It’s been a while since I wrote on my blog. It’s been a very busy couple of years with working on a myriad of titles and projects, as well as trying to focus on a better work life balance. I decided that I wanted to get back to writing blog posts about topics I love, and no topic is dearer to me than that of discussing narrative in video games. I want to begin with a multi-part series analyzing the way various developers structure the narrative within their titles. I want to look at what’s good and what’s bad. What stood out, and what failed to ignite.
Before I begin my critique, I need to make a statement. There is no right or wrong way to write or make video games. The process of game development is an organic and often chaotic cycle of implementation and iteration. There are dozens of factors that go into governing every decision made at every level of production. As such, I want anyone reading this to understand that my thoughts and opinions on how games are made and how stories are told are my opinions. That’s not to say the choices other developers made are bad. In fact I applaud the diversity with which we tell stories in this medium. That’s the reason why I want to look at them closer and see what the developers achieved.
2018 has been an embarrassment of riches when it comes to incredible games. From God of War, to Red Dead Redemption 2; there has been a clear push by AAA developers to have compelling narratives woven into the heart of their titles. I’m going to start this series with a look at one of this year’s best games. I have a lot to say on it too, so let’s get started talking about Insomniac Games incredible Spider-Man.
There are some very obvious reasons why Spider-Man stands out as a well crafted narrative experience. The voice acting is top notch, the dialogue is snappy and well written, the characters all feel three dimensional, and the cinematics are well shot and paced. All these things are true, but the reason this work is able to shine so bright is because of the narrative framework they are built upon.
Spider-Man is at it’s core, a simple story, and I say that 100% as a compliment. It’s very common in the video game industry to try and complicate narrative. We often try to compensate for the added complexity of interactive elements and use a more dynamic story structure. Spider-Man proves with expert confidence that a video game can tell a great story using a three act structure. It does so without sacrificing any narrative complexity due to the player controlling the pacing.
Spider-Man solves this problem by using the three act structure to govern how much of the world content is available at any one time. It also times the key narrative beats to the same structure. Lets dive a little deeper into what I’m talking about here.
Beware: Spoilers Ahead!
Act 1 – The setup
The first act of Spider-Man does a great job of establishing the main characters of the story. We get introduced to this version of Parker, we meet Aunt May, MJ, and a few of the main villains and secondary characters. We also get the establishment of the core relationship in the game. I’m talking, of course, of the dynamic between student Peter Parker, and father figure/teacher Otto Octavius.
The act can feel slow, but when you look at the sheer amount of character setup accomplished, it actually crams a lot in. Yet, well crafted cinematics aren’t as fun to most players compared to swinging around New York City like a total bad-ass.
Let’s talk about that for a second, the world. The map is huge, and the game doesn’t restrict your movements at all. We get access to about 25% of the open world content during act 1, but if we choose not to do it, then the list of stuff we have to do later just grows.
What this design choice achieves, is it gives us a sprinkling of stuff to do without disrupting the pacing. It focuses the player on pushing the main story forward so we can get into the meat of the content that’s present in the much longer act 2.
The first act of a game or story isn’t the sexiest section, or the most engaging, but getting it right is crucial for all the later moments to have impact.
Act 2 – The Journey
Once we conclude the first act with a little conflict which sees Peter forced into direct action against Mr. Negative, we begin the real journey. This is the largest section of the game where we learn more about the villains and their key motivations.
One of the things I loved about this story is that all the villains were complex characters who were doing what they felt was right. They were the heroes of their own stories, and they felt justified in their terrible actions. No one was acting evil for the sake of it, and they all had emotional depth that made them feel like people, albeit broken people.
Act 2 is also where the relationship between Parker and Octavius deepens. Their back and forth with failure, and success traces a wonderful parallel to the larger narrative that runs through the game. Unlike a lot of games where pausing the action to talk to characters can feel like a chore, I found myself excited to interact with them in Spider-Man. The three act structure gets out of the way of the story and devotes a lot of attention during the middle 15 hours of the game to pushing all the different character arcs forward. This allows the cast of characters to shine as individuals, but also as a larger ensemble.
Watching Parker and Octavius bond over their mutual love of science is wonderful. But watching them drift apart as Octavius becomes obsessed with his desire for vengeance was heartbreaking. His desperation to find a way around his degenerative disease felt so real. I smiled, cringed, and groaned as I saw Parker and MJ tip-toe around their awkward relationship. Having the narrative foundation get out of the way to allow for the story and characters to breathe is one of the clear benefits of using a simpler structure.
The world systems also follows along with the narrative pacing as opposed to trying to drag it kicking and screaming based on the player’s demands. During act 2 most of the world systems, side objectives, and collectibles become available. They aren’t all unlocked at the same time or at random moments though. They are all triggered using clever narrative devices that either introduce new characters, flesh out backstory, or push story-lines forward.
Insomniac do have a fairly large midpoint moment involving Mr. Negative. His story doesn’t wrap up as such, it’s more about revealing the way everything connects back to him. He’s kind of the narrative anchor point up to this moment, and it makes for a great mid-point. We get a cool boss fight and we break up the pacing, so we don’t get bored of the game play loops. As we reach the end of act 2 motivations are clear, and story arcs have either concluded or are building towards a merge point. Then we get our all is lost moment right on schedule.
All Is Lost…
By the time the end of act 2 rolled around, I was already super impressed by the narrative pacing, but I was waiting for the all is lost moment to happen. A lot of games don’t use the three act structure and so a lot don’t have this natural conflict moment at the end of the second act. When it happened though, I was happy to see it, and boy did it impress.
