Insomniac falls back to Main Street

, | Features

We’re queued up along the sidewalk outside the Egyptian Theatre, in the heart of Hollywood. If you don’t live in Los Angeles, you might think that’s a pretty cool place to be. Like Beverly Hills or whatever it means when people say “The Valley”. But if you live in Los Angeles, you know how trashy it is around all these famous stars’ stars on the sidewalk. The people here are teenagers in knit caps or hoodies, carrying skateboards, or homeless people, or hapless tourists, some of them dragging children along. A billboard for a reality TV show called Shedding for the Wedding looms over us. Various fat couples will compete to lose weight before their weddings. We’re all in line for Insomniac’s annual community day, which is like BlizzCon, but for people who like Ratchet and Clank and Resistance.

After the jump, we’re here, we’re normal, get used to it

I’m at the part of the line in front of a tattoo shop blaring Nine Inch Nails and No Doubt out onto the sidewalk. A guy with camo pants, no shirt, and one arm stands at the corner waiting for the light to change. His abdomen is a tight smooth slab of muscle, but his right shoulder is a mass of swirling tissue. Did a shark bite off his arm, or was he born that way? That’s what a very tattooed stringy-haired woman walking a battered bike probably thinks as she stares at him.

A double-decker tour bus passes by. The Japanese tourists wave. The ones from the Midwest can’t be arsed. I wave back. The tour guide directs his megaphone at us. “Let me guess,” he declares with a hollow megaphone holler, “World of Warcraft?”

And, yeah, I’m the only idiot who was waving back. Are we that out of place? I suppose we are.

The boyishly good looking Ted Price, who has probably never had anyone yell at him “Let me guess, World of Warcraft?”, is coming down the line greeting everyone before they’ll let us into the Egyptian Theatre. He’s the founder, CEO, and frontman for Insomniac. He smiles like a model or a politician. He asks people where they’re from (he will later announce that someone has come all the way from Finland) and what they’re looking forward to seeing. He listens to a young fellow explaining his connectivity problems with the Playstation Network when he just wants to play Resistance 2. Price assumes the polite attentive quality of a Democratic congressional candidate listening to a blue collar worker talk tax cuts. Price is good at his job. He makes people like Insomniac.

I like Insomniac. In fact, I’m going to bend your ear with an anecdote. I’ve never dated someone who’s into videogames as a whole. But Insomniac is a developer who has appealed uniquely to two separate women I’ve dated. The first was an aerobics instructor many years ago. At some point, she ended up taking care of her brother’s Playstation 2 and asked if I had any games for it. Did I have any games for it? Ha! One of the games I loaned her was a Ratchet & Clank. She claimed to like it, but I figured it was that polite way of liking something like the girl I gave a volume of Flannery O’Connor short stories that I later found unopened under a stack of women’s magazines. Soon, the aerobics instructor announced that she’d finished Ratchet & Clank. And she had. She beat the final boss and was working on the second playthrough. One of our little couples things was that she would tell me I laughed like Clank. I don’t, of course, but it was sweet of her to say and she would smile so warmly when she said it.

About a year ago I was dating a girl who didn’t know much about videogaming, but she told me she had a Playstation 3. “As a Blu Ray player?” I asked. She graciously assumed I wasn’t being patronizing when she told me she and her brother played games on it. Ah, her brother. Yeah, I know how that one works. She said they played Resistance 2. Right, sure they did. That’s not what I said, but it’s what I thought. The joke was on me when I discovered she’d maxxed out two of the classes in the co-operative multiplayer mode and was working on the third. We’ve since broken up, but I still see her name pop up on my friends list as, I presume, she finishes leveling up her medic.

Those are pretty much the sum total of my anecdotes about girlfriends and videogames. Seriously. That’s all I’ve got and they’re both Insomniac related. So during the community day, it occurs to me that I’m not surprised at the number of women here. It’s still mostly a dude show, and probably not on the same level of gender equity as BlizzCon, but it’s cool to see women here who weren’t just dragged by boyfriends. It’s even cooler that one of the designers who gets up and talks about Resistance 3 being influenced by The Road, and the careful pacing between action levels and narrative levels, and the importance of iteration, and how much meticulous planning has to go into a game’s first level is a woman. Lisa Brown was an intern on Resistance 2. Now she’s one of the designers and she’s in front of a few hundred fans to present the studio’s newest biggest game.

The first level of Resistance 3 takes place in the town of Haven, Oklahoma, where survivors have been hiding from alien invaders. A massive terraformer arrives — don’t they always? — and a gun battle with aliens erupts — doesn’t it always? — and after much shooting, the waves of attackers are defeated and the player gets a new mission: “Fall back to Main Street!”. It turns out there’s a boss battle back there. Isn’t there always? I’m bored by what I’m seeing, mainly because I’m bone tired of Call of Duty shooters. Aliens and slightly strange guns don’t really help. At least Insomniac is getting some mileage out of their alternate history 50s setting. Main Street is a perfectly charming place with its diner and old timey gas station and quaintly enormous cars. Too bad about the alien gorilla boss with highlighted weak points trashing the joint.

