in history has suffered so badly from the law of diminishing returns, going from one of the greatest horror/thrillers ever made to one of the most mocked. Yet, are ‘Jaws 2,’ ‘3D,’ and ‘The Revenge’ really that bad? Are they actually better than pop culture would have us remember?

No. No, they’re not. But the greatest learning comes from the greatest failures, and what better way to learn how to do unnecessary sequels than to study the mistakes and missteps of Jaws’ unloved children? Thus, throughout January, we’ll be taking a look at all four Jaws films to see what lessons they can offer writers on how to do sequels. But unlike my Sharknado series, or the Friday the 13th comparisons, I’ll be doing something differently this time around: Instead of focusing on what the films did wrong (too many characters, bad visual effects, roaring sharks who want revenge on the Brodys, etc.), I’ll instead be focusing on what each film does well, because, despite their reputation, the three Jaws sequels do have their merits. Today, we’ll kick things off with the one that started it all: 1975’s, ‘Jaws’

Do I really need to describe just how good ‘Jaws’ is? It succeeds at every aspect, from characters, story, suspension, and casting, to cinematography and visual effects. So, in order to avoid a Stephen King-length analysis of what the film does right, I’ll stick with the four things I think it does best. (If you’re looking for a much more in-depth look at how good the film’s story and characters are, I suggest reading this excellent article by Jabootu.net).

4. The Story Is Self Contained

It seems like every movie made these days is written as the start of a trilogy, with studios hoping to create franchise after franchise they can come back to time and time again for decades to come. But despite being followed by three sequels, ‘Jaws’ is refreshingly self-contained with no loose ends or hints of a sequel. By the end of the film, the shark has been blown up, the threat to Amity Island is ended, and Brody and Hooper are free to pick daisies, frolic through the meadows, and live happily ever after. It’s the logical end to the story, one that doesn’t need any follow-ups or sequels, and doesn’t leave us feeling like we’ve only seen a full-length ad for the next installment.

3. The Isolation

Isolation is a critical part of the horror genre: What’s more frightening then being far from civilization and cut off from help while facing something wants to kill you, or worse? It might not be obvious at first, but ‘Jaws’ thrives on this isolation, taking place entirely on an island and a boat at sea. Yet, there are still multiple examples of characters being isolated and alone when attacked:

The opening attack, where poor Chrissie is alone and helpless in the water, her friends too far away (or too drunk) to hear her screaming for help as she dies.

The two guys on the pier have no time to call for help when the shark goes after their bait, and then comes after them.

Ben Gardner and his mate were alone when he was attacked, and Brody and Hooper are equally isolated when they come across his boat in the dead of night.

Brody, Hooper, and Quint are isolated on a slowly-sinking boat and unable to call for help or get to shore without being eaten, and their only chance is to build a shark cage in a last-chance attempt to kill the beast.

The common thread in all these moments is that the characters are in the ocean with few to no tools or weapons they can use to fight back. The shark has all the advantages (speed, killing power, size, etc.), while the humans have only their wits and intelligence.

2. Everything In The Film Revolves Around The Shark

One thing that I admire about ‘Jaws’ is something that sounds so simple, yet is so hard for so many movies to get right: Everything in the film (with the exception of Brody’s introduction) revolves around the shark. Even when it’s not on-screen or killing anyone, everything the characters do revolve around the shark: A town hall meeting is held because of the shark’s attack on Chrissie; Brody and Hooper have dinner to discuss cutting open the caught tiger shark, despite Hooper believing that the real shark is still out there; Quint talking about the Indianapolis on his boat that he, Brody, and Hooper are on because the want to kill the shark, and so on.

Virtually every scene in the film happens because of the shark, or is influenced by its actions. It’s holding the entire island hostage, and the story and the characters react accordingly. So many other monster movies have scenes or subplots that don’t revolve around their respective beasts that they take away from the film, but ‘Jaws’ wisely avoids such a mistake.

1. The Unseen Is Scarier Than What’s Seen

If there’s one thing ‘Jaws’ does perfectly, it’s that it relies on not seeing the shark so much, forcing our imaginations fill in the blanks every time its presence is felt, making inanimate objects like a broken pier, a stick in the surf, or a splintered piece of wood on Ben Gardner’s boat, bone-chilling. Not seeing the monster makes it so much more horrifying, and this extends to the first time we get a glimpse of it without seeing its whole body. But even better, the film doesn’t go overboard once the shark fully appears when Brody and Co. are hunting it; there are still plenty of times it’s hidden, and uses those moments to imply its intelligence and cunning, before finally having it take center stage at the climax.

Like salt, ‘Jaws’ masterfully uses the shark sparingly, letting it appear just enough to satisfy out curiosity, but letting it stay hidden most of the time, marinating our fear and making its inevitable appearances all the more satisfying.

