Saturday, December 28, 2019

Spiderman, Combat, and Traversal in Video Games

I recently revisited the Insomniac developed PS4 Spiderman over the past few weeks, partially because I never played the DLC and partially because I watched Into the Spiderverse and Far From Home.  I really enjoyed the game when it first came out, using it as the impetus needed to finally buy a PS4. The game was exactly what it needed to be, mixing a fluid version of the Batman/Arkham style combat system with traversal that really makes the player feel like Spiderman. The writing and story are solid throughout, and though the game has a lot of side content, it never really overstays its welcome.

While the playing the DLC over the past few days I've been thinking about both these elements quite a bit, about how it has borrowed and in some places elevated the Arkham style combat, how fun and engaging the traversal is, the purpose of side content and even how much heavy lifting the animations do in the game to make the player feel alive.


We've all become familiar with the Arkham style of combat over the past few years, itself an update of the Assassin's Creed combat formula. In Assassin's Creed, it was slow and deliberate, focused almost entirely on blocking and countering. For the Arkham games, Rocksteady built a much stronger foundation using those earlier seeds. They took the simple attack and dodge button used by Ubisoft and layered on top of it specific moves to respond to certain types of enemies, and Batman's iconic gadgets.

At its base, it's a really simple control scheme. Square for attacks, Circle for dodging, a button for gadgets. Buttons can be mashed for quick results, or hit in certain sequences to perform combos, with the auto aim and animations doing the heavy lifting. Challenge is added through the use of special enemies that need to be attacked in a specific manner. Enemies with melee weapons have to be knocked off their feet, enemies with shields have to be jumped over, enemies with electric weapons attached from a range with gadgets. The only real weakness in the system is that it can cause Batman to whip around the screen from opponent to opponent in these Herculean lunges, which gives an unnatural feeling of fluidity to the stoic Batman.

Thus the system works perfectly for the agile Spiderman. Seeing him slide between a shielded opponent's legs, launch someone into the air to do a combo, or jump across the battlefield to kick someone in the face all fit Spiderman's tone and style. While some may deride Insomniac for lifting Batman's combat, they use it well and managed to polish some of the combat's weaknesses. Rather than try and reinvent the wheel they decided to polish an existing system to great effect. 

And to me, this is where things get interesting from a design standpoint. Designers, game or otherwise, are often challenged to come up with something new, something we haven't seen before. There's an enormous pressure to build, experiment, explore, even when something that already exists is perfectly valid. Insomniac could have spent a lot of time and effort to come up with an entirely new combat system from the ground up, but would that have really made the game any better? People aren't coming to a Spiderman game for a Dark Souls like system of precision and parrying, they're coming to feel like Spiderman. Using an existing system that players are used to helps lower that barrier of entry and get them whipping and punching and web-slinging like Spiderman in no time.

This is all the easier to justify because of how well the system suits this particular hero. The Infamous games have largely forgone melee, instead using a quasi shooter mechanic, where Cole fires bolts of electricity at people. That could have worked for Spiderman, replacing the electricity for webs, but it wouldn't have captured his agile style of jumps, whips and punches. When someone, perhaps Rocksteady, eventually makes a Superman open world game (it's bound to happen eventually) will they go with something similar? Does it make since for Superman to dodge, punch and counter in the same way as Spiderman and Batman, with or without the gadgets? 

These are all questions of design, and force us to consider what really is the best combat system for the hero we are trying to evoke. The Batman and now Spiderman method would probably work great for someone like Wolverine, but appear awkward or stilted for someone like Iron Man. I still can't help but think there are cooler refinements to be made with this combat system, as tired as some people may be getting from it, and hope to see studios experiment with it further in the future. There's no shame in settling on, and refining, a system that works. After all, no one complains when a game maps shooting a gun to the Right Trigger on a controller. We collectively decided that's the best place for it, the best way to implement that desired result. There's no reason why this combat system should be any different.


Back to Spiderman, did you know that game has a fast travel system? I played it for hours, maybe even tens of hours before realizing you could take the subway to a different part of Manhattan.   This wasn't from bad UI or from a lack of tutorialization, it was simply because I was having too much fun moving around the city as the friendly neighborhood hero.

Similar to the combat, the traversal is pretty simple from a user perspective. The Righter Trigger shoots a web and Spidey swings. There's a jump button and a sort of air dodge you can do with circle, a couple of tricks you can perform, and some special launching abilities Spidey earns over time, but at its core the system is really just about swinging. And it feels so good. The momentum, the arc of the swing, how releasing it affects your altitude and speed. They really nailed what it feels like to swing like through the city, both at the street level and higher up thanks to a host of graphics and animation tricks. 

The traversal is a huge appeal to that game and something the fans demanded be as true to life as possible. It's no wonder then that I skip fast traveling in that game. After all I'm there to feel like Spiderman, and swinging through those neighborhoods definitely makes me feel like the titular hero. I had a similar experience when playing through the Arkham games, using the combination of grappling hook and gliding cape to get my away around Gotham. Arkham Knight did add the batmobile though, and the gliding never felt as good as Spidey's swing.

Again I'm left to wonder how other games would handle this. If you think about Superman for a moment, and his flight, would players really want to do this in an open world game for as long as they want to swing as Spiderman? A lot of the appeal from swinging comes from the movement in between buildings, the navigating of corners, the swooping changes in altitude at the touch of a button. None of that would really work for Superman. Sure, you could fly between buildings, zig zagging across Metropolis' blocks, but would you? It's far more likely the player would simply fly straight up, clear the roof tops, and then fly across the city in a straight line. It would be faster than flying through the city, but would it be fun?

