Insomniac Games' staff has likely been living up to its name more than usual over the past month. With the announcement of two new titles for the Oculus Rift and release of the game and film of Ratchet & Clank, the veteran developer has been burning the midnight oil to say the least. Therefore, it's no wonder that it should take some respite from the daily grind and mingle with fans, and that's exactly what the North Carolina division of the studio did on the opening night for its film.
Not being able to ignore this, Joey Thurmond took it upon himself to head on over to the event to meet some folks and watch the movie. You can read his lukewarm review about it, but he also had the pleasure of taking studio director Chad Dezern aside to pick his brain about it and the game. While technical errors may have prevented us from delivering this to you sooner, we can now present what transpired during our conversation.
Push Square: What drove the studio to delve back into the first Ratchet & Clank, especially considering that you already released an HD collection of the first three games back in 2012?
Chad Dezern: Sure, well, we know we have the feature film coming out, and to us that represented a golden opportunity to tell the ultimate version of Ratchet and Clank's origins story. We knew we wanted to make the game on PlayStation 4 and hit a visual bar that's a lot higher than anything we've been able to achieve before on previous platforms, but at the same time we never wanted to make just a "remaster". We knew from day one that we wanted to effectively make a new game that was built on top of the foundation of the old game.
You maintained and altered certain levels in the remake, along with changing the story, adding some new characters and weapons, and so forth. What were some of the primary motivations behind some of these creative decisions?
We took a look at the film script in its earliest stage and we outlined what we needed to do to hit the major story beats for Ratchet & Clank. The film tells a version of the origin story that's streamlined and cleaned up relative to the original game. The basics are all there but it rambles a bit, almost like we made it up as we went along... Which we kind of did. So now we're able to look at it with the benefit of everything we've learned over the years, and craft a much sturdier beginning for the series.
We started with the main film locations: Ratchet's home on Veldin, Aleero City on planet Kerwan, Drek's Warbot factory on Quartu, and Drek and Nefarious' Deplanetizer space station. Some of these had a basis in the original game, but some we constructed from scratch. Then we chose planets from the original game to push the action between the major story scenes. We tied it all together with the progression scheme of weapon levelling that we've evolved over the years. At the end of it, we have in-game progression tied to the clarity of Ratchet and Clank's new story.
So with some of things you see and do in the game, you decided to have them make more sense, narratively speaking?
Definitely. We were trying to hit a sweet spot between nostalgia and novelty, making sure all of our fans would recognize the bones of the original games, but we also wanted the game to be a breath of fresh air for a new audience with modernized controls and production values that were so good that it wasn't hampered by the earlier game. It's the best of everything we've learned over the years. This was a process of bringing those two things together and trying to keep them in balance.
Right, because a lot of people compare the visuals to something you'd see in a Pixar film. That's quite the compliment!
Yeah, we'll take it! We don't say it ourselves, but that's very nice to hear. We're giant Pixar fans here.
Since the game is a retelling of the first game, does it render the original story non-canonical? Or is it simply a different perspective on the events of the first game from Qwark's point of view?
The game is told from Qwark's point of view. It matches the film story, but Qwark adds commentary and it's his version of events to a certain extent. At the same time, we think that the main story beats are there; the big tentpoles – like Ratchet's origin as a Lombax orphan, Clank's origin as a factory defect – are still there, and none of it invalidates later games. We didn't set out to rework the canon. In other words, the Future series is still canon with everything else subsequently assuming part of the canon as well. The new game is just more of a cleaner retelling of sorts. Don't freak out!
What was your favorite planet, level, or boss to come back to? What were some of the most exciting things to redo the second time around?
For me it was the resort on Pokitaru, and I say that because that was one of the very first test pieces we ever made for Ratchet & Clank way back in the year 2000. We were just getting started in pre-production for the first game.
Right after Spyro 3?
Right after Spyro 3. We had a little bit of a false start with another game posthumously called "Girl with a Stick" that we worked on for about six months. It's semi-legendary in its non-release status, but after we figured out we wanted to make a game about a planet-hopping alien, one of the first things we did was find out how many polygons we could push by instancing objects with the amazing new PlayStation 2 hardware. We created a lot of plants to make a dense jungle island scene, and ended up with something that was much more detailed and grounded than any of our work up to that point. Same thing with the first Metropolis level: that one was about long city views, aerial street traffic, and hanging plants on buildings. We were kids in a candy store while making all of this.
What's the future of the franchise at this juncture? It's interesting that you didn't develop a new Ratchet & Clank for the next generation that continued after Into The Nexus. Did you feel you needed to get back to the series' roots before moving on to future games? Or was this more of a way to touch base with the franchise before setting sights on new horizons like VR?
It just kind of felt right, especially with the film coming out, to take a very thoughtful look at where we started. We thought of the game at first as a re-imagining, so we thought we'd use a lot more of the original than we did. But by the time we finished modernising the control scheme, we realised that we needed to rework just about everything. The new aiming model changes every enemy, setup, and weapon in the game. If you go back and play the original, you'll see that it's pretty hard to aim and shoot; that's because it was our first attempt at a third-person shooter. We now start with "it feels great to shoot" and design the game around that.
