Ratchet and Clank Remakes Itself, Yet Refines Nothing
Fourteen years ago, the climax of the first Ratchet and Clank hinged on a betrayal: superhero blowhard Captain Qwark (think The Tick in space) turning on Ratchet. Now, in the 2016 installment, that twist becomes a framing device as Qwark, from a prison cell, narrates the story to his fellow inmates. It’s a canny way to explain away any narrative differences between the original Ratchet and Clank and this one—but also a winking move toward self-awareness. “We know, we know, you’ve probably heard this before…. Wanna hear it again?”
This newest title in the series about the space adventures of a gun-toting fox-cat-dude and his no-nonsense robot has plenty to recommend it. It’s a full-scale reimagining of the 2002 PlayStation 2 original, and comes from Insomniac Games, the franchise’s primary developer. This Ratchet hits all the same beats as that first game, only bigger and shinier. The PlayStation 4’s technology makes for incredibly sharp and detailed cartoon art alongside dense, large-scale combat encounters. It ticks all the boxes: satisfying platforming, witty writing, and goofy guns that remain satisfying to use. Who else lets you turn your enemies into pixelated sheep and then break them with a wrench to arcade-style victory sounds?
But the game is also dreadfully familiar. As Ratchet, you go on an adventure from his humble beginnings as a wrench-toting mechanic to a galactic hero, killing scores of robots and aliens in creative, cartoonish ways in the process. If you’ve played the original games, none of this is fresh or surprising. The plot has been shifted around here or there, accommodating story beats and characters from the upcoming animated film adaptation of the same story. Ratchet’s a lot nicer to Clank than he was in the original, reflecting the camaraderie the two share in later games. But, all in all, it’s somewhere players of the 2002 original have been before. When it comes down to it, Captain Qwark’s retelling of that old story is a lot more faithful than the opening wink suggests.
Videogames, as an industry and a culture, have an odd relationship with nostalgia. The past is at once something to venerate and to revisit. We want things the way they used to be, mimicking and reviving the games we enjoyed in the past, the ones that drew us into the medium—but we also want their errors and failures erased. Give us more of the same, we insist, but better and smarter, with a chemical peel that smooths away the roughness.
The problem is, this attitude that creates boring art. The past, after all, has already happened. The original Ratchet and Clank already exists. Even if our PS2 has long been traded away, we don’t particularly need that game again. The attitude that insists on more of the old is the attitude that encourages publishers to produce the same games year after year, distinguished only by seemingly unconsidered costume changes. There can be value in the individual titles of these cookie-cutter annuals, but ultimately the reason Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed and others like it don’t change much is because we act like we don’t want them to. Until, that is, we get bored—at which point those franchises die out completely, robbed of all possible creative life by sheer repetition.
That’s not to say that Ratchet and Clank is a lifeless cash-in. It’s replete with care and vitality, and it feels like an honest return to a world the creators love. But as a utilization of its own past, it’s dull and safe. A game that so directly recreates a relic of gaming’s past needs to justify its own existence—to use the past in an interesting way, to imbue it with creative vitality. 2016’s Ratchet and Clank doesn’t. Nothing here surprises. Nothing here transforms.
I can’t help but compare it to the other game I’ve spent most of this month playing: Dark Souls III. It is an incredibly different game. But like Ratchet and Clank, it’s a game obsessed with its own past. In his review, WIRED’s own Daniel Starkey points out that this third outing in the series—fifth if you count the mechanically similar Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne—“takes place in many of the same areas as the first Dark Souls, but they’ve been ground down, worn away by centuries of war and ruin.”
The references begin oblique, almost clumsy. A similar enemy here, a strangely familiar tableau there. Then they escalate. By the middle of the game, an experienced player will find theirself somewhere they’ve been before, old architecture emerging from the recesses of the game engine like out of a dream. The old finds itself juxtaposed with the new in startling ways.
Dark Souls III feels, in some ways, like a stealth remake. It rebuilds and refines the old game’s edifices, taking the player on a journey that isn’t so different from the one they went on before. One could easily find that familiarity disappointing, an admission that the series is out of tricks, but where Dark Souls III succeeds—and where Ratchet and Clank, and most other remakes, fail—is add new context to old ideas. Instead of trying to replace the original, it complements it. As Starkey points out, it places an aging world in the context of history, of decay, of whole new worlds rising up to sit next to the old. It’s not original. But it is refreshed.
I’m not claiming that Dark Souls III and Ratchet and Clank should be directly compared in any other way, or that one should be found wanting before the other. But they both draw from gaming’s past to remake old experiences. And in using the past, only one of them manages to transcend it.