As all viewers of the movie Into The Spider-verse know, Miles Morales is a good boy who has never done anything wrong. He's Spider-Man! Well, the other Spider-Man. In the world of this game, Miles has recently come into his powers and is learning to be a superhero alongside the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker. At the start of the game, Peter tells Miles he's taking a vacation with Mary Jane, leaving Miles as the only web slinging crime fighter in town.
It cannot be overstated how fun it is to just be Spider-Man in the game.
On the whole, I found the combat to be almost perfectly balanced, a rare feat for any game. Every time I lost a fight, I knew it was because I hadn't exploited the weaknesses I could have, didn't dodge that bullet at the exact right moment. Despite how much there is on screen at all times, and how chaotic certain fights can become, Miles' speed and ability to zip himself across the room before exploding into a crash of electricity that stuns enemies means that as long as I can keep myself alive I can usually turn around even the most desperate of situations. Those moments of combat are breathtaking, when you are driven down to a sliver of health before gaining the upper hand. Even more fun is picking off enemies one by one while perched on pillars and walls, until the final enemy starts calling for backup that will never come. Being Miles' Spider-Man feels, well, spectacular. It's when the costume comes off that Miles as a character refuses to make sense.
How do you spell racist? NYPD.
During the last march I went on, after crossing a bridge into lower Manhattan, the section of the long train of people I was in spontaneously started chanting "NYPD, suck my dick" at the cops who greeted us on the other side. Any time I march late at night I get anxious, remembering the time when Mayor Bill DeBlasio instated a curfew, where friends of mine had to hide in bushes to avoid being found by the police who we knew were beating people before arresting them. The tension is always so palpable—whenever you see a uniformed cop, you never know when the moment will rise into violence, despite protests being a protected form of free speech. You understand, in these moments, exactly how fragile our freedom is, especially when the police are all too happy to lie about their actions and cover for their own.
It's all the more confusing when you observe that, in contrast to the game to which this is an expansion, Miles has almost no contact with the police, who occasionally say things to indicate that they don't trust him when he passes by. Materially, the police of this New York might as well not exist, though sirens and cop cars are still present in this game. They don't talk to Miles, and Miles doesn't talk to them, as if they are slipping past each other in parallel universes.Miles Morales is all too happy to say that yes, we know that there are issues that exist in the world that are politically fraught. It is a game that wants to say that it is particularly black, from the musical score, to the way that Miles texts his friends. Miles' friends in Harlem are from a rainbow coalition of races and marginalized identities, the writing emphasizing both their differences and their shared goals. When characters start to call Miles, "our Spider-Man" you know what the game is going for—he's the black Spider-Man, the one who protects communities that sometimes get ignored (ignored by who, the game does not specify). One of my favorite characters is Hailey, a deaf street artist that Miles flirts with a little bit. The presence of a deaf character in a game surprised and delighted me, and I can only hope she'll show up more in the future. More than that, though, she has a genuine chemistry with Miles, who tries to convince her to include the "other Spider-Man" in her mural.
This inability to name the problem extends into the game's fictional villains as well. Rio Morales, Miles' mother, is running for office, and a large part of her campaign is in protest of a tech startup called Roxxon that has built an experimental power plant in Harlem. It all has shades of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who strongly objected to Amazon building their third headquarters in Queens, advocating for the residents of her district. In the case of Amazon's third headquarters, Governor Cuomo bent over backwards to make Queens as attractive to Amazon as he possibly could. Who exactly has allowed Roxxon to take over Harlem, paving over houses and businesses to create their headquarters? The game never says. It's a problem of individual actors, not a rotten system of disenfranchisement and political favoritism. (Similarly, when Miles is helping his neighbors in Harlem, the game will go out of its way to mention eminent domain and real estate fraud, but it won't come out and say that the neighborhood is being gentrified. The entire way that the game talks about Harlem is strange, as if it's relying on an image of the neighborhood that hasn't been true since before Bill Clinton rented an office there over ten years ago. Harlem feels like a stand-in for Brooklyn, where the conversation about gentrification is still being had, and is still a battle being fought. Harlem's been gentrified, so to hear it referred to by several characters as "failing" feels bizarre.)
Rio's campaign and her husband's absence form an incoherent backdrop to Miles' story.
And yet, I cannot wait to be Miles again. I love the performance of Nadji Jeter, who plays Miles with a slightly nasal vocal tone, a nerd on the cusp of finding his groove. The relationships that Miles makes and develops with his mother, his friends, and his neighbors all feel true to life to me. I especially liked Teo, who owns the bodega on the corner and enlists Miles to find his missing cat, Spider-Man. Everyone in New York has a fondness for their bodega guy, and Teo is pretty much the platonic ideal. Plus, once you get Spider-Man back, Teo coos at him in a way that is completely adorable.Miles's journey from "The Other Spider-Man" to just Spider-Man is well written and acted in Miles Morales. Watching him grow into his own as a hero is not just endearing, it's inspiring. I can only hope my own children grow up as eager to learn, as naturally heroic, as willing to stand up for what they believe in as Miles is. But I would also hope they would be more specific in their ideals than just a vague notion of "heroism." The reason why you stand up is just as important as the act itself.
At its heart, Miles Morales isn't really a story about all the political issues that act as window dressing, but a story about not letting grief destroy you. Two other characters contrast their losses with Miles'. Miles is still skittish from losing his dad, fearful that something might happen to his mother too. It's a self conscious retread of Peter's secret identity woes, until Miles sees how other people express their fear of losing people; either by becoming controlling or domineering in the name of protecting your loved ones, or through letting anger drive you and destroy everything around you. It's here that the game comes closest to saying something, but even then it pulls its punch. All these characters talk about grief and loss in generalities, but never in the specifics. I know they have lost something, but I don't know what it is they're missing, what kind of relationship death has ended. Worse still, one of these characters' development is relegated to a late game series of side missions, and it really seems as if it should be in the main storyline instead.It hits all the beats you expect, and occasionally has a twist or two that adds a fun wrinkle into the formula. It's just that it is such a politically complex story with Miles as protagonist that I found myself wishing I had more time with everyone. Sure, Miles is new to Harlem—all the more reason to give his street more character, make it more central to the story. The game is so devoted to it's picture perfect material recreation of New York City that it neglects the emotional reality of the city.
Someday, Miles will stop being a vulnerable black boy, and become a dangerous black man.