Mostly Miles (Morales) and a Little (Telling) Lies

As I wrote in my last post, before I reflect on my year in gaming, I want to get some thoughts down about two 2020 games I’ve played recently, and the second of those games is Spider-Man: Miles Morales. I am also going to sneak in some thoughts about another 2020 game (for console, anyway) that I just finished: Telling Lies – because I don’t know if I have enough thoughts to give it its own post and I kind of want to just put a bow on 2020 and move on.

Man, what a time to be a Spider-Man fan, right? As what I might call a passive fan since childhood, I’m kind of jealous of hardcore Spidey fans. I really love the latest Spider-Man movies, the 2018 Spider-Man game was amazing, and now Miles Morales just hops right up on the stack of recent awesomeness. I’ve only read a relative handful of Spider-Man comics, but I’ve dabbled in the video games going back to Maximum Carnage on the SNES (I still get clips from that soundtrack stuck in my head to this day, too). While it’s true that some of what makes this game so great is imported directly from the 2018 base game, there are things about this game that make it great in its own right. [Spoilers ahead]

I listen to a fair number of video game podcasts, and there is an element of the game that has been overlooked in the discussions about its eligibility as “game of the year material.” In almost every discussion about it, the focus seems to be on how the game is mechanically different than the original game. For some, Miles’ venom powers are enough to distinguish the game and lift it up as its own great game for award consideration. For others, it’s not quite enough, so they dismiss it as “not different enough” to be considered seriously for recognition. But the way the game presents not only Miles but the many people around him, is very different than not only the first game, but narrative games in general. Many of the mechanics used to tell his story are the same – the smooth transitions between gameplay and cinematics, phone calls with allies, podcasts, etc. – but what’s been amped up is the sense of community and the importance of representation, and those two things are, in my opinion, huge, and set it much further apart from the original game than Miles having a few new moves in combat.

From the very beginning of the game, one of the central conflicts is that Miles doesn’t quite feel welcome as a “real” Spider-Man. A local muralist leaves him out of a new mural featuring Pete’s Spidey, a shop owner named his cat Spider-Man after the “real Spider-Man,” he says with a tone of dismissiveness (after Miles just helped him recover his beloved pet, no less), there are quips from random NPCs around the world about “that other Spider-Man” or “where is the real Spider-Man,” and more. This was a powerful place to start, because that seems to be just the kind of discourse you hear about Miles as a fictional character in real life. He’s not the “real” Spider-Man. He’s just a tool for Marvel to “appeal to the SJWs.” So, if you’re aware of those kinds of conversations, it’s hard not to see this story as a metaphor for the kinds of discussions we have about marginalized people in prominent roles that were once reserved for traditional, non-marginalized (straight white dudes, if we’re being specific) characters all the time.

And the balance that this game strikes between focusing on Miles’ identity and heritage and the pretty standard super hero-y bits is so impressive. There are a ton of cultural references in this game, from the music Miles flips through to play for a holiday gathering, to the uncaptioned use of Spanish, to wall art, and much more. But it’s not the focus of the story, and I never felt like it was done strictly as a way of placating people with specific political leanings. It’s not only that it contributes to the characterization of Miles as someone who has likely felt like an outsider in one way or another for most of his life – the use of his community to highlight and reflect his culture and the culture of others made this city feel more alive. More than any other game I’ve played, particularly those set in real places, I felt like this was a real community of people. I have only been to New York City once, and just for a day, so maybe someone who’s lived there would disagree, but as an outsider I felt like this was (at the very least) someone’s real version of New York, and I actually felt a sense of longing to be included, to live there and know those people.

Granted, this sense mostly came after the ending of the game, when I played through a second time using the New Game+ feature. [Additional spoiler wanting for end-game story beats] One of the funniest things about the story, to me, was the fact that when Peter left for vacation at the beginning of the game, he explicitly tells Miles to “not tell anyone you’re Spider-Man.” Miles even refers back to this when his friend Ganke, who knows his identity, suggests Miles tell Phin, his old best friend and crush, that he is Spider-Man. By the end of the game, after just one superhero questline, everyone knows that Miles is Spider-Man. His mom, Phin, his uncle, the cute wall artist he met, the shop owner, some random city worker, and on and on. As funny as this payoff is, I was also incredibly moved by it the second time I experienced it. It reminded me of the great train scene in Spider-Man 2, where a maskless Peter almost dies stopping a train from derailing, saving everyone on board. The people in the train carry him, wounded, and gently place him on the ground before returning his mask and promising not to tell anyone. And they don’t! It’s this kind of relationship between hero and community that makes some of Spider-Man’s history and lore so great, and in Miles Morales we get to see a hero and community that is more real and representative than ever. Look, I completely understand that the world is in a rough place right now (to put it lightly), and it’s easy to be cynical and pessimistic, but the ending of this game left me feeling very warm. Miles’ story, his experience as an outsider, the love and diversity of his community… it made me feel like this was a special game, and deserving of more attention and praise than just nods towards how Miles fought differently than Peter did in the first game.

