Spider-Man Isn’t Funny

Beauty, grace. I arc through the air. A hand outstretched, to slide along the wall. This is what it is to be Spider-Man—to live in his eros. Such incredible heights, what amazing elegance. But Spider-Man needs to get his hands dirty. The city burns.

He falls, his back arched, his chest spread achingly outward. He speeds towards his target as though rushing to make play. It is time to engage in the arts of the flesh.

And then he opens his fucking mouth.

“If you just got real jobs you wouldn’t have to work so hard at being criminals!”

Oof. Not great. As others have pointed out, more incisively than I ever could, the ideologies that occupy comments like the above are, on their face and at their core, scapegoat misrepresentations of criminality and its function within society. Make no mistake: Spider-Man is a game that refuses to hold the hyperviolent, militaristic, racist NYPD to even the mildest form of accountability, and instead regurgitates many of the harmful, propagandist ideas that motivate and justify its brutality. I bring this up not because it is my focus here and now (and also probably not really my place to talk about at length), but because I’d like to acknowledge that Spider-Man drinks from a poison well, and no amount of structural shifts in its approach to executing comedy will make a harmful joke funny.

One other important clarification: I’m not interested in humor that takes place during directed, bespoke narrative. This is about humor that takes place during play, not cutscene. Narrative humor is pretty simple, in terms of presentation – either the text on page functions as joke or it doesn’t. But when it comes to presenting humor in play (a problem that the jokester character of Spider-Man demands be addressed), complications arise. How does play change the way jokes are delivered? Humor is no longer reactive (situation happens->joke is made), it is predictive. It’s about pieces of a puzzle. The player is engaged in X activity, fighting Y, so the game has to pull from a list of jokes made to fit that contextual soup. This is why most of the game’s one liners share certain commonalities:

  1. They’re all about combat. Fuck me, there are so many lines about how Spider-Man is gonna beat up some dudes.
  2. You can’t tell (because it’s been flattened to text on page) but these one liners are triggered at pivot points of combat – Spider-Man throws his first punch, a new wave of enemies arrive, and combat ends.

I’d like to make clear—I understand why Insomniac structured their humor this way, it makes sense, but I feel (and I know I’m not alone in this) that it just doesn’t work.

You know how, when you’re playing a game—really feelin’ it, really groovin’—and you jump into a boss fight, and your character drops some cheeky one liner, and you chuckle, and then you die, you just fuckin’ beef it, and the game reloads, and you hear that one liner again, and it’s a little less funny, a little less charming, a little less life in its heart, and then you beef it again, and again, and again, beef beef beef, beefaroni, Mmmmmm, Meat Mondays, and nothing in the entire world is more annoying than the sound of that one, single, one liner, chiming in chiming in chiming like a goddamn grandfather clock, wearing you down into dust, burning you into ash?

Really what Marvel’s Spider-Man has done, and what so many other games that incorporate humor have done, is just elongate that process. Combat encounters are spread such that it’s harder to tell, but it’s there. It’s not just the repetition that’s the problem, it’s the regularity. The knowing that, now that you’ve webbed up the boys, you’re about to hear from the peanut gallery.

There is a lot about this process that behaves counter to humor, but it also bothers me because it runs counter to Spider-Man’s specific brand of comedy. He’s an improviser. Things happen and he reacts to them. Sometimes, he makes jokes about the things that he does. He’s got a sharp wit, even if he’s such a fuckin’ cop with it.

Of course, the solution is unachievable: games can’t improvise. Lines of dialogue have to be written and recorded so that they can presented to simulate humor. It’s an inherently alienating structure that is, imo, the reason a lot of game humor struggles to land. But this is a problem doubly compounded in Spider-Man. When he makes a joke, players are just…along for the ride. Technically, we are the ones who initiate combat encounters—and, by extension, the humor—but jokes are baked into that slice of game. We aren’t the ones making the jokes through avatar, we’re just partaking in a system that has jokes in it.

I suppose the logical conclusion of this line of thinking, then, is to write jokes around mechanics. Press the right trigger to make Spider-Man crack wise about swinging on webs, tap square to hear him quip about his mean right hook. Write a million of these, for all possible interactions the player can make, and somehow create a formula that limits and randomizes their usage to avoid recreating the same problems of repetition and regularity. But that’s easy for me to say, writing this at work when I should probably be chugging away at one of my project files.

Something like the above would require a level of specifically directed foresight on an administrative level, and likely a stupid amount of dumb labor for both writers and programmers. Ah, the apotheosis of an interest in video games – fearfully wanting more.

Spider-Man isn’t funny, we’ll just have to live with that. Perhaps it would be best if games of this nature steered clear of gameplay comedy entirely, it doesn’t quite seem to ever work. Would you like to hear a joke? Someone spends an hour or two writing about a video game they have thoughts on, only to discover that they’ve led themselves nowhere.

It isn’t very funny.

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