So when we finished the game we ended up with all-new bosses, a bunch of new planets, a new weapon arsenal, new Clank gameplay, new ship combat – not to mention the completely reworked visuals and an hour plus of new cinematics. It felt like we needed to get back to the core and soul of Ratchet & Clank and redefine it for the PS4 and 2016. At this point we feel like we have a sturdy foundation to work from. Maybe it goes forward from here, but we don't know yet! We're still basking in the warm reception to this one.
How smooth was the process of working with Rainmaker and Blockade Entertainment on bringing this beloved video game series to the big screen while making the game based on the movie... Er, based on the game?
It was really cool and collaborative. We didn't know at first what we were getting ourselves into. Syncing up the game with the feature film brought a lot of variables that we don't usually have, but thankfully it turned out to be a breath of fresh air. The animation teams were very willing to cooperate. They consulted with us about a whole lot of decisions because longtime series writer TJ Fixman co-wrote the film script, so we had a lot of different connecting points. And the animation director for the movie is Oliver Wade, who is a former Insomniac and good friend.
This was a very "feel-good" production in a lot of ways that led to all kinds of things like sharing models. We'd send a model from one of the PlayStation 3 games to Rainmaker, and they would up-res it, get it ready for the big screen, and send it back to us for the game. Then we'd change the shaders to get it ready for our proprietary engines. A lot of times the model that we see in the film is exactly the same as the model that's in the game. This is the first hardware generation where that sort of thing is possible. It speaks to how closely interwoven these two projects are.
What challenges and advantages did translating Ratchet & Clank to a movie format bring for the animation teams? In other words, what were some things that were better or harder to communicate through film that you had to work out?
The film does what films do best, and that's follow the arcs of the main characters. There are more characters and time spent establishing character traits and connections as emotional content. For the game, we have some of that, but we're also filling in the gaps between major sequences with game mechanics and game pacing. We focus on what feels fun to do for 15 minutes at a time while doing things like upgrading Ratchet's weapon arsenal throughout the game. I see it as each of these media doing the thing they're really good at, each tackling the same subject matter in a way that plays to their unique strengths.
Video game adaptations to film have never had a glamorous history, so by dipping into how the movie industry operates, has the experience influenced Insomniac's approach to game development or perhaps the Ratchet & Clank series? What were some of the most helpful or surprising things you learned while developing the game and assisting to produce a movie?
I don't have any crazy Hollywood stories about that or anything. We get together because we love making games; we're a studio of people who are big fans of science fiction: Star Wars, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters. We love brainstorming for games like this. We participated in weekly reviews, but were pretty insulated from day-to-day film production. Developing the game was hard, just like it always is. We had the challenge of figuring out how to structure it, how to make it amazing with the limited time we had, just like always. We faced some new challenges in working out the macro around the film story, but that was no easier or more difficult than it ever is. Just different.
Did you try to reach a broader audience with the film and game with a lighter, more friendly tone?
That's not something we talked about explicitly. Ratchet has become more relatable naturally over the years. He was sort of a jerk in the first game! So we used the more determined, heroic Ratchet that has evolved over the years. But really we just trying to stay true to ourselves and the stuff we love to see. We all grew up scribbling robots on our homework, so that comes naturally for Ratchet & Clank games.
Assuming you've already seen the film before, maybe numerous times, what are some of your favorite moments in the movie?
Yeah, I've seen it a lot! So many times... But I like some of the nods and fourth wall stuff. The self-awareness of characters. But I really like the sequence where Ratchet is exploring his weapon arsenal for the first time. He's becoming a Galactic Ranger, and for the first time he gets to teleport the weapons and play around with them. It's really in the spirit of the games and gameplay mechanics, showing off a lot of classic Ratchet weapons and featuring a lot of nice animation. It's a great action/comedy hybrid scene.
I also really liked both of the final scenes. No spoilers, but stay for the credits!
Whether the film receives positive or negative reception, what are you most proud about with this movie? What makes you think the film stands apart from video game movie adaptations in the past?
We're overjoyed that it exists. There was a neat collaboration during production. I believe that came from a very pure place. We have these characters and universe, and we've always thought there was more than enough there to warrant a feature film. There's a lot there. I don't know? Maybe it's just the experience of seeing the Solana galaxy in movie form for the first time. Maybe opening the characters up to a new audience who might not have heard of Ratchet & Clank. Or maybe to big fans who – like us – have always wanted to see this particular flavor of sci-fi comedy up on the big screen.
With Edge of Nowhere and recently announced games Feral Rites and The Unspoken, it's obvious that Insomniac sees a lot of potential and possible innovation to be made on the VR scene. Have you considered bringing some of these games or other original projects to PlayStation VR? Is there a possibility we might see one of your existing properties utilise that technology on PS4 in the near future?
We're pretty focused on the VR games that you mentioned, all of which are exclusive to Oculus. Who knows what the future holds? I think it's really cool to see so many high-value projects in the VR space. Of course we think it's a cool technology, and we're having fun developing for it. It's cool to see this take off and that there are a lot of different options and ways to have a great experience with VR. That's evidence that it's more than a passing fad. You just have to experience it to believe it. We're in the trenches figuring this stuff out along with a lot of other developers, and loving every minute of it.
What did you think of Ratchet & Clank for the PlayStation 4? If you've seen the movie, how do you think it compares? Engage thrusters in the comments section below to let us know.