Spider-Man and Gameplay Flow

These days, when I’m not writing up my PhD thesis or changing a 2 month old’s nappy, I spend my time swinging through Insomniac’s virtual Manhattan, the way only a Spider can. Yes, I’m talking about Spider-Man, recently released on PS4 by the people behind SpyroRatchet & Clank and Resistance. In this article, I want to share my thoughts on its addictive traversal. Let’s see how we get on!

Before we crack on, let me get my micro-review out of the way. (Full disclosure, I have yet to finish the story (hence this is a gameplay article, not a narrative one); I’ve played about 15-20 hours, with 45 % completion).

Spider-Man is a polished, open-world masterpiece. Not since swinging the Leviathan axe in God of War have I gained such pleasure from a gameplay element as I have from web swinging through New York. Side note: evidence that PlayStation users are currently living their best life is when industry breakers like God of War only came out a couple months ago :P. (Side-side note: firing arrows in Horizon: Zero Dawn also feels incredible).

Spider-Man feels like the game that fans of the web-head have been dreaming about ever since the PS1 Neversoft release. Insomniac have gone through a checklist of gameplay elements they had to nail to please both gamers and Marvel fans. This is evident from the heartfelt and honest interviews and panels the tireless Bryan Intihar (and his team) have appeared in – this game is Insomniac’s love letter to Spider-Man and his fans alike. For its dedication to the source material, for the amount of care and adoration that has gone into the development of the game, Spider-Man deserves a 10/10.

It’s video games like this that makes me proud to be a Spider fan, a comic book geek and a gamer.

Up, up, and away web!

The game loads. Jon Paesano’s uplifting score starts to build as the Insomniac logo appears. Next, the old-style, page-flipping Marvel logo flickers by. I mash X to get past the load screen that shows Spidey waiting, hanging off a New York brownstone. Seconds later and I’m perched on the corner of a high-rise, bathed in a diffuse sunrise, my fingers are already thrumming with anticipation. Panning up, I see a flock of pigeons cruise past. I’m grinning as I move the camera down, searching for that little circle that indicates I can “point launch”: L2 + R2, wait until you touch, hit X, and… I’m flying.

The dynamic score hurries to catch up with me, lines of code realising that I’m now free falling through Manhattan, R2’ing webs to buildings, detaching, hitting X at the zenith, feeling the controller pulse as the screen motion-blurs. Spidey kicks upwards, the camera rotates until its above him, I click L3 to freefall. The controller vibrates as the ground rushes up to meet me; I hit R2 at the last second, feeling the dualshock rumble in pleasure as I swing through oncoming traffic, barreling up towards the next building. I haven’t stopped smiling for a single second.

(Side note: the music in this game is really incredible – it lifts as you swing, then quietens when you’re not moving. Additionally, even Peter’s voice changes based on whether or not you’re exerting yourself. Insomniac have redefined “polished” in open world video games; like, seriously, hat’s off guys).

Traversal in Spider-Man is so addictive that for the first time in any video game, my eyes light up with joy as a new set of collectibles appear on the map. Fast travel? Pah! I’ll swing the 4 km to pick up that backpack with pleasure. Insomniac know they’ve hit the nail on the head with physics-based web-swinging here, integrating it as much as possible into side missions, collectibles and challenges. Take a photo of a landmark? Sure, I can swing past at 20 m/s, whip open my camera and take a shot, while still having enough time to make the next swing. Thugs have taken down an armoured car? Hold my Spidey-bot. Web-zipping to give the beat-down takes just a minute (I could write another 1000 words on the super slick and speedy combat in this game!). The police arrive soon after to thank me but I’ve already launched back into the Concrete Jungle, swinging and swinging and swinging…

Marvel's Spider-Man_20180910102437

The perfect swing

Why does traversal feel so good? My theory is that this one gameplay element contains all the features of gameplay “flow”, i.e. being in the zone, experiencing an optimal experience without awareness of your surroundings. Dr. Hazel Bradshaw gives a nice summary of the concept. I’ve taken the points from her article and extrapolated them to Spider-Man below:

  • Web-swinging provides a challenging activity that is multi-layered in its difficulty; it’s easy to pick-up but tough to master. Each web swing provides an opportunity to hit a perfect fall-rise-fall cycle.
  • The next stage is adding flourishes to the swing. One can append flips and helix twirls for XP (and to look cool); this adds another level of challenge to attain the perfect swing. Traversing across the tops and sides of buildings also merges action with awareness, requiring the addition of point launches, web zips to keep altitude and wall running, all without breaking your stride.
  • The goal of web-swinging is to get from point A to point B, with maximum speed, smoothly, all the while feeling like Spidey. Swinging goals are further integrated within missions and side-ops.
  • You know you’ve hit a perfect swing because of the visual, tactile and audio feedback cues Insomniac has added: The controller rumbles when you’re picking up speed, and pulses if you time the jump right at the swing’s zenith or just after a point launch. Visually, the screen blurs in the periphery, indicating speed. The camera will also follow and jump forwards slightly as Spidey boosts or leaps into the peak of the swing. Environmentally, the noisy city bustle rushes past, sirens bleed and elongate. Subtle whooshes and throbs cue the perfect swing. This multi-sensory cacophony feeds into the satisfying lurch you get in your stomach when you build momentum swinging through the city, feeling a sense of completeness.

The integration of the above allows several emergent flow conditions to arise, as Dr. Bradshaw explains. These include “the ability to concentrate on the task at hand” and providing a sense of “control” that alleviates any anxiety or frustration over your actions – you are fully immersed in enjoying the activity. Finally, you become lost in the task and can become unaware of the passage of time (I know I have).

Marvel's Spider-Man_20180910182427

I’m sure there’s a Game design 101 class describing flow in further detail than I am right now. I just wanted to relate this really interesting concept to traversal in Spider-Man – in addition to swinging, the combat and open world mission design also achieves flow to an extent as well (Man, I love those demon warehouses).

Check out work by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (ikr), who describes the broader psychological phenomenon. I grabbed this nice definition of flow from an interview he did with Wired in ’96: “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”


TL:DR – Web swinging is good, Spider-Man on PS4 is so awesome and I love writing about video games. Hang on, should I have put this at the top? Whatever, I’m going to go jump off Avengers Tower then spend far too long in selfie photo mode as I free fall. Uh, I mean, I’m going back to working really hard. Ttyl Spider-fans!

Marvel's Spider-Man_20180910180423

All images captured from my own game 🙂

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