Checking the Score is a feature about video game music, composers, musicians and tools of the trade.
Swinging to PS4s near you, Marvel’s Spider-Man launched to much fan anticipation. This latest superhero installment in the video game world brings so much love to the Spider-Man franchise. It has both received critical acclaim and become the fastest-selling superhero game since the Arkham series. Many have even equated its love of source material to that of the Batman: Arkham titles. The last Spider-Man game I personally cared this much about was Spider-Man 2 on the PS2 almost fourteen years ago. That particular title brought so much attention to detail that had never been seen before in a Spider-Man game in addition to its rendition of the Tobey Maguire Spider-sequel. This new generation of Spider-Man game raises the bar with amazing gameplay, gorgeous visuals and musical themes that could be straight out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Composer John Paisano takes into account the games’ story and Peter’s veteran experience. Airy woodwinds, clashing brass instruments and an ethereal chorus create an epic soundtrack to swing around to. Emotional piano compositions bring more layers to climactic moments in the game. Yet, where Marvel’s Spider-Man takes from the MCU, it also almost follows the formulaic composition a little too much to standout from the Spider-crowd. Let’s breakdown how this beautiful soundtrack elevates this web-slinging title while staying reminiscent of previous Spider-Man source material.
Marvel’s Spider-Man main theme is everything a superhero needs to fight crime and look good while doing it. A fully-orchestrated soundtrack drives home the epic nature of the game. The primary use of woodwind instruments creates a light, airy feeling that compliments the web-swinging mechanics beautifully. These and strings work together in the primary make-up of the composition — focusing on Spider-Man’s acrobatics and agility. There’s nothing quite like diving off a tall skyscraper to the flutter of flutes or swinging quickly through the streets with violins giving more emphasis to the break-wind speeds. Woodwinds blend seamlessly with strings giving an epic feeling to traversal in the game. Choral moments in the main theme help give the title an ethereal feeling. Swinging up high evokes limitless freedom and being able to touch the heavens. It’s truly a soundtrack that compliments the overall title and its gameplay.
Insomniac Games has such attention to detail, even in the soundtrack, that it is catered to how players engage with the game. While swinging around the city and engaging in activities, the orchestra will sound off as the background to your antics. Staying at rest, however, the music dies down to let players soak in the ambiance of the city. Bustling people and the honking of traffic can make its way up to a Spidey perch where players may sit. Jumping off and swinging through the city again strikes up the orchestra. This fluidity of this orchestra gives players unique playthroughs that only they’ll hear. My playthrough music will be different than the next players’ all because of this simple touch. As Paisano states in a behind the scenes music trailer, “the guys over at Insomniac developed a whole new system for how they were going to create the music for the game and how it was going to trigger the different elements so that we never felt like it was looping. I don’t even recognize some of the cues because when you’re playing it, they’re firing it in so many different ways that it just feels like fresh pieces of music.” This fluid soundtrack is catered to how players interact with their environment, giving the music a life of its own. It’s a unique touch to the themes that will create longevity to both the soundtrack and the game (it’s also just a cool attention to detail).
The title does a beautiful job of truly conveying the Spider-Man experience. Its music is essential in that immersion factor through its clever use of emotional composition. Even with the added factor of a fluid soundtrack, many of the themes are incredibly reminiscent of previous Spider-Man source material. Whether its an homage to previous Spider-iterations, or just sticking with a formula that works, the soundtrack has a difficult time standing out from past Spider-Man music. Much of my immediate impressions kept landing on Danny Elfman’s 2002 movie soundtrack for Spider-Man. Elfman already has such a signature sound and a background in creating music for superheroes (and Michael Keaton) that it was difficult to hear how this title’s music brings something new to the genre. Superhero music, in general, has a very specific sound that has cemented thanks to the MCU and other hero movies. Lots of brass instruments with strings and a chorus tend to be focal points in the composition. Out of curiosity, while listening to this game’s main theme, I also pulled up the 2002 Danny Elfman to play at the same time. It surprisingly worked. Overlapped, these overtures are so similar that they could be part of the same piece. One particular fragment that called out to me was the arpeggio of strings found in the game’s main theme (0:41-0:54 in the former video). It’s a composition we actually hear quite often in Spider-Man music (check out the main theme for Spider-Man: Homecoming). As gorgeous as the soundtrack is, I found myself tuning it out in some cases because it has difficulty gripping attention in the face of the high-action on screen. The soundtrack shines brighter during darker moments, when the story reaches climactic points. Only when everything is quiet, the music seems more present.
Yet, by no means does this make Marvel Spider-Man’s soundtrack poor in quality. It absolutely adds to the overall beauty of the game and does have its own unique details. The musical composition and full orchestra give elevated life to the game by appropriately adjusting itself to the way players interact with their environment. This creative approach to a soundtrack promises more attention to detail and cinematic quality for an immersive experience. While the soundtrack stumbles in being able to stand-out from past hero music, it does serve as an homage to other source material. This game is so full of respect for Spider-Man lore, even in musical composition, that its music still finds ways to give chills. Peter Parker leads a crazy, frantic, amazing life and the team behind Marvel’s Spider-Man knew exactly how to represent our friendly neighborhood web-head.