Jak and Daxter's Lasting Precursor Legacy
The venerable franchise took daring chances along the way
It was the early aughts and the beginning of the PlayStation 2 lifecycle, and I had just received a copy of a little game called Jak and Daxter. It was the first game I received for the PlayStation 2 as a gift from my parents. The box art was colorful and rough enough around the edges to pique my interest. Having been advertised as a launch title and gushed about by the game store employee who advised my parents to buy it, I knew I was in for something special.
I still remember with fondness the soft, eclectic intro music and the Pixar-like interaction of Daxter with the Naughty Dog logo. But my relationship with Jak and Daxter was more of a slow burn, born of both necessity (physical ownership and scarcity meant there was no endless backlog of games that fought for my attention), and the endless freedom of halcyon summer days. It evolved, over the years, into so much more.
The release of Jak and Daxter came at a pivotal time in gaming history: the nexus of the PlayStation 2's release, gaming's emergence as a more marketable mainstream pastime, and revolutionary hardware overflowing with potential for developers to explore and harness. The series began development after the success of Crash Bandicoot, a beloved series for the original PlayStation that I had somehow missed. It was still the early days of Naughty Dog's life, and Jak was a series that would grow with the studio itself.
Jak and Daxter was different from its predecessors for a variety of reasons, but one of the most fundamental changes was in hardware. The PlayStation 2 was a powerhouse of a system, and it provided developers with a slew of new potential for all aspects of the game. Story-wise Jak and Daxter itself was fairly typical of the time: it relied on a literally silent protagonist and a wise-cracking sidekick, its combat was punchy and fun, and it was the type of mascot-based adventure game that would sell well to Crash fans and newcomers.
It was designed with the idea of ridding the playable world of loading screens all while keeping the visual fidelity of a pre-loaded instance. Not only that but in order to create a truly immersive playing experience the development team sought to have all of the available areas that were playable be vistas from other areas, that way you could reach what you could see. It worked wonders for the immersion they wanted to achieve:
... Jak was able to see his next destination off in the distance, but the path between would obscure it out of view, allowing the game to trade the low-poly vista in for a more detailed version of the same environment. Rafei explains that this was all part of Naughty Dog's efforts to "not show the man behind the curtain as much as possible", but admits that those magic tricks weren't pulled off without plenty of blood, sweat, and tears." We might have overachieved, to be honest": The making of Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy | GamesRadar+
The introductory chapter has us sneaking off to an island filled with the game's enemies, Lurkers, in a sequence that feels dark and foreboding while maintaining the game's signature whimsicality. In the distance, you could make out Jak and Daxter's palm-tree-covered island home shrouded in an air of fog, unreachable, but just right there. It created a sense of depth and was a reassurance that just over the horizon home was there, a waiting sanctuary. Fellow SUPERJUMP writer Brandon R. Chinn explores this in his thought-provoking piece Through Mist, Light, and Darkness, in which he discusses the technological implications of these graphical limits and our relationship to them on a much deeper level.
"The spaces in video games are not true physical spaces, but the emulation of space itself. We meet video game graphics halfway—effects can only do their job if we entertain the notion that these virtual spaces are real. While the best video games marry both art and architecture, we are only ever seeing the representation of this physicality. What is shown—or obscured—rests in the imagination."- Brandon R. Chinn, Through Mist, Light, and Darkness | SUPERJUMP
The key to Jak and Daxter was this sense of scale. In having its world be visible from each little piece of it, and in converting its loading screens to more interactive, dynamic experiences, the game gave us plenty to imagine. It was a story and world that excited me on a creative level, launching a renewed love of creature design and worldbuilding, and planting the seeds for a future interest in development itself. I'd stand on Misty Island as Jak, the wind taking my hair (er, fur, in Daxter's case), and contemplate the distance if I was to jump in the water and swim home. In each attempt, I would always get eaten by a shark--which was a method of playful boundary-setting--but never before had I let a game idle so often just to recognize how pretty it was.
Backing up the colorful world and characters was an inventive and catchy soundtrack, filled with drums and zany instrumentation that added to the game's fun, lazy-day vibe. The story begins as most do: to put something back the way it was. After accidentally landing in a vat of dark eco (effectively magic goo), the titular Daxter finds himself transformed. To change him back, he and Jak have to track down the game's villain in a globe-trotting adventure that spiderwebs into an ancient epic with devasting (at least in later games) consequences. It's aided by various side characters with deft charm and outlandish designs (which isn't surprising--Disney and Ghibli were inspirations), as well as deep lore that succeeds in being alluringly mysterious in the scarcity of its details.
I grew to love Jak and Daxter and was very excited when Jak II was announced. But there was something different about this newer entry, something odd that even my parents noticed upon picking up the sequel and seeing the cover art.
Wait a second, wasn't this a kid's game?
Grit and Guns
“This was the first attempt to introduce more of a story into the games,” Scherr said. “The Crash games had stories, but they were fairly simple, shall we say. ‘So-and-So’s been kidnapped! Dr. So-and-So had done this again! Save girl, or save world.’ That kind of thing. [We] wanted to try to get a more interesting mythos developed with the Precursors and the world and the eco and everything like that.” We might have overachieved, to be honest": The making of Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy | GamesRadar+
I will never forget the opening of Jak II.
