Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando is a sort of jack-of-all-trades game: ostensibly a 3D platformer, it’s really more of a third-person shooter with a bit of RPG-like stat-building thrown in for good measure. What’s really great about this game, though, is the level design, which makes the game Exhibit #1 in any list of games that effectively display an architectural sensibility.


R&C developers Insomniac borrowed technology from Naughty Dog (creators of Jak & Daxter) to allow them to build large, open spaces in which objects off in the distance — objects than in most games are little more than matte paintings — are actually faraway buildings that can be reached and fully explored. In J&D (the original; I haven’t had a chance to play Jak II yet), Naughty Dog used this to create wide, inviting levels that the player could run around and get lost in as she looked for orbs and widgets. Insomniac took a different road with the R&C games, though. Instead of giving the player a series of broad areas to explore, they offer levels that progress in a more straightforward linear fashion. But where “linear” is often an epithet used to malign hackneyed, limited games, it feels completely natural here. The long draw distances and complex, almost möbius-strip-like paths that the designers have created serve to hide the scripted nature of the levels from the player while at the same time allowing her to travel easily along the intended route without the always-distracting impedance of having to check a map every six steps.

The effect is similar to that of an amusement park, a zoo, or a large store. All of these places give the impression of choice, offering multiple paths and walkways for the customer to travel along, but they all push her ever so gently down a specific path so that she can experience a scripted series of events, whether it’s looking at the bears before the elephants or seeing men’s wear before kitchen appliances. In R&C, there is an explicit order in which goals are acheived and levels completed, but the player never has a chance to think to herself “I wish this were more like Vice City;” she’s too busy running, shooting, and just playing the game to worry about anything like a lack of emergent gameplay or multilinear narrative. More than the friendly characters, pleasing minigames, or ludicrously satisfying weapons, the smart level design is responsible for R&C’s satisfying experience.