The last few years have been big for Spider-Man.
In 2020, we got Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Insomniac’s fantastic follow-up to its 2018 Marvel’s Spider-Man game that gave Miles Morales his own heroic adventure. The following year, No Way Home webbed up a grand team-up between Tom Holland, Tobey Maguire, and Andrew Garfield’s respective wall-crawlers. And, most recently, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse brought together a massive Spidey cast featuring Miles and Spider-Gwen as co-leads.
But Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 is arguably the most ambitious of the bunch. In the upcoming PS5 exclusive, Insomniac is crafting an entire game starring both Peter Parker and Miles Morales in equal measure. Together, the pair must face off against Kraven the Hunter, the Lizard and, most fearsome of all, Venom.
This week, I got the chance to go hands-on with the superhero sequel — you can read my full impressions here. After my demo, I sat down with Insomniac’s Ben Arfmann (narrative director) and Lauren Mee (advanced senior writer), discussing the team’s approach to crafting a lengthy campaign and meaty amount of side content around two Spider-Men, offering unique takes on Kraven, Lizard and Venom, and teasing some of the emotionally-charged moments that are in store for players.
Question: We’ve seen Spider-Man media featuring multiple Spider-Men, but they’re usually in smaller supporting roles. Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 is one of the rare times where two Spider-Men share top billing. How do you balance telling a story with both of them as co-leads where you ensure they both get an equal amount of screen time and it feels like you’re doing right by both of them?
Ben Arfmann, narrative director: It’s really fun to try and balance the two of them and make sure that they’re supporting and challenging each other in equal measure. The question that we came back to a lot when we were first developing this throughout production was: “How does the story change if you have two Spider-Men?” We told a story about Pete, we told a story about Miles, so how does it change when we’ve got two of them?
And I think that’s the question that helped us keep coming back to make sure that we were architecting personal journeys for both of these characters that would cause them to collide in and out of the mask. You were saying [when chatting prior to the interview] that the quiet moments are your favourite parts. Those are the most valuable to us as well. Like, who is the man under the mask?
A statement that we came back to a lot in the first game and reinforced a lot in this one: “When Spider-Man wins, Peter Parker loses.” So Miles now is coming into his own as Spider-Man, and he’s got this mentor who’s been Spider-Man for eight years, he’s seen the pitfalls that Pete has had to navigate — is he going to make the same mistakes? Is going to make new mistakes on his own? So how do you balance it? I think you balance it because you love both characters and want to spend time with both of them because you’re moving back and forth between Peter and Miles.
Q: One of the strongest elements of Miles Morales was how you created a sense of community in Harlem. Miles really feels like a hero to those people, specifically. How have you carried that over to Spider-Man 2, especially now that Peter is much more involved and you have this larger cast?
Arfmann: You keep the focus on community, like you said. The thing that we’re most excited about, and we think gives our stories the most juice, is focusing on those individual relationships that exist outside of the mask. How do those relationships outside of the mask challenge or support the stuff that’s happening in the mask? A lot of the stuff our designers and writers are the most excited about working on is filling in, like, “Okay, we’ve got our big, big bombastic story of Spider-Man chasing Lizard — what can we do that’s going to have just as much impact?” That’s going to be a quiet moment of Miles interacting with a regular person from Queens who needs a little bit of help, or Pete interacting with a regular person from Harlem who needs a little bit of help.
Lauren Mee, advanced senior writer: One of the things that I think is really exciting about this game is that we do have a bunch of ‘Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man’ missions. So there are a lot of moments where you’re helping your community, and some of those, in my opinion, are the stronger moments in the game when you’re getting to know everybody. But there are also photo opportunities, so you’re going all around the city getting to meet individual people and learning about their lives. Like, “Oh, this person runs this cute little shop downtown” and you get to learn about the history of that store. “Oh, these people always play pick-up games and they always do yoga in the park.” And everyone’s like “Hey, Spider-Man!” So you’re connecting with them in that way. And you even saw with the Harlem mission — Miles is helping out his mom with making sure that this museum runs and he’s helping his community in that way. And there’s
a really beautiful story with that. So there are a lot of events where you’re connecting with the people in the community in big and small ways.
