In fact, one of the main ‘hubs’ of the game – an area Peter returns to regularly to explore and advance the story – is one of those shelters, given the slightly cringeworthy acronym of F.E.A.S.T. It serves as the base for this universe’s version of Aunt May, who works at the centre, while the game also hints that Peter himself helps out when he is not fighting crime. Take a walk around the shelter and Peter will interact with some of the shelter’s residents. And the game ignores the booze and drugs trope that colours many portrayals of homelessness in mainstream media for a more nuanced take.
You’ll hear about how Peter helped some rough sleepers with job applications as they thank him for helping them back into work or how Cam was a trucker who lost his job while his chess opponent Eileen became homeless after losing her husband. Peter can examine a notice board and comment that homelessness among veterans is down but there is more to be done to tackle the problem or how local businesses are providing more training to help get people into work and off the streets.
The game also illustrates that homelessness can strike for anyone, even a superhero. Peter loses his own job working as a scientific assistant in a lab and finds himself evicted from his apartment. The situation is initially played for laughs, as Spider-Man is forced to search the city to find his dumped belongings, before the ramifications of his situation become clear and he ponders where to spend the night.
After rejecting begging for a spot on on-and-off flame Mary Jane’s sofa, he eventually settles for one in Aunt May’s office at F.E.A.S.T, joining the ranks of New York’s hidden homeless for one night at least. Peter can tell Gloria, a rough sleeper he can help during the game as Spider-Man, that he feels bad taking up resources meant for rough sleepers – the reply is that, at that moment, they are resources meant for him.
In too many games, particularly open-world games like Spider-Man, rough sleepers are used as caricatures to pad out a world. Spider-Man is a step forward, offering a peak into the complex issues around homelessness. But over its 30-hour-or-so running time, it is still just a snapshot and there is room for improvement. Hopefully this can be an unlikely game to swing portrayal of the issue forward in this developing medium.
Images: Sony/Marvel/Insomniac Games