I have played it so many times it lives rent-free in my head, and sometimes I still quote the infamous, whiplash-inducing first words of Jak just because I know the delivery so well: "I'm gonna kill Praxis!"
Jak II was such a departure in feel, being that it took place hundreds of years in the world's future, it might have been an entirely new series. Instead of the flyover of a fantasy village of clumsy, forgetful little elves as the intro, we get a hardened, impoverished city ruled by a red-clad police state. Gone are the welcoming, bright palettes of our island home, instead we have tattooed rebels with gravelly voices telling us to take our trauma and stuff it.
To say I adored this change is an understatement. I loved the Jak series even more because of this shift, and I wasn't alone. Jak II and Jak III remain PS2 classics, holding 87 and 84 respectively on Metacritic. They earn every 5/5.
There are very few stories that can change direction so drastically and so successfully, but here it works its dark wonders. Jak and Daxter told a story that seemed ripe for an equally fantastical sequel, but Jak II opens with a cruel shocker: Jak, the silent protagonist we had grown to love and embody, spends two years being tortured with dark eco. He's older, he's got a goatee now, and boatloads of new trauma to unpack. This exposure to dark eco gives him the power to turn into dark Jak, a half-feral version of himself that decimates enemy numbers. It was a mechanic I used too often as a Hail Mary, so you tell me if it was worth it.
Jak II and III still had the same characters as the original, like Samos the green eco mage, and their light-hearted juxtaposition against this new, chrome-rich environment can feel comical, but that's to the game's benefit. Sure, there may be a small man with giant wood clogs and birds living in his log-rolled hair, but there is also cursing. And I, at the cusp of my teenage years at the time, embraced it wholeheartedly. There were still big bads and fantasy powers, but now we had to deal with inner strife and totalitarianism too.
Aside from a wildly divergent campaign for the main game, which upped the focus on story and characters in an organic and even more compelling way, there was a slew of improved gameplay mechanics that evolved throughout the trilogy. Good sequels are ones that improve upon the original while maintaining the spirit, and Jak worked to drastically improve gameplay diversity and character depth while shifting the tone almost entirely--but the spirit of the game remained intact. Sure, Daxter's crasser, and Jak's voice is gravelly and serious, but they still banter and joke and manage to parse through the self-seriousness with acerbic levity. Daxter's lines consistently made me laugh aloud. It helped that the character models became more expressive as the series progressed, giving greater gravitas to the serious and comedic performances of the cast.
The sequels succeeded by rolling in gameplay concepts rather than outright getting rid of them. Not only do we retain most of our old moves in Jak II and Jak III, but we have dark Jak as the ace in our back pocket (in addition to light Jak in III) and guns. Lots of different kinds of guns. Jak III took the best parts of II and improved upon them, shaking up the setting and introducing dune buggies as a mode of transportation and Mad Max-like combat across a vast, sandstorm-laden desert. Nothing in the original games felt isolated to it, in that even the Flut-flut (a bird mount we got to ride on in the first game) gains a new life with the same mechanics in the form of a cute desert raptor called a leaper lizard in Jak III.
We'd also had a hoverbike in the first game, so there was precedent for vehicles when we saw them in the second, but in Jak and Daxter driving a hoverbike was relegated to a relatively limited instance. In Jak II and III we are given free rein to drive our vehicles almost anywhere. Into houses, into people, into police.
Being that Jak II came out two years after Grand Theft Auto III, this might be intentional:
"I think there are a lot of games like this where there is a before Grand Theft Auto 3 and then after Grand Theft Auto 3, so we had all these gritty, realistic, violent games coming out and it was a very clear shift in time in games." - Codex History of Video Games with Mike Coletta and Tyler Otsby, Episode 80 - Naughty Dog Part 3
Jak II and, to a greater degree, Jak III, gave players more tools with which to cause chaos. It was GTA lite. And I went bonkers for it.
Aside from the hover vehicles that varied in size, weight, and speed, there was a hoverboard that allowed fast traversal across the far vaster maps. The music, too, had changed with the tone of the new games. It still had traces of the jungle-level-like music, but there was a sci-fi flair that was felt most acutely whenever you encountered enemies in certain sections of the map. High-pitched strings conveyed an urgent sense of danger, and the thump of the game's signature drums in the background layered it with nostalgia. This decision made Jak's character change feel all the more tragic and permanent, knowing that behind the grit there had once been wonder.
I've lumped Jak II and Jak III here only because they bridge a similar narrative and feel, but all three of them were masterpieces in their own right, from both a design sense and a narrative one. The Jak and Daxter series dared to navigate a variety of new technical challenges with great ingenuity, and with each new entry the writing just got better and better. The team that worked on these games had an uphill battle, but every little contribution brought together a series that defined a generation.
Naughty Dog would eventually come to develop Uncharted and The Last of Us, and I can't help but feel like Jak's sudden turn to a more story-driven, serious exploration of themes was the writing on the wall for the studio's future direction. Neil Druckmann, the creative mastermind behind The Last of Us, actually worked as an intern on Jak III, earning a full-time position for his work at the terminus of the project.
The Jak and Daxter series did more than show off the technically impressive specs of the PlayStation 2—it created a world worth revisiting and one that continues to feel wholly original, totally hilarious, and wildly creative. And to this day worth playing.
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