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Spider-Man: Miles Morales And The Side Mission Protocol

Having been lucky enough to have secured some gold dust (aka a Sony PlayStation 5), I finally had the opportunity to play Insomniac Games' Spider-Man: Miles Morales. Sure, it's a cross-gen release and available on PlayStation 4, but I was adamant I wanted to wait until I could experience it on Sony's latest and greatest.

It was worth the wait. But it wasn't just the impressive characterisation, story, sound design, and graphics that captured my attention. For the first time in a long time, I was compelled to do something I rarely do when playing video games: I engaged with side missions.

As any gaming parent will tell you, finding time to play video games—let alone the latest titles to stay up-to-date in an ever-changing industry—is challenging.

Writing, editing, and, y'know, actually spending time with loved ones, friends, family, and looking after my son tends to drain the time bank. They're so selfish, I know. But this forces hard decisions when it comes to committing time to anything, whether it's a book, movie, TV series, video game, or whatever else. And then there's the whole "actually letting yourself actually enjoy it thing".

Essentially, you've got to take a risk. Any choice is a relative gamble that "the thing" you've chosen will be a good investment of time, providing not only entertainment but value—of money and of time invested. But as a lifelong Spider-Man fan who enjoyed the previous game, it was always only a matter of when I would get around to Miles Morales, not if.

As a gamer, my tastes tend to skew towards a more linear, narrative-heavy experience. "The princess is in another castle" stories don't capture my imagination in the way they once did, and typical side missions in AAA games tend to exist to bloat a narrative, forcing players to engage so they can level up, which in turn allows them to actually progress further in the main story.

Rarely do games deviate from this tried and true method, and the way these purposefully designed time killers are crowbarred in has always irked me.

But Spider-Man: Miles Morales isn't like that, and I wanted to explore what the game does differently to buck an unsatisfying trend the industry at large has settled on.

Core Connection

The last time I wanted to engage with side missions, instead of ignoring them completely or only interacting with those near my protagonist, was CD Projekt Red's The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

Unsurprisingly, SM:MM borrows heavily from the concepts that elevated The Witcher 3 and made it so successful, leading players worldwide to eagerly share their varied experiences, highlighting quests they loved and lamenting those they missed.

These side quests don't (all) fall into rote fetch quests or basic one-two-three missions that click and connect in a clunky, unsatisfying fashion, like hammering jigsaw pieces together to complete a puzzle.

Instead, they were intrinsically woven into the game's story and, importantly, the overall tapestry of the world, serving the double-duty of furthering individual character depth and developing intrinsic relationships with a layered supporting cast.

SM:MM takes the same approach, turning otherwise trite, throwaway mini-missions into a means to understand Miles, his version of New York City, and his relationships on a deeper level.

This approach of Main Story Deviation + Exploration = Added Narrative/Character Depth (+ EXP) as opposed to Deviation = Stuff (+EXP) helps cultivate organic player motivation to invest in the game, its comic book lore, and Miles as a person.

It makes them care.

Collectathon missions, usually a Sisyphean task for even the most dedicated gamer, become intriguing MacGuffins that help us empathise with Miles, his family, and his friends over the few days the story is set.

Compare the way SM:MM handles this kind of side mission (universally one of the laziest ways developers can bloat a game and boost game length and interaction to claim false accomplishment and empty engagement) with Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed series.

FWIW, I've been playing Assassin's Creed games since the first released on the PlayStation 3, and for all its faults and pivots still consider myself an Assassin's Creed fan, something subscribers to the newsletter already know. Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find any fans staunchly defending some of the side quests or main quest mechanics Ubisoft implemented.

*Stares directly at AC eavesdropping missions*

SM:MM, however, adds genuine character development into the proceedings—in particular the audio collectathon, done to layer Miles' relationship with his uncle, Aaron (aka The Prowler), and one of the game's final side missions, 'Memory Lane', which sees Miles swinging around New York on a treasure hunt organised by his late father. Each item shares a reflective moment between Miles and his family via an audio recording from his dad, creating an emotional understanding between gamer and character.

It's a wonderful, thoughtful, provoking, and clever approach to what could have been a tacked on, lazy means to keep the player swinging aimlessly for a few hours—something that may well have happened in a lesser developers hands.


SM:MM and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt accomplish the near-impossible: they made me want to go off the main story path and deviate, running into the wilds of NYC and The Continent to discover different people to talk to and uncover new things to explore. And they did it by prioritising story and character, not items and EXP buffs. Those things were cherries on top to entertaining distractions that so frequently adhered to their own mini-three act structure, giving these missions a chance to breathe instead of being crammed into a tiny box with 'Side Mission #B182' crudely printed on the side. They were mostly their own self-contained stories, not just crude side mission bloat.

Generally, when the side missions are long enough to have their own fleshed-out structure, you know the developers are respecting the gamer's intelligence and time. They don't want you to meet an NPC with a quest that forces you to traipse across half the map to drop something off, only to be lumbered with a new item that needs to go elsewhere, which then gets you information on another NPC that may or may not get you... a thing.

And that's it.

You're smart and good-looking, you get the idea.

And, yes, even when SM:MM drifted into this territory, it was still rooted in character, development, and core bonds. It was never just about the +50 EXP or a new item you'll forget about, lost in an ever-expanding inventory you never look at.

Instead, it's about the protagonist and how the journey of the side mission impacted or changed him via an unspoken understanding for the player—unspoken because of the very nature of side missions being a pick-and-choose affair.

Truly great side missions compel the gamer by how it impacts their appreciation and understanding of a game, its characters, and its lore. For me, that revolves around story and character. For others, it could be all about that +5% ATK buff with the Lokistorian Soul Sword of Decapitated Demon Scum™. Cool. Fair enough. You do you. The buff is the stuff, right on.

But as someone who doesn't usually bother with side missions, it was refreshing to play something that made me feel the need to seek them out because of how they were (pretty much) all rooted with substance that added to the proceedings, creating an iterative experience to the main storyline.

I ultimately understood Miles better for SM:MM's side missions. How he saw the world, how he interacted with people, and how he reacted to the situations he found himself in, made more sense to me thanks to the enhanced character arcs I witnessed. This was only heightened with the clever use of in-game audio, such as the JJJ Podcast and the Danikast, which both had their own mini-arcs running throughout the game's relatively brisk playtime.

SM:MM improves on Marvel's Spider-Man's side quest approach in almost every aspect with these creative decisions. Sure, there were some misfires (chasing pigeons and several holotraining courses come to mind), but I'm pretty forgiving about those rare blips, given the overall ratio is so favourable. Honestly, playing a game like this only highlights how exasperatingly dull most AAA side missions are, so it's refreshing and appreciated to play a video game that acknowledges and respects this.

For those who are relatively time poor, I'm sure you can appreciate how every hour gaming, reading, or watching a movie/show, matters.

Investing precious hours into a game that actually respects that fact and works hard to deliver a consistently enjoyable experience, to the point that *side missions* are fun and actually serve a narrative point without dipping into tedium is all too rare—but it's something SM:MM does with ease, and it helps it swing high above the competition because of it.

Miles may still be young and learning in the game, but this Spider-Man absolutely sticks the landing.

Steve R


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