Welcome to this week’s edition of Protagonist Profiles. Continuing the trend of protagonist teams this week, we’re taking a closer look at Naughty Dog’s second entry into the platforming genre with the Jak and Daxter series. This Playstation 2 trilogy introduced us to the team of teenage boy Jak and his talkative friend-turned-marsupial Daxter, a duo that would develop and grow as the series progressed. But in what ways, and how did they come about in the first place? Let’s fill in the file and find out!
After the huge success of the Crash Bandicoot series of games for the Sony Playstation 1, Naughty Dog began working on a new IP for the next generation of console. With vastly improved processing power, the Playstation 2, released in the year 2000, opened up the opportunity for the studio to work on an entirely new engine for this IP, at this point simply called ‘Project Y’. In it’s infancy, only 2 developers were working on the game while the rest of the team finished up work on Crash Team Racing (which would be Naughty Dog’s final entry to the Crash Bandicoot series of games). This new IP wanted to put more emphasis on character development and world building, while maintaining the platforming gameplay Naughty Dog had became famous for. This concept of an open world and a story-focused narrative platformer was quickly bought by Sony and so Naughty Dog were allowed to begin work on the game immediately (following the completion of Crash Team Racing) for the new console.
In order to flesh out this concept further, the studio first developed the engine, then began work on creating a new character that would flourish in this new environment, firstly to examine the efficiency of the engine. Once this was achieved, the studio began working intensely on fine-tuning the idea, with a budget of $14 million and a development cycle of 3 years. During this time, our two main protagonists went through several different designing stages, inspired by characters in manga and Disney animations. Let’s tackle each character individually:
Jak was the first character conceived for the game, his early prototype being the character model used for the engine demonstrations (being called simply ‘Boxman’). His early concept art showed different characters from ‘wolf-like’ beings to various different human models. Ideas for the character’s design weren’t concretely set until animator John Kim drew a concept of a “tall, slender and agile [character], with sported jaunty, spiky hair, [and] an exaggeration, weight, and thickness”. Kim simply described the character as “BAM!”. The rest of the team made tweaks to this initial design until they settled with a teenager with spiked hair, athletic physical attributes and wearing a blue tunic with racing accessories such as racing goggles.
To coincide with the new story-themed aspects of Jak and Daxter, Jak was given his own backstory, which is outlined over the course of the trilogy’s events. But uniquely for the game studio, Jak undergoes serious character development throughout the series. Starting as a mute for the first game (Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy), Naughty Dog wanted to add more dialogue to the second game and so gave him a speaking role for the sequels. In Jak II, to correlate with the darker tone of the game (rated 12/Teen), Jak is portrayed as more of a “brooding emo figure” and vengeful after being experimented on by the game’s antagonist. This changes further in Jak III to a more relaxed and head-on protagonist, maturing due to the events of the trilogy. Dan Arey, Naughty Dog creative director summed up Jak’s personality as “the stellar guy who is going to make it happen, who is going to save the world”
Daxter is the yin to Jak’s yang, portrayed as a trouble-making cowardly boy with bucked teeth and big, orange hair. However, after falling into a vat of dark eco (a dark, ‘evil’ form of energy), he emerges as an ‘ottsel’ (a mix between an otter and a weasel). Daxter was introduced to the series as comic relief and a way to make potentially boring cutscenes entertaining by injecting humour to reduce boredom (as Jak was a mute in the first game). He portrays himself as a fearless hero who isn’t afraid to boast about his (mostly Jak’s) achievements in attempts to look strong or attractive to women, to little success. Nevertheless, Daxter doesn’t develop as much as Jak, instead maintaining his upbeat happy-go-luck personality throughout the series, even having his own game in the series (Daxter, released in 2006 for the PSP). Naughty Dog’s Dan Arey described the two characters together as “the hero you want to be, and the hero you’re afraid you are” for Jak and Daxter, respectively.
The duo certainly proved to be popular with gamers and critics alike, moreso Jak than Daxter. Jak continually received praise, increasingly as the trilogy continued. He was ranked 26th on the Guinness World Records Gamer’s Edition ‘Top 50 characters of all time’ as well as a placing on Game Informer’s ‘Top 30 video game characters of the 2000s’. Daxter, on the other hand, has received more polarizing reviews, ranging from “eminently likeable” (IGN) to “a terrible 80s standup comic” (1UP.com). The duo themselves have ranked on IGN’s list of best duo’s in gaming, which is where they find their greatest strength, as a team.
Finally, let’s conclude the profile with some trivia! Did you know Naughty Dog originally wanted a THIRD character in the Jak and Daxter series? This third addition to the team would have been introduced during the events of the first game and ‘evolved’ as the game progressed, levelling up ‘like a tamogochi’. However, this only over-complicated things such as the flow between the two already present characters. Instead, this character was scrapped in favour of putting more effort on Jak and Daxter as well as their relationship.
That’s it for this week’s edition of Protagonist Profiles! Join us next week where we conclude this mini-series on platforming protagonists by taking a look at when it doesn’t all go as planned!