In the run-up to the release of Spider-Man’s excellent new video game, there were a lot of teases about a mysterious extra villain coming to crash into Peter Parker’s life, beyond Mister Negative and some of Spidey’s most iconic foes. While the identity of that villain might not come as a surprise to some, the way the game handles their arc is one of its greatest strengths.
If you’ve not finished Marvel’s Spider-Man yet, this is your chance to turn back.
Within the first hour of Marvel’s Spider-Man, you learn that this latest incarnation of Peter Parker isn’t an intrepid Daily Bugle photographer (or at least, not anymore) outside of his role as the web-slinger, but instead a scientist. This Peter eschewed the chance to work in a cushy position at a company like Oscorp for a lower-key guerrilla outfit, working on advanced limb replacement and prosthetic techniques with a scientist whose name will have the senses of any Spidey-fan tingling immediately: Doctor Otto Octavius, better known as Doctor Octopus. Or Doc Ock to his frenemies.
But this Otto Octavius is not the snarling genius supervillain we’ve come to know from the comics when we meet him for the first time in Spider-Man. He’s a passionate, gentle old man, radiating excitement about his latest advances in prosthetics, affable and earnest in the face of setback after setback. Voice clips dotted around the messy, slapdash workspace he and Peter call home—Octavius Industries—reveal a man who truly believes he is changing the future of medical science for the better of humanity. And he has great pride in the talented young man he is privileged to not just call an employee and a student, but a dear friend.
As initially disarmingly pleasant as this version of Octavius is, Spider-Man is purposefully unsubtle about the path Peter is going to go down with Otto from the moment you meet him. Literally, the first time we see him in the game he’s plugged into a very early prototype of the infamous Doc Ock arms, an experiment that quietly sits in the background for much of the game’s first two acts like a ticking time bomb. It is a shot that sets off alarm bells in the head of anyone with even the vaguest level of familiarity with Spider-Man’s history, even if immediately after, as we begin to slowly unravel the relationship between this Peter and this Otto, we are presented with a figure that is distinctly not the cruel and calculating villain that has plagued Peter’s comic book life for decades. It is in that contrast between the immediate unwariness we as players feel—our viewpoint within the experience of this game’s world—and Peter’s earnest adoration and admiration of Doctor Octavius that Spider-Man strikes a fascinating push and pull of drama. It speaks to the essence of what’s made Spider-Man such an enduring character for over half a century across multiple mediums.
As I said in io9’s review of the game, one timeless tool in Spider-Man’s cadre of storytelling conceits is the focus on the heady and hazy intermingling of his dual lives as ordinary weird kid Peter Parker and wisecracking superhero Spider-Man. This dichotomy is found in so many superheroes, yes, but it is intrinsic to Spider-Man in a way it so rarely is for other characters. Spider-Man plays with this conceit in many of the relationships Peter has with his supporting cast, but its greatest execution is undoubtedly through the tragic inevitability of Otto’s character arc, as he slowly but surely transforms from one of Peter’s closest friends to one of his greatest foes.
The tension instilled into the player from the moment Otto enters the game makes every interaction with him fascinatingly on edge. Every setback Otto and Peter face together, from losing funding to having their work poached by Norman Osborn—here both the head of Oscorp and the slimy mayor of New York City—is like a dramatic pang in your chest. Is this it? Is this the moment that breaks him? No matter how many times Octavius seemingly stands tall in the face of heartbreaking setbacks, you know that a point of no return is on the way. And yet, despite all that, and despite the player’s familiarity with the man Octavius will become, you get to see the kind and idealistic scientist that this Peter holds so dearly as one of his strongest personal connections in the game. You wonder, as Peter himself no doubt would, if you could help Otto avoid that seeming inevitability.
This Otto Octavius is the man who helped Peter think that he can make a difference beyond just being a superhero. He’s the man who, after discovering Peter working on his Spider-suit at Octavius Industries late one night (and mistaking him for Spider-Man’s gear designer rather than the hero himself), leaves notes for his dozing assistant to pave the way for the design of the game’s original “Advanced” suit, alongside an email expressing sincere pride in his friend’s altruism. It not only invites you to question your own familiarity with Octavius as a character from the get-go, it’s also a way to capture the endless push and pull of the Spider-Man experience inherent to his greatest stories, that mix of personal and heroic identities being mashed up against each other. It’s just that instead of being internal to Peter alone, it’s one that plays with your perceptions as a player and the perceptions of Peter as a character separate to us.
Even when the third act of the game brings about that inevitable point and Octavius becomes Doctor Octopus, breaking Peter’s greatest foes out of prison to form the Sinister Six and unleash a secret Oscorp viral experiment on an unsuspecting Manhattan, it only serves to make the impact on the world of the game that much more devastating. And not just from Spider-Man’s grander scale, in that New York is now under attack from a pandemic and a litany of supervillains, but also on a level personal to Peter, shaken by the utter tragedy of losing one of his idols and friends to a villainous chaos.
And when you finally confront Octavius in the game’s finale, that constant feeling of second-guessing you’ve had with him throughout the game doesn’t let up, albeit now with a sinister twist. As Peter walks away to administer a cure for the viral outbreak and leaves Octavius to be arrested, the battered and beaten scientist desperately flits between villainous threats of ruination against Peter and cries for help to his student and friend. This time, instead of your familiarity with Octavius’ comic book origins informing your scepticism of his character in the game, the inverse happens, asking us as players a very Peter Parker question: Can we believe that there’s a chance Otto can change back to the earnest, kindly scientist we first met, as much as we first assuredly believed that he would inevitably become Doctor Octopus?
A great Spider-Man tale cannot just rely on one side of Peter’s life or the other. It must find threads across both that it can weave throughout—and then tighten at the worst possible time to smash those two lives into each other. Through its tragic, bittersweet portrayal of Otto Octavius, Spider-Man keenly understands that conceit as well as the web-slinger’s finest stories in any medium.