Perhaps the most poignant scene in the warmly received video game Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales comes at the end. Miles, the eponymous superhero protagonist, has spent the entire game trying to save Harlem, and both he and the neighborhood look worse. A reporter on site asks the residents who their masked rescuer is.
"That guy?" says a wall painter, just as Miles is swinging away. "He's our Spider-Man."
The "our" is said as if it were underlined. Miles belongs to an authentic Afro-Latino community full of life. He wears Timberlands and dances to salsa. He speaks Spanish with his mother. He can take a bodega cat on his adventures. This Spider-Man is different because it's theirs.
The character has been around since 2011 – a relative slip-up in Spider-Man's nearly six decades-long history – but has quickly grown in popularity with fans. And Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the Oscar-winning 2018 Best Animated Feature, gave Miles a more permanent abode in the American consciousness. If Peter Parker has always been New York's "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man," Miles makes it clear that his neighborhood matters.
"He will feel that responsibility in a different way," said Evan Narcisse, a game writer who helped create the narrative. "You know what it's like when you're black and breaking new ground? You say," I can't screw it up. "
Insomniac Games brought in Mr. Narcisse, a Brooklyn-born Haitian-American writer and critic who wrote the comic series "Rise of the Black Panther," to help the writing team bring a sense of authenticity to Miles and his home. He spoke to the New York Times last week about the writing process for the game, as well as the importance of the character.
The following is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.
How was it in the writer's room?
Part of that was anticipating or anticipating the audience's reaction: As a reader and reviewer, someone who has previously written about Miles as a character, what have I seen as areas to explore? And the big thing for me was that this can't be a re-skin. This cannot be a pallet swap of the Peter Parker game. Miles is different as a character. What kind of stories can you tell by these differences.
Obviously, his cultural background, his race, is one of them. Apart from that, you and Peter Parker tell stories about a very individual kind of guilt and responsibility. With Miles he has a mother and his father and an uncle. He has a family. This allows you to tell family stories through Miles in ways that you cannot know about Peter. Peter pretty much only has Aunt May.
What's it like writing a character like Miles specifically for a video game? What about the character you think can only be expressed in a game?
I find video games as a medium incredibly cooperative. There are so many disciplines that go into making a video game, especially one of these greats. So I made a comment on Miles' fashion, his hair of course. There is a whole team of artists who are starting to figure out their looks and polish them up. Writers are like ligaments and connective tissue when level designers are like muscles. Or skeleton. I torment this metaphor, but different parts of a large multicellular organism. It was a lot of teamwork.
It's wild because it was during the game's development cycle that Spider-Verse came out. It comes out, it's going to be this massive hit, imprinting the character on the public's collective psyche. But there was an early scene where Miles leaves his house and goes to school and greets the neighborhood. And one thing I came across and worked on was that the neighborhood could talk to him in the video game.
One of the things for me at the beginning of the game, one of the points I made was that his skin should be visible through his costume. This is the scene where the Roxxon security forces point their guns at him. So obviously I wanted to charge this scene with metaphorical energy.
I remember that scene.
The reason I came out in favor is because they see his skin peek through his costume and instantly the whole town knows that this Spider-Man is fundamentally different from the other. Once Harlem and other black and tan communities in the city know that this new Spider-Man is one of them, they will react differently to him.
So that was one of the ideas we brought up when we figured out how to speak Miles. He would always be in conversation with the world around him. This idea also informed the mission structures. It was a big part of what was important to me, figuring out what a neighborhood feels like and how it feels to be in a video game. 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 have different vibes.
This game feels timely when it comes to portraying people of color, their communities, and their relationship with political and corporate power. It just feels like 2020 will be different.
One of the things I know from writing and writing comics is always the weird task of black superheroes in solving racism. One thing that is difficult 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 issues like interference, gentrification. About the reach of companies and how often this asymmetrical power imbalance negatively impacts color communities.
Miles comes into its own in pop culture in a really accelerated way. How does this inform where the character can go next?
Man, I think there is such an amazing range of options for Miles. I think there is an opportunity to reinvent a lot of [Peter Parker's] characters so Miles can have different relationships with them.
The idea of a character who wears Air Jordans or Adidas and basketball shorts and dresses up like a kid on the go would have been laughed at 20 years ago. But now it says, "Oh wait, there's a whole new language of style and expression that you can access through this character." And I feel like its accelerated popularity is almost inviting. It invites to this idea that people can make the character their own, and they really have it.