Lego Marvel Super Heroes is another superhero game that allows you to traverse an open world. You can play as both Spiderman and Iron man in those games, as well as use vehicles. Now you might think that Spiderman is the most fun to play in that game when traversing the open world, swinging around like his PS4 counter part, but to me that's pretty far from the case. It's Iron Man who I enjoy playing the most as.

Lego Marvel Super Heroes Spiderman doesn't swing true like the PS4 version. The Lego webs simply connect to a spot in midair and propel Spiderman along. There are some nice pendulum effects and animation to go with it, but it doesn't match the robustness you can get from a dedicated, fully featured Spiderman game. Iron Man's movement is similarly stilted, he just flies across the map. But the reason I has so much fun with it is how he takes off. Iron Man flies by double tapping the A button. The first hit causes Iron Man to jump into the air, but the second hit engages his boosters, causing him to rocket into the sky and fly off. It's really satisfying at the end of a mission to leap into the air and zoom away as some little old lady thanks you for pulling a cat out of a tree. 

That certainty could be incorporated into a Superman game, but would it be enough? One of my favorite games of all time is Morrowind, a game that had very limited vast travel that was only accessible from a few specific points. When I revisited that game a couple of years ago, I had forgotten about this and was really frustrated by having to walk everywhere, something I originally had praised the game for. This is true of later games in the series like Skyrim. I rarely if ever walked any length of distance in Skyrim unless I had to. I mainly fast traveled around the map from point of interest to point of interest.

The difference is that walking around in an Elder Scrolls game is boring. It's like walking in real life in that it's slow and not much happens as the scenery slowly drifts by. Sure, occasionally you fight a dragon or run into a quest, but few of those moments are very memorable. While crimes occasionally pop up as Spiderman traverses the city, the act of traversal in engaging enough to do on its own. While few games are going to be able to have their player zipping around on web-lines, it does present design challenges even for games of the same genre. Would flying around metropolis as Superman actually be fun? How does the designer encourage that over simply flying up and over in the quickest method mathematically?


The secret ingredient to making these systems work in Spiderman is the animations. Dan Floyd did a video on the animations in the game on his channel here. To me the true wonder isn't in how good the animations are, it's how many of them there are. The animations are wonderful, clearly the work of very talented people, but its how they're used that I find so impressive.

Returning to combat for a moment, there's only one doge button, Circle, and only one dodge move from a strictly mechanical perspective. The player hits circle, Spiderman moves out of the way in the direction the player directs. For this one act there are close to a dozen animations however. Sometimes he flips out of the way, sometimes he pirouettes with the grace of an acrobat. Sometimes he jumps, sometimes he slides, and he generally has multiple ways of doing all of these actions, all for the same button press, the same input on behalf of the player.

This gives the system the appearance that it is a lot deeper then it is, that somehow Spiderman has many doge moves, when in reality they are the same. This not only makes the character feel more alive, it makes the combat system a better fit the character. In the Batman Arkham games, Batman has a few blocking/counter animations that mostly involve him either catching the person's fist, or moving inches out of the way. This fits Batman's strong, stoic persona. In Spiderman however, he makes sweeping jumps, arcing acrobat moves, and tight flips to get out of the way. Same combat system, same player input, same mechanical result, but two wildly different feels for both the gameplay and the character, based solely on the animation used. It's a brilliant implementation of the design, not simply copying it, but changing it to adapt the character's needs.

Side Content

 The one area where both of these games, Spiderman and the Arkham series tend to fall short is the side content. For the record I love all of these games and completed most if not all of the side content in them. I especially have in Spiderman, where I one hundred percent-ed both the main game and the DLC. Each series has slightly different implementations of side quests, but they tend to fall into a few buckets. There are combat arenas where waves of enemies come at the heroes, various races or time trials, item/scavenger hunts, and challenges focused on the use of gadgets.

Each of these side activities are used multiple times, with slightly different variations, stamped across the map in a cheaper, easier way to pad out the game's run time. Adding more mainline story with dialogue, voice acting, and custom scenery assets is expensive. Spawning thirty bad guys in a room is cheap. As fun as some of these challenges can be, I think this is where these games stumble the most thematically. I can't help but wonder when playing Spiderman for instance, where Hammerhead found literally hundreds of henchmen to work for him, let alone the other bad guys in town.

I wish studios making these games instead focus on tighter, more story driven focused events for this side content, rather than stamping cloned activities all over the map. While more expensive, it would make for a better experience. The Witcher 3 had its fair share of formulaic content, but some of its best story telling is done in those side quests. Arkham Knight has a great side quest tracking down a serial killer. From a gameplay standpoint its little more than a scavenger hunt, looking for certain landmarks in the open world, but its done in a way that makes the player feel like Batman. While more expensive, it works better than the hundreds of Riddler trophies spread around the map.

One of the clever ways Spiderman ties all of this together is in the random crimes that pop up over the city. When traversing from one area to another, Spiderman will occasionally be alerted to nearby crime. This is usually a small, tightly focused combat encounter that comes in a few different flavors. While short, these encounters are genius in the way it solves a lot of these problems.

Like the combat arenas, they're cheap to make, mixing pre-existing art assets with a few spawned enemies. Unlike the other side quests though, they reinforce what it feels like to be the hero and encourages traversal at the same time. These quests don't pop up when using the fast travel system, but will emerge as Spidey swings around town from one point to another. It captures that feeling of the hero on control, and pads out the time between story missions. Compare that to the bleak, abandoned Gotham of the Arkham games, and you can compare how much more it captures the feeling of being a super hero.

All of these things, the animation tweaks to the combat system, the fleshed out traversal, the crimes in progress, they show that a lot of great material can come out of refining an existing design, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. As consumers, we tend to get sequel fatigue pretty quickly. We get tired of the same old same old, but as Spiderman shows, there's often much to be found in revisiting an old design and adding another layer of polish.