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The Mechanics of Constraint

Ratchet and Clank


I’ve played a lot of Ratchet and Clank over the last few days. Actually, I haven’t played as much as I wanted because I’ve been pacing myself so I don’t finish it too quickly. It’s a great game pretty much across the board. It has really funny (and entirely skippable!) cut scenes, a consistently well-rendered cartoony aesthetic, sound effects that make you feel Ratchet’s slamming ratchet in your bones, and a really intuitive 3D camera. But what makes the game such a standout are its carefully chosen constraints.

The game comprises an astounding variety of gameplay styles which it integrates seamlessly. For each type of play, the designers have given you control over just those degrees of freedom relevant to the task at hand, thus keeping the controls simple while making them feel extremely powerful, responsive, and distinct. In the main game, for instance, you can pan the camera left and right and walk or jump in any direction. This freedom of motion means that even though there’s really only one way to go, it never feels forced. Carefully designed constraints also keep the game challenging without making it feel arbitrary. Switching among Ratchet’s many weapons pauses the action; the focus is on picking the best tool for the job rather than remembering arbitrary key combinations in the heat of battle.

Whether you’re directing Ratchet as he clambers up a magnetic wall, aiming at distant bad guys through a sniper’s scope, or guiding a bunch of 2D Clanks to safety in an old-style arcade mini-game, you feel the controls are equally responsive even though your actual control is constrained in different ways. When Ratchet is standing on a platform, for instance, you have to be careful that he doesn’t fall off, but when he’s running away from a giant robot along a narrow winding gangway, he can’t fall off the edge; that would needlessly distract you from more pressing matters such as jumping over obstacles, avoiding falling lanterns, and dodging laser beams.

The game is not easy but its constraints are designed to keep you playing. There are lots of hard-to-kill bad guys and you die often, but continue spots are frequent and even if you have to repeat certain segments over and over, each time you amass more screws (the game’s currency). After three or four repeats you usually have enough screws to buy a new weapon that will help you get unstuck. Ratchet and Clank is both thoroughly enjoyable and challenging because the designers have made sure that as a player you’re so busy enjoying all the things you’re free to do that you don’t notice those things you aren’t. Sort of like the US government.

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