Ratchet & Clank, Star Wars, and the Never-Ending Joke of Merchandising

Ratchet & Clank is better than Star Wars.

This is (deliberately) an incendiary claim.  It is also (deliberately) a somewhat silly claim. Star Wars is a multibillion dollar ur-juggernaut of a franchise, dominating American pop culture since 1977.  Ratchet & Clank is nowhere near as dominant a franchise (not for lack of trying) with an at-best middlingly successful movie adaptation.  They are really not in the same league, in terms of sales and cultural mindshare.

Nonetheless, they share a large number of aesthetic and discursive similarities.  Both have a fundamentally identical vision of a space-borne society that is basically just our modern world, but massively scaled up. There is plenty of heavy, hierarchically organized industry, highly imperfect democratic mechanisms and dictatorship existing as the dominant competing options for social organization, with the latter represented by enormous, transparently evil armies of dehumanized goons.  Both have transparently simplistic narratives about lone heroes (and their cutesy robot sidekicks) fighting evil empires.  In R&C, every game comes with its own iteration of “the evil empire”.  However, a rose, by any other name, smells…pretty much the same.

The major – perhaps only – difference between them boils down to self-awareness; namely, Star Wars has none whatsoever, and R&C has plenty. R&C consistently relies on self-referential meta-jokes that belie an understanding, on the part of the games, that they are engaged in packaging old tropes for straightforward entertainment purposes.  As opposed to the Star Wars franchise, whose partisans are constantly busy maintaining history’s most obnoxious merchandising machine while masturbatorily waxing rhapsodic about how it changed the world.

For example, in Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando (har-har, wink-wink), the second game in the main series, the overarching villain of the game is a giant corporation that owns and operates pretty much everything in the galaxy in which the story takes place.  Numerous cutscenes offer context and background for the corporation’s activities, including the usual litany of corporate sins: environmental devastation, industrial espionage, dangerous animal and human testing, and – the main thrust of the game – releasing dangerous products onto the market.  In this case, the dangerous product is the genetically engineered “Protopet”, that is found to breed wildly and be voraciously carnivorous and dangerous to people; corporate consumerism threatens to literally eat the world, just like in Dawn of the Dead.  This Mega Corp’s name….is MegaCorp.

With a mercenary organization named Thugs-4-Less, and villains like Dr. Nefarious and Supreme Executive Chairman Drek, R&C‘s tongue punches right through its cheek and into your eye.  The fact that the franchise’s environments and stories are deliberately brimming with cliches and stereotypes, all stitched together with willfully juvenile double entendres, is a running gag within the franchise.  By contrast, in Star Wars, the fact that the movie is a veritable ancestral quilt of cliches is not meant to be laughed at, because Star Wars treats itself as Serious Cinema. Both the original trilogy and the prequels draw heavily on John Ford’s The Searchers – amongst many other examples of classic cinema – but almost solely for evocative scenery.  Film and comics critic, Noah Berlatsky, writes of The Searchers‘ influence in the original trilogy:

In Ford’s film, the burning of a white homestead by comanches is the touchstone for a complicated meditation on revenge, racism, and violence, as John Wayne’s Ethan sets off to rescue his niece from the Indians—or possibly to kill her, if she hasn’t remained pure. In Lucas’ movie, on the other hand, Ford’s harrowing image of a burned out home is just an excuse for Luke to go gallivanting off into hairsbreadth retro-serial adventures. The Searchers spends two hours documenting five years of hardship and grief sparked by the death of parents and loved ones. Star Wars spends five minutes on the same themes, before Luke trots off, never to mention his aunt and uncle again.

Who knew being fridged could cause such bad burns?

It is worth mentioning that there is a roughly 25 year gap between the release of A New Hope and the release of the original Ratchet & Clank on the PS2.  When R&C makes merciless fun of the tropes of sci-fi stories, Star Wars forms a good chunk of the genre context from which it draws.  This is why one of the biggest cliches R&C lampoons is the Death Star itself.  In the very first game, the villain is Supreme Executive Chairman Drek, whose eviiiillllll plan involves destroying multiple planets using a weapon called the Deplanetizer.  Deliberately goofy name aside, it is a transparent stand-in for the Death Star, albeit a highly tongue-in-cheek one.

In the third game, Dr. Nefarious’ scheme involves a weapon called the Biobliterator, in another deliberately cheesy twist.  The weapon’s purpose is to turn organic beings into robots, as part of Dr. Nefarious’ personal grudge against organic life forms. It is a very large orb with a bright, glowing orange spot on its surface, presumably from which the biobliteration spews.  It may not deplanetize, but it is most certainly a Death Star – allegorically, at any rate.