At one point, a head gets ripped off. Not a black-blooded alien’s head. A human head. With red blood. And I think, yeah, there’s the M-rating. I’m later told ratings are the reason the influence of The Road is primarily the bleak setting as presented in the movie instead of the story about a parent’s love for his child presented in the book. Creative director Marcus Smith says you simply can’t put a child in that kind of peril in a videogame. So at one point, during a cutscene, the lead character looks forlornly at a child-sized mitten he carries around in his pocket. I guess the boy was left at home for this Road trip. I wonder what the going rate is for babysitters in a post-apocalypse? A teenager can probably earn quite a few bottlecaps.

There are a few children here at Insomniac’s community day. Shortly before a Ratchet & Clank retrospective, I approach a man sitting next to a shy girl with pigtails. “Excuse me, sir. Is this your daughter?”

He has a brief guarded look, as if I’m going to ask him to leave because she’s too young or maybe I’m going to accuse her of stealing candy from the concession stand. “Yes,” he says.

“My name is Tom Chick and I’m a writer covering the event,” I declare, sort of jiggling the tag dangling from my neck that says ‘press’. But it’s tangled up with my pen. If I was a Federal agent, I’d spend a lot of time practicing how to authoritatively present credentials, because I suck at it. “I wondered if I might ask her a few questions. I presume she’s played Ratchet & Clank?”

“Oh. Yeah, sure.”

“Hi, what’s your name?” The secret to talking to kids — and really it’s not a secret since we should all know this from having been kids — is not to change your tone of voice. Save that for kittens.

“Rylie.” She’s holding her necklace up to her mouth, chewing on it. He father gently pulls her hand down so we can hear her better. She’s missing a tooth.

“Rylie, who do you like best, Ratchet or Clank?”


“How would you describe him? Pretend I’m one of your friends at school and I’ve never even heard of Ratchet and Clank. Tell me about Clank.”

“He’s a little robot.”

“Does he have any special powers.”

“He can fly.”

“What about Ratchet? What is he? A fox, a cat, or a weasel?”

She’s giving this some thought. She’s thinking. Thinking. Thinking. She’s in no hurry. She has all the time in the world to think. Meanwhile, I’ll be 50 in five years.

“It’s a trick question, honey,” her father intervenes.

“Yeah, I was just teasing you, Rylie. But thanks for telling me about Clank. Can I ask how old you are?”

She knows the answer to that one. “I’m eight.”

As I head back to my seat, her father touches my arm. “That’s R-Y-L-I-E,” he explains. The Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One demo must look magical to her. But later she will have to sit through Adam Sessler doing a one-on-one interview with Ted Price as they talk about the challenges of finding 3D tools back in the 90s. Sometimes I think game developers shouldn’t be allowed to talk to fans until they learn English instead of phrases like “game experience” and other things I hear a lot at GDC. But Price knows enough that he actually stops talking about the subject and announces that it’s boring. Still, poor Rylie.

Then there’s Patrick with his tow-headed sons Noah (age 10) and Jacob (age 12). They’re not shyly chewing on necklaces and they know that Ratchet is a Lombax, so I bug them a little longer. What are their favorite weapons? They pick “the one that shoots those spinning blades” and the bouncer, respectively.

“The bouncer is kind of sloppy, easy to use,” I offer. “But it’s fun. It gets the job done.”

“What about the Rip Ya A New One?” Patrick reminds them.

They start a lively conversation on the merits of various Ratchet & Clank weapons, but I can’t help but wonder at the question that must have followed when they first unlocked that weapon, which is known in polite company as the RYNO. ‘Rip you a new one what, Dad?’ That must be one of those quintessentially awkward parenting moments, when you have to explain to a child a brutal sodomy reference.

I love that there are kids here. I’m not sure how I’d feel about that at BlizzCon, where kids aren’t allowed anyway. MMOs are as insidious as sugared cereal, plastic junk toys, and cigarettes. But when it comes to Ratchet & Clank, I couldn’t be more pleased that Insomniac has brought together guys like me, my aerobics instructor ex, Jenn, Rylie, Patrick, Jacob, and Noah. I can afford to be all cynical and jaded and unimpressed when it comes to Insomniac helping Sony fumble around and find a Halo of their very own (Is it Haze? Is it MAG? Is it Killzone? Is it Resistance?). But when it comes to falling back to Main Street, Insomniac has been there and done that beautifully. And here are a bunch of us in Hollywood, looking relatively normal alongside all the freaks, celebrating that fact.