The High Road to Relaxation: Finding Catharsis in Spider-Man’s Commute

Dweeby and unassuming, Peter Parker is as accommodating a character as you could ask for: a young, employed adult coping with the piling problems coupled to such statuses. He can’t help but wear every conceivable Ordinary Guy quality on his sleeve.

Treyarch’s Spider-Man 2 mindfully attempts to feature little of Peter, who, as a character, contributes only a peripheral foundation of normalcy to the game and the film it’s based on. When the character does show up, he’s as feeble and diffident as Tobey Maguire’s film interpretation; anchored by financial, relationship, and identity troubles, he’s an unexceptional lightning rod for problems his alter ego inevitably cleans up with charm and gusto.

Even in the guise of his capable hero side, though, Peter Parker worries over the inescapable distractions in his life. This natural human behavior, a device for exposition in the series’ comics and elsewhere, parallels a detrimental and simultaneously transformative quality rooted in the experience of playing Spider-Man 2.

Though clearly invested in shaping a blockbuster-level superhero experience, the game regularly circles back to a gameplay design that approximates the ho-hum snags of Peter Parker’s life. While it occasionally succeeds in creating engaging outlets for the character, Spider-Man 2 falls back on menial and repetitive tasks in the life of the character within each chapter, such as delivering pizzas, snapping photos for the Daily Bugle, and intervening in petty street crimes, as a crutch for its content, often forcing the player to complete them ad nauseam to earn the “Hero Points” required to progress.

In the stretches between when game requires slogging through such unremarkable events, however, the player can leap, run, and “thwip” with abandon around a freely navigable approximation of New York.

The clean separation of these gameplay types—the grind of completing a short loop of forgettable tasks, and the freedom of open movement around a city-turned-sandbox—creates its own dynamic within the game, mirroring that which occurs in the character’s life. When Peter Parker becomes fed up with his day-to-day stresses, he can strip to spandex and uncork a freer, more potent persona, in which he can physically, if not entirely mentally, escape. Likewise, if the player can’t stomach the game’s narrow and poorly implemented interpretation of the character’s occupation/routine (e.g., halting another two-man carjacking; having to hotfoot it to a date with Mary Jane) he can disengage from that cycle, and instead swing up and out into the virtual skyline.

Routinely dealing with the social woes of the complex character can lead to the player choosing not to do so, when given the chance. However, Spider-Man 2’s locale deserves equal credit for supporting the decision.

It may come off as bland now, but the (relatively) realistic layout of Treyarch’s New York is perfect for breaking into lengthy, unbroken trysts with the sky. From a technical standpoint, the setting has aged poorly— the game’s introductory cinematic, a POV web swing through New York, is an acrobatic tour through truncated draw distance, conspicuous pop-in, and lethargic texture loads.

Still, Spider-Man 2’s setting retains ageless qualities that make slipping into an extended sightseeing session a natural and effortless player response to the game’s aggressive recycling of scenarios. In its design, the game’s layout of New York City is comparable to a one-off public setting in a Tony Hawk skateboarding game—a semi-realistic locale-made-playground, crafted for maximum activity and minimal interference.

Both games feature level structures that encourage the constant exploitation of new and better routes. Not for points, in this case, but to maintain natural, uninterrupted movement across entire city blocks without much thought. Spider-Man 2’s overreliance on bland, limited-perimeter missions too often squanders this exploratory potential of the game’s open-world design. When the player receives an opportunity to wander opposite the suggested direction, though, he can do so without the petty restraints and consequences that deaden the experience elsewhere.

Spider-Man 2 rarely shies from embellishing some of the superhuman qualities of its character, who can high-step up the torso of an airborne enemy, or beat a path up the tallest of structures at an Olympian’s pace. However, it also supplies the player with subtler abilities, useful not in subduing waves of thugs, but in aimlessly bouncing across the city. Spending points over time in the game’s store unlocks movement upgrades that facilitate zipping around without exertion or conscious thought, ultimately providing the character (and the player) with an enjoyable and immediate means of escape. By the time you tap out the available improvements, steering Spider-Man has become secondary to simply eyeballing a course over the next roof as you flow along—a far more organic and fulfilling experience, for both character and player, than getting roped into fisticuffs with yet another purse thief, or clearing a gang hideout.

The player can also augment the suite of movement styles with a number of short-lived air tricks, accents that channel the shared use of the character’s powers as a getaway vehicle from the unattractive parts of the game. The best, a lazy roll the hero executes with outstretched limbs as he falls, is emblematic of the temporary freedom from physical restrictions and life obligations the act of swinging allows. Most games are designed to inevitably make the player feel omnipotent in the face of supplied opposition. Though couched in a similar arrangement, Spider-Man 2 also gives you inimitable power to simply get away from all that.

In its contrasting design, Spider-Man 2 creates a respite for the character and, vicariously, the player. Aimless city scoping provides each a breather from an overbearing and unwanted construct: the life troubles of Peter Parker, and the tepid mission design they inspire. When Spidey climbs to heights far from the streets, the only sounds are the snap of his web, the whoosh of air as he swings, and his own grunts of exertion. Dropping down again, for the player to return to the game’s repetition, or for the character to resume his other persona, provides both with a reminder of how things really are—at least until the next lull in drama.