The following is an entry in "Growth of a Gamer," a series of articles exploring the profound ways that video games can touch people's lives. For more information and more great content, you can check out the series' hub page! Until then, please enjoy "Swinging Forward with Spider-Man 2."
Back in 2004, my family was living in Hidden Valley, a small community in Lake County, California. It was like a wet dream for a retired dentist from the 50s; it was a small, quiet town with houses spread sparsely across the valley. Its most exciting features were simply one grocery store, two small restaurants, and a video rental store. Clearly a village so remote is a thrilling place to live for any hyperactive child, but somehow I was not a big fan of it. There were few kids around me that I could play with, and when I could, we were still trapped by the boundaries of our homes. Even when we could escape, I never felt welcome outside. There were a few other Latino families like mine, but the town could never connect with me in a genuine way. The town felt artificial, prescribed, as if to maintain an illusion that the problems of the outside world did not apply to them.
I was abandoned on an uncharted island, and the television screen was my only portal away. I often played games based on the shows and movies that I would watch on TV. But one title helped me escape the confines of Hidden Valley into a new world of possibilities: Spider-Man 2: The Game.
I was a huge Spider-Man fan. As a child I was instantly attracted to the fantastical aspects of this comic book character. He was bright and colorful, with cool powers, and he was snarky enough to make fun of the bad guys he was fighting. Inside, though, Spider-Man struggled with more human obstacles as Peter Parker. But it was this game that revealed to me his true strength.
I was expecting another game where I would beat up thugs level-by-level, but Spider-Man 2 was astoundingly free. I could shoot web at any building and swing through the city boundlessly, just like he could in other media. It had a sophisticated physics system giving Spider-Man a certain resistance as he swung. If the player didn't let go of the web at the end a swing, Spider-Man would slow down and eventually begin to move backwards like a pendulum. Learning how to use this momentum well was difficult, but it made this game so rewarding. With practice I could move quickly across the city and with ease and control. I was finally free.
The game was very much a sandbox: I could explore the city and experiment within this world. As I gained new abilities like running on walls and zipping from place to place, I found I could combine them with everything Spider-Man could already do. If I got into a fight I could creatively mix up my attacks, dodge theirs, and fire back with web techniques. I could dodge gunfire, follow up by trapping my foe with a web ball, and then finish the thug off with an uppercut that launches him in the air and beat him back down. I felt a sense of power and choice like no other game I had played.
I would spend hours just swinging around the city, playing and testing the game's limitations. Once I spent a whole play session finding tall buildings to climb up and dive off, trying to get as much speed as I could from the fall before swinging away. Another time I discovered a series of helicopters flying above the Hudson River. Out of curiosity I tried swinging onto each of the helicopters, and before I knew it, I had crossed the sky and landed on the Statue of Liberty. These self-discovered victories became the stories that I told other people when I tried to describe such a thrill.
As I got older and learned more about the character I began to identify with Peter. He dealt with issues of poverty, school, and family life, but I also felt a parallel in his struggle to balance his life as both Peter Parker and Spider-Man. I was a first generation American, and I'd come home to a Spanish speaking household—I felt that I was living a dual life, one that existed in school and another that existed at home. I would look up to Peter as someone also living this dual life and struggling with the scarifies that came with it. In his best moments, Peter was able to draw strength from both sides of himself and find his balance.
As time progressed, people moved on from things. My family moved out of Hidden Valley and I too moved away from Spider-Man 2: The Game. But the things that stayed with me were the tales I created from playing the game. These little stories would come back to me when I would play something else or watch a movie. They reminded me how much Spider-Man 2 could liberate me from Hidden Valley. I wanted to learn more about the choices that the developer made and how they were inspired by the world of Spider-Man, and studying these two different interests made me appreciate them both so much more.
About the Growth of a Gamer Series
"Growth of a Gamer" is a series of articles exploring the profound way games and gaming can impact our lives, as told by students of the Interactive Media program at the University of Southern California. Each one tells a personal story of how a particular game or franchise molded us into the people we are today, and through our experiences we hope to shed light on the ways that these games have affected all of you as well. We invite you all to share your own stories in the comments below, or by writing your very own series entries through Gamnesia's Journals feature. We love coming together to share in the joys that make gaming so memorable for us all, and we hope that you'll join us!
You can find more information about these stories and their authors at the hub page for the Growth of a Gamer series, or find a particular game from the list below to jump right in!
- Pikmin, by Kevin Shi
- Portal, by Drew Perlman
- Mass Effect, by Justin Camden
- World of Warcraft, by James Collins
- Pokémon series, by Abhishek Biswas
- Pokémon Gold Version, by Colin McIsaac
- Spider-Man 2: The Game, by Cristian Guzman