Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 Strives to Find the Heart and Human Element in its Storytelling
It still feels like a dream, but we can finally say that Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 is finally available! Well, in some territories at least, and by the time you read this, some lucky fans around the world are already trying to be greater (together) by enjoying the latest installment from Insomniac Games.
Just ahead of the global launch, we got a chance to talk to key Insomniac Games development members Robert Coddington (Senior Director of Animation) and Lindsay Thompson (Associate Animation Director), along with select Southeast Asian media outlets, to discuss how the team brought these iconic characters to life and the challenges with making the cinematic sequences properly convey the message that the developers wanted to communicate to the players.
Being a 10-year veteran at Insomniac Games, Robert Coddington has worked on franchises like Sunset
Overdrive and Marvel’s Spider-Man, and specializes in animation, performance capture, layout, cinematography, and editing for Insomniac Story Cinematics. Lindsay Thompson is also a 10-year veteran and has worked on such games as Sunset Overdrive, Marvel’s Spider-Man, Ratchet & Clank (2016), and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart.
*Some parts of this Spider-Man 2 interview have been slightly edited for brevity and readability. Some minor spoilers might be included.
Q: In the previous Miles Morales game, Miles’ animations were those of someone still trying to figure out how to navigate the whole experience of being Spider-Man. Now that we have both of them here, with Miles and Peter each having a good amount of experience under their belts, what is the approach that you took to identifying them in terms of their animations that made them their own characters?
Lindsay Thompson (LT): Having both Spider-Men in this game, they have their own style, their own experience. Pete is still definitely more experienced, but we’ll see a more mature Miles in this game, more self-assured and definitely more interested in showing off his own style and swagger, so to speak. So we absolutely continue to approach both of them throughout the game in all aspects as their own person, their own hero, and I think that that comes through in the gameplay as well as cinematics.
Robert Coddington (RC): Yeah, very much so. There is a kind of journey that they’re on and even though they’re entirely different journeys, there is this similar thread of what they’re going to be next – you’re seeing them both, whether they’re falling off their path or trying to find it, you’re seeing two different ways of experiencing the same sort of life struggles, and when you see yourself in the characters, you know that’s what we want. You should see and feel those struggles very naturally.
Q: In terms of the two Spider-Men, we could say Peter is facing more adult problems while Miles is facing this mixed phase in life. In terms of cinematics, were there any difficulties for the team when it came to creating stories that felt more engaging to players of different ages or was it all part of the organic overall story that you guys felt made sense moving from Peter to Miles and Miles to Peter?
RC: I think we approach all of our storytelling with a very inclusive sort of “all ages” bracket to it. You could pick the decade depending on how old you are, whether it’s Back to the Future or something newer, there’s this sort of golden storytelling where people, regardless of how impossible the physics might be or the science, believe it and love it. We try to find that heart and that truth in everything, and that comes from how we plan, whether it’s gameplay or cinematics. We’re working with the writers, working with the creative directors, working with the sets and characters, and finding a way for this character to exist and occupy that space and use their world in a way that you physically believe it and that echoes your own life experiences in your heart.
LT: Our team is incredibly collaborative between departments. Our cinematics team works closely with the writers. Bobby and I are visual storytellers – The writers will actually write the story but we both bring our own strengths to it. We all bring our own strengths to it. Working with them, I think the most important thing was telling the human story and I think we can all see a little bit of ourselves in both of the heroes. Even though I’m not a man, I’m not a spider superhero, but I still relate to Miles’s struggles and I still relate to Pete’s. That’s the point of playing a game. You are Spider-Man and I think always, with every scene we created, with every moment, we were always looking for where the heart was in the scene and I think you know that’s that’s the most important thing in storytelling,
Q: There was a recent article about your team using a real lizard to animate Lizard. In terms of Kraven, being a hunter with “old” values in a modern world with superheroes is such a weird and strange concept. Did the animation team have something special for him to make him believable or was it all motion capture and the actor?
LT: With the Lizard villain, you can look at real lizard movement and kind of put that into it, but we have this big hunter character in this modern world. First and foremost, we can give a lot of credit to our writers but also to our actor, Jim Pirri. He came in and showed up as Kraven. He was so excited about the character, so working with him and the writers, we were constantly talking about his internal emotions and motivations, whether or not he was saying things explicitly or what his motivations were. We wanted to make sure that when he was performing, he always knew the back story and knew what he was after. All praise goes to Jim because he was as incredible as the character.
RC: And he really brought it to life. Those same threads that we’re looking at with Pete and Miles that make you buy into their story and their balance between being Spider-Man and a person, Kraven is also looking for that meaning; he’s looking for what his life all adds up to. What was his ultimate point, and did he fulfill his goals? And those are things that you can get behind. Regardless of how fantastic, no matter what it is, if it’s standing sideways on a wall or if you’re looking for an honorable death, if this could happen, this is probably how it would.