But the Biobliterator’s allegory goes a step further.  Dr. Nefarious originally pursues his plan in Up Your Arsenal by getting an army of archetypical Evil Alien Invaders to fight for him, known as Tyrrhanoids.  They resemble shapeless blobs with eye stalks and snaggly teeth – and, coincidentally, they are the first victims of Nefarious’ Biobliterator.  These stereotypical aliens are turned into walking, talking action figures – or, at least, lumbering and gurgling – by a Death Star lookalike.

In a way, this is a more perfect spoof and representation of the Death Star than the Deplanetizer was.  The Death Star was the narrative device that tied the original Star Wars trilogy together (as well as Rogue One and The Force Awakens).  But the original trilogy was always about selling toys, even to the exclusion of telling a meaningful story.  The Death Star, the technical endeavor that motivates much of the Empire’s activity in the series, is also the organizing force that produces the army of stormtroopers.  Living, organic beings don armor and lasers in the name of the Empire and its concrete manifestation in the Death Star, turning them from individuals into faceless, walking action figures. By serving as the lynchpin for the original trilogy, the Death Star enabled the seemingly endless proliferation of toys and branding well into the present day.  The Biobliterator’s function of proliferating mechanical, deliberately stereotypical aliens is truer to the purpose of theDeath Star than is the Deplanetizer’s function of making really big things blow up.

It is in Up Your Arsenal where the R&C franchise turns this self-awareness from a humorous diversion to a full-throated lampoon.  Several major plot points revolve around in-universe entertainment products starring one or more of the main characters from the game itself.  One example is an in-universe movie called Secret Agent Clank, starring Clank, the titular robot sidekick in Ratchet & Clank.  In these movies, Clank plays the part of a sexy super-spy, a la James Bond (that other famous, crap mega-franchise).  One level has you “playing” a scene from this in-universe movie, which culminates in a scene where Clank becomes a giant robot to fight the Terror of Talos (a monster resembling a winged Godzilla) and a clan of giant robot ninjas in a crowded downtown area.  Coincidentally, the fictional director of this deliberately cliche-ridden movie-within-a-game vaguely resembles George Lucas.

The immediately subsequent level sees you shooting your way through aliens in a series of unused sets; a boss fight in the game is against a chart-topping pop-star named Courtney Gears, who helps Dr. Nefarious turn the galaxy’s people into robots; and there is a mini-game that takes the form of 2D side-scrolling “vid-comics” (within the R&C world) that star Captain Qwark fighting Dr. Nefarious, just like R&C: Up Your Arsenal stars Captain Qwark fighting Dr. Nefarious, albeit mostly through Ratchet.  In the intro/outro sequences for the vid-comics, a narrator reads melodramatic exposition, periodically breaking character to register his distaste for his subject matter.  When this narrator realizes that he is told to narrate a story about “Robotic Pirate Ghosts”, he scoffs, “Oh, please tell me this is a typo.”  The R&C franchise takes repeated asides to wink at the audience, point to itself, and whisper, “What a load of crap, right?!”

But R&C goes much farther in its lampoon; like Spaceballs before it, it takes dead-center aim at the odious merchandising behemoth that Star Wars has become, particularly in the fourth franchise entry, Deadlocked.  In this, Ratchet is kidnapped by a robber baron TV mogul named Gleeman Vox, who forces Ratchet to participate in televised gladiator games.  The game repeatedly refers to a disturbing trend of “superheroes getting kidnapped throughout the galaxy,” implicitly ridiculing Star Wars and superhero fiction in the same pop sci-fi canon.  For his part, Vox is trying to pump up his star hero, Ace Hardlight, because Vox invested too heavily in action figures and Ace Hardlight branded merchandise that nobody wants to buy – multiple cutscenes show Vox trying and failing to market and focus-test these toys into success.  When Ratchet ultimately kills Ace Hardlight in the arena and tries to escape, Vox orchestrates a scenario where Ratchet’s escape attempt becomes a TV event, broadcasted for his viewers – in exactly the same manner as every other thing Ratchet did throughout the game was broadcasted for viewers, both in the universe and for us, as the video game itself.

