“With great power comes great responsibility.”
The words echo through my head in Cliff Robertson’s gravely baritone as I leap off the top of the Daily Bugle and web-sling my way through New York City before stopping a car-jacking in Midtown. Short of geneticists using CRISPR to splice human DNA with a spider, 2018’s Spider-Man is the closest experience any of us will get to being the web-head himself. You can wall crawl, wall run, and web up a thug before performing an acrobatic flip that evolves into a four kick combo that ends with you stringing him up to a lamp post, but is this what being Spider-Man is really about?
Of course, much of the appeal of being Spider-Man revolves around his powers, but at its core, the tale of Peter Parker is more tragic than it is heroic. Critical to his identity is that he’s just a normal teenager, balancing homework and bullies with being a good partner and nephew, all while stopping psychotic billionaires in goblin outfits, and it’s the only aspect of the Spider-Man mythos the game fails to deliver.
At no point in the game are we forced to feel the sacrifice Peter Parker makes to the city of New York—the sense of regret and anguish he faces every time he makes a personal decision, like seeing a play instead of stopping a robbery ten blocks away. Rather, Spider-Man let’s us do what Peter wishes he could, swing around town and save the day, and then turn off the game without having to make any tough calls or (hopefully) letting it interfere with our lives.
Enter 2018’s other blockbuster hit Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR), a sprawling adventure spread across the American frontier where players are dropped in the virtual wilderness to fend for themselves against outlaws, bounty hunters, and all manner of wildlife. Players need to eat, find food, raise funds for their camp, feed their horse, clean their horse, bathe, and even take care of their own appearances. Like real life, however, nothing in RDR comes for free, and it’s here where the game manages to teach us the lesson Uncle Ben imparted to Peter Parker.
Ben’s quote is often interpreted to mean that when someone is bestowed with a great gift they have a responsibility to use it for good, but I would argue that Ben wasn’t just trying to tell Peter to use his powers to defend the innocent, instead of being a pro-wrestler, but also that he has a responsibility to use his powers wisely.
While Ben’s phrase stayed in the back of my head while playing through Spider-Man, it was on the forefront of my mind as I made my way through RDR’s version of the American West. Unlike Spider-Man, I could treat other characters in the world however I pleased. If I wanted to rob an innocent passerby, protect someone from being robbed, or just say “hello,” I could, but for every decision, the game masterfully made me consider how those actions play out in an organic world.
Whereas the NPC’s of Spider-Man are akin to the animatronic animals of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the NPC’s in RDR have lives and personalities all of their own—that’s what makes it all the more damning when you rob or harm any of them.
In one instance, I was galloping along a trail when an elderly gentleman reading a book called out a hearty “Hello!” to me. Looking at my options, and considering how early it was in the game, I gave in to my curiosity and wondered what it would be like to rob the fellow. Though I ended the encounter $1.83 wealthier, the path to this pitiful sum was paved with his pleas for mercy and an immense amount of guilt and empathy for this fictitious civilian.
Rockstar has always been notorious for creating environments that allow players to do some questionable things, but never before have they placed players in a world that feels like it could exist independently. In creating a fully fleshed out world replete with characters that feel more human than any other game before, Rockstar has inadvertently made us all question our previous proclivities to go on murderous rampages by not just making NPCs who react realistically to horror but can be funny, kind, or just in a bad mood because they’re late for an appointment.
RDR has crossed the uncanny valley and created a world that truly defines the German word sonder; for once, the player is forced to face the fact they inhabit a world where characters are programmed with their own motivations and goals, not just merely to greet or react to the character.
Nowhere is this lesson more prominent than in one of the earliest missions of the game, a bank robbery that had me excited to take part in one of the most classic tropes of Western mythology. While the heist begins as normal, eventually we’re led to a train car with a group of passengers, and as I set foot into the cabin, the music dropped to a sharp violin twang as my character demanded the innocent passengers pay up.
In any other game, one would celebrate this bounty, because it means more funds for guns, ammo, and nice hats. This time, however, all I could think about were the frightened voices of the passengers and the fractured nose and bloodied face of the few who dared to challenge my character.
There was no question I had power, but was this the best use of it?
From this moment onward, I carried through the game staying on the light side of the honor system, not for any gain, but because it felt good to be a good guy who contributed to this odd community Rockstar had created for me. The next time I boot up my PS4 and unhitch my horse, I’ll ride through the frontier knowing that while I have great power, I also owe it to the fellow residents of Red Dead Redemption’s world to use it wisely.