Perhaps the most poignant scene in the heart-warming video game “Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales” comes at the end. Miles, the titular protagonist, has spent the entire game trying to save Harlem, and he and the neighborhood look bad to wear. A reporter on the site asks residents who is their masked savior.
“That young man?” Says a muralist, just as Miles swings away. “It’s our Spider-Man.”
It is said “ours” as if underlined. Miles belongs to an authentic Afro-Latino community full of life. He wears Timberlands and dances on salsa. He speaks Spanish with his mother. He can take Bodega cat with him on his adventures. This Spider-Man is different because it’s theirs.
The character has been around since 2011 – a relatively flashy image in Spider-Man’s nearly six decades of history – but quickly rose to prominence amongst fans. And “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” the Oscar-winning animated film of 2018, let Miles take a permanent residence in American consciousness. If Peter Parker was always “the friendly Spider-Man in New York City,” Miles explains that his neighborhood matters.
“He would feel that responsibility in a different way,” said Evan Narcisse, the game’s writer who helped shape its narrative. “Do you know what it feels like to be black and open new horizons? You are like, ‘I can’t mess.”
Insomniac Games brought in Mr. Narcisse, the Brooklyn-born Haitian-American writer and critic who wrote the comic book series “Rise of the Black Panther”, to help the writing team give Miles and his home a sense of authenticity. He spoke with the New York Times last week about the process of writing the game as well as the importance of the character.
What follows is a modified, condensed version of the conversation.
How was it in the writer’s room?
Part of it was anticipating – or trying to anticipate – the audience’s response: As a reader and critic, someone who wrote about Miles as a character before, what have you seen as areas to explore? The important thing to me is that this cannot be a re-appearance. This cannot be a board switch for a Peter Parker game. Miles is different as a character. What kind of stories can you tell through these differences.
His cultural background and ethnicity is clearly one of them. But aside from that, you are with Peter Parker telling stories of a very individual type of guilt and responsibility. With Miles, he has a mother, father and an uncle. He has a family. So you can tell stories about the family through Miles in a way that you can’t tell about Peter. Peter only has Aunt May.
What does typing a character like Miles look like for a video game? What about a character that felt could only be expressed in a game?
Video games as a medium I find incredibly collaborative. There are many majors that are used to create a video game, especially one of this size. So I made a comment about Miles’ fashion and hair of course. There is a whole team of artists who are starting to discover and refine their looks. The book is like ligaments and connective tissue if level designers like muscles. Or a skeleton. I fond of this metaphor, but different parts of a large multicellular being. It was a very team effort.
It’s wild, because during the game’s development cycle, “Spider-Verse” appeared. Comes out, becomes this formidable blow, imprinting the character on the collective psyche of the audience. But there was one early scene when Miles left his home on the way to school, welcoming the neighborhood. And the only thing I hit and worked on was that in the video game, the neighborhood could talk to him.
It was one of the things to me early on in the game, and one of the points I made was that his skin should show through his costume. This is the scene where Roxxon security guards shoot their rifles. So I wanted to charge this scene with some figurative energy.
I remember this scene.
The reason I do this is because they see his skin peeking through his costume and instantly the whole city will know that this Spider-Man is fundamentally different from the other. Once Harlem and the other black and brown communities in town know this new Spider-Man is one of them, they will interact with him differently.
This was one of the ideas we had when figuring out how to express Miles. He was always in a conversation with the world around him. This idea also informed mission structures. Finding out what a neighborhood feels and how to make it feel like that in a video game was a big part of what was important to me. I lived in Harlem for five years and fell in love with Harlem. I was a kid who grew up in Brooklyn and then moved to Harlem, and they had different feelings.
This game looks timely in terms of how it portrays people of color, their communities, and their relationship to political power and corporations. It feels like it hits differently in 2020.
One of the things I know from writing and writing comics, there is always this weird burden on black superheroes to solve racism. One of the hard things about this cup about a character like Miles is that he’s a teenager. He doesn’t have all the answers. But I think we definitely want to point out the issues of infringement, and improvement, clearly. In relation to corporate transcendence and how an unequal power imbalance often negatively impacts color societies.
Miles comes into his own world of pop culture in what seems to be a really fast-paced way. How does that indicate where the character might go next?
Oh man, I think there is an amazingly wide board of possibilities for Miles. I think the opportunity exists to reinvent a lot [Peter Parker’s] So that Miles establish different relationships with them.
The idea of a character who wears Air Jordans or Adidas and basketball shorts, and dressed like a kid from all over the road, would have laughed 20 years ago. But now it’s like, “Wait, there’s a whole new language of style and expression that you can access through this character.” And I feel that his rapid popularity almost calls for that. He advocates this idea that people can make character their own, and they really have them.
Evil tv scholar. Proud twitter aficionado. Travel ninja. Hipster-friendly zombie fanatic.