Miles Morales Is About to Make You Want to Protect Harlem

Miles Morales Is About to Make You Want to Protect Harlem
Miles holding a bus up with his webbing while civilians escape. (Screenshot: Insomniac)

Miles Morales: Spider-Man is set to bring all sorts of new characters and next-gen gaming elements to Insomniac’s Spider-Man franchise in a way that makes Miles’ early days as a hero feel distinct from Peter Parker’s path in the previous game. But the thing about Miles Morales that’s likely to have the most subtle, yet significant impact on the Miles’ story is its setting.

To call Insomniac’s digitised rendition of New York City from the last Spider-Man “detailed” is a bit of an understatement, given the care taken to flesh out iconic locations and landmarks like Battery Park, the Flatiron building, and a very drab (but accurate) Madison Square Garden. As Peter, you could web-sling your way up Broadway from the bottom tip of Manhattan to the upper limits of Midtown. This allowed players to virtually take in the city in an astonishingly immersive, satisfying way that gave you a sense of how Peter’s connection to New York was deeply shaped by how he moved through space in his Spider-Man guise.

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But the farther up into Manhattan that you swung in Spider-Man, the less grounded in reality its depiction of NYC became as you inevitably sped toward the outer limits of where the story was taking place. Though Spider-Man gave you the slightest taste of Harlem, it did so in a way that made it seem as if uptown Manhattan simply wasn’t on Peter’s radar, and thus, much of the neighbourhood and the surrounding area simply wasn’t available to explore. That’s set to change in Miles Morales.

Unlike his comics counterpart who most frequently operates out of Brooklyn — a borough Insomniac’s games haven’t ventured into — Miles Morales’ Spider-Man lives in Harlem with his good friend Ganke. While Harlem’s still technically a part of Manhattan, its energy, culture, and neighbourhood demographics are absolutely nothing like the chunks of Hell’s Kitchen or the Financial District that the first Spider-Man game’s missions often pulled you into.

Miles sneaking into his own home. (Image: Insomniac) Miles sneaking into his own home. (Image: Insomniac)

Within the first few seconds of Miles Morales demo footage Sony released not long ago, we’re met with a Spidey-suited up Miles sneaking back into his apartment via fire escape, and as he slides down the metal fixture, you see a couple of his neighbours’ Puerto Rican flags zip by.

The detail might seem insignificant if you’ve never actually spent time in Harlem or outside of any of the neighbourhoods that are disproportionately represented in fictional depictions of NYC. But in just that small way alone, Miles Morales both acknowledges its hero’s own Puerto Rican heritage and also the way in which historically Black neighbourhoods like Harlem have always been the prime spots for cultural fusion and evolution that make people love this city.

Much as some people might want to avoid or ignore the fact, Miles’ being both Black and Puerto Rican is an important part of both his identities: a civilian and Spider-Man. By setting its story in Harlem, Miles Morales puts him in a position to define his own approach to being a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man while highlighting the reality that Miles is a different sort of Spidey because he’s not Peter and Harlem isn’t Queens.

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In the Miles Morales gameplay footage, you can see from the signs alone that even though the game’s precise mapping of Harlem might not be 1-to-1 with reality, the designers made sure the backdrop’s made up of a mix of storefronts featuring signage in both Spanish and English. More than that, they’re the sorts of bakeries, butchers, and pawn shops you start to see more of once you’ve made up farther up past 120th street.

Because the game’s set in the winter, at one point you end up being able to wander through the sort of snowy street fair that tends to pop up when the weather starts to turn cold and people take one last chance to buy things from vendors before it’s completely frigid. As you wander by Miles’ mum Rio’s campaign booth, NPCs salsa dance in the background simply because they feel like it, and while the detail is small, it feels unmistakably like the sort of scene you grow accustomed to when you live Uptown and are out and about.

What Spider-Man: Miles Morales is poised to do isn’t just dropping players into a new part of New York City, but rather inviting everyone to experience the New York City that made Miles the hero he is. Even when the game pulls you to spots like the Brooklyn Bridge — where Miles does the stereotypically Spider-Man thing and saves a bunch of civilians from plunging to death on a falling bus — Miles Morales wants you to know that the bus is on its way to Harlem because it’s important. Miles notices it, and you should too.