This is the first post in a series that I plan to continue for some time, where I take a particular game space and discuss why I think it really, really works. I’m toying with running some also-rans as well, those spaces that really, really had great potential or aspects, but somehow didn’t quite work.
Today, I’m running with Manhattan as seen in Spider-Man 2. To this day, I’m still not entirely sure why it works so well. It isn’t a perfect depiction of the city by any means. It’s even a good leap-and-bound behind True Crime: New York City (of the same generation), a game so accurate that The New Yorker had two professional Manhattan tour guides assess the game. There are landmarks missing, and comparing the in-game map with an actual map of Manhattan shows that the game probably has about a third of the city’s streets.
Yet I felt compelled to actually pull out a map and compare the game with the real thing at the time. So compelling was Spider-Man 2‘s depiction of New York that to this day, despite having only been to the Big Apple once, when I was eight, I feel like I know my way around the city. I can find my way from the financial district to Harlem, no problems. Provided I’m traveling by web, that is.
There was a great review of the game that described Manhattan as becoming Spider-Man’s jungle gym. It’s really an apt analogy for one – perhaps the only – reason that it remains one of my favourite games of all time, and certainly one of my favourite game spaces (and I don’t even like Spider-Man!). Manhattan, iconic, mythic Manhattan, becomes a place that’s as easy to traverse as pointing in a direction and swinging. The city becomes navigable under the yoke of the player’s web. Intimate tours of the Statue of Liberty, of the Chrysler Building, or the Empire State, of the Flatiron, are possible in ways that you would never, ever be able to have in reality. I can climb underneath Queensboro Bridge to Roosevelt Island if I want to, or I can ascend to the tip of the Empire State Building and jump off, stopping my plummeting form with a flick of a button at the last minute, inches from the pavement. Factor in skyscraper markers that predate Crackdown‘s orbs in terms of sheer addictive-factor, and you have an amazingly compelling space to explore, to the point where the game’s main story and activities can be largely ignored and still make for a great experience.
Yet the New York of Spider-Man 2 is very much a New York that could only ever be found in the videogame. The city is something that is to be both controlled a revered – the player’s tasks in the game largely revolve around rescuing citizens from petty crime, deathly falls, and even lost balloons. The city, as Spider-Man’s jungle gym, is an ambivalent force, as it is the skyscrapers that give Spider-Man his speed of travel, yet it is also the skyscrapers that block his path when pursuing a criminal or racing against the clock to save a citizen. It’s a New York where one can assault a typical New York criminal, yet not buy a bagel from a typical New York bagel stand.
There is only one way I can find out if my many hours of Spider-Man 2 can translate to actual knowledge: I’m going to be there mid-next year. If you hear of a mad Australian climbing underneath the Queensboro Bridge, you’ll know what to blame.