Miles Morales becomes his own Spider-Man in his new game

Sony/Insomniac Games

There's a cutscene in Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales where, after fighting off a horde of goons attacking a local park, the young Black protagonist reconvenes with a female mute street artist who was ambushed.

In a special moment, the two speak in American Sign Language, as the artist explains how, since she was a child, she has followed Spider-Man's heroics throughout New York City. She's referring to Peter Parker's version of the character, but as the conversation progresses, she hones in on a crucial and central node of the game: how much it means to her that this Spider-Man, Morales' version of the webslinger, is protecting her neighborhood of Harlem.

"It's my home, too," a suited-up Morales responds.

This moment -- one of not just community but also acceptance -- is key to the second installment of the Marvel's Spider-Man series, set to release on Nov. 12 as a launch title for the PlayStation 5.

As players make their way through the game, Parker's version of Spider-Man ("the real Spider-Man," as characters tell Morales at the beginning of your journey) looms over Morales as he not only defines who he is as a person, but who his version of Spider-Man is, too. Moments like these tell a coming-of-age story, as Morales continues to prove that though his methods of heroics are different, they're still equal to the older Parker's Spider-Man. Morales comes to realize, more than Parker, that he's responsible for earning the respect of his neighborhood, Harlem.

"The weight of responsibility is not just an individual one, which is how it's presented in Pete so much," Evan Narcisse, a games journalist who worked on the game as a narrative consultant, told The Undefeated. "It's a communal one. Miles realizes that essentially, if he f---ed up, he makes a whole subsection of New York look bad. A subsection that, historically, people have been inclined to malign anyway. When we talk about Miles representing a different kind of superheroism, for me, that's what we're talking about."

Far more than the previous Spider-Man game, the Morales game hones in on his family and the majority Black and Latino community around him. The groundwork was laid for his character in the previous game, where Morales and his family grieve for the loss of his father, NYPD officer Jefferson Davis, who dies during an attack on city hall.

In their grief, Morales's mother, Rio Morales, runs for local public office to make positive change in Harlem -- opposing the Roxxon corporation and other villainous forces who look to take over land and gentrify the neighborhood for financial gain. Meanwhile, Miles begins to reconnect with his outcast Uncle Aaron, who has been grieving alone since his brother's death.

Outside his family, Morales' Spider-Man helps local barbershop and bodega owners and other citizens in Harlem in tasks laid out through his Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man app. As the game progresses, Morales -- both in-and-out of his suit -- becomes more woven into the fabric of Harlem.

"That's so important when you're growing up as a young person of color in a big city," Narcisse said. "To know that you're a part of the fabric of that society that you're growing up in, that you're not outside on the fringes like we get told so often as marginalized people. That you're actually part of the fabric of that city makes you feel connected to it in a deep way. Especially when that connection is a counter-narrative to prevailing, societal attitudes about Black people specifically."

Spider-Man: Miles Morales releases in a year when being Black in America and the difficulties of that experience have become national news. From the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain to other instances of police brutality toward Black people, the conversation about what it means to be a Black American is heightened.

When a Sony executive misspoke in an interview this summer -- after a tease of Morales during a PlayStation 5 showcase -- and stated that the Morales story was just a next-gen expansion of the first title, the backlash was rightfully loud.

"We're always the 'Freedom Cry' and never the numbered sequel," Black games journalist Austin Walker said on Twitter at the time, referring to an Assassin's Creed game that featured Black characters but was merely an add-on to a previous title.

What Insomniac delivered though is far greater than an expansion. It's a unique story that draws on tentpoles planted in other Spider-Man stories in comics and film but simultaneously creates its own path, its own characters and a story of how an Afro-Latino American kid in Harlem can become as equally skilled and beloved superhero as his much more famous white predecessor.

Nearing the end of the Morales project, Insomniac Games looked at the world around them, knowing their game would release at an important cultural moment. Although the comic book space tends to be white-dominated, the Morales game delivers Black representation similar to how the 2018 "Black Panther" film did masterfully as well as the animated depiction of Morales in "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" later that year.

"There's an old quote attributed to Stan Lee where he talks about what makes the Marvel Universe special and he says, 'It's the world outside your window,'" said Narcisse, who also co-wrote the "Rise of the Black Panther" comic collection with one of America's foremost Black culture commentators and writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates.

