From Comics To Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, How Insomniac Games’ Jacinda Chew Approaches Artwork
Spider-Man has transcended media over decades, building fans across so many different pieces of content. Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 feels like a celebration of that fandom in many ways. Developer Insomniac Games has seemingly poured countless hours to ensure the wayside leaves no detail. This is especially true when it comes to the game’s art style.
Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 is built from the ground up to take full advantage of the PlayStation 5, with the lessons learned from Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, another console exclusive, Insomniac better understands how to take advantage of the hardware capabilities, fleshing out the world, the characters, and the possibilities.
For Senior Art Director Jacinda Chew, this means going above and beyond from the perspective of the game’s art style. Spider-Man has a rich history of stories but also visual styles. Fans of the original Marvel’s Spider-Man and the Miles Morales spinoff have discovered countless visual easter eggs. Adding to that, Marvel’s Spider-Man celebrates the history of its character by way of the suits.
Chew has used her 20-year tenure at the studio to once again push the bar for Marvel’s Spider-Man 2. With the game leaning into heavily realistic perspectives and adopting stylized art, the upcoming game is another notch in the belt of an ambitiously talented team.
Following a 90-minute hands-on preview of Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 in L.A., We spoke to Chew to talk about how the team approaches a new game in the hey-day of the PlayStation 5’s console cycle.
Talking to Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 Senior Art Director Jacinda Chew
Steve: One of the first things that really sticks out to me from the preview demo is how detailed and eye-popping Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 is. From an art perspective, how did you and the team approach new ways to fill out this world?
Jacinda: I mean, one of the first things we do when we get onto a new console is just figure out what’s different about it. Obviously, the big one is the ultra-fast SSD. Oftentimes, I’ll ask the tech folks in the office, I asked, “What is that going to allow us to do?” And they say, “Well, the loading times will be really quick.” So, I was pretty blown away. You can actually select something on a map, and it just goes straight to load straight into the world. We’re able to instantaneously switch. It’s not something we could have done before. Obviously, when you have more powerful hardware, you can just do more of everything. You can have more sophisticated lighting, more fidelity, and more reflections.
I’m just constantly surprised at how lovely our reflections are. Not only that but then also our draw distance. Also, adding the webwings adds this whole other level of beauty and promise to the world. If you’re swinging, you’re limited by the attachment point of where the webs can go. But when you’re swinging above the city, you can just see the view from that far. It’s just such a beautiful new way to experience the city.
Steve: Is it daunting to learn that the game has a map that’s double the size? For you and your department, what’s the process like of taking what’s originally there and now filling it out?
Jacinda: I think that it is an awful lot of work. You’re basically building a whole other game, and you also have to support the previous square footage that we had before. Then it’s also really cool to keep building the world and adding to it. One of the things I love about adding Brooklyn and Queens, which, you know, doubled our map size, is that geographically, it’s really different.
For example, Coney Island is a good one where you can actually get on the boardwalk and walk on the beach, right? So it’s like your Spider-Man, but you’re walking on sand, which is really cool. Then you’re able to walk into the water. There are a lot of interactions with the water that are added just by adding Brooklyn and Queens, which is super fun. Hopefully, you got a chance to bounce across this.
Steve: I love the visual style when traversing. Using the wingsuit, there’s a unique visual style to it with the air passing by. Are there subtle cues you and the team look at when designing Peter’s traversal style versus Miles’?
Jacinda: I’m not the animation director. So I’ll give you what I know. Peter and Miles do share animations in some ways. But they also stylistically have some stuff that’s just different. Miles, when he’s when he’s swinging, he’s just a little less confident. That gives us his sense of style. Miles can also do tricks to swing around easily. Even a lot of his attacks, I think, have a little bit more youthful flair to them. Peter doesn’t know, so there is a stylistic push to differentiate the two of them.
Steve: New York and its many boroughs have their own culture and personality. Can you talk to me about the approach to represent each one in its own respect?
