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Culture

We asked ‘Spider-Man’ developers why the game focuses heavily on homelessness

Insomniac Games’ Ryan Schneider and Ben Arfmann spoke to The Big Issue on making the webslinger homeless and how their game inspired fans to volunteer in shelters

Before Spider-Man swung on to the PlayStation in September there was plenty of speculation about which baddies he’d be punching – but few predicted one of his biggest foes would be homelessness.

Minor spoilers, but Peter Parker loses his flat in the new game and is forced to spend the night at homeless shelter F.E.A.S.T.

What could have been an excuse to use homelessness as shorthand to show Spidey struggling is instead a fleshed-out examination of the causes of why people end up on the streets. Peter can explore the shelter and get to the root of why some of the rough sleepers ended up down and out.

It’s a nuanced portrayal – going beyond tired stereotypes that stick to drugs and booze – and that’s why we wanted to know why developer Insomniac Games chose to go where few have gone before in a video game. Here’s what they told us:

TBI: Why did you choose a homeless shelter like F.E.A.S.T. as a hub area for the game?

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Ryan Schneider, Insomniac Games chief brand officer: The team chose to focus on the F.E.A.S.T. shelter because it’s an integral part of Marvel’s Spider-Man. F.E.A.S.T. is woven deeply into the game’s narrative as it ties together the tangled relationships of Aunt may, Peter Parker and Martin Li. The shelter is also important because it gives us an opportunity to see how Peter blends his human and superhuman worlds.

TBI: The scale of homelessness in New York is well documented – why was it so important to incorporate this into your portrayal of Manhattan?

RS: This was more of a game story decision rather than a political or social statement. Meaning, F.E.A.S.T. has played a role in the Marvel universe before and it made good sense to incorporate it into our story since we focused heavily on Spider-Man’s worlds colliding. The shelter served as the perfect backdrop to show the tension and stakes between Spider-Man and Mister Negative as they figure out they may know each other in a far different context. At the same time, with a topic as serious and important as homelessness, we wanted to treat it with the sensitivity and dignity it deserves and requires. How we portrayed the homeless population was not taken for granted during development.

TBI: The appreciation that homelessness is a complex problem with many causes is something the game does really well – how did the studio go about researching the issue?

Ben Arfmann, Insomniac Games writer: Interacting with the staff and clients of Bridge House – a shelter my family volunteers with back in Colorado –  was invaluable in opening my eyes to the breadth of this issue. The reasons that people experience homelessness are extremely diverse, and it reinforced the importance of accurately representing this diversity in Marvel’s Spider-Man.

TBI: What was the hardest thing about portraying the issue in the game?

BA: The most challenging aspect was maintaining scope. We wanted to track a number of characters in F.E.A.S.T. over the course of the game, showing how their interactions with Peter, May and the shelter influenced their lives.  From both a creative and a technical standpoint, it was a challenge to keep all these threads straight.  We felt it was essential, however, to make sure we accurately portrayed the breadth of this issue – there isn’t just one type of person who experiences homelessness.

TBI: Walking around F.E.A.S.T. brings small stories and details about how homeless people got into their position and their past relationship with Peter – how important was it to highlight these small stories?

RS: We wanted to create a plausible and deep world in Marvel’s Spider-Man. To do that, we wanted to examine characters and their relationships with Peter Parker or Spider-Man wherever possible. Showing Pete’s humanity was a key part of our recipe for creating a compelling game story. Using the shelter as a platform to accomplish that goal made good sense. Plus, it gives players an insight into the plight of the homeless that they may not have considered. That is very important to us too.

TBI: Peter Parker himself becomes homeless during the course of the game – how do you feel about portraying such a powerful character in such a vulnerable position?

RS: It’s very important because that’s what makes Peter so relatable to people all over the world. His struggles are our struggles. If Spider-Man can be evicted and feel like he has no place else to go, it can happen to anyone. Maybe that will get someone to think twice about how they characterize someone else without a physical home.

TBI: Were there any challenges in getting the tone of the subsequent mission where he recovers his belongings right?

RS: There are always challenges when it comes to nailing the tone and balance between humour and heart. On one hand, you have this wild goose chase where Spidey is trying to grab his belongings before they find their way to the incinerator. Thanks to his new pal Eddie, it’s easier to enjoy this journey as a player. However, you also want to convey the high stakes and consequences if our hero is unsuccessful in retrieving his worldly possessions. We tried not to make light of the moment, while at the same time find a way for players to feel the roller-coaster emotions that Spider-Man would in that situation.

TBI: How do you feel gamers have responded to your decision to include F.E.A.S.T and homelessness so prominently in the game based on the feedback you have received?

RS: We’ve seen great responses to the inclusion and importance of F.E.A.S.T in the game. Our favourite has been the social media post we saw where a fan said he began volunteering at his aunt’s homeless shelter after playing our game. This is why we make games – to generate a positive and lasting impression on people’s lives.

TBI: What do you think about the portrayal of homelessness in video games generally, particularly ones on the scale of Spider-Man?

RS: That’s a very broad question! Our hope would be that the plight of homelessness is treated with empathy and a great deal of thought. It feels like the days of misinformed and sweeping character generalizations across many topics are thankfully becoming fewer and farther between. Players demand more of us as developers, and we demand more of ourselves as storytellers.

TBI: Have any other games in particular caught your eye for their work in the area?

BA:Cart Life wasn’t directly focused on homelessness, but it did portray the very real ways that access to money and resources can constrain people’s lives. It does what great stories are supposed to do: inspires empathy and understanding.

Illustration: Want Some Studio

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