For all the hype and attention that surrounds them, AAA video games are generally regarded as manufactured and impersonal. Anything that requires hundreds of hands to produce may be a masterful example of craft, but that scale and sweep comes at the expense of a little soul.
Look closely, though, and you might see the personalities of those who labour to make the industry's blockbusters shining through. At Devcom 2019, Insomniac Games' Jason Hickey proved as much with his talk on Marvel's Spider-Man, and how the streets and alleys of its virtual New York City are teeming with nods to the individual passions of its creators.
When preparing the talk, Hickey said, he was guided by one question: "What did I do that, if I wasn't there, wouldn't have gone in the game -- or maybe would have gone in a different way?"
He grouped these personal touches into three broad categories, the most intriguing of which was "history and culture." As lead environment artist, Hickey was able to scatter details throughout the map that made the space feel as diverse as its real-world counterpart, while also paying tribute to both the light and the dark of its long history.
"The history of America is in New York City. And a part of that, of course, is the very dark days before the progressive days today"
"The history of America is in New York City," he said. "And a part of that, of course, is the very dark days before the progressive days today. The slave trade started on Wall Street. Then there's the civil rights movement, LGBTQ+ rights; all of that kind of stuff happened in New York, and sent big waves across America and the world."
A movement very close to Hickey's heart is Pride, and as much as 30% of New York's Chelsea neighbourhood identifies as LGBTQ+. "It is one of the most densely populated areas in the world for Pride," Hickey said. "That is super important; this is where Stonewall happened, which is a milestone in gay rights."
Hickey discussed a way to represent Pride in the game with Insomniac's art team, and then proposed an idea to CEO Ted Price and creative director Bryan Intihar. They would create a vast mural of the iconic, rainbow coloured Pride flag and place it on a wall in the game's version of Chelsea. Capturing a photo of the Pride mural's location was one of Spider-Man's "Secret Photo Ops," so Pride "is actually part of the game."
"They were super, super supportive," Hickey said of Price and Intihar. "It's kind of sad that I felt like I had to ask, when I didn't really need to ask in the end.... I was able to do something I wanted to do, and they supported me on that. But even better, when the game came out everybody went mad for it. People were super excited."