GOTY 2018: Best Tone Control

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Best Tone Control: Marvel’s Spider-Man

Insomniac Games | September 7th, 2018 | PlayStation 4

Runners-up: Celeste | Return of the Obra Dinn

The video game industry has been chasing Hollywood for the better part of two decades. Meanwhile, with blockbuster movies getting longer and more reliant on computer-generated effects, they are increasingly feeling like non-playable cutscenes from a top-tier developer. Insomniac Games has shown tremendous skill in its capacity to create fun action games but likely won’t be at the top of anyone’s mind when it comes to narrative. It was surprising to hear they were the studio creating the PlayStation 4 exclusive game, Marvel’s Spider-Man. It seemed like a much more natural fit for Sucker-Punch, the studio responsible for the super powered open-world series, Infamous. What Insomniac managed to create, however, set a new bar for superhero storytelling not only for games but for the genre across all media.

It’s hard for a Spider-Man story to stand out. How do you do something new and interesting with a character that has existed in comics for more than half a century? Who’s been featured in acclaimed television series, films, and even other video games? What Insomniac captured is what those who understand Spider-Man best already know: it’s not about the Spider, it’s about the man.

Marvel’s Spider-Man delivers on the promise of swinging through Manhattan beautifully, but that was the bare minimum that needed to be achieved for a competent Spider-Man video game in 2018. What sets Insomniac’s opus apart is the focus on Peter Parker, his social circle and how he and the city react to each other. The details add up to be more than the sum of their parts into a complete experience that conveys the experience of not just being a superhero but to be a man given super powers who’s just trying to do the right thing. Everything from finding Peter’s old backpacks filled with mementos from his life both as Spider-Man and as a boy, listening to his former employer J. Jonah Jameson rail on a podcast about the “spider-menace”, to texting his ex-girlfriend Mary Jane Watson, it’s all part of an atmosphere that makes Marvel’s Spider-Man more than another Arkham Asylum clone. Spider-Man without Peter Parker is fun but soulless.

The photo-mode also goes above and beyond expectations for what a feature should deliver as well. The game itself is gorgeous and thrilling to swing above the New York City skyline but pausing the action to frame a shot perfectly, adding comic book sound effect stickers and Daily Bugle or Amazing comic cover frames create an additional level of engagement that reminds the player of the character’s roots.

Tone control is all about maintaining cohesion between story, gameplay and overall atmosphere. While things like Spider-cop may feel slightly uncomfortable in a “woke” 2018 context, Insomniac does a good job of justifying it in their continuity and they do a spectacular job of not only making a unique Spider-Man game but an excellent Peter Parker one too. — Tyler Martin