Jacinda: One of the things I’m most excited about adding Brooklyn and Queens. Miles is from Brooklyn, and Peter is from Queens. So by adding those burrows, you can also add some environmental storytelling that tells you a bit more about where our heroes grew up—for us, being able to go and see Brooklyn Visions and going to do some actual missions there. You’ll also see Midtown High, which is where Peter, Harry, and MJ went to school. Even go to Aunt May’s house, where Peter grew up.
Being able to add all those adds a layer of intimacy that you may not have in Manhattan. The geographical diversity is really incredible because now you can actually swing around houses or go to the beach, to the docks or to some of the industrial areas in Brooklyn. It’s just really cool to add that geographical diversity to the world.
Steve: Do you think that adds more texture and in-depth layers to the game that it’s not just okay, I’ve done this before. Yeah, it’s now oh, these are the more unique kind of personality traits to this game.
Jacinda: I think one of the things that’s really great about the game is you can seamlessly go from one side of the water to the other. So, if you want to interact with these high rises, you can. If you want to explore the other burrows, you can swing over anytime. All the traversal works on both sides, even though the buildings are shorter.
In the comics, the suits are very, very simple. If you try to translate them directly, maybe everybody would be in spandex or Lycra. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Steve: One of the things that I always loved and have loved since the original Marvel Spider-Man game is the easter eggs, specifically the visual easter eggs. How does the team brainstorm what’ll be included for players to find?
Jacinda: I think what’s great about how Insomniac works is that good ideas come from anybody. We have a very diverse team. We are definitely always brainstorming. A lot of that actually comes from the team. It’s not like there’s like a directive at the beginning that we will have this many easter eggs.
What’ll happen is in the course of working on a mission or some side content or an interior of a building. Someone will say, “Oh, gosh, it’d be cool if we did this.” Or, “Gosh, it’d be really cool could reference that.” So oftentimes, what we’ll do is ask the creative director and director if that fits into the game. Then maybe we’ll ask Marvel, “Hey, is it okay if we reference this or use this?” Maybe they’ll give us some ideas. That’s how I actually love easter eggs coming up. There’s no master list. It comes from many teams being Marvel fans and just coming up with ideas.
Steve: I’ve always been so curious about choosing and designing the suits, especially when some are inspired by 2D animations.
Jacinda: That’s that’s a really great question. In the comics, the suits are very, very simple. If you try to translate them directly, maybe everybody would be in spandex or Lycra, which doesn’t make much sense. So the character team –– I’ll put this on them because they spent a lot of time doing material research for things. Even for the Advanced Suit. 2.0, making sure it looks like it would stand up to wear and tear but also look stretchy.
We spend a lot of time getting that material diversity in and the Black Suit in particular. If you think about that suit in the comics, it says it looks like just an inverted Spider-Man suit that was black and white. When we first tried to make it, it was much simpler. It almost seemed like it was made out of cloth. It doesn’t really translate well into the video game because it was kind of boring. Also, there’s not a great narrative connection if it’s just made out of cloth. Obviously, because this Black Suit is influenced by the symbiote, we eventually converted it to something that looks more like it’s made out of symbiote materials.
You’ll see that the materials are always slowly moving. There are tendrils that are integrated into the suit design. Narratively, this symbiote starts affecting Peter, so he’s acting a bit more aggressive. In our last demo, Miles and Ganke noticed that there was something off about him. So we wanted that Black Suit to feel somewhat unnerving. We do put a lot of thought into the materials and translating all stuff into 2D. Normally, it’s just a colour and we have to fill in the blanks with blanks ourselves.
Steve: With regards to suits, do you ever find yourself in a position where you’re wondering if you’ll end up getting approval for one? Are there specific ideas that ever feel too ambitious?