So then you’ve got this fantastic performance. Jim came in, and he made us believe it, you know? Even when he just sat in a chair, he “Don Draper’d” that chair; he just owned the space, and we were all watching this on a mocap stage, which is gray and everyone’s wearing like a spandex suit, and you’re just like “start of work.”
LT: Yeah, he was intimidating, and he was scary. There were certain things in the script where we said, “Are we going to get away with this? Is this going to feel right? Is that going to feel real? that you’re like are we going to get away with this? Is that gonna feel right? Is that gonna feel real?” And he just did it. And it was like, oh wow.
RC: As animators, cinematographers, and editors, we want to bring out the power of that storytelling, show it in the best light possible, and make sure that the emotional moments are connecting. There’s a great quote from Aaron Sorkin where he says the actor completes the character. And bam, like that. Our job is a lot easier when the performance is that good.
Q: From Kraven to Peter this time… As Peter dons the Symbiote suit his general demeanor changes into something very dismissive and aggressive. Could you walk us through how the team managed to successfully communicate this change, not only through the dialogue but mostly through how he carried himself in terms of actions and movements? Also, just to follow up on that, how fun or tough was it to animate the Symbiote suit? It’s not supposed to be as “solid” as the other suits in terms of texture and behavior.
RC: The combat team was the first to really walk the new lands of what a symbiote suit attack is and what these things are going to be. One of our animators made what was almost like a little website that we could look at. I think it was about 28 possibilities of shapes, and that wild creativity and discovery sort of set it off, and we had to build on that and round it out for everything – the storytelling, the combat, how it related to traversal. It really took the creativity of the whole team, and there was obviously a large volume of work that was Symbiotic-related stuff. Discovering what that would look like and keeping it consistent and of high quality at that volume was something that took the whole team to really get behind.
It was fun, but it was probably the most challenging thing and also the thing we were least sure about. Most of us have done plenty of camera work, working with actors, and elaborate stunt choreography, but I don’t think a lot of us have really done that sort of alien stuff.
As you say, what we’re getting from the writers and from Yuri Lowenthal, you know, his voice performances are incredible. So we’ve got these experiments with the look of the symbiote and then those performances from writing, and then we had to figure out how you’re going to believe that.
LT: Yeah there’s definitely a conscious progression as well throughout the game which you obviously see as the Symbiote takes a bigger hold on him, but in the beginning, it was, you know, what are the subtle changes where somebody may not even quite notice that Pete was a little more dismissive. You saw in the trailer that we released where he picks up and saves somebody, but he just tosses them to the ground. So it’s not normal for Pete, and they’ll start to notice, and then that progresses obviously much worse.
It’s keeping an eye on the story and the journey as a whole, and having Yuri take it very seriously in those moments where it was very un-Pete was alarming to watch on the stage because Yuri is such a kind, funny, and very Peter Parker-like person in real life. Seeing him angry sparked in me something like what MJ and Harry were feeling when they saw Pete become that way. He totally nailed it.
RC: “I’m the hero here, not you!” *laughs*
LT: Yeah, seeing people’s reaction to that shot was also great; it feels wrong. That was definitely included in his physicality. There’s something that Bobby (RC) has instilled in all of us when we were laying out scenes – What would Spider-Man do? So instead of taking a scene where he’s talking on the phone, how could how could Spidey do this in a way that no one else could? We also had to think about that with the Symbiote. He’s in the Symbiote suit in this scene. What makes that different? What? How would he do this differently because he has the Symbiote? So it’s something we thought about.
RC: I think there’s something that Yuri brings very naturally to the performance. There’s something about a good villain that’s cool. You don’t want Pete to have a problem, but also some part of you is like “yeah, get the suit!” There’s a sense of humor to it that you enjoy. You know when Darth Vader force chokes a guy, you’re like, yeah. I think there’s there’s something to enjoy there in that journey, even though you don’t want it to happen. You’re also like, “but I’m not closing my eyes.” That’s great.
Q: Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 has a pretty large cast of characters, but there’s a quality across the board that is consistently impressive from you guys. Could you share with us a little bit more about the work that goes into making those characters… I would say more “human” than ever before, or in the case of Venom or Lizard, more “animalistic and alien” than before.
RC: One of the first things about what we were able to deliver with this title—the amount and the quality level, is a testament to the teams at Insomniac. We’ve been together a long time, and a lot of us have been on the Spider-Man games before we got them. We’re getting pretty good, so we’re able to do things faster and we’ve made so many mistakes that we could get up to that next level and make new mistakes and deal with those quicker. So I would say one of the reasons we were able to deliver so much more at such high quality is just the strength of this very experienced team now. It’s been nine years of Spider-Man and it shows, we live this, and this is a big part of our lives. This is not something we do for a weekend.
