“Be vigilant for downgrades, but don’t reach for the pitchforks”
Spider-Man’s bizarre Puddlegate controversy polarised opinion, but the discussion left no room for nuance says Phil Iwaniuk
Spider-Man, for so long the preserve of sub-standard Beenox releases and rose-tinted PS2-era memories, is a creditable figure in action gaming once again. Insomniac’s muscle with this sort of thing – visual design, open-world know-how, the intangibles of player movement – have paid off. But to some players, Marvel’s Spider-Man presents a web of lies. Inevitably there’s a controversy here. ‘Puddlegate’ began when a Redditor posted a still from E3 2017 which showed some bad men in a New York alleyway, all steam from air vents and murky puddles. Below it, they posted an in-game screen from that same area, which isn’t quite so waterlogged now. People quickly yelled “Downgrade!” like schoolkids spotting an off-balance peer and inciting a pile-on. In response, a slew of op-eds launched retaliatory salvos defending Insomniac’s work.
Water, water everywhere, and not a drop of nuance. What I didn’t see was anybody suggesting that, yes, after years of cynically misrepresentative conference showings we’re right to be vigilant for signs of a downgrade, but that doesn’t mean reaching for the pitchforks when you spot any discrepancy from preview to retail. There’s a middle ground.
Because this is actually a complex issue, isn’t it? Developers are forced by the nature of the medium to show us a half-finished product at some point, so there’s a precarious balance between studios respecting us as consumers and, for our part, us respecting their creative freedom. What if Insomniac simply decided that scene looked better without quite so many puddles? (This was exactly the case, by the studio’s own account). Artists are entitled to make artistic decisions, and they’re not fleecing consumers by doing so.
Allow me to call upon The People Versus Bioshock Infinite, 2013, for reference. Irrational’s game changed a lot during development, visually and mechanically, and when you look at the kind of world-tearing, horse-reviving, dimension hopping caper that was intimated by early showings you might reasonably say it was a bit misleading.
But I also saw people using Elizabeth’s redesign as evidence of a visual downgrade, often because they simply preferred the earlier character render. Let’s be clear: developers making artistic calls that you don’t agree with does not constitute a downgrade. Pre-ordering a game doesn’t make you a stakeholder in the company; you’re entitled only to the product, not a say in the process. So it goes with Spidey. Cynicism is healthy and downgrade-vigilance warranted, but we need to remember that change doesn’t always constitute a loss of value. More puddles don’t mean a better game.
“devs making artistic calls that you don’t agree with does not constitute a downgrade”