Ratchet & Clank's Nearly 20-Year History Started With a Graph Paper Note

You can track the storytelling evolution of modern video games through a gameplay programmer writing the script for Ratchet & Clank.

Jul 6 2021, 1:00pm

The year is 2001. Insomniac Games had finished work on their third Spyro the Dragon game, and was looking for creative inspiration. It proved hard to come by, and the studio cycled through a few ideas about what to work on. They don't want to make another Spyro. 

"We were all just brainstorming new ideas," said Brian Hastings, who at the time was a programmer at Insomniac. These days, Hastings is the studio's head of creative strategy.

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On Hasting's desk was a stack of green graph paper. He was a programmer, of course. On one of those sheets were a few ideas Hastings had for a video game. (He's pretty sure there were five ideas.) Smack dab in the middle was a simple premise: an alien traveling from planet to planet with gadgets and weapons. It was an idea inspired by Spaceman Spiff, one of Calvin's personas in the famous Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, and Marvin the Martian. 

"I was thinking about what existing characters really have a world that I would want to be in, that I would actually want to go into," said Hastings. 

That graph paper idea would become Ratchet & Clank, a delightful sci-fi mixture of action and platforming that would prove to be much more than a one-off experiment. Last month, the studio released the fantastic Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart for the PlayStation 5, marking the 16th game in the franchise, depending on how you're counting. (Insomniac has made 13 Ratchet & Clank games, with other studios pitching in on spin-offs. And one HD collection.)  

Rift Apart, more than any Ratchet & Clank before it, elevates its storytelling, putting it not quite hand-in-hand with gameplay—it's ultimately a series about shooting things—but is a better and more interesting experience because of the story. That's because it's a good one, full of heart and charm that left me thinking the series will be around for another 20 years.  

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Hastings doesn't know what happened to that now-iconic piece of graphic paper that started it all.

After coming across the idea, Hastings pitched Insomniac founder and CEO Ted Price, who, in Hasting's recollection, mostly responded with a semi-interested "yeah, yeah, okay." But then Price started telling other people about the idea, and everything took off from there.

The next day, Price announced it was the next game Insomniac was making. Two weeks later, Insomniac had a prototype up and running and the studio was throwing ideas at it.

"It was incredible just how fast things came together," said Hastings.

I asked Insomniac to look around for footage of that prototype, but alas, none was found.

The reason I'd reached out to Hastings was over this question I'd posed on Twitter: "Is Ratchet and Clank the longest running platformer series with a consistent and ongoing story and mythology?" The answer to that question is no, and my takeaway was that I need to play the Kirby series as soon as humanly possible to understand its apparently rich lore.

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

Nonetheless, it ranks high on the list. Some franchises, like Mario, have been around for longer, but what makes a series like Ratchet & Clank distinct is that it's tried to nurture a consistent mythology and develop arcs for its characters over time, in combination with the gameplay. Mario, by contrast, is mostly a premise that exists to service the gameplay.

Consistency was not top of mind in 2001, however.

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When originally brainstorming this piece, I looked up the credits for the original Ratchet & Clank, hoping to see some kind of writing credit. But it was 2001, and there really weren't writing credits on video games back then. Games were, of course, telling stories through both play and written words, but hiring someone to participate in crafting those? Less so.

On Insomniac's last project, Spyro: Year of the Dragon, Hastings and Gavin Dodd wrote the script and handled the voice over direction. This happened simultaneously with their more official job as gameplay programmers. The same plan was in place for Ratchet & Clank.

"We didn't really have a writing team and we also we didn't have time to rewrite much. [laughs] So the story would just kind of unfold and everyone would throw ideas."

At times, the person stuck with a piece of writing was the last person in the office, meaning they were the only person who could write it. While Hastings and Dodd contributed a lot to that original game, it's also how animators John Lally and Oliver Wade ended up roped in.

There were a couple of basic building blocks, though. Hastings grew up with Star Wars and Star Trek, but in imagining his own futuristic world, found himself deeply influenced by Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books. He was drawn to this notion of a broken but hopeful future, one with exaggerated but relatable pieces of our current timeline. 

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"I like the idea, for instance, [that] corporations control the galaxy more than any government does," said Hastings, "that there's wild west of consumerism and unchecked capitalism where you'll just have a vendor on the street selling conveniently sized atomic weaponry and that's just a normal thing, like a washed up superhero is just hawking gadgets."

The team's approach was for someone to shout an idea and everyone else to go "yeah!" and then it would end up in the game. They were building the railroad for the train while the train was already on the move, and there wasn't much consideration to why, how, or the future.

"We had the plan for 'OK, Ratchet and Clank are gonna meet, and then they're going to beat this villain and they're going to become friends,'" said Hastings. "But we didn't really have an arc beyond that, except that we want to explore this world."

