Earth-616 is at peak Spidey fandom. After the successful integration of bringing Spider-Man into the ever-expanding MCU, the character was then reinvigorated in video game form, before receiving universal acclaim via the cinematic debut of Miles Morales in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Having confirmed sequels to all in the works, the first of these arrived from Insomniac Games with Spider-Man: Miles Morales – the first game to star the character. Marvel’s Spider-Man (2018) is often up there with the best releases on the PlayStation 4, so any follow up was bound for extra scrutiny, even more so after the early muddled marketing on the game’s length. However, Miles Morales has managed to (Venom) dash any expectation that the experience wouldn’t live up to its predecessor, with overwhelmingly positive critical consensus.
It’s not hard to see why. For anyone that has delved back into Insomniac’s take on the ‘Web-Slinger’, you quickly realize that it’s a labor of love, while introducing many to Miles, his friends, family and now hometown of Harlem for the very first time. This is where the heart of the story lies, showcasing a diverse cast from all different backgrounds and cultures.
One of Harlem’s most notable residents we encounter throughout is Hailey Cooper, a street artist who lives nearby and quickly strikes up a clear connection with the superhero. Hailey’s character is a rare representation in games for the Deaf community. The last mainstream attempt came from Square Enix’s The Quiet Man two years ago and was criticized for using the impairment as a gameplay gimmick, never exploring the reality of it.
But Spider-Man: Miles Morales offers a sense of authenticity, making for some of the most heartfelt moments throughout the narrative.
“I didn’t know it was for Spider-Man at the time, I just knew it was for a video game,” Natasha Ofili tells us, who voices Hailey in the game and likewise is Deaf.
“They sent me a breakdown of the role and they wanted me to submit my voice-over audition which was in ASL (American Sign Language) – signing and talking at the same time,” she recollects.
Originally entering Hollywood as a fashion designer, Ofili moved to screen with roles in Netflix’s The Politician and Amazon Originals’ Undone. Now stepping into games, the casting of Hailey was much quicker than anticipated.
“Typically, the process is that you do a self-tape then you get a callback and then you book the role,” says Ofili. “So, when I did the audition and then a few days later I got booked, I was like ‘What! Right away with no callback!’ I was very happy and so excited to be in a video game.”
Insomniac Games advanced writer Mary Kenney thought of the idea for the character of Hailey while working on the ‘Friendly Neighborhood’ questline, a series of missions in which Miles helps – and falls in love with – his new neighborhood, Harlem.
“I thought the only way to fall in love with the place was to fall in love with the people – Hailey was one of them,” Kenney tells us via email.
“The first thing I knew about Hailey was that she was an activist. Passionate, courageous, and sometimes irreverent, Hailey wouldn’t be afraid to speak her mind, either to Spider-Man or to the people threatening Harlem. The second thing I knew was that she would be Deaf.”
After only being at Insomniac for a week, Kenney admitted that pitching the idea to her creative director and lead animators was a “nerve-wracking” situation.
“I expected pushback: ‘this is too much work,’ or ‘no one’s ever done this before’, she says. “Instead, it was excitement. Everyone wanted to make Hailey happen. No game is made by one person, and there were so many of us involved in Hailey’s creation: character artists, animators, actors, programmers, and many more.”
One of the defining factors that separate Miles from Peter Parker is that he’s bilingual, knowing both Spanish and English in the comics. Insomniac decided to take that one step further, adding ASL to Miles’ repertoire.
“I think nowadays you can be surprised as a lot of people know sign language in the world and we don’t know that,” explains Ofili, speaking on the choice. “It’s a universal thing, so it naturally makes sense for Miles to know some,” she says.
This decision helped with the creative process, when both Ofili and Nadja Jeter (who voices Miles) were performing motion capture, with the former stating that they “clicked right away”. Whether that be their first meeting, brief interactions on the street, or a dedicated mission that results in Hailey giving Miles her scarf, the spark is clear for all to see.
“In many ways, she represents Miles’s growing attachment to the neighborhood,” Kenney says, when speaking on the importance of the character.
Adding that: “Miles’s journey is about becoming his own Spider-Man. He has to learn what it is he’s fighting for: the people and home he loves. Hailey already knows that. By being her authentic self, she pushes Miles to be a better Spider-Man.”
It’s been an experience that “surpassed” the voice actor’s expectations, receiving positive messages from Deaf communities globally. Though, actually having someone with a disability portray a role of this magnitude is still seen as incredibly rare.
“I don’t think there’s been such a thing like this ever,” Ofili says. “It’s distinctly rare across the board in the entertainment industry. Generally, Deaf roles are very, very limited. We continue to have that stigma… with disabled people and just showing them on-screen.”
“This is a breakthrough to finally showcase a disabled person as a person,” she adds.
Ofili believes that those in entertainment are maybe unsure of how to approach disabled communities, or generally don’t know how, but it’s a conversation that needs addressing as it’s still common for Hollywood films to cast non-disabled actors in disabled parts. One of the most recent instances of this was Bryan Cranston playing a wheelchair user in 2017’s The Upside.
A study by Ruderman White Paper found that 95% of characters with disabilities in the top 10 TV shows are portrayed by non-disabled actors. Video games similarly struggle to place people with disabilities as protagonists.
“We have a lot of disabled people that are talented out there and they want to work,” says Ofili. “They want to give their heart and portray any role. I hope this really opens up every video game company, media and network to create characters – not one, but multiple.”
After shipping Miles and Hailey, many are hoping to see the character return in the future. For one, there’s a line post-campaign, where Miles asks if there is a spare shift at F.E.A.S.T, so he can show Hailey around.
“I hope we see more,” Ofili says. “They definitely have chemistry for sure. I think at first it was like ‘hey, this guy is cool’ and ‘he seems really nice’ to ‘I kinda like this guy’, so I think their interactions are very natural and organic… and could blossom into a flower.”