Marvel’s Spider-Man and Foreshadowing

I’ll start out with huge spoiler warnings, because Marvel’s Spider-Man is an astoundingly good game with a breathtaking story, and I don’t want to ruin anyone’s experience.

I’ll also start with the disclaimer that I wanted to play through the game again to sift out all of the examples I’m talking about, but the game is on loan at the moment, so I decided to wing it. So if I’m a bit off about details, that’s why.

Spider-Man does so much right. The swinging is flawless, the set pieces are impactful, the voice acting is both fun and heartfelt, the story as a whole is outstanding. But there’s one thing that they get so right so often that I have to talk about the lessons it teaches us. Foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing is a tricky question. It’s easy to hint at what’s going to happen, but it’s hard to walk the balance between having events come out of nowhere and having them broadcasted until the audience knows everything that will happen next. And yet Marvel’s Spider-Man walks that balance brilliantly. Even more impressive, it often foreshadows events without the player realizing it.

Here are a few examples of just what Spider-Man does to meet the high bar of “surprising yet inevitable”.

First is Otto. I’m sure most players knew that we would have to face Doc Ock as soon as Otto Octavius came on screen. If you’re anything like me, you watched, almost peeking through your fingers, as the likeable Otto took step after step closer to becoming the familiar supervillain.

But this isn’t really a Doc Ock origin story. Sure, we get to know Otto both as a good man and as a ruthless villain, and we get to learn the factors that drive him to his drastic, diabolical actions. But Otto had been a villain for some time before the Raft breakout. He had already started work on enhancements for the rest of the Sinister Six before the neural interface risked scrambling his mind. His defense contract work, his supplies from the infamous AIM? A smokescreen for the audience and for Peter. He was building weapons to kill innocents in the name of his vendetta.

Insomniac brilliantly used our own expectations of Otto’s origin story to lie to us about where he was on his character arc, and to hide what would happen next.

On that note, while most of the Sinister Six is off-screen until the last act of the game, they are a constant presence in our peripheral. Several characters give casual mentions of the Raft and the various supervillains Spider-Man had put there over the years. A half-dozen collectables hint at the villains we’ll soon have to confront. The bulletin board with profiles of all the different villains display just how awesome they are.

If you’re looking for it, or are incredibly savvy, you might ask yourself why the developers would design the villains in such detail just for a few easily-missable references. But if you’re anything like me, on your first playthrough, all you notice is the attention to detail, and how successful they are in making this version of New York City feel real, lived in, historied.

(Is it a coincidence that Peter moves those billboards to the lab at the same time that Otto is hard at work creating upgrades for many of these same villains?)

Let’s take a step away from the villains for a moment, and talk about Harry. Much like the Six, Harry is absent and yet always-present. Peter and MJ are constantly talking about Harry, his trip, not hearing from him. But that’s surface-level. That’s obvious. Let’s go a bit deeper.

The research stations. Have you listened to Harry in the mission briefings? He’s obviously in over his head, often not knowing terms or exactly how the stations work. And yet he’s just as obviously dedicated to keeping these stations open, devoted to the causes that they serve. Why is that?

His mom.

It’s perfectly natural for someone to take up the cause of a loved one who’s passed away. But why now, and why does Harry seem so driven? Why does it all go back to his mom, over and over?

Think about when these messages would have been recorded. In the days and weeks before Harry went away on his “trip”. When Harry was struggling to tell his friends that he was dying. Harry’s mom is always on his mind, and it’s easy to see why. Because Harry feels the same guilt for leaving the people he loves that his mother doubtless did, and feels the same desperation to have some sort of legacy.

All this is aside from the fact that Harry ALWAYS sounds tired and depressed.

There’s some nice foreshadowing of Norman’s motives throughout, whether it be the reveal that Devil’s Breath was originally meant to be a panacea or the question of why Norman ignored so many safety protocols for this ONE project. There are even hints that Norman’s determination to replicate Spider-Man’s powers are because of Spider-Man’s subtle accelerated healing. But again, nothing earth-shattering here; just a bunch of small things to mention.

But there is one last mind-blowing bit of foreshadowing that I managed to pick out during my first playthrough.

The entire game foreshadows that Peter will have to let Aunt May die.

Spider-Man is famous among superheroes for being one of the few to struggle with the balance of super and normal man. He’s always late or absent. He spends half his time with friends and family apologizing.

And that’s certainly present throughout the game. He fails Otto a few times, and has to skip out on meetings with MJ. But none of these examples compare to Aunt May.

From the beginning of the game all the way until after the Raft breakout, we see Peter thinking about visiting May, or even on the way to FEAST, when the needs of the city pull him away. Over and over he has to stop a robbery or check on a lead or fight a supervillain at the cost of making it to a surprise party on time, or volunteering at the shelter, or checking on May during the riots. When she falls ill, Miles and MJ know before Peter does, because Peter isn’t there.

Even worse, this almost always happens while we are in control of Spider-Man. WE are forced to choose the city over Aunt May, over and over. In the end, when Peter says, “I don’t know what to do,” May can say with confidence, “Yes, you do.” Because he does. We do. Because we’ve been doing it the whole time.

