This article contains fairly shallow SPOILERS for the main plot of the new Spider-Man game for the PS4, but that nonetheless cover topics up to the game’s ending. A lot of these are things that are likely immediately obvious outcomes to fans of the comics from much earlier in the game, but proceed at your own risk if you haven’t played the game and intend to.

The motivations for the antagonists in Spider-Man are a little muddled throughout the game. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me until the game finally stated its theme in one of the final cutscenes. I spent most of the game not buying the “he’s just gone crazy” excuse for why so many characters introduced as humanitarian philanthropists with deep ties to the community would suddenly start murdering civilians haphazardly in pursuit of their goals.

But then it all made sense to me when Octavius explained his point of view:

That’s because men like us have a duty. A responsibility. To use our talents in the service of others. Even if they don’t appreciate it. …we have to do what’s best for those beneath us. Whether they understand it or not.

(Emphasis added.) At the beginning of his value statement, Otto is quoting back to Peter what seems to be essentially, “With great power comes great responsibility.” And then he reveals that he has it precisely wrong. His morality is actually much closer to noblesse oblige: his humanitarian actions are because that’s how he demonstrates his greatness to those lesser than himself. Does he actually give a damn about innocents, or is he just in a competition with Osborn over who can be the bigger philanthropist/genius?

And from that point of view, the other major antagonists are the same: Mr. Negative pursues philanthropy in a very visible way but never even worries about putting those under his protection in danger, Silver Sable talks a big game about protecting the city but turns a blind eye to the corruption of her mercenaries, and Osborn never hesitates to endanger civilians as long as he can do it off-the-record. They’re all actually different shades of selfish and awful, but realize that their self aggrandizement means looking like benefactors to the public.

Which is, of course, the opposite of Spider-Man.

For Parker, responsibility trumps power. He’s never been rich, and, in fact, misses plenty of opportunities to do more than scrape by. He is not like the antagonists, who would never neglect their own desires to help others (but are willing to give some of their excess to the public). His morality is not that of a superior tending to his flock, but of a servant ceaselessly giving of himself to help others, even when they’re seemingly beyond redemption and at great risk to himself. In his constant need to offer second chances to villains he barely seems to understand revenge, much less consider harming others in pursuit of it. And where they are all lauded by the city for their philanthropy, Spider-Man has to win the hearts and minds of citizens he saves one-by-one, constantly labeled a menace by the press.

But, on paper, All five characters would happily agree that with great power comes great responsibility.

I wish this had been made clearer earlier in the script, because it creates an interesting resonance throughout the game. Otto doesn’t understand why Peter is willing to work for him for free. Mr. Negative doesn’t understand why Spider-Man keeps trying to save him. Sable doesn’t understand why Spider-Man won’t sit back and let her men handle the problem that they’re being paid for. Osborn just assumes that Peter will be working for him as soon as Harry’s back. None of them really understand the idea of casual sacrifice in pursuit of the greater good. But for lack of the object lesson that was Uncle Ben’s death, thus, too, could have gone Spider-Man.

So obviously this was mostly several hundred words of me pointing out how the use of theme in a video game was cool, but…

You can do the same thing in your own heroic games (superhero or otherwise). The important thing is to get a core, thematic value for your protagonists. Figure out a short statement that encapsulates what each hero believes, and which way they’ll go even at the moment of utmost crisis.

You can obviously then use this for a lot of cool stuff, but one use is hanging your major antagonists on it. Villains and foils the heroes encounter should agree with them, in principle, but oppose them in fact. Something about their morality is broken, even though they think they follow the same creed.

If you do it right, rather than obstacles to be overcome, your players will see their opponents as misguided potential allies, needing to be won over. They’ll see their enemies as mirrors/object lessons for what could happen to them if they misstep, and will hold out hope that, if they could just get through to the villains, they could become friends.

And, even if your players still murder hobo their way through your carefully designed villains, you can at least justify one of my other favorite villain-design strategies: the villain grudgingly respects or even outright likes the heroes, and that explains why the PCs aren’t murdered more efficiently as soon as they begin to interfere with villainous plans. Just as the heroes hopefully think they can win the villain to their way of thinking, the villains see themselves reflected in the heroes. Either they think they can win the heroes over, or they just like having people they agree with out doing heroic things (and don’t actually even understand why the heroes think they’re at odds).

The real trick is, of course, actually getting your players to come up with a core value statement. I tend to find that players that aren’t Fate fans or otherwise used to dealing in aspect-like traits have a hard time coming up with that kind of thing.

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