Analysis · Games · Not Film

Looking at: System Fidelity and World Design in Ratchet 2 and Jak II

I had a PlayStation 2, Ratchet and Clank and Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy were two of the first games I played on it. Their sequels were made in very short periods of time. I believe Jak II was two years in development, Ratchet and Clank 2: Locked and Loaded for only one. You could say that these two games really defined the direction their respective series would go in.

Jak II changed the most radically, the introduction of an open world city, vehicles, guns, and an edgier tone defined a course that would be expanded upon in Jak 3. Platforming and puzzle challenges were largely replaced by combat encounters that utilised an expanded selection of moves and weapons. The largely linear nature of the original with its collect-a-thon style levels is gone, instead a selection of quests are available for the player to take on from NPCs at their convenience.

Ratchet changed less, however the introduction of an RPG-esque health and weapon levelling system allowed the developers to build progression into their combat encounters, this in turn devalued the character’s melee attack which in the original remained a viable option until the endgame. Along with changes that served to devalue the price of ammunition and the introduction of a strafing mode the series began to pay closer attention to the quality of the gunplay.

These were new directions for the two studios. Insomniac’s Spyro series and Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot on the PlayStation resided happily within the realm of platformers, and while Insomniac would return to shooters in the continuing Ratchet sequels and their Resistance series Naughty Dog has not yet created another freely explorable open world.

This rapid invention, the innovation in these two instalments had a detrimental effect on the games themselves however. Trying to design for these new modes and methods of interaction left world designers struggling to keep up with the mechanics.

Look here at the overworld map for Jak II, it’s a mess.

jak2

A staggering, incoherent piece of design that firstly fails to conjure any semblance of a believable place. The lack of interconnection proving a frustrating experience as any diversion from the main loop inevitably leads to a dead end. Naughty Dog’s admirable commitment to the visual fidelity of their worlds, something that has treated them well as technology evolved, leads to a game which must constantly break its sightlines. Trying to keep the visible area to a reasonable polycount led to a world that twists and turns, narrow passageways and blind corners, useful for obstructing view but a nightmare to navigate. It’s not a fun space to explore.

An example from the map of Ratchet 2 now,

ratchet2

Here we see the Testing Facility, Planet Dobbo. The level is split into two separate areas. The one to the left a platforming challenge, the player makes their way along platforming challenges down the hallway and once reaching the end is tasked with flying back using the glider wings item. The area on the right full of tough enemies making for a satisfying, self-contained combat encounter for each island. Often this will happen, a level bifurcated in order to provide a satisfying combat puzzle and a satisfying platforming one.

The real victim here is not the games. Jak II‘s city for all its flaws is manageable once you realise the single correct path and lean it enough to navigate by sight rather than relying on the map. Ratchet 2’s levels present fun platforming and combat challenges. The tragedy is that the worlds themselves suffer as a result of these choices. We can see the hand of the designer pulling at our spaces and disrupting their integrity.

The testing facility mentioned with its split design fails to feel like a real place. As in other levels, Vukovar Canyon and Canal City for two, the split design suggests the lack of a thrusting focus. The reality of the constructed space falls apart as we encounter two opposing realities contained within a supposedly contiguous space. We are no longer able to view these spaces as intended fictionally, instead they become calling cards of a fractured design.

Jak II‘s Haven City destruction comes through its inhumanity. It is not a place to support life, not a place built with life in mind. The incoherently placed districts, the rigid and defined boundaries that exist between them. This is not a place overrun by totalitarianism, the world itself is totalitarian, as if constructed in a petty dictator’s dream. Why are the markets and entertainment districts so far from the living areas? The stadium in the canal district, itself neighbouring the slums. We cannot see a world beyond the signifiers because they crash together so inarticulately.

These are just the middle entries in two trilogies though, the third of each presents a synthesis, a more coherent articulation of their aims. Both are better than the second instalments, though Imma go out and say the original Jak and Daxter is the best of that franchise. But the failings made by both these companies as they try to expand the scope of their worlds can be learned from: when developing mechanics, try to make sure they don’t invalidate your worlds.

You may notice I didn’t mention the Sly games, the secret platforming kings of the PlayStation 2 here. Well…

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