I play videogames to feel something. Which is not to say that I lack sensory detail without them, but they are extremely effective in helping me relinquish my life stresses and step into a world in which I am in some way empowered to battle—literally or otherwise—someone else’s. And in the noble art of escapism, I have poured lakes of magma on the heads of my screaming enemies. I have opened mighty canyons in countless enemy brows. I have sundered zombie flesh, crushed robotic armies, laid waste to generations of angry, bipedal mushrooms. I have romanced and abandoned. Loved, lost, and lived to cry into my mead. I have been crowned, hailed, and preserved in virtual stone. My opponents have wept. I have 1-Upped, upgraded, and outfitted. I have gone platinum. I have brought salvation to worlds and doom upon entire civilizations. I even knocked out Mike Tyson a time or two. Yes I did.
Yes I did.
And through much of this, I felt pleased.
But not proud.
Smug, but not happy.
And then I played Spider-Man for the PS4. That’s when I met Gloria.
Gloria is a homeless woman living in New York City. Early on, I/Spider-Man rescued her from angry thugs. Your friendly neighborhood game avatar earnestly asks if the would-be victim is ok and his genuine concern seems to reach her. She has nowhere to go, she admits, and her pride prevents her from seeking help. A humble, post-rescue recommendation of homemade wheat cakes at the F.E.A.S.T. shelter nudges Gloria to check the place out, but she makes no promises. She is stubborn, she is brave, but man, she needs a chance.
And in the moment she agrees to head to F.E.A.S.T., she becomes the face of the best, most rewarding aspect hiding beneath the adrenaline-soaked fun in the spectacular (and exhaustively reviewed) PS4 best-seller.
Make no mistake; graphically, the game is stupendous. Believe it. The voice acting is top-flight, with familiar pros filling out characters well into the smaller roles on the cast list. The game deserves the glitzy headlines we’ve all seen.
But Gloria, voiced expertly by Agents of Mayhem’s Melanie Minichino, comes to represent something more than I expected, something greater than the sum of Marvel’s Spider-Man’s parts. My time with Gloria left me with a feeling of deeper accomplishment—an immersive connection to a game world I just don’t get whilst eviscerating hellspawn or splintering a Nazi’s teeth under boiling skies. Peter Parker’s 100% optional friendship with Gloria ends up feeling more meaningful than the (very real) glee to be found in busting up big-city crime and taking down familiar super-powered villains.
The key to this not-so-hidden gem of a sequence is just how different the stakes are with Gloria. And how little traditional gaming compensation the player receives for, well, opting to care about a virtual stranger without so much as a named credit on IMDB. See, Gloria doesn’t make me feel powerful. She can provide no backup, no level progress, and hides no rare trophy in her programming. No, Gloria is just a person whose life I get to make better—and if I care to check-in from time to time, I get to see how that life takes a number of positive turns. Given some free web-slinging time, I’m enabled to watch Gloria’s wise use of the second chance she’s given when I save her skin.
She makes me feel like I matter. Me. Not Spider-Man. Not even Peter Parker.
Me: the guy on the couch who saw a familiar face among the residents of the shelter a chapter or two later and headed on over, despite a map marker in different direction. “Hey, you’re Peter, right?” Gloria says upon seeing moi/Peter Parker. She tells me Spider-Man turned her on to this place.
“Oh yeah…I mean that’s great!” comes the response. She never finds out my secret identity. So her friendship with Parker/me is based on genuine kindness. Mutual respect.
And I could have missed the entirety of her story after our first meeting. I might never have known what I’d missed. Gloria’s development isn’t dependent on the player after she is rescued: it’s our win if we bother to take the time to see her making changes for herself inspired by that first rescue. Spider-Man opens a door for her. She walks through it whether the player visits her or not.
As long as we care to look, we’re treated to seeing our deeds bear fruit for someone we helped. It reminds me most clearly of moments in another masterpiece focused on the power of our choices: the rightly-beloved Chrono Trigger for the SNES. Here, as in that much-lauded game, we may take extra steps to check on those we’ve touched or we can barrel through and miss the depth of the storytelling.
Marvel’s Spider-Man, too, contains treasure buried just beneath the surface to let us get closer to inhabiting a living game-world where our work has observable short and long-term consequences for regular people caught up in the wake of super-humans, Norse gods and the like.
That’s not to say that the traditional path in Spider-Man is lacking or less than engrossing. The game is finely-tuned fun and offers heaps of extrinsic rewards like trophies for taking advantage of Spidey’s moveset and the engine’s abilities.
But it’s a host of smaller, quieter moments—best represented by my experience with tough-as-nails survivor Gloria—where I, the once and future devourer of worlds, felt the most joy. And those moments are where the game moves from solid action-adventure to likely Game-of-the-Year candidate.
Only players willing to seek Gloria out inside the F.E.A.S.T. shelter between story missions—and she does not always appear in the same spot, though she develops favorite haunts—will witness her evolution. Only those folks willing to really walk in the compassionate footsteps of your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man will find Gloria easing into the social structure of the shelter, gaining confidence in herself, practicing interview skills, securing a job, and taking genuine steps in finding a place of her own to call home.
Obviously there is the matter of Mr. Negative, Electro, and the Kingpin to handle. Failing to protect the city from these evil-doers means Game Over.
But Gloria’s entirely missable growth makes saving the city matter. Yes, Spider-Man will end up greasing Rhino’s boot-bottoms if I fail to counter in time. Far more intense, though, is knowing that, if I fail, Gloria and the dozen other minor characters whose stories I became surprisingly invested in will suffer and die. I’m saving people, after all, not a city. And Marvel’s Spider-Man invests enough attention to character that Gloria isn’t alone in my super-powered heart. By the closing act of the game, Gloria, the Morales family, and other supporting characters all matter to me in their own, distinct ways. Take F.E.A.S.T.’s elderly bickering, chess-playing quasi-couple, Cam and Eileen. If Silver Sable puts a hole in my head, I’ll never know which of these salty codgers won their days-long match: and I’ll never find out if Eileen ever reconnected with her estranged daughter.
This is Parker’s town, which makes it mine, which makes it Gloria’s.
Spider-Man is great not because it gifts me all the superpowers of Peter Parker’s masked alter-ego (and to be sure, it does…I’ve webbed folks to walls, I’ve skimmed the tops of buildings on web lines trimmed with chemical-reaction-in-progress detail): it’s great because it lets me decide just how deeply I appreciate why I’m using them. Why it matters when I triumph. Why I take pains not to mess up. Why I’m fighting at all.
I felt proud for beating this game. But more than that, I felt happy—genuinely happy—that I’d saved people worth saving this time. Few games carry that off with more care than Marvel’s Spider-Man. I hope it’s catching.
I hear Gloria is being promoted to manager soon. That means more to me than I expected. I’m sure, in some other game, I’ll turn a shambling corpse’s head into a canoe soon. But as the gore flies, my mind will turn fondly back to Gloria, hoping she’s keeping the grinders going at the coffee shop.