The lights are on
From Crash Bandicoot to Uncharted, Naughty Dog has a history of putting out top-notch entertainment. The studio is jam-packed with talented game creators. So many, in fact, that two years ago the company expanded to form a second team, which would eventually develop The Last of Us. But before the first glimpses of Joel and Elle’s post-apocalyptic survival tale wowed gamers, Naughty Dog was working on a next-generation reboot to the lauded Jak and Daxter series. This is the story of how Naughty Dog’s new team started work on a Jak game that would never see the light of day.
Following the success of Uncharted 2, Sony wanted to license out the game’s engine to make more great-looking blockbusters, but, due to technological factors, Naughty Dog ended up being the only studio that could actually use it. The game’s warm reception also brought up the inevitable side effect of competitors trying to poach the talented team. Thus, Naughty Dog proposed creating a second team in order to release more games using their engine and Sony agreed instantly. It also opened up new promotional opportunities for talented staffers and helped keep the headhunters at bay.
The thumbs-up from Sony meant the brain storming process could begin, and one of the first ideas was to return to Naughty Dog’s PlayStation 2 duo. “We’d all talked about it in interviews with fans asking ‘When’s the next Jak and Daxter?’ says Wells. “I don’t know if this is going to make them happy or sad, but we did explore the idea fairly extensively.”
Naughty Dog wanted to find a way to apply elements from Uncharted 2’s award-winning game design to Jak and Daxter. The team experimented with implementing Uncharted-style narrative techniques and rendering Jak and Daxter in the same realistic style seen in the company’s gorgeous PS3 games. According to Wells, the new project would be a departure from slapstick, comic book-tone of previous games. But before full-blown work could begin on the game Naughty Dog would have to create new, more realistic versions of the titular heroes.
“We dug around trying to find the core of Jak and Daxter,” says creative director for The Last of Us, Neil Druckmann. “Who are the characters? We had to reboot it essentially. Every time we got excited about an idea we’d take a step back and look at it and be like ‘It’s not Jak and Daxter, are we just slapping the name on it for marketing reasons?’”
The lighthearted Daxter proved to make the transition from wacky hijinks to a more grounded experience particularly difficult.
“There’s a lot of baggage that comes with Daxter,” says The Last of Us director Bruce Straley. “If he’s not lighthearted and slapsticky and fun then he’s not Daxter to the fans. We were thinking what if he’s mute? What if he’s this? We had all these ideas that made Daxter interesting, but then we’re still trying to be creative within that box of ‘I have this rodent on my shoulder.’”
“It started feeling like a compromise,” says Druckmann. “The more we tried to make Jak and Daxter like we wanted to, it didn’t feel like things were matching up. We have folders and folders filled with scrapped ideas.”
Note: The artwork in this article is not from the abandoned Jak and Daxter game
Naughty Dog opened up a select few of these folders to offer us a glimpse of early concept art for the abandoned Jak and Daxter reboot. We saw a much more humanoid version of Jak, lacking pointy ears but retaining similar clothes, features, green facial hair, and fit physique. His signature yellow locks remained, however, with sketches showing it off in everything from dreadlocks to messy spikes.
Early examples of Daxter’s transformation were more extreme. We saw an orange, goggled, ferret-like animal with expressionless eyes perched upon Jak’s shoulder. Several additional sketches highlighted Daxter’s beastly qualities, in accordance with the attempt to reboot the series with slightly more realism. Daxter’s expressive facial expressions and big eyes returned in other pieces of concept art, but the non-cartoony look still made the critter difficult to recognize.
Things just weren’t clicking into place.
“All the ideas just started to feel like they were going so far away from what made Jak and Daxter Jak and Daxter,” says Wells. “Even though we wanted to give fans another Jak and Daxter, we felt we weren’t going to give them the game that they wanted, and that we would end up either limiting the direction that the company had this passion for while simultaneously not creating the game that fans wanted. We just realized we were going to just do everybody a disservice.”
Shelving the Jak and Daxter ideas meant the team could begin work on a fresh idea. Shedding the restrictions of an existing IP allowed directors Druckmann and Straley to let their creative juices flow and explore whatever they wished. One day Straley arrived at work having watched an interesting episode of BBC’s Planet Earth. He enthusiastically told Druckmann about the disturbing yet beautiful footage of a fungus that would effectively turn colonies of ants into zombies. Enthused, the two talented creators would mold their inspiration into the team’s new project, The Last of Us.
Fans shouldn’t see Naughty Dog’s halted attempt at a Jak and Daxter reboot as an omen that the series will never return, however. There is still hope.
“Never say never,” warns Wells. “It could happen. Naughty Dog’s got a long history and I think it’s got a long future so to say we’ll never go back is kind of crazy but right now we’ve got [The Last of Us] that we’re definitely going to be supporting. I guess there’s a possibility that the Uncharted team could move on to Jak and Daxter. It’s still up in the air, but I wouldn’t think that’s going to happen, because I think we’d run into all of the same problems with that team that we did with this team.”