Sony showed off Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 last week and there was a lot to be excited about. The game has an expanded map, a story with interesting angles on Kraven, Lizard, and the Symbiote that I can’t wait to see play out, and cool new powers for Peter. But what has me the most stoked is the ability to swap between its two heroes.
It’s been a while since I played a game with this kind of on the fly protagonist-swapping mechanic. Too long. The last time I saw it done in this way was GTA 5 which is ten years old. I know that Assassin’s Creed Syndicate had a similar mechanic, but I skipped that one, and that was eight years ago, anyway. Other games, like The Last of Us Part 2 and God of War Ragnarok have switched between characters at key moments, but you couldn’t just swap between Abby and Ellie on the fly. I’m stoked to see the mechanic return in a big, bad way in Spider-Man 2. Though we don't know exactly how it will work, or if there will be specific times when you can't swap characters, the mechanic has a ton of potential, especially given the power the PS5 SSD has to alter the way it’s implemented.
In Grand Theft Auto 5, swapping protagonists gave you a little glimpse of their day-to-day life in between the bigger beats. You might swap over to Franklin and see him riding his motorcycle around Los Santos, or to Trevor and see him waking up covered in garbage, or to Michael and see him chilling in his house watching old movies. It was a fun way to get a little bit of human characterization in between the action-packed story missions and the aimless wandering of hanging out in the open-world.
Spider-Man gave us similar small moments in places. If you ever used the fast travel system, you got to see Spidey interacting with the people of New York in quiet ways. Someone might fall asleep on his shoulder. Or you might see the webslinger getting some R & R on the back of the train. The game mostly had you interacting with the city from high above it, a perspective that distanced Peter Parker from the problems of the people he's pledged to protect. By integrating the character-swapping system, Insomniac Games has another opportunity to take us closer, to give us small moments of human interaction. Maybe Miles is working on homework when you switch to his perspective, maybe Peter’s eating dinner with MJ when you switch to his. I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out.
The more important aspect of swapping characters is that it allows games to tell different kinds of stories. In most games, you play as one hero who is the prime mover behind all important events. If anything happens in the game, it's because you did it (or your opponent did something that only you can respond to). War games like Call of Duty adopted a multi-character structure early on because of how ridiculous this kind of solo story is in the context of a military campaign. Oh really, a guy who stormed the beaches of Normandy also flew a bomber at Dunkirk and was on a battleship for the Battle of Midway? He’s having a busy war! Showing off multiple arenas of conflict through the eyes of multiple protagonists allowed the games to avoid straining credulity too hard.
But that isn't the only reason to have multiple protagonists. Pulp Fiction swaps between multiple characters to tell interlocking stories. Game of Thrones swaps between many different characters to show us all facets of Westeros' society. Spider-Man 2 is, similarly, telling a story with multiple different angles. In the trailer, Peter has the symbiote suit which has already begun to corrupt his personality. By playing as Peter Parker and Miles Morales, we'll get to see Peter's descent through his own eyes and from the perspective of a friend who cares about him. It’s a common technique in movies, TV, and literature, but it’s still fairly rare in games. I’m excited to see how Insomniac handles it.