On meeting the big bad spider

From a discussion on twitter (see this link for an anchor to the discussion), I am inspired to make a post about a subject I’ve thought about for a long time: spiders in games (and other cultural artifacts).

Part of why I’m writing this post is to interrogate why exactly spiders are featured as monsters and villains so often. Western popular culture is full of mythic villain spider figures, and some of these are detailed in Michalski and Michalski (2010) if you’d like to explore this archetype. Other cultures include vampire-like spiders, like the Jorōgumo (絡新婦) of Japanese legend who seduce and kill men (not coincidentally, this word colloquially refers to several species in Argiope and Nephilia, known for their striking webs and coloring). The trickster Anansi, whose stories were first told among the Ashanti, usually appears as a spider. It is important to note that like many trickster figures, Anansi is not quite good and not quite bad—but always clever. A very different sense of spiders comes out of a story I grew up hearing, although infrequently, details the spider responsible for saving Muhammed’s life when he was hiding in a cave: she spun a web over the mouth of the cave and the searchers passed it by (spiders have a small measure of respect because of this myth). This list is by no means exhaustive.

Here, we must first take a short detour and think about Tolkien (as perhaps the originator of much of what passes for fantasy these days). In Middle-Earth, giant spiders (including Shelob, so don’t nerd out at me and say she doesn’t count) are evil, horrific aberrations, who want only to kill and eat what they find. Shelob happily exists on the border of Mordor, and she is never shown as having interiority or a sense of self. She is just a big bad. It’s not surprising that most high fantasy treats spiders the same way. Anything vaguely arachnid is bad, especially if it’s also magic and also giant. I’m not going to veer into literature too much, but I will list a few examples:

  • R.A. Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels (based on a Dungeons and Dragons setting and inspiration for some of the Bioware Forgotten Realms games!) depict the drow living in service to their goddess Lloth, the spider queen. For all intents and purposes, the drow are evil, spiders are also evil, and the morality imposed by living according to spider rules is bad. (Yes, it’s kind of reductive…luckily there’s a lot to work with within these extremes and thus role-playing can be entertaining.)
  • Tamora Pierce’s Tortall novels (featuring feminist heroes like Alanna, Kel, and Daine!) include an immortal race known as spidren, giant furry spiders with human faces (I’ve never quite understood how exactly this is supposed to work…magic?). Most other immortal races are given the benefit of ambiguous morality, or even of members who exemplify goodness—anyone else remember Rikash Moonsword, the stormwing? No spidrens are ever named (unless things have changed since 2005 or so), and none of them are shown to speak. They are violent: according to the wikia, which I visited to get that link for Rikash, they are “intractably vicious.”
  • Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger series, in the second book, features a race of Weavers who hate giant bugs almost as much as the mammals hate giant bugs (n.b., this series is incredibly bizarre). This example is a bit of a switch-and-bait, because it’s actually one of the relatively positive depictions of spiders; giant spider warriors are terrifying and led by a queen (who resembles a black widow and wants to mate with and eat the protagonist??), but they also end up allying themselves with the mammals to save the world. Soooooo….
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Aragog—I mean, Chamber of Secrets. Need I say more? OK OK, giant talking spider with hundreds of spawn who want to eat Harry and his best pal Ron. He helps out, first, though, which I guess makes it okay. (I’m not even going to start nitpicking about how Aragog is long-lived and stuff but is male…)

Some of these examples, and many more, can be found on the exhaustive TV Tropes page for “Giant Spider,” which I found as a result of googling the Weavers from Spellsinger. This page also has a subcategory for “Tabletop Games” and one for “Video Games.” (So my work here is done, right? Right?)

Naw, my work is not done, and let me tell you exactly why. These lists are great (no seriously, I learned a lot just by glancing at it), but they don’t do two things: 1) they don’t tell us why this convention keeps propagating, and 2) they don’t feature games where you can play as a spider. Even with some beneficial giant spiders, we still don’t have a sense of the interiority of spiders. As the TV Tropes page for “Giant Spider” says, “[t]hey usually have little personality, beyond vague malevolence.” That said, I’m in no way arguing that spiders have demonstrated a sense of self or anything, but some species have been shown to exhibit personality traits (Jackson et al., 2002 ($); Holbrook et al., 2014 ($)). And creators throughout history have endowed all sorts of things and creatures with personalities—how many candelabras do you personally know that can talk? Why is it that this creative license seems to falter in the face of an overwhelming, learned, social stigma against spiders?

I could speculate about this, and I have. But I don’t want to leave you with answers, I want to leave you with that one question, and hopefully, if you make something in the future, you’ll consider the spiders.

(They’re way cool, really.)

Part 2 of this post might involve me actually listing or critiquing some games where you play as spiders, and no, Spiderman doesn’t count…stay tuned!