Tune in next week, where we’ll take a look at Jaws 2, one of the most unnecessary sequels of all time, but not necessarily a bad one.

Great Quotes About Writing: The Difference between Scary and Gory

There are a lot of great quotes about writing out there; these are some of the most insightful, thought-provoking, or ‘ah ha!’ ones I’ve come across.

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‘To any director given that assignment (directing a remake of ‘It’), here’s my advice: Maintain clarity about the difference between “Scary” and “Gory.” Do all you can of the former, and not too much of the latter. Keep your eye on the ball: First and foremost, It is about an evil assault on a group of kids, and how they respond to this epic crisis. Don’t get lost in special effects, gimmicks ‘n’ gore, stunts and fancy camera work — it’s always gonna be about the people, and that’s what counts.’

Tommy Lee Wallace, in a retrospective of 1990’s ‘It’, Emphasis mine.

This is a fantastic quote that summarizes what so many horror stories seem to miss: Horror is not about how much blood, guts, and gore you can cram into a story; it’s about characters dealing with forces far more powerful than they are who want to harm them or those they love, and who are nearly impossible to harm or kill, if they can even be killed at all.

Furthermore, perhaps more than any other genre, caring about people in a horror story is vital. If we don’t care about them, then they’re just cannon fodder. Visual effects will inevitably become dated in horror movies, but great characters and a great story are timeless.

Favorite Moments: IT + The Lord of the Rings

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 video:

Why it’s great:

Today’s video is a great example of fans taking two unrelated franchises and combining them to create something new and fascinating. In this case, combining the Lord of the Rings trilogy with the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘It’ to create a version of Middle Earth where the greatest threat isn’t an evil ring, but an evil clown.

While it’s amusing to see Gandalf getting creeped out at seeing Pennywise, or Frodo shaking as a bloody balloon floats his way, what’s great about this crossover is how it stimulates the imagination into thinking how Middle-Earth would react to the presence of such an evil, shape-shifting entity from Earth. Would Gandalf be able to deafeat him? What would Pennywise do if he got the Ring? What would happen if he and Sauron got into a fight?

The best fiction, in my opinion, invites our imaginations to play around with wondering what might happen beyond the pages or the screen. We only get a few snippets of Pennywise interacting with the Fellowship and the denzins of Middle-Earth here, but it’s fun to wonder what might happen if he met other characters or went to places not shown in the video, and a reminder that writers don’t have to show or explain everything: Leaving some blank spots for our readers to fill in for themselves lets them conjure exciting scenarios and ideas beyond what we could ever hope to put on the page or on the screen.

What we can learn from ‘Limbo with Lyrics’

NOTE: The music video for this song features a child drawn in a stylistic manner repeatedly dying violent deaths.

When it came out in 2010, ‘Limbo’ quickly became one of the most famous independent video games ever created, quickly putting developer Playdead on the map. With it’s beautifully dark art style, bleak aesthetics, brutal violence, and haunting soundtrack, ‘Limbo’ is a masterpiece of grim video games… so, naturally, parodies starting coming our way, including this rather amusing song.

There’s only one lesson to learn from this video, but it’s a good one:

Be cautious when doing making light of real-life horrors

If you haven’t played ‘Limbo’, here are two videos to show you what kind of game it is:

When I initially started this article, I was going to write about how the use of an upbeat tune and comedic sound effects makes for comedy gold when contrasted with very dark media (which it does very well). After all, such a mix has worked before:

However, I then realized that while that combination of lighthearted fun and horrific suffering is funny for fictional stories, it doesn’t work as well when used in real life: A fun Reggie song about concentration camps in Nazi Germany would be rather… tasteless. So would a happy jazz tune about atrocities committed by ISIS to innocent people. It’s easy and fun to parody Jason Vorhees, Darth Vader, and the Alien and Predator, but when it comes to poking fun at torture, genocide, or the mutilation and murder of ordinary people, we walk a very dangerous line between making a point and being tasteless.

Now, nothing is off limits when it comes to comedy. Writers should be free to do dark comedy if they wish, on whatever subject they wish. But discretion is important: Doing a parody song about how millions can’t pay their bills, afford insulin, or even a place to live can be funny because it critiques society and makes a point. Doing a Reggie song about children having limbs hacked off because their parents couldn’t make daily quotas on a rubber plantation probably won’t have the same effect.

When audiences watch or read comedy, they want to laugh and get away from the horrors of the world, if only for a few minutes or even a few seconds. As writers, we have to be careful how we use horror to make them laugh. If we use the horrors of a fictional world, we have more leeway because those horrors don’t really exist. But if we use the evil that surrounds us in everyday life, we must be careful of the point we’re trying to make… unless we’re talking about people who push shopping carts in grocery stores at half a mile an hour and block isles so that no one can get past them. They’re fair game.

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.