In the new PS4 version of Ratchet and Clank, plot is central. The game was released at the same time as a full-length movie (in theaters now) that was created as a collaboration between the game designers and filmmakers, including some script cross-over and voice-acting by Rocky Balboa, among others. The game itself also features extended movie-like cut scenes, lots of dialogue, and a clear, linear save-the-world narrative. The experience of playing it is essentially that of controlling the protagonists of a Pixar movie. It turns out that those movies have been making an obscene amount of money, which means at some point in a giant corporate building somewhere, a man in a suit woke up from a fugue state screaming: “kick some asteroid!” Which is now the byline of Ratchet and Clank the movie. Anyways. Back to the game. While for most players the plot will probably remain a secondary feature of Ratchet and Clank—the gameplay of which is incredibly fluid and satisfying—it’s the game’s narrative that reveals the important truth behind its ideology: that this apparently innocent title highlights a very difficult problem currently confronting the political left-wing. Let me explain.
The plot of the 2002 original reflected a basic anti-fascist and anti-economic-acquisition ideology: Chairman Drek has designs to build a new super-planet, a powerful ‘homeland’ for his flocks of uniformed, conformist followers. The land for this planet must be requisitioned from other planets, destroying the lives and homes of their legitimate owners in the name of Drek’s super-race of powerful nationalist droids. In his words:
My race, the Blarg, have a small problem. Our planet has become so polluted, overpopulated, and poisonous that we are no longer able to dwell here. We are constructing a pristine new world using the choicest of planetary components available.
The ‘Galactic Rangers’ must save the world from these evil forces, restoring the peaceful balance of the universe and allowing citizens to resume their innocent lives within the confines of their even more innocent homes. So far the plot is just a casual glorification of American-brand democracy: it errs on the side of ethically sound. Indeed, ‘Chairman’ Drek could be compared to Chairman Mao: in 2002 the Americans perceived ongoing Chinese technological advances as a looming threat to the geopolitical balance (read: American and Western-European dominance).
Fast forward nearly fifteen years. The 2016 edition of the game’s plot hasn’t changed much, but a shift in Western political focus means we now experience its ideology quite differently. The game kicks off with a naturally harmonious status quo: each planet is flourishing independently and in isolation from one another. The ‘less-developed’ early-game planets like Novalis are greener and more pastoral, while the ‘more developed’ late-game planets are technologically advanced, giant dystopian metropolises marred by warfare and evil technology. There’s a pretty clear implication: right-wing fascists embrace accelerated development and technology which leads to the creation of destructive weaponry, all-seeing complex surveillance structures, secure fortresses, and increasingly regulated conformist societies. This might ring especially true today, when major social media and internet companies—working hand-in-hand with the US government and other global corporations—actively develop technology that is in the process of creating exactly such a society. Again, so far, the game seems ethical enough. The Blarg are portrayed as heartless capitalists embracing deregulation: they represent both America and many of its purported enemies.
It’s when it comes to the ‘good guys’ that Ratchet and Clank becomes more problematic. The titular characters—along with the society they seek to defend—are totally backwards-looking vis-à-vis the technological world of Drek and his Blargs. Despite Crank being a robot and Ratchet having a fondness for high-tech weaponry, their values are firmly grounded in the nostalgic past and their quest is one to restore pastoral serenity and avoid the evil ‘mixing up’ of all the planets into a monoculture. They seek to reinstate the closed borders of each planet and restore them to a harmonious state: everything in its natural and nationalist place. This kind of heavy-handed nostalgia for a bygone (and largely imaginary) age of national serenity isn’t left-wing at all—indeed, it’s the very ideology Donald Trump actively screams from the podium as the jerky-faced bastard lurches towards the presidency.
This contradiction perfectly embodies the crisis at the core of the current-day left-wing political movement. They are faced with two ideological options: promote international globalization which will inevitably turn us into slaves of a global government run by corporate interests (this feels closer than ever in the current political climate), an option represented by the dystopian vision of Drek and his Blargs; or push for a return to the serene nation-state couched in anti-internationalism and right-wing nostalgia, represented by Ratchet and the Galactic Rangers, seemingly hell-bent on policing any possibility of internationalism. In short, both options are right-wing. In Ratchet and Clank, there are no good guys—at least from the perspective of true left-wing ideology.
This is exactly the problem facing today’s establishment left: they must find a coherent response to the dangerous developments in global politics and technology while avoiding the temptation to slip back into an even more ethically questionable yearning for ‘natural’ and national serenity. At the end of Ratchet and Clank (spoilers!), destroying Drek’s ‘Deplanetizer’ and its complex infrastructure feels like a waste of potentially subversive technology. One would hope that by dismantling and retooling it, the Galactic Rangers could help transform international society into a forward-looking culture that respects human dignity. Instead we simply opt for the restoration of order, destroying the big bad tech and resuming the comfortable status quo. What could be more conservative than that?