Arfmann: I think the fun of having the larger cast and the two Spider-Men together is that there are opportunities now for certain characters who didn’t get to interact in previous games to get to. It’s fun to hear Ganke talking to Pete — how is that different from when he’s talking with Miles? There’s one scene in the game between Pete and Rio [Miles’ mother] that’s one of my favourite scenes. Seeing those two characters and how they interact with each other is great. There are a couple of missions where it’s Miles working with MJ talking with her, and that vibe is super fun because they both have a certain perspective on Pete that they bring.
It’s a challenge because it’s a huge cast, like you say, but there are all these opportunities to see how people interact and form alliances with each other.
Q: A signature part of Marvel’s Spider-Man games is how you give the villains a unique ‘Insomniac twist,’ like Doc Ock in the first game and the Tinkerer in the second. When you’re approaching Venom and the larger symbiote story, which we’ve seen across many different media for decades, how do you bring that Insomniac twist to make it different, exciting, and surprising?
Arfmann: There are certain things that we can talk about today and certain things that we can’t.
[Arfmann and Mee laugh]
After October 20th I can give you a much more detailed answer. But we love the character of Venom — we’re very steeped in all of the stories and lore that have come before. And from the very beginning, we’ve been excited to tell an incredible Venom story. It was something that was really central. There’s a lot of emotion, there’s a lot of craziness.
Mee: This isn’t Venom-specific, but as far as the symbiote goes, one of the coolest things is getting to see our version of Pete having the symbiote. What does that look like? He’s definitely the kind of guy who’s suppressing his emotions, telling jokes, and laughing. So what does it look like when that character has this sort of darkness brought out of him and all of those feelings sort of come to bear on all the other characters? So that makes our version feel really unique.
Arfmann: And getting to work with Yuri Lowenthal, who plays Peter Parker, to figure out exactly what that felt like under the influence of the symbiote — it’s fun and it’s scary, too. Because it’s a character that we love so much. There are some moments in the game where Pete gets to a place that just breaks my heart and terrifies me because of what’s going on.
Q: I loved hearing that edge in his performance — it’s really good. To that point, the symbiote story has a darker edge to it. [Marvel Games boss] Bill Rosemann likened it to The Empire Strikes Back. How tricky has it been to balance having those darker moments that the story warrants but also not losing sight of how Spider-Man is fundamentally a warm and charming character? How do you balance those tones?
Mee: I hope this isn’t a ‘wishy-washy’ writer answer, but a lot of it comes really naturally on a moment-to-moment basis. And I think a big part of levity, even though Miles is going through a lot of really serious stuff himself, he does have that kind of sense of charm and levity, and even when he sees Pete acting in a way that kind of scares me and he doesn’t understand. When you hear him and Ganke talking about it, that has a different feeling, a different vibe. So there are always moments where Pete will still make jokes but then in the next section he flips a switch and he’s like ‘on.’ [laughs] It’s like addiction — when someone is addicted to something, it’s not like they’re always one way. We still have peeks at the person that they were.
Q: Yeah, I really like the moment in the demo where Pete’s fighting the big Kraven bear hunter and he’s like, ‘I have something important to tell you… [dramatic pause] I don’t have any honey on me!’
Mee: Yeah, right?! [Pete’s] still in there! [laughs]
Arfmann: That’s still one of my favourite gags — it’s so good.
Mee: Even the symbiote isn’t strong enough to overpower Pete’s sense of humour! [laughs]
James Stevenson, director of community and marketing: The thing that I always think about is that The Empire Strikes Back is still Star Wars. I think that’s the goal of this game, too. It may be a darker turn for the story but it’s still our Spider-Man stories that have that same vibe and it’s not like a complete left turn for the series. The Empire Strikes Back still feels like it’s part of Star Wars.