Jacinda: One of the big ones was capes. That definitely got a lot of people on the tech team shaking their fists at us. The ArachKnight Suit has a cape. We are not making a game where capes are used all over the place. But we had to make sure that these optional suits actually worked because having a cloak or a cape is a big part of that design.
So, it’s making sure that they work functionally for everything when wall-crawling, during combat, and web swinging. That was a big feat of engineering. I give all the props to the engineering team and the programmers to get that all working. But that was definitely a big challenge. Everyone always clenches their head when we’re like, “Why? Why are you doing this?” But I’m really proud of the team for pulling through and making it happen.
One of the first rules I made about Venom was that he doesn’t drip.
Steve: In terms of character models, I have to talk about Venom. He certainly looks unique yet fits this established world. How did you approach this design? Was it taking inspiration from various pieces of media?
Jacinda: For all the Marvel characters, we always look at the comics first. The comics are the Bible, right? With Venom, in particular, he’s also this deceptively simple character because he looks like he just inverted Spider-Man. He’s black and white and he’s just very large. One of the things I noticed right away was that Spider-Man when he emotes, he’s got his eyes and his quips. but Venom actually has a mouth. One of the first things I asked Creative Director Bryan Intihar when we started on this game was, “How much does he talk?” Then, “What is he using his mouth for? Is he attacking people?
We spent a lot of time on his mouth. At this point, his mouth can open really, really wide. His jaw is able to unhinge and then he’s not really bound by muscles or bones. So his teeth can elongate and splay out. I’m not sure if it was in this demo, but you’ll see that it can take on all these different forms. So, that was a technical feat in itself.
In the comics, everything looks like you have one colour and it’s very solid. For us, there’s a fine line between making him look like he’s a he’s a goo monster where he’s dripping, or he’s a tentacle monster. One of the first rules I made about Venom was that he doesn’t drip. It’s a kind of funny rule to have. If he struck particularly hard, the symbiote would splash a little bit, but he’s never just sitting there dripping. It wouldn’t make him look very strong. So with Venom, we have to make sure that he looks both semi-liquid and strong at the same time.
So those are some of the challenges we have to deal with Venom along with I think his his ultimate size because he has to look very strong, but also semi-liquid. So we did a bunch of sketches where we made a wider, or taller. Then we actually tried different sizes in the game. All of us played it and then we selected the one that we also felt the best and now that’s the one you’re seeing in the game.
Steve: I have to ask, did you see the reactions to the character poster for Lizard? Some fans were a little bummed that Dr. Connors doesn’t have his classic lab coat and purple pants in it. Yet, there’s a great homage in-game for fans. Was there ever a point of contention in the studio to have him in his classic garb?
Jacinda: That’s funny! Well, I mean, when you first look at a Marvel character, you have to look at the source, right? So for sure, I always want to give a nod to what the original character was. You’re right, in this case, he has a lab coat and he has pants. He even talks in the comics. For us, we wanted to make it work for gameplay too. We wanted to fight something really big and intimidating, which is why we have this really large lizard.
Narratively, we also pushed it even further. He’s had a complete loss of humanity at this point. He can’t be communicated with and he’s humongous. He’s not wearing any of the clothes. That is going to put Peter into this quandary because he’s got to stop Lizard who’s his friend, but he can’t really hurt him. He can’t communicate with him. So that’s our spin on Lizard. But I definitely always try to give a nod to the source. You don’t want to lose the essence of the character if you had just made one large lizard.
Steve: Finally, what’s something you’re excited to see players enjoy for the first time in October?
Jacinda: You know, one of the things I know fans love about our game is the story. We do have a lot of side content and optional missions in this game. What we did this time was we added a lot more story and narrative to a lot of the site content. So I would encourage fans to explore as much as possible because there are a lot of surprises in there for them.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity. For the full audio version of our hands-on experience and interview with Jacinda Chew, check out the latest episode of the Creature Cast podcast.
Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 swings onto PlayStation 5 on October 20th.