Dramatic irony is where a work will let you in on some sort of information that the characters therein are not privy to. So it’s when you know something that the characters don’t know. When your game cuts away from the PC party to show you the bad guy’s meetings where they talk about their future plans in strangely vague terms, that’s dramatic irony. When the horror movie lets you see hatchet killer lurking around the abandoned house before the soon-to-be victims head inside, that’s dramatic irony. When your novel is switching between characters who each have a piece of the mystery told to them, that’s dramatic irony. So yeah, it’s super common, in most every storytelling media.
Why is it used so much? It’s a really effective way of generating tension, and it’s relatively easy to direct that tension into whatever emotion the creator is trying to instill while you’re driving for that tension to be resolved. If you know the character is about to get got but the character doesn’t, you’re going to feel it. You’ll get that tension that then turns into anticipation, or fear, or worry, or what have you. Or it works for positive emotions as well. You may get excited waiting for a character to get a fun surprise that you know is coming to him or her. Or hell, just think of how much comedy is based on misunderstandings. Guess where that’s coming from. Dramatic irony. Awww yeah.
I’ve been playing Marvel’s Spider-Man lately. And it’s been making me happier than any game has for a good long while. But you don’t need me to talk about that. There’s words about it all over the internet. Hell, I picked it up after a very solid review from Red Metal, so you can head there if you want to find out why the game is great.
What I’m wanting to talk about today is Spider-Man’s use of dramatic irony, because it comes from a very unique source that I find rather interesting. So, much like Batman, Spider-Man’s rogues gallery is one of the most notable parts of the IP. Spider-Man is awesome, but he’d only go so far if he didn’t have awesome villains to oppose him. And if you asked people on the street who the prototypical, the most notable Spider-Man villain was, you’d get one of three different answers: The Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, and of course, the most legendary, trail-blazing, dominating villain in superhero comics history, the Kangaroo. To all of our disappointments, the Kangaroo is not in this game, probably being saved up to be the central figure in the sequel. However, Doc Ock and the Green Goblin are both in there. Well, sort of. And that’s where things get beautiful.
As Red Metal had reported in his review, the developers of Marvel’s Spider-Man were given carte blanche to play around with the canon as they saw fit. And they used it. So you get your marquee villians. But not in the way you know them from pretty much every other Spider-Man thing out there. To wit, you don’t get Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin. You get Otto Octavius and Norman Osborn. The game is clear that Spider-Man is a well established hero with 8 years of activity behind him by the time the game starts, but unlike in… basically anything else Spider-Man, Doc Ock and Green Goblin weren’t a part of any of that. Instead, you get their normie guises, just the humans that they are. Brilliant humans, powerful humans, but humans none the less. Not the supervillians you know them to be.
Do you get it? Do you get what was just so fascinating to me? You know things are going to go wrong there. Origin stories are so common in superhero media, you know you’re stepping into one the moment you see either of these guys and they’re not already killing Gwen Stacy or marrying your aunt. You know. Spider-Man doesn’t. That’s dramatic irony. Thing is, the game itself gives you absolutely zero indication of this. The game does not show you early on that they’re planning turns into supervillainy. The only reason you know, the only reason that dramatic irony is there at all, is because of the rest of the IP. You know they’ll be Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin and make Spider-Man’s life hell, but only because this game is adapted from a very well known property but given these weird twists here.
And yeah, this is a minor thing, but this is something that’s really unique to this type of work, an adaptation of a very well-known property. You want to make something from scratch, you couldn’t pull this off. And I’ve never seen it before. They play with it nicely, too. You know you’re seeing the origin stories there. Except, only kind of. They play this straight, but they also subvert it. They take your expectations, that, again, you only have because you already know Spider-Man, and they use it to lead you in the wrong direction. Again, that’s something that only this kind of creation can do, and, as far as I know, only Marvel’s Spider-Man has done. And the storytelling nerd in me really wants to celebrate that.