Note: This article contains minor spoilers for Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart.
Insomniac spent the last three years crafting a polished platformer that, upon release, has become one of the most compelling reasons to buy a PlayStation 5. The dimension-hopping adventure features technically advanced gameplay on a next-gen console where entire worlds load in mere seconds. But one level in particular — where you fight a massive robot named The Fixer — was “very hard to get right,” game director Mike Daly tells Fanbyte.
“The total amount of labor involved in this was on the high end, because we iterated on a lot,” he says. “But this is also a good example of the team really firing on all cylinders, and getting a lot of value out of the time we spent on it.”
The action-packed level sees co-protagonist Rivet and companion Clank venture to a dusty scrapyard in the desert on the planet Torren IV. The two are in search of someone who can mend a crystal that could be the key to repairing part of Rivet’s ship. When the they arrive, however, they discover that the only one who can help is a robot suffering from an existential crisis, hellbent on destroying rather than fixing.
A frenzied battle between Rivet and the giant machine (and occasionally robot pirates) ensues. You swerve on grind rails, masterfully evading falling scaffolding and making death-defying jumps across large chasms, almost as if the scene came right out of Uncharted. The fight is a tremendous, adrenaline-fueled set piece, speeding you across rocky cliffs and through cavernous tunnels. Insomniac hoped to make you feel as though you’re in “constant danger,” as you escape a deathly laser beam emitting from the Fixer’s eyes or wall run to dodge moving carts.
Capturing that feeling of impending doom meant forgoing dimension hopping in this section of the game, Daly says, since sporadic interdimensional travel provides a sense of “relief” and “doesn’t necessarily reinforce the message of how you’re just barely one step ahead of this robot.” The fight comes shortly after exploring the planet Blizar Prime, too, in which dimension swapping is the primary puzzle mechanic.
“I figured it was probably best for Blizar Prime to keep that as its unique identifying element, and not try to overuse surprise dimension hopping as a convenient coincidence in the middle of these set pieces,” Daly says.
Even without dimension hopping, everything feels fluid and snappy in The Fixer battle. It’s reminiscent of action-oriented set pieces from Insomniac’s Spider-Man titles, such as an early scene in Miles Morales where Miles hangs onto supervillain Rhino for dear life as the two crash into several floors of a mall. Insomniac learned a lot from previous projects to really nail this sensation in Rift Apart.
“We know that any gameplay sequence is more engaging when you’re feeling the story play out with your actions,” Daly said. “That’s why you see Quick Time Event cinematics in so many games.”
Seamlessly combining cinematics, action, and interactivity was tricky. The team needed to ensure that all the moving pieces fell at the right time and place. Daly says the “key ingredient” in Insomniac’s success was constant iteration, and the creation for this particular scene began “very early on” in development.
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“It took a long time, with the team adding new ideas to spice it up more and make it better, and constantly playing the sequence to find places where it broke down or where the pacing didn’t feel quite right, and just fine tuning it.”
Despite its early beginnings and constant change, little was actually cut from the fight. Though not born from the level itself, one mechanic that was ultimately removed from the game at large could have changed The Fixer battle drastically.
“We played around a little bit with giving the player the ability to speed boost [on grind rails],” Daly says. “But ultimately, that wasn’t a very useful ability. And it certainly complicated our ability to do anything interesting and provide a good, reliable player experience, whether you’re going slow or fast.”
The level has a theme park feel as you swerve across rails in caverns or even grind on the shoulder blades of the robot himself like a roller-coaster. That’s no coincidence — Insomniac actually turned to Disney rides for inspiration. Big Thunder Mountain, a famous train ride that takes you through Wild West-themed caves in Disneyland, was a “big influence.” Another was a ride within a movie, specifically the magic carpet ride from Aladdin, which is similarly well choreographed and navigates the viewer through several hazards.
“In fact, one of the caves that you go through [during the Fixer battle] was nicknamed the Cave of Wonders in development,” Daly says.
Insomniac mentions the 1999 animated movie The Iron Giant as another significant inspiration. Like the Iron Giant, The Fixer is a misunderstood beast. Clank and The Fixer find common ground in their similarities: The two are both physically broken and need to rediscover their purpose. For Clank, gaining a better understanding of himself helps him understand his new companion Rivet. The scene packs an emotional punch.
“We wanted to take the story further than we had in past Ratchet & Clank games, and make sure that the levels had their own sort of interesting standalone arcs,” Daly says. “And so the Fixer provided a good opportunity for Rivet and Clank’s relationship to deepen.”