I still don’t feel like I’m doing the game’s sense of community justice, but let me move on to some more specific things I liked. First, and I mentioned it earlier, is the wall art. It’s a small thing, but some of the wall art in this game is beautiful, and I found myself pulling some web-slinging U-turns to get screenshots of some of it. I’ve noticed similarly solid street art in other recent games, like Cyberpunk, so I feel like someone who knows way more about street art than I do should write a paper on it. Who are the artists behind them? How did they approach making wall art for virtual walls? That kind of stuff. That aside, I’ll let the images speak for themselves. I love that the Black Cat piece from the first game is still in the same place, only faded and weathered (last pic).

Another thing I appreciated about the game was the stunning graphics. The graphics for the first game were good, so some of that attention to detail and excellent lighting carries over here, but I imagine some of the crispness of specific things was made even clearer by the PS5’s hardware. The reflections, shadows, and abundance of different textures kept catching my eye. There were several times where I’d be crawling under the shadow of a vent or a gate and I’d pause to marvel at how far shadows in video games have come. I remember seeing screenshots of an early Splinter Cell game on the Xbox and being so blown away by the fact that thin lines were finally casting “real” shadows in games. Years later, in this game, I am once again impressed, this time with how sharp the shadows are, and the variety of light and shadow sources they are in any given scene.

The reflections, too, really showed off how capable Insomniac’s engine is. Unless there is some new technique that I’m not aware of, the way that most developers render reflections in games is by literally scripting a second set of visual resources that mimic the original image. So when Miles looks in a mirror in the game, the engine is having to render a second Miles that is just programmed to do exactly what the player does. It’s a gimmick that goes back to as early as Metal Gear Solid 2 (I think?), but in most cases the player character is in a small, enclosed space, where there isn’t much in the environment that would have to be “reflected” (double rendered), like a bathroom. When you consider how much memory a machine would need to use to render a detailed player character and its surroundings twice, it’s understandable why mirroring wasn’t so widespread. There is even a bathroom mirror for Miles to look in at his apartment, but there were also much larger areas where there were reflective surfaces big and small, and every time I popped into one of these spaces I would ooh and ahh as I snapped some screenshots.

Also, look at some of the textures in this game. Again, I know they were present in the previous game, too, but they look so clear and varied here. Seeing Miles in a Spider suit that has several different and unique textures standing next to Prowler, whose suit has several different textures unto itself, for example, was really cool. You can make out tiny variations in types of thread, rubber, plastics, patches, and more.

There is also a lot of stuff carried over from the first game that I still love. The Arkham-style combat is still great, I love the sprawling recreation of New York and zipping around to find collectables, and give me all of the suits. It’s been widely covered by now, but having a tiny fur-ball of fury strapped to your back is adorable and so fun. When I would perch on a building and linger for too long, he would pop out and bat at the back of my head, he took some lethal swipes at the bad guys I was taking down, and he would occasionally just stretch his little arms out to the sky. My heart.

So, yeah, I loved this game. I loved it after my first playthrough, but taking my time to enjoy and explore the world, get invested in the community that Miles lives in, and really exist in that world made it above and beyond a mere half-sequel, as many podcasters seem to consider it. I can’t wait for the next game, even if it’s probably at least a few years away.

Because I played Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Cyberpunk 2077, and Miles Morales back to back, I kind of wanted a short, easy palate cleanser before getting back to The Last of Us Part II or some other big, deep game, so I hopped into Telling Lies, a desktop simulator visual narrative game. I don’t know if that’s the official genre, but it seems appropriate. I have come to realize that I have a weirdly strong affinity for desktop sims, and I don’t know if it has something to do with voyeurism or nostalgia, but as soon as I realized that the interface was going to be a computer desktop and I would be access videos of people via search terms and a database, I was in.

Beyond the interface and some interesting story beats, though, I was left a little wanting. This is an interesting and innovative way to tell a story, but the ‘game’ part of it seemed a bit unrealized. Let me explain. When you begin, the game gives you a very brief tutorial of how to search the database and then sets you free about your business. What is your business, though? The game doesn’t specify, but I quickly felt like I must be tasked with sleuthing out some story. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but by following the proverbial breadcrumbs I began to see tantalizing snippets of what might be some nefarious plot. Even then, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be looking for. Is it the story of this one character’s death? Or this apparent terrorist plot? Or this love triangle? Or something I haven’t uncovered yet? So I kept fumbling, not certain I was on the right track because I wasn’t even sure there was a track. There is a file on the virtual computer that says I will upload my “report” by morning, but as the fictional hours ticked by I became increasingly concerned with whether or I would unravel whatever mystery I was supposed to solve before the time ran out.

In the end, I don’t think there is any detective work to be done. I was bookmarking specific parts of videos, sure I would have to connect videos together in my report to show guilt or motive or something, but I didn’t. You just watch the videos, submit “the report” which is just a list of whatever videos you watched, and that’s it. The developer’s previous game, Her Story, was more successful as an interactive story because there wasn’t nearly as much framing to mislead players into thinking there was some ultimate objective other than watching the videos. And how cool would it have been if the game had delivered on that? I would have loved to have made different folders for different characters or plot points, then organized and woven them together at the end to reveal one character as a murderer or another as an accomplice or whatever. That promise is left by the wayside, though, so other than experiencing an interesting story in an unconventional way, sprinkled with an occasional bit of solid acting performance, I was mostly underwhelmed by this game. I want them to keep making games like this, though, not just because they expand what the medium is capable of, but because when the gameplay and framework works, it has potential to be very cool and powerful.

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