I just threw a bunch of options your way, courtesy of my favorite superhero. You can bury your foreshadowing until it can only be appreciated in retrospect. You can fool the audience into believing that your foreshadowing is just really good worldbuilding or character establishment. You can even convince people that you’re foreshadowing a DIFFERENT Big Thing(™) than you actually are. But if all else fails, just fall back on the old adage, “show, don’t tell”.

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Who’s Telling the Story? Narrative in Games.

Who’s telling the story in a video game?

On the surface, the answer is obvious. The game’s creator is telling the story. But the reality is a lot more complicated, and I feel that the failure to answer this question early in a game’s development can become a big problem later on.

On one hand, yes. The game’s creators are the ones who choose the genre and the gameplay and the level design, the look and feel of the game. They craft an experience for the player.

On the other hand, video games are inherently interactive. It’s the player’s choices that drive the game forward. What weapon do they use? What mechanics do they focus most of their time on? Do they follow the unstated rules of the game, trying to match the intended tone and play style, or do they do their best to undermine it, by looking for glitches and overpowered strategies? Or do they play with the ragdoll of enemy bodies for fifteen minutes?

A game’s creators can never be in complete control of the entire experience. That’s what is great about video games! Every single person who plays has a different experience.  But if you gave the player complete control over every aspect of the game’s narrative, it would quickly grow tedious for the player, and would never stitch together to mean anything.

So storytelling is always on a line between those two points. But where on that line should it be?

I’ve worked out a pretty simple equation that works more or less universally: The more open you make your game, the more the player is telling the story. The more linear you make your game, the more YOU are telling the story. No matter where on the scale you fall, you have to be mindful of that balance.

The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is almost completely linear. You don’t make choices that influence the story, and your path through the game is entirely predetermined. Does this make it a bad game? I don’t think so. I think that the creators understood the costs and benefits of making their game linear, and crafted the entire experience around it.

You don’t make choices in the story. This HAS to be a story about a young, naive Prince, tricked by an evil Vizier and forced to team up with the princess of the land he’s invaded in order to undo his terrible mistake. Every story action is predetermined. Because of this, the Prince is introduced as a strong, fully-fleshed character, and grows in a dynamic, realistic faction throughout the story. A story where you make the important story decisions simply couldn’t form a character like this.

Dark Souls, on the other hand, finds a different balance. You choose who the character is. Your choice of class, of armor and equipment and which stats you level, down to whether you choose to complete all NPC quests or kill every NPC you meet, crafts who that character is. The world is yours to explore, and most of it can potentially be at your fingertips from the opening moments. However, there are certain nodes of the story that are unavoidable.

Because of its different design, it wouldn’t make any sense to give you a Lawful Good hero on a quest to save his ailing grandmother*. What if you wanted to kill every NPC? Could you still confront the villain with indignation over their designs to rule the world*? Instead, they give us a blank slate character and a story that does not rely on who that character is. They hang just enough story on the anchors of those few nodes that you must pass through, and then leave the rest of the plot to optional exploration.

*Not the actual story.

These are two extremes . There’s plenty of room between them (Minecraft goes even further than Dark Souls by not HAVING a story), and plenty of games that nail the balance they’ve chosen. I could go on all day talking about them.

Instead, I want to talk about a game series that (I feel) fails to keep this balance.

I’m going to pick on a series I love here, a series I’ve spent hundreds of hours with, and will probably spend a thousand more. The Elder Scrolls.

Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim. Who makes games this good? Three in a row that are widely considered some of the best games ever made? I’ve bought Morrowind THREE TIMES, and I’m contemplating a fourth.

However, after playing hundreds of hours, exploring the world, doing everything from reading books to going into hellish dimensions to slay demonic lords, there’s one thing I haven’t done in any of the three games. And that’s finish the main storyline.

My experience isn’t unique. Most of the people I know love the games, but have never “finished” one.

This isn’t necessarily because the stories are weak. Oblivion and Skyrim had stories that seemed fine, and Morrowind actually has an outstanding story (which is why I came closest to beating that).

Instead I feel that they tend to mistake where they fall on the scale.

In The Elder Scrolls, you decide who your character is. Do they give to the poor? Or do they murder the homeless? Are they noble travelling warrior, or thief and assassin? Or do they just like going out to gather ingredients for potions? YOU decide what your character’s personality is. YOU decide what motivates them.

And then the game decides what the main story is, regardless of any other decisions you make along the way. Murderous outlaw who’s emptied the cities of all non-essential NPCs? You’re going to prevent the apocalypse, same as the devout follower of Talos who spends all their time completing side-quests to help the children. And barring some small choices that don’t change the overall plot, you’re going to go about it in the same way.

They craft their world and their gameplay to give the player all of the choice, but they still believe that they are telling the story. Motivations and methods fit poorly unless you’ve chosen the “right” character type. Because of this, I never FEEL anything when playing the main story.

Some other games that do similar, but are more aware of this balance, include Fable and Jade Empire. You craft who your character is, but there’s always a motivation that will fit who you’ve made them. Jade Empire in particular is a master class in letting the player choose who their character is while still keeping them invested 100% in the story.

The more control you give the player, the more THEY are the ones telling the story. As long as you’re aware of this, and design around it, you can make the players feel like the characters, and by extension themselves, are truly part of the story.