How the web-swinging of ‘Marvel’s Spider-Man’ makes its superhero fantasy soar

Smooth as silk

System Shack is NME’s new column that explores the mechanics behind the industry’s most successful games. This week, Rick Lane swings for the fences in Marvel’s Spider-Man.

Superhero games are all about embodying the fantasy, about letting players get as close as possible to feeling what it would be like to be their favourite crimefighter. But the fantasy is different for every superhero. A Superman game is worthless if it doesn’t make you believe a man can fly, while a good Batman game needs a beltful of gadgets and the ability to scare the guano out of your foes.

With Spider-Man, it’s all about the swinging. While there’s room for interpretation in areas like Spider-Man’s personality, how he fights enemies, and even who lurks beneath the mask, one universal constant is how Spider-Man moves. Spidey’s habit of swinging through New York like an urban Tarzan is fairly unique among superheroes, so for any developer making a Spidey game, capturing that distinctive method of traversal is critical to realising the fantasy.

The developer of Marvel’s Spider-Man, Insomniac Games, clearly understands this, and dedicates a remarkable number of resources to making Spider-Man’s web-swinging as thrilling and intuitive as possible. The result is arguably the best traversal system of any game. Not any superhero game, but any game full stop.

Marvel's Spider-Man
Marvel’s Spider-Man. Credit: Insomniac Games

What’s perhaps most surprising about the web-swinging in Marvel’s Spider-Man is how simple it is to control. The basic interaction of starting and completing a swing is all baked into a single button press. There’s no alternating trigger-presses to shoot web to Spidey’s left or right, no need to time your button presses so that your web sticks to the right place. All you do is press the button to begin a new swing, and then release it to make Spidey let go.

On paper it seems overly straightforward, but it makes sense in the broader context of the game. Peter Parker has already been Spider-Man for several years in Insomniac’s universe, so it makes sense that the web-swinging should feel effortless. Moreover, simple does not mean unsatisfying, and Insomniac deploys meticulous audio/visual design to lend the web-swinging an incredible sense of physicality. You can feel the weight of Spidey as he glides through the air, the tension in the web-rope as he reaches the end of an arc.

There is more complexity to the system than this, but that complexity is largely optional, serving to make your web-swinging more efficient and spectacular. Although you can start and end swings whenever you want, ending a swing at the zenith will give Spidey a boost of altitude, while waiting until the last second to commence a new swing will massively boost his speed. You can also add extra momentum to Spidey by performing a “web-zip”, which is useful for leapfrogging over rooftops. Meanwhile, you can also direct Spidey to a specific point on a building, then catapult off it using his “Point Launch” ability for a further speed injection.

Marvel's Spider-Man
Marvel’s Spider-Man. Credit: Insomniac Games

Arguably the most important element of Spidey’s movement design, however, is how Insomniac strive to ensure that Spider-Man’s transitions are as seamless as possible. The game has a wide range of bespoke animations for traversing specific obstacles, from rounding a sharp corner to rebounding off the tip of a flagpole. Holding left-shift while on a wall will also cause Spidey to run along it, which not only looks awesome, but means that accidentally swinging into a building doesn’t kill your momentum. It’s all about removing the friction between the player and the environment, ensuring that no matter what situation you wrangle him into, he has a way of adapting to it.

The fact this works so well is interesting, considering that the same idea is precisely what doesn’t work about the movement system in Dying Light 2, which I wrote about last week. But there are some key differences. Spider-Man is about being a superhero, whereas Dying Light 2 is about being an acrobatic, but otherwise normal, human being. The scuffed feet and sense of exertion is crucial to making Dying Light 2‘s fantasy work, whereas it would be antithetical to the idea of being Spider-Man as he pirouettes through Time Square. Moreover, Insomniac is simply much better at massaging the game’s animations into the rhythm of play. You always feel like you’re in direct, one-to-one control of the character, which is not the case in Techland‘s game.

There’s one last element in Spider-Man’s web-swinging that, while not strictly related to mechanics, is crucial in selling the fantasy of being New York’s most iconic superhero – the music. When you leap off a skyscraper and begin swinging down one of Manhattan’s streets or avenues, the game’s audio neatly slides into a rousing, inspirational score that forms the perfect accompaniment to Spidey soaring over the streets of New York. It’s all built to make being Spider-Man as awe-inspiring as possible, and the result is one of the most successful adaptations of a superhero into a video game yet.

If you enjoyed this column, check out the rest of System Shack here.

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