Up until recently video game art books were something of an an enigma to me. I’d come across plenty, usually bundled-in with a special edition of a new game. But it always baffled me why someone would rather thumb through a series of still images, usually printed on crappy paper, rather than marvel at the astonishing beauty of any game in motion. After picking up The Art of Ratchet & Clank, published by Dark Horse, something finally clicked.
This book is bursting with more concept art, behind-the-scenes insights, and previously unpublished sketches than you could hurl an OmniWrench at. It shows how the medium should be handled, and what a good art book can do for video games away from the screen: it can put everything in context!
Divided into five chapters, each covering a particular aspect of the series, The Art of Ratchet & Clank is a pleasure to read because it pulls back the curtain on the PlayStation franchise’s 15-year history. From rough sketches and character concepts of what Ratchet himself might have ended up looking like, to a game-by-game breakdown of what the dev team hoped to achieve each time, it soon becomes clear this is no side-project but a genuine labour of love for Insomniac.
Perusing it you’ll learn how, before settling on Ratchet & Clank once the studio had finished up on Spyro, founder Ted Price and his team spent a long while developing a game simply referred to as ‘girl with a stick.’ Never-before-shown artwork for this game features in the early pages, and it’s clear that the roots of what would become the adventures of a Lombax and his robot companion – exotic worlds, a bipedal hero with opposable thumbs, and long draw distances – are here. This is but one of many examples where The Art of Ratchet & Clank benefits from being a celebration of the entire series, instead of being a more piecemeal project focused on individual entries.
In some ways the book is a companion piece to a GDC talk given earlier this year by Insomniac’s chief creative officer Brian Hastings. Veteran developers already know the value of sharing their experiences with their peers; this a way of doing it on a larger scale and with the players who also love the games.
As fascinating as the games themselves are, it's equally special to see where Ratchet & Clank itself garnered inspiration from, and The Art of Ratchet & Clank does a good job tracking the inception of certain ideas from start to finish. Did you know, for example, that the remit for many of the featured worlds was laid down as, “classic ‘50s and ‘60s sci-fi, with a dash of theme park design”? Me neither! From here it’s all about fashioning out vistas which purposefully invite the player’s eye into the scene with as much wonder and discovery as possible. This last point is a good summation of what happens each time you touch down on any Ratchet & Clank planet for the first time.
Of course, this is a video game art book first and foremost, and as such the art does a lot, if not most, of the heavy lifting. Every page is a feast for the eyes, covering the iterations and evolution of such aspects as Ratchet’s various armours, familiar locations like his homeworld of Veldin, and of course the guns – oh wow the guns!
Aside from the 11-game timeline that fills out the back half of the book, the concept art covering the many functionally- and visually-inventive guns featured in the Ratchet & Clank universe is perhaps the standout section. Though I can only imagine the reason a certain Mr. Zurkon isn’t paid more attention is due to the impending release of his autobiography, right?
I only wish the book was a little more candid with regards to the series' lows as well as the highs. Not to say that The Art of Ratchet & Clank tries to rewrite history around the likes of All 4 One and Full Frontal Assault, but instead of addressing these slumps head-on the book tends to gloss over them as “challenges” and move swiftly on. This book's target audience is fans of the series, who are probably pretty sympathetic to the mis-steps and would love to know how and why such things happen. I understand that with official productions the temptation is to only delve into the successes, but the failures are just as much a part of the story (or should be) and acknowledging them doesn't diminish anything.
This is at least somewhat made up for by the book’s inclusion of all the obscure and off-kilter asides of the series. The Adventures of Captain Starshield was a prequel web comic, released in six episodes, that exclusively appeared on the website in tandem with the launch of 2005’s Ratchet: Deadlocked. Such an oddity wasn’t easy to find and read until recently and, even if touched upon briefly, it's here.
Art books, especially those bundled in with alternate editions of triple-A games, could learn a thing or two from how The Art of Ratchet & Clank adds context around beautiful concept art, illustrations and notebook pages. A little bit of editorial goes a long way in terms of helping readers understand the development process of creating stunning worlds like these, and how different creatives built a neat idea for a video game into a 15-year series that, at the time of writing, looks like it will go on for a lot longer.