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Spider-Man 2 developer discusses balancing sequel's darker tone

"That's just being respectful to those characters."

Insomniac Games Press Asset for Miles Morales being chased by a Hunter Helicopter underneath a bridge.
Image credit: Insomniac Games.

"We've been waiting to finally show Spider-Man 2. It's been a while since we first announced the game, and it was really awesome to really show a full section of gameplay. It was just nice to spend more than a few minutes and show people all the different stuff."

I'm chatting with Spider-Man 2's creative director Bryan Intihar and game director Ryan Smith about last week's PlayStation Direct. After months of wait, Insomniac Games finally lifted the lid on Spider-Man 2's gameplay. For 10 minutes, we were transported to New York, to swing among the skyscrapers with Peter Parker and Miles Morales as they fought off Kraven's hunters, while simultaneously trying to save Dr. Curt Connors' Lizard.

But while the setting and characters were familiar, the game's darker tone was not - something much discussed online afterwards by fans of Insomniac's previous games. The quippy and aimable Peter Parker now seemed frustrated and snappy, while his new Symbiote Suit gave off a very different, reptilian-like vibe. Parker seemed to relish this suit's slithering, writhing potential, and slammed his adversaries to the ground with simmering rage.

Marvel's Spider-Man 2 gameplay reveal.Watch on YouTube

"Whether it's Kraven - which we confirmed in the beginning of the sequence - and obviously, we showed Venom when we first announced the game and now with the Symbiote and Pete being bonded with the Symbiote, there's naturally going to be some darker elements to the story," Intihar says. "That's just being respectful to those characters, and what they bring to the overall experience."

But this doesn't mean we will have to spend the entire game with a moody, bristling Peter Parker. Despite seeing a darker side to Peter in the gameplayer trailer - something that can be attributed to his new Symbiote suit - Insomniac says we should still expect to see plenty of the charm its studio is known for, as well as the human stories of the people behind their superhero masks.

"What we've talked a lot about is - whether it was Marvel's Spider Man or Miles Morales - our games are all about still having heart and humour," Intihar says. "It's really finding that balance between those darker themes and characters, but also delivering that very human story where there's a lot of heart and humour... I think that's what was tricky. But I do think we found that nice balance at the end of the day."

"I think you saw that in the gameplay reveal," Smith adds. "We have the moments with Ganke and Miles and the Falcon that he's trailing behind - the Talon drone - and then at the very end, you get that line about Peter changing and Miles saying, 'you know, he's never like that', right? So we have those human elements, both on the serious side of where we see the Symbiote affecting Peter, but also on the lighter-hearted side."

Intihar reiterates there will still be plenty of moments to make us laugh, smile and "tug on the heartstrings". Achieving a delicate balance of light and dark in the game's script is the task of the narrative team, which includes Jon Paquette and Benjamin Arfmann, both writers on Marvel's Spider-Man, and Ratchet writer Lauren Mee.

"They do a great job," Intihar says. "But, it's very, very difficult. But that's what we owe to the players. We owe that to them, to find that balance between these darker themes with the Symbiote and Kraven and Venom, and maybe others. But also, you know, to make people laugh."

Punch drunk.

Despite promises of levity, there is no denying the Symbiote suit's effects on Peter Parker, something actor Yuri Lowenthal has likened to an addiction. "Yuri is right," Intihar agrees. "The theme of addiction is prevalent, especially because of the Symbiote. We did a lot of research, not only on previous stories with the Symbiote, but also just looking at when [Peter] is bonded, what can that feel like? Not to go into too many things about how it plays in the narrative, but we want to treat it very seriously."

When Peter gets bonded with the Symbiote, it's not a joke. "It's not something we want to make fun of," the director stresses. "Yuri will forever be my Peter Parker, you know. When I hear Spider-Man, I hear his voice. That's how well he does as Peter. So I think it can be pretty jarring to hear him talk like that, like he does in the gameplay reveal.

"So, it's about really playing into those themes of addiction, how that can impact someone's personality, impact the people around them, and you're going to see that it's not just how it's impacting Peter on his own, but also those close to him. You're going to see that play out throughout the game."

I can see for Miles.

Was this why Insomniac chose to showcase a darker section of the game? Intihar and Smith tell me this was partly the case, but that they had also simply wanted to show a section with the two Spider-Men together, as well as a look at the much-anticipated Symbiote. "It's a number two on the box because of the two Spider Men. It's not just because it's a sequel," Intihar says. "We wanted to make sure we showed off that this game does feature two Spider Men, each with their own story, but with a bigger story as well."

Ultimately, the game's river chase checked all the boxes. "But, there's obviously more to show before we ship..." they tease.

The boys are back in town.

Last week's showing raised questions about the game's tone, but also about its overall visual quality. Soon after, Insomniac Games developers stated the Spider-Man 2 footage we saw at the PlayStation Showcase didn't show the game's final version, something both Smith and Intihar reiterated.

"We're always looking to improve the game... everything will continue to get better and better, whether it's performance, whether it's fidelity, whether it's our gameplay," Intihar tells me. "Our goal is to obviously make a very polished, stable experience when we ship the game, that also - at the end of the day - takes advantage of what the [PlayStation 5] hardware can do.

"I think you saw a lot of that in the gameplay reveal, from the hero switching to the sense of speed and traversal... we're gonna continue to work on until our project director Jeannette [Lee] says, 'Bryan, Ryan, stop working on the game'."

Kraven seems like a real hunt... er.

Speaking of the PS5, Insomniac is keen to discuss what Sony's current hardware can accomplish. Beyond the speed of switching characters, there's the simple matter of speed altogether. "We're really able to crank that up," Smith enthuses. "You build up that speed through swinging, swinging is always the core of our traversal experience, but then being able to add on the web wings, you get different perspectives from that.

"Just traversing the open world into the new boroughs, the web wings really help with that, as well as the wind tunnels that you can go through, they really crank your speed up. And that's something that the PS5 enables, and it's a really, really cool traversal experience."

"When we're delivering a sequel, we're looking to improve all elements, whether it's traversal, combat, mission design," Intihar agrees. "I think the gameplay reveal is a good example of how we want to elevate it. It's a big blockbuster moment. We have Peter starting out in Queens, quickly switching to Miles in the city, then wingsuiting and slingshotting over to Harlem, switching back and forth along the East river... I think it's about just upping everything we possibly can and taking advantage of the hardware. Things like moving at speeds that we weren't moving at before, and having all these different tricks."

Web designer.

I close my time with Intihar and Smith by reminiscing about my first time playing through Marvel's Spider-Man. I tell them I played again recently, but this time with my two children acting as my wingmen. I admit to nearly slamming poor Peter Parker into the many walls and pavements of New York, and express my gratitude that Spider-Man automatically runs up walls instead of ploughing face-first into them.

"You know, you bring up an interesting thing," Intihar says between laughs. "There's a fantasy of like, 'I want to be Spider-Man', right? But we don't want this to be such a barrier of entry. We want to make you pick up the controller and feel like Spider-Man pretty quickly. But then as you play more and more, there's a level of mastery and advanced mechanics that you can layer on.

"So, I'm glad that you kind of felt more like Spider-Man because you're making that run up the wall."

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