New York is as embedded into Spider-Man’s DNA as the radioactive spider that gave him his powers.
It has become cliche to say that New York is a main character in any piece of media. But in Spider-Man, whether in the new game or his endless film franchises, New York is more than just a character. It’s a mirrored reflection of the friendly neighborhood superhero sworn to protect it.
“New York kind of is Spider-Man,” Jon Paquette, a lead writer on the new and wildly popular title by Insomniac Games, said in an interview during E3 in June. “It’s both this really tough place, but in a lot of other ways it’s also this heartwarming city.”
New Yorkers have weathered both literal and metaphorical storms by often coming together at each other’s greatest time of need. There’s a sense of heroism in the New York mythos — which lended itself perfectly to the version of it that Insomniac rendered for their game.
“He is the city. The city is him. But also, we wanted it to be Marvel’s New York,” Paquette explained. That’s why you’ll see Doctor Strange’s sanctuary and the Avenger’s Tower sharing the cityscape with Central Park and the Empire State building.
New York fits seamlessly into the physicality of embodying Spider-Man, too. “We call New York City a superhero’s playground,” said the game’s art director, Jacinda Chew.
Outside the story, fans have responded most to living out the dream of Spider-Man’s New York City, especially in a medium where you can truly experience a sense of place.
In large part, you can thank Chew and her team for not only painstakingly turning the city into that breathtakingly beautiful virtual playground, but for also marrying an authentic Spider-Maness into its conceptualization of New York City.
“We needed to create a New York City that felt like it belonged to Peter Parker and Spider-Man,” she said.
Never chasing after realism, they instead focused on wedding the two. “Our New York is not a one to one representation of New York City. It’s more an approximation and distillation of all its best parts.”
“It’s more an approximation and distillation of all its best parts.”
So while the neighborhoods, from Hell’s Kitchen to Harlem, are roughly where they should be, there’s plenty of resizing. They didn’t have to change much in terms of building heights to make every inch of the city traversable, either — but certain differences between boroughs, like Harlem’s lower verticality in comparison to other parts of upper Manhattan’s, had to be a bit smudged.
As an artist, Chew decided to lean into the iconic visual attributes that give the city its irresistible emotional draw.
“If you want people to have an emotional attachment to New York, I always try to think of what New York is like in my own imagination and memory,” she said. “And like any memory, the recollections can be a bit fuzzy.”
There is a certain dreaminess to the New York of Marvel’s Spider-Man, only aided by the fact that Chew lived most of her life in Southern California rather than the place the game reimagines.
In her mind, the characteristics that felt inextricably linked to the city included: yellow taxicabs, fire escapes, water towers, various neighborhood with distinct personalities, pedestrians from all walks of life.
“We took those elements and then we cranked it up to eleven,” Chew said.
Initially, the team’s coders and programmers warned that it would be too hard to incorporate things like fire escapes and water towers. After all, as a video game environment, it function as a level Spider-Man could easily and quickly traverse. And potentially finding yourself stuck in a fire escape just as you’re getting into the swing of things (pun intended) could be frustrating.
But Chew insisted.
“It’s not New York without them.”
“We can’t make a New York City without a fire escape,” she told the team. “First of all, it’s against code! But second of all, it’s not New York without them.”
So they actually went through the trouble of creating custom animations and codes for how Spider-Man would circumvent each of these landmark obstacles, leading to mechanics like Spidey’s point-launching abilities on rooftops.
When it came to representing the city’s diversity, Chew was also adamant. Not only because a diverse city is a more authentic portrait, but also because, “it’s really important for gamers to see themselves represented in games like they’re represented in the world.”
So the NPC demographics shift depending on which parts of the city you’re in, and include everything from women in hijabs to men in yamakas. They even added Chinese music and voiceover that you may have totally missed while swinging through Chinatown.
There are several other touches the art team went to great lengths for in order to bring a realness to the city’s personality, even if it’s an idealized vision of it.
For the graffiti, they enlisted the help of actual street artists. That means instead of just computer-generating images, these artists created original works in spray paint that the team then digitized for the game.
The type of graffiti ranges from illustrative murals to represent specific areas of the city, or even some Marvel villains. The idea there was that, since this version of Spider-Man has already been at it for eight years, the New Yorker would be familiar with his villains, and reflect that in their art.
“From the point of view of the of the graffiti artists, they were really happy that we made it authentic like that,” said Chew. “Because we could’ve just made up stuff — but I don’t think it would feel nearly as grounded.”
But also, Spider-Man has access to a perspective on the city that not everyone has. He’s regularly on top of its tallest skyscrapers, or interrupting a variety of rooftop parties.