Insomniac’s Spider-Man hits different in 2021

Spider-Man swinging

Retrospect in a pandemic

The following contains major spoilers for the main story of Insomniac’s Spider-Man (2018). You have been warned.

I recently jumped back into my old Spider-Man save file from 2019. I was in college when I started it, and I don’t quite remember why I didn’t finish the game, but I left it at about 75% complete. Jumping back into the middle of it was a bit jarring at first because I had lost some of the story beats over time, but a quick read through the Wikipedia page and I was good to go.

A friend and I have been doing a watch-through of all the Spider-Man movies in preparation for the release of No Way Home, so that’s really got me in the mood recently. Even though superheroes aren’t usually my thing, Spidey is by far my favorite — he’s just a normal high school kid who’s trying to cope with this tremendous responsibility, which always delivers on some interesting emotional conflicts. I know some people think he’s been overdone with the half-dozen franchises we have focused on the character (and that’s just the movies and games), but I think it’s cool to see so many different interpretations of Peter and Miles. It’s like our own modern mythology.

Spider-Man combat

One thing I wasn’t expecting when I jumped back into Spider-Man would be just how different it feels to play in 2021. Part of that is just because I’ve improved a ton mechanically as a player, so I could enjoy the combat and swinging a lot more by getting combos and building out my suit to my preferred specifications. I wasn’t very gameplay-focused back when I tried it the first time, and I can see now that it actually limited my enjoyment of the overall experience.

The biggest difference between playing it now versus then, though, is the game’s main story. The whole narrative hinges on the release of a mutant bioweapon that, as you recall, manifests as an airborne respiratory infection. I remember back when I was playing it for the first time, this plot point felt serviceable but a bit cliched to me. Now I can’t help but gawk at how uncanny it feels.

As I progressed into the final hours, I felt myself cringing internally as I started to hear coughing absolutely everywhere — from J. Jonah Jameson on the radio, from groups of sickly civilians huddled together on the streets, and even from some of my enemies. Shots of Aunt May in her hospital bed covered in sweat and breathing through an oxygen tube were almost too much to bear. “Antiserum” tents that were set up around the city after the antidote was acquired looked eerily similar to the tent where I got my booster shot just last week.

I had no idea Aunt May was killed off in this game. I actually ended up really enjoying how her character was written this time around, and I found myself tearing up a little bit during her final scene where she revealed to Peter that she knew he was Spider-Man.

“Take off your mask. I want to see my nephew.”

Oh my god, have some mercy on my sad, sentimental heart, May.

So yeah, it hurt to see her go because I liked her character a lot, but man, having her die of a fictional, manufactured disease with a name like Devil’s Breath, the effects of which look and sound so similar to how Covid patients are affected in real life — that was hard to wrap my head around. Suddenly an already-tragic death scene has the weight of over five million deaths behind it… and that’s heavy. Anyone who has had a loved one struggling with Covid understands Peter’s dilemma in this scene with a new, raw context.

It’s even more upsetting to think that New York suffered as America’s worst hot spot right at the start of the outbreak, something the game predicted all too well. Something out of science fiction became all too real, and it’s uncanny that Insomniac released this only a few years before it all went down.

Besides how much these parallels to real life shocked me, I had such a great time with the last quarter of this game. I challenged myself in ways I never did the first time I played it, and it was cool to tangibly see how much I’ve improved as a gamer. Finishing up Spider-Man‘s main story got me reflecting a lot on both my past and my present, which is what good art is supposed to do. Now I’ve just gotta finish up all those side missions.

Story Beat is a weekly column discussing anything and everything to do with storytelling in video games.

Noelle Warner