"The important thing about that Stan Lee quote is to show an awareness of the real world," he said. "This is not a total fiction. We're drawing off the psychology of people as they live and move through these big cities. We're understanding how moments in time affect the creative work we're doing. What was important to all of us, but to me especially, is to show that awareness."

Spider-Man: Miles Morales isn't related to any other Marvel film or comic, akin to its predecessor when Marvel Games executives actively made the decision to allow games to tell their own stories and not just be promotional for films. However, it does have some connective tissue with the rest of the universe. The game brings in Ganke Lee, Morales aide-de-camp, whose comic counterpart inspired the Ned Leeds character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe Spider-Man films, and like in Spider-Verse, Aaron Davis reprises his role. These additions make Spider-Man: Miles Morales feel both familiar but also unique.

"What's so awesome about this era of Marvel Games is that we have freedom," Marvel Games VP Bill Rosemann said. "By that I mean, we're not expected to tell a partner, 'You must make this game fit between this movie and this movie.' We're given freedom and we provide them with all the ingredients.

"Say they're making an omelette. As Marvel Games, we provide them with all the characters that have been in Miles' stories, his appearances in film, comics, we provide all of that to Insomniac and tell them to tell their story. So if you're a chef making an omelette, what ingredients do you want to add? In what amount? And what do you want to add that's never been seen before?"

One of those creative choices was to move Morales out of his traditional Brooklyn neighborhood following his father's death. That sets up for the fish-out-of-water parallels between both Miles Morales, the Harlem teen, and the black-and-red-suited alter-ego Spider-Man who got his powers during the story of the first game. Narcisse, lead writer Ben Arfmann and creative director Brian Horton all wanted the story of adaptation -- to both his new neighborhood and his superpowers -- to be the unifying thread behind the evolution of the Morales character.

"[East Harlem] is Rio's, Miles' mom's childhood home, so Miles is getting used to this new neighborhood as he's learning to become Spider-Man," Horton said. "That was the focus of this game -- Miles learning to embrace his powers as he's finding a new home."

The depth presented in the game is a continuation of deeper storytelling in games -- a newer trend for action games, particularly in the superhero genre. As Insomniac began the project, Arfmann and Horton quickly brought in a former Kotaku and io9 writer in Narcisse, known for his witty and thoughtful commentary on Black representation in games. But as they "checked their blindspots," as Arfmann describes it, their team of cultural scholars expanded even further. Insomniac hired dialect experts, too, for advice on the Spanish spoken in the game by Miles and his mother, born in Harlem and of Puerto Rican descent.

Telling a fleshed out story is something that the Marvel's Spider-Man game for PS4 did well, but that the Miles Morales sequel does even better. Part of that comes from Morales being an only partly drawn canvas. There's more than a half-century worth of Peter Parker comic book source material and everyone knows the story: Uncle Ben is murdered tragically, with great power comes great responsibility, he gets bit by a spider and the rest is history.

With Morales though, he has existed for just under a decade, being conceived by Marvel creatives ahead of the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, the first Black president in American history, and published in the Ultimate Marvel universe in 2011. For some, it'd be scary to alter a character so new, but for Arfmann and Narcisse, it was an opportunity to develop the canon even further.

"He's kind of a young character in terms of how long he's been on the scene in comparison to some of these other Marvel characters, and that makes it really, really exciting to get to start contributing to that canon and build out all these stories around this character," Arfmann said. "To give him the breadth that some of these other characters have.

"It's this process of digesting everything that came before but then making sure, if we were fans and we were picking up this game, we wouldn't want to see a replication of something that's already happened. We'd want to see something original that's true to the DNA of this character and the people around him, but takes it in a new and interesting direction."

At his core, Morales embodies family. It's a theme in the comics and it's a theme in this game, too. His relationship development with his widowed mother, Rio, is one of the many storylines that show what matters to him. Morales' loyalty to friends and family -- like childhood best friend Phin Mason and Uncle Aaron, despite discovering their problematic alternate identities -- is enduring. That same loyalty develops for Harlem as the game progresses, too.

Through his personal traits -- love, perseverance and wit -- Miles Morales becomes his own Spider-Man, not just the backup for Peter Parker. And that's the story we all need right now.