The history of video game-to-movie adaptations is a boneyard of broken dreams, littered with the remains of once-beloved properties from Alone in the Dark and Silent Hill to Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter. And those are just the game franchises aimed at grownups that were getting the big-screen treatment. Pour one out for Mario, while you're at it. (Poor, poor Mario.) The "success stories," such as they are, are watchable garbage in the vein of Tomb Raider, while the failures come screeching directly out of some Uwe Boll-directed nightmare. As Yeats once wrote, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
That's heady stuff to deal with when talking about movies based on video games, but it's difficult to overstate how poor the track record is here. But Sony, whose Ratchet & Clank is a beloved game franchise that launched in 2002 and has gone on to encompass nine console games, plus spin-offs and mobile games, hopes to have the property that bucks the trend. To that end, they've taken an unprecedented approach to both the Ratchet & Clank film—in theaters on April 29—and the just-released reboot of the original Ratchet & Clank title for the PS4. Rather than license the property to a studio and call it a day, the new entries to the Ratchet & Clank universe were developed simultaneously by Insomniac Games (for the PS4 game, naturally) and Rainmaker Entertainment (for the film)—and more than that, the process was a collaborative one, where those involved with both projects were aware of what the others were doing, to ensure both that the film captured the essence of the game, and that the game delivered for new fans who are coming to Ratchet & Clank from the movie.
Ratchet & Clank is the story of a Ratchet, a vaguely feline adventurer, and his robot pal Clank, as they traverse the galaxy battling Captain Qwark and the evil Dr. Nefarious. And Ryan Schneider, the chief brand officer at Insomniac Games, says that the "magic nugget" was making sure that fans of the series would find what they were looking for from both projects.
"It was authenticity first, at every step of the way," Schneider tells CoCreate. "Everybody wanted to get the characters right. Everybody wanted to be true to the story. It wasn't about making a film that sells, necessarily—though that's very important—it was about getting it right. Because of that, any time there were discussions that needed to be had [between the game and the movie side], we were all approaching the subject from a place of love and support, as opposed to opposite interests."
Michael Hefferon, the president and chief creative officer at Rainmaker Entertainment, says that once they started previewing the film, the response from fans let them know that they were on the right track. "When PlayStation did the big announcement about the game coming out, and showed a clip of the film, we saw such great approval from the fan base," he says. "And that's continued as the trailers and teasers and commercials spots have been released—we continue to see the fan base excited about it, and that's really key. Mobilizing the fan base and spreading the Ratchet & Clank gospel to nonfans, or families who don't know it, so we build out that audience with excitement."
Tapping into an existing fan base is part of the point with any adaptation, but the number of people you need to see a Hollywood production heading out to 2,600 screens means that you can't just rely on that. Hefferon says that the movie "is a family film, at heart," and it needs to appeal to people who haven't played the games—but the approach to this project was to introduce those viewers to the appeal of the game.
"What's most gratifying for me is the fans' sense of ownership in the franchise, which is very apparent," Schneider says. "They feel like these are their characters, and that they've come to life on the big screen in a way they can be proud of, and share with their friends and family—they can say, this is why I love Ratchet & Clank. That made all the work worthwhile."
"Just to be candid, Insomniac wouldn't have been involved in a game-to-film project if we were cut out of the loop," Schneider says of the process of developing Ratchet & Clank. To that end, Rainmaker had Oliver Wade, who was an animator on the very first Ratchet & Clank game, embedded with the team at the studio as an animation producers, serving as "the brand eyes and ears" to ensure that the film stayed on point in how it turned a game into something that could hold an audience's attention for 90 minutes of narrative.
Wade wasn't the only game developer who worked on the film. One of Insomniac's writers, TJ Fixman, wrote the first draft of the script, and Dave Guertin and Greg Baldwin, the artists who created the characters of Ratchet and Clank, served as the lead visual designers for the film. It was a full-scale integration that differed sharply from most adaptations.
"We were actively involved in the animation dailies and the lighting passes and looking at environments together, and even sharing assets," Schneider says of the process of developing the game and the movie simultaneously—which didn't just help the movie develop, it helped the game, too. "Just to have that level of integration, and watching the film really grow from the very beginning until its completion, was incredibly helpful for both products."
Not only do movies based on video games have a poor track record, but video games based on movie releases haven't always been so great, either. While there've been gems (looking at you, Goldeneye), generally video games based on movies struggle in a similar way to their inverse counterparts—they fail to take advantage of the things that the medium they're in does well, instead letting you suffer through an overly long, vaguely interactive version of the same story.
Working on the two simultaneously, though, gave both Insomniac and Rainmaker a chance to focus on what works best in their respective medium. For the film, Hefferon explains, they could get more into character, in ways that can disrupt the gameplay experience in a video game.
"I think, at the end of the day, it really is that journey," Hefferon says. "It's getting more in-depth into our characters. It's character arc development, it's story arc development—it's those situations that really propel our characters into the events that are going on. With this film coming out with the game, you have the best of both—you have cases where the storylines parallel each other, and that's fantastic. Fans can go off and experience what's been happening in the film. At the same time, there are a lot of new things going on in the film."
Ultimately, developing the two projects in concert gave both the game developers and the filmmakers the chance to do something unique. The jury's still out on the creative rewards in this instance, but the approach is something we may see more of, as more and more work is conceived for audiences who don't see a hard line between "movies" and "games."
"It really represents where entertainment experiences are going—this 360-engagement opportunity, and to tell both linear and nonlinear stories, and have the opportunity to see them merge together," Hefferon explains. "The ideas for how this game was going to come together were very much a part of the film's creative process, and I think that's why there are such great points of synergy, and even telling the story from two different perspective. Some of those points come together, and yet the experience differs."