It's time to give licensed games more creative freedom


Do whatever a spider can

Insomniac’s Spider-Man is quickly becoming one of my favorite games of 2018 because it’s Insomniac’s Spider-Man. It’s not simply another game with Spider-Man’s face on it, nor is it just another superhero game; it’s a game with its own identity that succeeds at what it sets out to do, and superbly at that. I’ve been an outside observer of Marvel canon for years, but for the first time, I feel deeply invested in these characters and excited to learn more about this superhero and his associates.

That’s what I’d expect any good game built around a character from another form of media to do. It makes logical business sense for a huge comic publisher to use games as a gateway to pull new enthusiasts into their main audience. I’ll gladly embrace that if there’s a lot to love about both that IP and the game itself, as is the case with both Insomniac’s Spider-Man and Spidey’s exploits elsewhere.

But many licensed games have done more to repulse us. Even the phrase “licensed game” carries a stigma that paints them as lazy cash-ins because that’s exactly what many of them have been conceived as for a long time. That has gradually changed over the years thanks to hits like Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum. Uncoincidentally, that game shares one major trait with Spider-Manthat sets them both apart from others — they had both the resources and the creative freedom to reach their full potential.

Insomniac’s Spider-Man stands apart from other Spider-Man works because it is squarely within its own canon. It borrows all of the usual elements of series mythos such as Spidey’s rogues’ gallery, his supporting cast, and a tendency to make both of them roll their eyes with every other thing he says. But the intricacies of how this world works and how events play out don’t match up one-to-one with anything else.

This prevents it from having any immediate ties to any upcoming media, thus saving it from a premature deadline and allowing it enough breathing room to develop properly. Heck, we first heard about it at E3 2016! Many licensed games don’t get hyped up for two years because they aren’t even in development that long.

This also forces licensed games to actually write their own storylines instead of repeating those used by tied-in media, which gives them more intrigue and individuality by default. Insomniac took that chance to cast Spider-Man’s existing cast in a new light, framing familiar elements around less familiar events and interactions.

That said, a licensed game could always take a still more creative route and actually focus the bulk of its scenarios around brand new elements. That seems to be what Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise is doing. But that doesn’t happen until licensorsgive licensees the same creative freedom as it takes to do what Spider-Man’s doing. Less restriction, more good game. And Insomniac puts their liberties in Spidey canon to equally good use by mixing up how Peter interacts with his allies and enemies, which is important given the narrative’s emphasis on characters over events.

Mentioning this might count as mild spoilers since it hasn’t been shown in any trailers, but this is so early on that tutorials still aren’t over by this point (though if you feel otherwise, consider this your spoiler warning to skip this paragraph). I’m pretty sure everyone had a feeling of where Spider-Man’s plot would eventually end up the moment they met Otto at Peter’s new job. It’s a matter of “anyone who knows even barely anything about Spider-Man history can guess where this is going”. But the path it takes to get there is unfamiliar and full of engaging twists. I feel suspense over Peter’s relationships because they keep doing things I didn’t expect from my previous understandings of them, and I continually question where they might be once the credits roll.

It’s also surprising to see that Jameson, aka the “get me pictures of Spider-Man” guy, left the Daily Bugle to start a conspiracy talk show. But it’s extremely believable and it feels like a natural extension of his role in Spidey canon. It adds another touch of flavor to Spider-Man’s new world that is entertaining to see, as do many other nuggets of characterization.

Plus, Insomniac had the money to make a really good game!

Yeah, that was kinda obvious, wasn’t it? But it is an ever important ingredient for a good game that gets frequently stunted by licensed game constraints, even if devs have the liberty to do their own thing. One of the biggest things holding back Platinum’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan is recycled content, which is a telltale sign of lacking the time and/or funds to build new stuff. It’d be a stretch to suggest Platinum’s B-team get as much funding as their A-team did on NieR: Automataand equally silly to suggest money is the only thing setting their qualities apart — but if they were given something much closer, we might have seen something on par with Platinum’s usual excellence.

Any licensed game that wants to be good deserves to be good on its own merits, not just because it has an icon on the cover. While it’s important for them to be true to the spirit of what makes them so iconic, independence from external constrictions challenges writers to create scenarios that stand on their own legs. It gives game designers more freedom to make decisions for the sake of building better gameplay, such as Spider-Man’s plethora of costumes and their associated powers. And it allows games the chance to add to their franchise’s legacy instead of being a forgettable footnote.

Last generation, Arkham Asylum challenged the standard of quality of modern licensed games. They’re still up and down, but on average we’ve been seeing less shovelware and more actual attempts at great games. Yet as always they are limited by creative constraints and limited resources, some to worse effect than others. Those limitations probably won’t ever disappear entirely, given the very nature of these games and the legalese surrounding them.

But Insomniac’s Spider-Man is a product that could only have happened by reducing those limitations as much as possible. It’s not the first of its kind, and others have taken many more liberties with their sources, but few have been so large in the public eye before this. If the tsunami of hype surrounding Spider-Man means anything, we might just be lucky enough for more studios to follow its example and get more wiggle room to work with our favorite heroes, whichever corners of fiction they come from. If Carter’s review is any indication to someone still avoiding spoilers like me, Insomniac may be teasing Marvel’s plans to do that, or at least plans to continue giving Insomniac that chance.

A renaissance for licensed games as a whole is a tall order given their stigma. But given that more and more prolific developers are making games of long-beloved characters in comics and animation, perhaps that renaissance is on its way.