There’s a moment right at the beginning of Insomniac Games’ Marvel’s Spider-Man for the PlayStation 4 that I’d put up against any other moment in gaming this year. As Peter Parker gets another busy day literally off the ground, an introductory sketch of his topsy-turvy, upside-down life being conveyed deftly in the background of his frenetic morning, he hops kinda gracefully into his Spider-Man outfit and careens out the window as the game transitions control to the player. Within moments, you are web-slinging through the neighborhoods of southern Manhattan, and it’s everything you’d hoped it’d be.
Skimming just above the city traffic and then arcing higher, the traversal is a dance of silk and air. It feels both super and heroic all at once, and it evokes something primal about the expectation of being Spidey. In its own weird way, it’s more powerful and evocative to me than the idea of just being able to fly unfettered in the air. There’s a momentum of artistry to it. Or, at least, that’s how it was to me in that moment where for a second I felt like I had become some approximation of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
More importantly, I was a kid again.
My kids don’t really care much about superheroes in general, which I can’t help but consider a pretty damning black mark in the ledger that calculates my qualities as a father. I must have failed them in some way, and I hope the fact that I do my part to keep my boys clothed, fed, and sheltered helps to offset this dereliction of duty. But it might not.
Their apathy at superhero movies, comics, games and culture is almost willful, particularly because there are so many other common pop culture obsessions that they’ve adopted so completely. It’s not that they actively don’t like comics or superhero movies, it’s that they just don’t care. Not a single Marvel movie has passed without me breathlessly inviting them to join me in a trip to the theater with all the innocent insistence and subtle intensity of a boy asking his crush to the school dance for the first time. Like I said, I get it. It’s not them, it’s me.
I might as well be inviting them to an extended performance of La traviata for all the good my breathless eagerness has done. “But, guys, the woman playing Violetta is a national treasure!” I might as well have pleaded past eyes rolling with the intensity of a particularly sarcastic neutron star.
It’s not that I was some huge comic book aficionado when I was a boy. Honestly, I think I’m more into that scene now than I was back in the ‘70s and ‘80s when I was their age (as a quick parenthetical aside: I’m stupidly old.) But, I was there every single time Christopher Reeve conceded to wearing Superman’s cape (even for the stupid one with Richard Pryor) dragging my parents with me to the movie theater where I churned through popcorn like a boy discovering buttered salt snacks for the very first time.
While Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were all great, Spidey was the hero I most related to among the combined Marvel and DC pantheons. Even the reruns of the late ’60s cartoon were appointment television for me, right up there with the weekly exploits of Tom Baker’s Doctor Who on PBS, and the daily afternoon ritual of Transformers and Robotech with a baloney sandwich and milk.
So when Insomniac launched me out of that window at the start of Spider-Man a few weeks ago, I could practically taste the Wonder Bread, French’s yellow mustard and “meat.” It tasted like being a kid, and all I really wanted in that moment was to share that. So, despite many failures before, I called my youngest son into the room to share this game that wasn’t much like the games he tended to play with me.
I have 2 boys, one just turned 10 and the other is 15. Their names, respectively, are Micah and David.
(Ok, look, you and I are just getting to know each other and I want to start off on the right foot, so full transparency … that was a lie. That’s not their names. I made those up. Sure, part of that is just protecting their privacy, but mostly I can only imagine what I would’ve felt like as a kid if suddenly someone at school found out my dad was writing columns about me, or more importantly what my friends would’ve done with that information. Let’s spare them that injustice, mmmkay?)
They both are avid consumers of games large and small, filling whatever hours they are permitted between actually playing games with Let’s Plays and streams of other people playing those same games. But, where David loves the challenge and competition of games like Overwatch, Micah is my engineer and architect. He’s the kind of kid who plays Minecraft endlessly, but only on creative mode. A boy-on-a-mission who has no time for random conflicts with zombies or creepers interfering with his construction of some grand edifice.
As I handed him the controller and restarted Spider-Man, in my heart I knew I was offering him an experience antithetical to his own tendencies, and I knew that he would not take the wonder and freedom from it that I had. The longer I’m a dad, the more I realize that sharing what you love with your kids is a good gesture, but one that really only has meaning when it’s not done selfishly., At that moment, I was being a little selfish.
On the screen, Peter Parker’s alarm rang, he dashed around the apartment a bit, and someone tossed a bill under his digitally realized apartment door. As I watched my 10-year-old wait for something to happen, I realized that I’d misjudged the moment. Let me contextualize. You know that feeling when you’ve watched a YouTube video that made you laugh, so you rush into the other room and thrust your phone at someone clearly doing something else, insisting they drop everything they were just in the middle of doing and watch a deer flail through a kid’s playset to the drum solo from a Phil Collins song? Yeah, this was sort of like that.
Peter dons the mask and sails out the window as the camera shifts subtly to let you know that your hands are doing the work now. Then something wonderful happened. Within moments, Micah was out of his chair so he could get in closer to the TV, these little bounding steps of joy happening every few seconds when he executed a stylish flip or a particularly cinematic low swing through a narrow alley. I could see that same joy I’d felt manifest in his beaming smile.
Look, there aren’t a ton of unqualified wins when it comes to being a parent, not so many moments where the interaction you hope you have with your kids pans out exactly the way you’d hoped. Children are willful creatures possessed of the illusion that they exist for a reason beyond simply conforming to parental whim. But this was a rare alignment of the heavens, where exactly what I hoped he might experience synced up perfectly with reality. It was a grand moment.
Parenting is as much about moments as it is anything else. As I think back on my own childhood, both the good and the bad, those memories are far more segmented into moments than they are narrative arcs or grand memorial landscapes. Someday I know my own boys will look back to these days, and they will pass some kind of implicit judgment on their quality. I don’t know what that judgment will be, but I hope that among the snapshots of days is this moment where Micah and I shared the great joy of playing a superbly crafted superhero video game.
There was a price to be paid for my hasty choice to hand over an open-world Spider-Man game to a 10-year-old. Specifically that cost being that once you’ve ceded the controller, it can be difficult to get it back. Over the next few days as my son dashed home to get in as much time on the game as we’d allow, I played far less than I might otherwise have done.
I don’t regret it, though. Not for a second. Because, watching him enjoy a lovingly realized story of Peter, MJ, Aunt May and a cavalcade of bad guys echoed for me in a way that no game could have. And, after a few days Micah drifted back to Terraria and Minecraft, Stampy and DanTDM videos, and great creative efforts found in the safety of non-combative worlds.
I had begun to think it was a delightful but brief aside for him, and that I’d have to be satisfied with the moment, but a few days ago he walked in and asked me a question that made me grin disproportionately. “Of course, kiddo!” I said, “We will definitely go see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse when it comes out.”