In Decadent, we explore two games united by a common theme and separated by time—specifically, by a decade or so.
In the movie Life Of Pi (and presumably the book, though I haven’t read it), the character Pi, a fragile Indian boy, is raised in a zoo surrounded by animals. He has access to them all, except for one: a tiger by the name of Richard Parker. So, of course, that’s the one animal he wants to interact with. One day he heads underground to the forbidden cage housing Richard Parker and attempts to feed the beast, to his father’s alarm. Pi insists that he and Richard Parker have an understanding: This tiger would never hurt Pi. He can see it in the face of the beast. The boy’s father says Pi is confused. If Pi noticed any glimmer of recognition or humanity in Richard Parker’s eyes, that was merely the tiger reflecting human emotion, not encompassing it.
Cut to the future, and Pi is stranded in the middle of the ocean on a life raft, with only Richard Parker for company. Over time, they develop a mutual companionship. Is this the ultimate expression of humanity? That’s one of the central questions of Life Of Pi: Can something devoid of the qualities we associate with being a person—free will and love—somehow develop said qualities and genuinely relate to something higher up the food chain?
Mega Man 3 (released in 1990) and Ratchet & Clank (2002) say yes. In both of these games, the hero of the story is stuck with a robot sidekick—something devoid of human emotion but built to emulate it. Mega Man has Rush, an automated pooch who wags his tail on cue, a manufactured show of enthusiasm for his master. The fox-man space explorer Ratchet has Clank, a backpack-sized robot (whom Ratchet wears, naturally, like a backpack). Clank tempers Ratchet’s impetuousness with cold logic.
Yet despite outward appearances, the question remains as to whether or not their circuits can feel—or whether they’re just reflecting the notions we project on them, as Pi’s father claimed. Whatever the case, Rush and Clank are as much a part of the story as the heroes, and by virtue of proximity, they bring out the humanity of their masters.
Making Mega Man seem human is no small feat. Here’s a guy who has made a career out of hoarding android souls—not to mention the fact that he’s a robot himself. Originally a dull, general-purpose helper bot, Mega Man is reprogrammed by his creator, Dr. Light, to serve as a general-purpose ass-kicking machine when evil robots threaten the world. Mega Man’s calling is to pound mechanical beasts until their already-dead eyes close, suck up their evil programming like a Hoover, and use their sinister code for his own purposes. He be robo-Lucifer; all bow before him.
If it weren’t for Mega Man’s hard-coded intention to defeat evil, his ability to assimilate the souls of his fallen enemies would make him a fearsome god among men. When you defeat Hard Man, for example—a cement mixer with shoulder pads that would make Hillary Clinton jealous—Mega Man gains the ability to turn his fist into a rocket. Every time you use Hard Man’s power, though, it blurs the memory of what it took to grow that strong. After a few air-punches, the villain becomes a distant flashback. The rocket-punch is Mega Man’s move now. To gain Hard Man’s strength is to become Hard Man himself.
Rush, the robot dog, remains at a distance. He only comes when he’s called, serving at the pleasure of his master. He can only do a few tricks. Perhaps he will turn into a giant spring to shoot Mega Man into the sky. Perhaps he’ll transform into a jet-powered skateboard or submarine, so our hero can take to the air and the sea. But to use Rush’s power, Mega Man must look Rush in the face each and every time. That goofy grin. That slobbering, presumably metallic tongue. It’s enough to melt the steely heart of even the mega-est of men.
There’s not much humanity in Mega Man to begin with. After all, he is a robot, albeit a robot with great hair. But Rush keeps him honest. In the desolate world of Mega Man 3, where everything must be destroyed, Rush represents hope that there might be some good to come from all this razing. Perhaps one day, no matter how insanely powerful Mega Man might get, he’ll have a dog who loves him unconditionally, who simply cannot be destroyed because what little humanity Mega Man does have is captured so perfectly in Rush’s eyes. Even in submarine mode.
The marriage of Ratchet and Clank is not so warm and fuzzy. It’s more of a calculated symbiosis. Ratchet obsessively collects the otherworldly “bolts” that make his fancy gadgets go—gadgets like a “Suck Cannon” that swallows up small aliens and shoots them at larger ones. He exists in a state of arrested development, the kind of guy who gets caught up in a Saturday morning toy commercial. Clank plays the role of the buzzkill dad who says, “You know, those commercials make things seem more exciting than they really are.”
If left to his own devices, Ratchet would piss his life away acquiring ever-more-outlandish flamethrowers and tinkering with his beloved, all-powerful wrench. Clank, meanwhile, is pragmatic. He exists without irony or joy, and is thus capable of seeing that there’s real danger in the universe. He’s also not very large, though, so there’s not much he can accomplish on his own. So through gentle and not-so-gentle cajolery, he manipulates Ratchet into using his gizmos against a race of rapacious alien conquerors and their mechanical minions.
Thus Ratchet whacks exploding automatons with his wrench because Clank demands it be so. Clank does what he can to help—he can turn himself into a helicopter, much like Rush’s hoverboard, so that Ratchet can reach greater heights and bludgeon more exploding automatons. Clank is a relentless master. Free from a sense of pity or a need for relief, he pushes Ratchet further than the overgrown teenager has ever been pushed. Before long, Ratchet has whacked enough bad guys that it’s no longer a choice imposed by a clever little robot. It’s his way of life.
Perhaps Ratchet would have come around on his own. More likely, without Clank’s intervention, Ratchet would have been like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle without the guidance of the sage rat-mutant splinter—downing pizza and yelling “Cowabunga, dude!” (or the outer-space future equivalent). But Clank does intervene. He not only delivers sobering news of a dire threat, but he also remains literally tethered to Ratchet, egging him on until he becomes an accidental hero—and one who takes great pride in helping people.
At one point in the game, when the fox-man and his bot are exploring a space station, Clank separates himself to go outside and flick some switches in another part of the complex. After they’ve spent so much time attached at the waist, this physical distance feels massive. Ratchet is accustomed to carrying Clank around; the thought of losing him becomes almost too much to bear.
Clank brings out the humanity in Ratchet, but let’s give the little guy credit for his humanity, too. Yes, if you cut him, he does not bleed. Still, he’s a vital part of this symbiosis that changes the galaxy, one smashed robot at a time. Rush, too, by virtue always being there, possesses a certain facsimile of loyal friendship. Familiarity and affection are two sides of the same coin. These robot sidekicks are not just reflecting human empathy in the eye of a tiger—they have souls of their own.