Arfmann: We’re still the story that killed Aunt May.
I think there are different versions of dark. We’re still a Teen-rated game. This is a Venom game, Venom is a scary character. But a lot of that is a willingness to go to very dramatic places that are going to make you feel really deep feelings. And I think that the stuff is the most exciting. What I love about Spider-Man is that he is funny, he does make jokes, but he also has hard times that I can relate to. And I see myself in addition to those bright, fun, light moments. And so I think it’s kind of nice to dig into that more.
Q: Speaking of scary, the Lizard in this game is very scary. You could have gone different ways with him, like the ’90s animated show which is a little campier with the lab coat and him talking. Your version is a lot more monstrous and less anthropomorphic. How did you settle on this direction for the character?
Arfmann: There was definitely a lot of enthusiasm from the team to do something that was a little bit more ‘Kaiju’ with Lizard. The scale of it is really fun. Having this big character on screen that feels like it can dominate your hero, but then Pete has the symbiote, so it’s an incredible test of the strength that he’s developed. So I think from pretty early on, there was an idea of scale — a thing that we want to be unique to this character and can be unique to this character that we want.
Mee: It’s funny you say that because that reminds me of what you were saying earlier, helping the game is matching like spectacle with like, little personal moments. And the nice thing about Connor is he’s so grounded, being such a tragic character, so we’re able to explore that a little bit more. It’d be harder to do that if he had on a lab coat. [laughs]
Q: You do nod to it, at least, in the demo!
Mee: Of course! But another thing that I really like about him and the character is that he also connects to the kind of ‘man in the mask’ struggle that the heroes deal with. In a way, he has his own symbiote, and so there’s a lot of really intense emotional drama with him.
Q: Similarly, you have Kraven, who can be more of a ‘jungle man’ or, in the case of the Ultimate comics, someone who doesn’t even have any powers initially. How did you settle on this version of Kraven and what did you hope to achieve with him?
Mee: What you were just describing with all the different iterations of Kraven, I think the fun is finding the heart of all those things and what really makes him who he is, which is obsession and passion. This is a man who knows what he wants. He’s very driven. He’s no frills. Our Kraven is pretty grounded, but there is always that little hint of theatricality that we wanted to maintain with that character because that makes him so fun.
Arfmann: He’s wearing a lion print! He drinks so deeply from a cup of water that he doesn’t want to overflow it.
Arfmann: Lauren may not seem like it, but there’s this wonderful darkness in her brain.
She wrote a lot of the Kraven stuff. She was really the master of Kraven as a character. The teamwork between Lauren writing Kraven and Jim Pirri playing the character is so much fun in the game. We knew we wanted to do Kraven from early talks about the game — we knew that was going to be a focus. We were always excited about him to have that sort of grounded passion to him. As Lauren and Jim were developing that character, we started to find more and more opportunities to just get into this weird, bizarre, dark obsession that he has is just so much fun. He’s a great, great character.
Mee: You can even see it in the first scene of the game. Anytime we would have something in the script, Jim would go, “Well, what if I did this?” And he would just push it a little bit further. When he turns and looks at you and just smiles — it’s all those little nuances that he has in the character.
Arfmann: Even when he goes big with it, he’s always playing into that humanity. That’s the thing we always come back to. We love the spectacle in our games, but the things that make our game really special and what we’re focused on is “the man underneath the mask.” And so with Kraven, okay, he’s an extraordinary, larger-than-life character, but he’s still a man, and the way Jim plays him really gives you a path into the character.
Q: When you’re assembling a lineup of villains, how do you decide who makes it into the main campaign versus the side missions? For example, the first Marvel’s Spider-Man had Taskmaster and Screwball in the sidequests. So, how do you decide the right role for each villain as the story sort of finds itself?