LT: As animators, that’s our job. How do we make this more human? How do we make this more animalistic? And so the cool thing about being an animator is you are forever a student of motion and existence and emotion and observing everything around you. As Bobby said, having the experience definitely helps. We came into this project knowing what we’re doing, but also having the cast that’s been with us for so long, they embody the character so there’s less exploration in terms of that. Yuri knows how to be Peter Parker at this point so we’re getting to jump into deeper emotions than we did in the first game where we were more just discovering who the characters are, even though there was a ton of emotion in that game, it feels like we were able to hit the ground running in certain ways on this game. We’re always pushing for more and we will continue to do so.
RC: Yes, absolutely. We’re open to discovery too, whether it’s the animators that are on the scene or the writers, feedback from all over, and great ideas come from everywhere. We iterate very quickly, we don’t have to overthink it or be afraid.
Now, we could go into a scene knowing I have enough to make it work, so now I just have to be aware of not turning off other people’s great ideas. If Lindsey is directing a scene or whoever is doing it, we could dictate every single thing that happens, but we want to be present and realize if there’s something we didn’t consider, or is the same as or just as good, but empowers that other person and lifts that performance.
Whether it’s something small like how the Lizard is going to move or how someone reacts. Maybe they weren’t even part of that moment, but they do something, and you’re like, “Oh my God, yes, that is what they would do,” you know? Also, get some suggestions from the actors, like “I don’t feel like my character would just sit there.” You want to be present and realize feedback from anywhere, be open to that group collaboration, and let it flow like water around the problem and become what it needs to be.
Q: With the power of the PlayStation 5, you get a denser and more populated city, with more NPCs walking around the street. Did the animation team give extra effort to make the NPCs more alive than before? Some players tend to just swing by and ignore them.
RC: We take it very seriously. There’s an entire pot of animators who are dedicated to bringing that world to life. It’s not just bringing them to life; we want people to believe in Marvel’s New York. Our New York is as much a character and a place that we want you to feel like as your home that you love or are nostalgic for, at least on some level. We took it seriously from the beginning, going back to Spider-Man.
LT: I was on the Open World Team for Spider-Man, so I can tell you that this has definitely taken leaps since then.
RC: There, you were starting from scratch; we needed male and female to walk forward, and then it got to playing frisbee in the park and doing all kinds of fun stuff. In this game, we really tried to level those things up. Whether it’s people actually being inside those glass skyscrapers or if you go into a place like EMF and it’s alive and there are lots of vignettes of people living in that space. We really tried to take it seriously and make you believe it and add to it.
LT: The cool thing about video games is storytelling is everywhere. You can walk anywhere, and you can go anywhere in an open-world game like ours. There are stories to be told on the streets, and there are interactions to be had. You can kind of know what part of town you’re in based on the activities that are happening there or what’s going on. That’s the kind of stuff that was building off of Spider-Man 1, Miles Morales, and now this game.
It’s really fun for us who are stuck in the cinematics world to go in and play the game and discover all of this stuff ourselves. There are so many things and I can’t wait for the game to come out because there are so many little things that I can’t wait for them to be spotted.
The richness of the city is maybe something that you don’t necessarily notice or have to notice, but I think you would feel it if it wasn’t there. The city we always talk about is a character itself, and so bringing that city to life takes a whole team. It’s a massive endeavor, and it’s really exciting to see all that they’ve been able to build on once we were able to set the city up.
Q: As animators, how do you think gaming has benefited from the progress and refinements in animation?
LT: In my opinion, I think video games are an area of media right now that is taking huge, huge leaps in terms of technology and quality. Video games are really exciting. On the cinematics team, we’re making a movie; we’re making multiple movies, and we approach it, I think, in the same way that we would approach storytelling in film.
RC: Modern audiences are very sophisticated. If you’ve ever tried to watch or show a movie you loved as a child to a very young person, they’re like “this is not good,” because they’re just used to seeing things that are top-shelf cinematic quality. For me, video games have always been a thing that I played to see the next level, to see the arts, to see how it was progressing, even when the stories and games were almost nonexistent or were just more of a theme than an actual narrative. And so as they became narratives, we want to get people to the point where they they cry. It’s not just a game about combat, it’s so much more meaningful to care about something.
We’ve tried to get better at this, and we didn’t start out great at it. I feel like we’re working very hard to earn our place in storytelling in this media and we’re very proud and determined to get better.
Special thanks to Robert Coddington and Lindsay Thompson from Insomniac Games for taking the time to talk to us about Spider-Man 2!
Spider-Man 2 will be available on PS5 on October 20, 2023.