It was so refreshing to see real energy, time, and resources put into the core beats of the narrative structure even towards the end of the game. Every title gets a polished intro, but to see the traditional story structure used to influence game development made me so very happy. Every time the plot called for a beat to occur, Insomniac put real energy into making sure the beat landed, and land they did.
The act 2 finale is a perfect all is lost moment. Peter rushes to stop the mass outbreak of prisoners and ends up coming face to face with a bunch of his worst enemies. They beat the ever loving crap out of our hero. Then to add insult to injury, we see that the person who orchestrated this chaos was a beloved friend and mentor who betrayed him. I saw it coming because that’s kind of my job, but even so it still hit me hard. This moment in Spider-Man is great, and I’d warrant Insomniac put more effort into this one sequence than some developers do their endings.
Act 3 – The Resolution
I’m going to open this section with a preface. This may be one of the most satisfying endings to a video game I’ve played in recent memory. I felt so many emotions during the final sequence of this game, that I just sat there and let the credits roll while I processed everything.
When we head into act 3 everything is pretty fucked. The city is on fire (literally) and our friends and loved ones are in danger. The bad guys hold all the cards, and Peter is on his last legs. We head out into the city to fix everything and save the day. We unlock the final collectibles and side content, but it’s a bit more difficult.
This is another great example of the narrative pacing informing the design choices of the game. We are rewarded for reaching act 3 by gaining access to new content, but because we’re now a super duper Spider-Man, those rewards are harder to obtain. What I also likes is that the content added makes sense in context with the main plot.
Act 3 feels a lot faster than the others, and compared to the large second act especially. It didn’t feel like it was much longer than act 1, but the difference is the pacing of the narrative is much faster. I haven’t counted how many missions act 1 and 3 have to compare, but I imagine it’s similar. The stakes are higher in act 3, and the urgency in the narrative is greater, so we are made to feel like things are moving faster. It’s a wonderfully elegant trick that is easy to apply when using the three act structure as a narrative template.
Now let’s talk about that ending…
We’ve reached the climax of the story. Peter has rounded up the bad guys, defeated Mr. Negative in a brutal fight that is equally a psychological battle as a physical one. We saved a troubled Norman Osborn, and we finally confronted Dr. Octopus after he left us for dead. There’s also a nice little montage as Peter builds himself an anti-Octavius suit that looks rad.
The final act has a great ramp up, and Insomniac never take the foot off the gas until you’re racing up a skyscraper to face ‘Doc Oc’ in the final confrontation. While this act is more linear than earlier, it’s a great way to ensure the pacing doesn’t suffer or the tension isn’t released before you reach the climax.
If you’ve reached this point and you’re like me, you’re invested in these characters and this story, then you don’t need any convincing. You will race to the end to stop Octavius before he makes more terrible mistakes. We’re not in this to beat the shit out of an evil monster, we’re in it to try and save our dear friend from himself. That’s an important distinction to make and one I wish more games explored. Spider-Man wanted to save his friend, Otto. I wanted to save my friend, Otto, too.
While the fight is good, it’s strength doesn’t lie in the mechanics, but in the narrative woven into the actual game play. The fight, in true boss fight tradition, is broken into phases. Between each phase we take a moment to develop the emotional conflict and keep building tension. It’s not enough that we’re fighting him, we’re still using this time to develop the characters and story. The raw emotions are pouring out. Peter’s feeling of betrayal and sadness, as well as Otto’s rage and frustration. It’s all there washing over the player.
Once we finally defeat Doc, we have a heartbreaking scene where Peter unloads all his baggage at his mentor. It’s heartbreaking to watch, and even more so knowing what Peter had to suffer to reach this moment. He’s as close to death as he’s ever been. Otto pleads and Peter wants to believe his friend is being genuine, but deep down he knows it’s over. The tension of the story flows out of the characters and with it goes my own tension that’s held in my shoulders as I hunch over my controller, eyes fixated on my TV screen. This scene made me sob.
The voice acting, facial capture, animation, and cinematic direction during this final confrontation was nothing short of incredible. It impressed me to no end and everyone who had a hand in it should feel damn proud of what they achieved. This for me was worth the time invested in the story, the characters, and the game play.
After the Octavius story concludes, we then have a few more scenes that tug at the old heart strings. We see Peter making an impossible choice, but he does so regardless because he’s Peter Parker. Watching him struggle with the moral conflict was also compelling, and seeing him grieve for the loss of Aunt May was so touching. I grieved with him as I’d grown to know her so well over the course of the game. We then have a scene where MJ and Peter finally accept the fact they belong together and have a cute diner scene that mirrors their earlier, sadder one. I felt like they made a good choice ending on a lighter note after two very heavy and emotional scenes dealing with loss and betrayal.
The game has a clear beginning, middle, and end. The game tells a great story that doesn’t feel bloated, and that doesn’t outstay its welcome. It also delivers a satisfying ending no matter if you get there in 12 hours or 30 hours.
The use of a traditional three act structure gives the game natural break points. The world can progress along with the narrative and provide the player with feedback driven by their actions. While some may see the three act structure as too limiting in an open world game, Insomniac used it to their advantage to govern not just the pacing of the narrative, but also the pacing of the world systems and open world design.
In short, Spider-Man doesn’t just tell one of the best game stories of 2018, but it also happens to tell one of the best open world narratives of 2018. This game does what so many games have failed to do, which is build up to a final act that doesn’t disappoint.
I wish more games would follow Insomniacs example and instead of wasting time trying to create complex narrative structures, spend time focusing on what matters in a good story: character development, great dialogue, and solid pacing.
Thanks for reading.