Arfmann: I don’t think we necessarily break it up into ‘A-tier’ and ‘B-tier’ or anything like that. When we were first starting with the game, we were talking about the main storyline and figuring out how we wanted to challenge Peter and Miles and finding the right rogue’s gallery members to pull them in different directions. But the thing that I love about this game is that our side content, our open-world content, is just as high production value as the main campaign. There are some sequences in the side content that are as grand and crazy as the stuff that happens in the main game. Whatever flavour of gameplay we’re doing, we always had the opportunity to tell these really full, rich stories about these characters, and sometimes, when they have something that’s like an open-world side mission, there’s an opportunity there to shine a spotlight on a character without all the noise of the grand main campaign. We can zero in on them with their own space.
Mee: It’s about due diligence and respect for all villains. It’s not like, ‘Oh, yeah, Screwball.’ [laughs] Especially in this game, something that I’m really proud that the team pulled off — it really does feel like every villain that we see ties back into our main themes or major story and connects really closely with the Spider-Men. I think they all feel important to the story.
Q: There are specific missions for Peter and Miles each, some that include both and then some that either can tackle. When you’re coming up with these, how do you decide what makes something a “Peter mission” vs. a “Miles mission” vs. one for either?
Arfmann: There were some things where it was just obvious. We knew we wanted to have a storyline with Miles and his mom working together, because we established in Miles Morales that Rio knows that Miles is Spider-Man. That’s a really interesting game to mine — we wanted to add some stuff to dig into that. So there’s gonna be this storyline with this museum and the community that Rio’s going to be working with and Miles is going to have the opportunity to help with that. That makes sense for Miles to be involved with. Or Visions Academy, that’s where Miles goes to school, so that’s going to be Miles-focused. There’s some other Pete-focused thing we’re not talking about right now, but the nature of that storyline is where the drama is for Pete.
For some of the open-world stuff, it’s about finding what’s going to be equally dramatic with either character and finding out the core gameplay conceit for this sequence, and we’re gonna have to write a ton of options to accommodate for player choice there so it’s going to be this cool, impactful journey no matter who you choose.
Q: You mentioned some of the different parts of the game you worked on. I’m curious: since you have these keys to the larger ‘Spider-Man kingdom,’ what have been your favourite parts to write? I know that’s probably a hard ‘picking your favourite child’ sort of thing, but if you had to pick one!
Mee: Yeah, it really is like picking your favourite kid… There are so many things I love about this game — it’s hard to pick!
I think the thing I worked on most closely and I care about a lot is the relationship and story between Miles and Martin Li [the villainous Mr. Negative from 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man]. I was really excited to have Miles tackle this really big, emotional, kind of unaddressed feeling he’s had for so long. Because now he’s facing his father’s killer, so what does that look like? Especially when he identifies so strongly as Spider-Man — how does Miles feel about this versus Spider-Man and how does that carry through in their relationship?
Arfmann: Yeah, it’s really good. For me on this game, I was in a director role so I didn’t do that much writing. But the stuff that I got to direct? There’s some Venom stuff that I can’t talk about that’s really good. It’s really incredible.
Mee: Oh, yeah! [laughs]
Arfmann: I can guarantee you that when players get to that, they’re going to be very glad they got the game. That’s really cool.
There’s a sequence that’s one of our act breaks — from Act One to Act Two — that Lauren wrote that I was director of that’s just incredible. It really plays out having multiple heroes colliding and the handoffs between the different characters and the drama — it’s really amazing.
And the end of the game is nuts. I was talking with Bobby [Coddington] and James [Ham], two of our animation leads, and it’s like, “Man, at some point, someone should have told us, ‘stop!'”
Arfmann: We went crazy with the ending!
This interview has been edited for language and clarity.
Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 will release exclusively on PlayStation 5 on October 20th.
Image credit: PlayStation