Take Qwark, for example, the feeble hero wanna-be that served as co-antagonist in the first Ratchet & Clank. Qwark has stuck around for the entire run of Ratchet & Clank, and these days he's an affable hero. But there was never any intention for Qwark to exist beyond that first game, until Insomniac saw the designs that came in from artist David Guertin and heard the bombastic life that actor Jim Ward brough to the character. Then, plans had to change.

"We all really loved him and felt like, 'OK, well, what if he has a redemption at the end of it, he comes back and that kind of thing?" And he just became a recurring character."

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Insomniac didn't hire a formal writer, Brad Santos, until the third game, 2004's Up Your Arsenal. Hastings issued a writing test for prospective applicants, who were tasked with writing a one-page scene for Ratchet. The reason Santos was hired? He made them laugh.

"We didn't really have a writing team and we also we didn't have time to rewrite much. [laughs] So the story would just kind of unfold and everyone would throw ideas."

"We were just figuring it out back then, and it's been an ongoing process," he said. "Back when we were first starting, it was Brad [Santos] and I writing the story together. We would work with the teams making the levels and talk about, 'OK, what are the needs for this level and the macro design and then how can we kind of fit that into the story?'"

What Hastings likes to think, looking back, is that it was a collaborative process, when it really wasn't. It was much more, as he put it, "this is what we've got to do with the story, everybody work with this." That feels like a natural extension of a series that went from a one-off experiment pulled from a piece of graph paper into a series with actual stories to tell.

It wasn't until 2007's Tools of Destruction that Insomniac even thought about creating a story bible—a way to keep the timeline and characters a throughline, in the event that new writers come through and old writers need a refresher. This forced them to figure out some basic questions, such as the distance between galaxies, the way time and reality operate, etc. 

Hastings pointed to one of the series' notable alien races, the Blarg. Insomniac put the Blarg into Ratchet & Clank because it looked cool. Only later did they have to figure out what exactly the Blarg were, because suddenly the story had gone on long enough and player expectations had changed to the point that Insomniac needed an answer to such questions.

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Tools of Destruction was the start of what fans called the "Future Trilogy," a series of three games—Tools of Destruction, A Crack in Time, Into the Nexus—that had persistent arcs. Not coincidentally, it coincided with the introduction of another writer to the series, T.J. Fixman.

"It wasn't really until the Future series that we explored deepening Ratchet and Clank's character arcs," said Hastings. "Who are they? We know that Ratchet actually grew up alone, so then we turn that into him being orphaned, last of his species, that kind of thing."

Hastings contrasted the top down approach of the older games to the way Insomniac made the most recent Ratchet & Clank, Rift Apart. A series of levels in Rift Apart have players controlling a tiny robot named Glitch, who dives into the circuitry of machinery to clean viruses. That beat was pitched by a designer, Chrinstia Curlee, and the writers "ran with it."

It's a process that's evolved alongside Insomniac and game development writ large. Insomniac not having a dedicated writer working on a game where story was important wasn't unique—it was standard. It wasn't until recently that writing became a viable career path in video games, and even today, the process of incorporating writers is often messy, last minute, and too frequently in service of the gameplay instead of working in harmony.

One piece of evidence for how things have changed over the years: in 2020, Insomniac published a 240-page book featuring the script for Insomniac's own Spider-Man game. 

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These days, Hastings isn't an everyday writer on Ratchet & Clank, let alone anything else at Insomniac. As chief creative officer, Hastings described his job as a chance to "play games for a living" and collaborate with more people across the studio. It's a bigger place now.

It also means that at one point, Hastings had to say goodbye to the series that was birthed from his desk. A mere gameplay programmer no more, I asked Hastings if he could remember the last time he wrote for the game, which caused him to pause for a long time. 

"I give suggestions for the lines," he finally said, punctuated by a laugh. 

Some of his suggestions, apparently, are in Rift Apart.

"They're just like a handful of silly things that kind of made their way in," said Hastings. "Mostly I'm trying to bring out the greatness that everyone else has already got."

If the original Ratchet & Clank stumbled into a good idea, Rift Apart shows what years and years of time spent with that idea can turn into without losing that original slice of inspiration.

"[Ratchet & Clank] is an optimistic future, and every story has heart and every story finds a way to say something that's relevant to our time, to our world, to right now," said Hastings. "It's different every time. We started out more satirical."

You can see that satire and teenage humor in many of the game's old titles: Going Commando, Up Your Arsenal, Quest for Booty. But that humor worked because of heart.

"I like that the Ratchet & Clank franchise in general is a place you go that makes you feel a little bit better about the world, a little bit more positive," said Hastings. "Even when we're making fun of absurdities or silly things in the world, it's done in a way where it feels like this is an optimistic future. This is a place I want to keep coming back to because it makes me feel like things are going to get better."

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561)

Tagged:

Playstation, Ratchet and Clank

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