I grew up in New York City, which is a blessing and curse when it comes to media. You always feel represented–New York is nothing if not ubiquitous–but you also never quite feel seen, because what you’re seeing reflected through the screen is a glossy, exaggerated mash-up of themes that are always in service to something else. We’re the perfectly anodyne city for Grand Theft Auto IV to dump every urban satire atop. In Spider-Man, we’re a perfectly compressed open world that’s the right height to web around in.
For the most part, Spider-Man: Miles Morales treats New York City as more of the same; a backdrop for big exciting chases. But by making Miles Morales such a creature of the city, and then having the decency to actually tell his story, Insomniac Games gets one thing truly right, and that’s the way it sounds. Miles is intimately, inextricably linked to music, and hearing things through his eyes allow us to better understand both him and the city. It’s one of those small, significant details that I wish more games, especially open-world ones, would invest in.
Here, the gameplay reflects Miles’s development in a series of Sound Sample side quests, where Miles is tasked with listening to a variety of objects in a small area–like a bustling Chinatown street, the slushing regularity of the harbor, or the industriousness of a local fire department. Beat by beat, you learn how to put the city together, until at last using a mix of all the city’s “melodies” to unlock a snazzy new suit. But make no mistake, the reward is in the way it gets you to slow down and actually consider the city and the people in it. It’s one of the most lived-in moments of 2020, and I can’t praise it enough.