Vox is, in this case, a larger than life representation of the impulse to transmute gratuitous violence into spectacle that is marketable in the form of both entertainment products and toys – an impulse that Star Wars embodies even more viscerally.  Vox’ creation of Ace Hardlight and Courtney Gears action figures is supposed to be ridiculous and awkwardly forced – just like the faux merchandising in Spaceballs (“Spaceballs the lunchbox!…Spaceballs the breakfast cereal!…Spaceballs the flamethrower!”).

Deadlocked makes a whole game on the premise of the gladiator games that are a mini-game of sorts in the rest of the franchise, which routinely jokes about vicious entertainment served to a salivating, perennially juvenile audience.  But this parodic impulse extends much farther and more broadly – the very structure and marketing decisions of the franchise are part of the joke.  The Ratchet & Clank Future series is really just the continuation of the main series on the subsequent generation of hardware, but the future that is being sold and packaged is, conspicuously and deliberately, much like the past of the franchise, but with an aesthetic and technical upgrade.  When the first game in this “new” series was released, the New York Times review opined, “…[this is] the first game to truly deliver the long-sought ‘you are playing a Pixar movie’ experience.”  The current shared owner of Star Wars and Pixar makes this invocation particularly uncanny.  But R&C‘s application of industrial light and magic is a mimic of one of Star Wars’ greatest hallmarks – it was, after all, the most positive attribute of the original trilogy.

This application of technology is yet another running gag in the franchise.  One of the recurring side-characters is a plumber who inexplicably fixes and develops many different tools the main characters use.  Ratchet himself is a talented mechanic, and engages in science-that-is-indistinguishable-from-magic.  Numerous random inventors and scientists appear as side characters and cameo parts, peddling devices to our hero.  But on the level of meta-parody, the even shinier reboot of the original game is actually “based on” a CGI movie that is based on the original game; the levels of compulsive franchising are willfully spun out of control, and then made fun of.  In one trailer for the movie, the voiceover narrator engages in “In a world…” cliche before being rudely interrupted and corrected by characters and plot points.  The movie’s initial teaser features several star characters breaking the fourth wall to lament the lack of gratuitous boilerplate, “Where’s the eye-popping 3D, the CG explosion?!  Where’s the DUBSTEP?!”

In contrast, the trailer for The Force Awakens was a feverish patchwork quilt of reused bits of canon, “Jedi! Dogfight! Millennium Falcon! Vader’s Helmet! The Force! Lightsaber! Stormtrooper!” All of this, set to the usual, soaring John Williams soundtrack, promising to blow our minds with absolutely nothing new.  This eventually lead us to the disturbing and gross moments, in Rogue One, where Peter Cushing and a young Leia were brought back with CGI, all to populate a ‘creative’ vision with nothing creative to offer.  Ratchet & Clank recycles the same old crap from the rest of its franchise and laughs at it, because the same old crap was always laughable – it’s a repetitive trope, but one with comedic and entertainment value.  This approach yields a handful of hilarious oddities.  For example, the Ratchet & Clank game-based-on-a-movie-based-on-a-game is not the only time the franchise has pulled that gag; that awful in-universe movie, starring Clank, from the 3rd game also became its own spinoff. Dr. Nefarious makes numerous repeat appearances, including one in the R&C Future series in a story heavily involving time travel – the time-traveling villain travels back from the past to join his audience in the Future.  Ratchet & Clank turns cliche and banal self-recycling into a gag reel full of sex jokes, providing juvenile comedy and a journey through space that is made all the more entertaining by the awareness of its own banality. Star Wars‘ – and many of its fans’ – utter devotion to this never-ending ouroboros of detritus is just alienating and dismaying.

Ultimately, this is what sets the two franchises apart. Star Wars insists that its Frankenstein’s creation of action figure advertisements, inexplicably boring John Williams scores, and characters devoid of challenging moral complexity is a great cinematic and narrative achievement. Ratchet & Clank knows it is not, and spends the better part of its energy laughing at exactly that notion.  Ironically enough, this self-consciousness purifies the baseline, boilerplate space adventure of the poisonous tendency towards alienation that plagues Star Wars.  It is hard to accept that Star Wars is banal and still enjoy it on its own terms, because the franchise so vehemently insists on denying this basic reality. Ratchet & Clank‘s comedic self-awareness means the R&C Future series can rely on ridiculous amalgamations of tropes – such as robotic pirate zombies and time-traveling robot space fairies – and still make space for pathos in an otherwise by-the-book story about friendship. Ratchet & Clank can make you laugh and feel in the same moment, but Star Wars‘ conceited delusion of being high art makes it nothing better than a bitter pill.

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