A Boy and his Ottsel: The History of Jak and Daxter

The PlayStation 2 was an amazing system and it had most any kind of game you could want. There were tons of fighting games with heavy-hitters in the Soul Calibur and Tekken franchises. There were role-playing games with genre-defining titles like Final Fantasy X and Persona 4. There were sports games, arcade games, shooters, and more. But the genre that most helped define the system’s identity was with platformers.

There were tons of mascot platformers in those days, some good, some bad, and most forgotten. But aside from the Ratchet and Clanks, past the Sly Coopers, there was one franchise that stood tall: Jak and Daxter. This one series developed by Naughty Dog made a massive impact and ended up becoming the face of PlayStation for a little while. In its heyday, this franchise had a lot of reach and ended up being some of the system’s best selling games. However, not much is heard about this franchise nowadays. Where did it end up going? And why did it deserve the praise in the first place? The Jak and Daxter series has a long history behind it with a lot of twists and turns along the way. But before all of that, before the gameplay changes and the story shifts, it all started with one game.

Ambitious Beginnings

Concept Art of “Project Y”

Development of the first Jak and Daxter game began in January 1999 under the name “Project Y.” At this time, Naughty Dog was still working on Crash Team Racing, so they split their team in half and had one part work on this new project while the rest finished up Crash. They had ambitions to evolve from the more arcade-y Crash Bandicoot levels they previously designed and integrate an actual open world that you could have an adventure through. The main design goal for the team on this new project was a seamless open-world with no interruptions. This design philosophy was never forgotten at any point during development and helped inform many facets of gameplay to come.

When one thinks about the first game in the Jak and Daxter franchise, the first thought is oftentimes of the world the game takes place in. PlayStation is a monumentally important aspect of the game as before anything else, before any characters were made and before any plot points were put to paper, the world had to be methodically put together. Evan Wells, who did game design on the Jak and Daxter franchise, stated how important this world was, saying, “This world has to be seamless. We don’t want any loads.” This was Naughty Dog’s attempt at making a Mario 64-style game, something they were pining to do even back in the Crash Bandicoot days. There was a company-wide effort to produce artwork designing the look and feel of the world of Jak and Daxter, which was sifted through later and informed the look of the final product. Bits and pieces were taken and merged together in order to create the world of Jak and Daxter. But a world needed a character to explore it. That character was not far from being realized.

Sandover Village in Jak and Daxter

Originally known as “Boxman,” Jak went through many design changes before settling on a final draft. Charles Zembillas, who had worked on Crash and Spyro, was the man who was initially tasked with coming up with the character. Originally he produced sketches that were more animalistic in appearance and Jak was at one point a lion creature who would use his claws as weapons. Bob Rafei was the artist who took those inital sketches and went through the process of finding the right look and feel for Jak, making him more human-like. Concept art of the design process shows that there were many points where he didn’t have his spiked hair or his goggles and resembled more of a Disney-esque character

Bob Rafei concept art

Andy Gavin, who did programming for the game, later said that “Jak… is a hybrid of Western cartoons and Eastern manga.” The manga influence is clearly evident from the cartoonish proportions attributed to Jak’s eyes and his hairstyle whereas the Western influence is present in the more angular aspects of Jak’s design, like his ears and his overall body shape. Jason Rubin, game designer on Jak, said that the choice came about due to the team being “inspired by the success of Final Fantasy at the time… We wanted to replicate the success that Crash had in Japan.” Along with Jak came Daxter, his weasel-like companion who would be on his shoulder through his journey. This time, Charles Zembillas was more than qualified to come up with Daxter on his own, excelling at designing animal creatures. Daxter was created to be an ottsel, a sort of weasel-otter hybrid and would constantly be perched on Jak’s shoulder. Daxter’s design ended up mirroring Jak’s, sharing his goggles and sporting a pair of his own gloves, and served to provide the series a mascot character and comic relief.

Jak and Daxter was also Naughty Dog’s chance to really merge gameplay and story like they had always wanted to, even back when they were working on Crash. They had characters full of personality, a vivid world, and now the technology allowed for them to produce cutscenes and lore within the game. Cutscenes were also now all in-game and had quick transitions from gameplay to story, to not throw off the pacing. Josh Scherr was in charge of cinematics within the game and noted how they wanted to get away from the trope of a kidnapped damsel and an evil doctor, stating, “[We] wanted to try and get a more interesting mythos developed with the Precursors and the world and the eco and everything like that.” This focus on world-building set the game apart from its contemporaries and the more cinematic angle the team took with cutscenes made it feel less like a video game and more like an adventure.

Snowy Mountains in Jak and Daxter

Gameplay was straight-up platforming with very little frills to speak of. The platforming in this game is so satisfying because the controls hit when they need to hit and there isn’t any issue with responsiveness. Tight controls were a goal for the team in the early days, along with a more workable camera than 3D platformers were accustomed to back then. There were initially plans to have a controllable Daxter or do more with the Hoverbike vehicle, but those ideas were set aside for this game so crisp platforming could be focused on.

The controls in this game feel incredibly fluid and a lot of that also has to do with how it looks, namely in animation. John Kim is to blame for a lot of that as he was the animator that created Jak’s movements. There’s a lot of life in the animations and there’s also a lot of an artistic technique known as “squash and stretch” going on, where movements are exaggerated in a cartoon-like manner in order to emphasize flexibility and a sense of momentum. Kim states how, “When Jak would do a spin-kick, [Daxter] would spin around him and… come back like a rubber-band.” He also states how Aladdin and Abu were huge influences for Jak and Daxter‘s movements, looking to Abu’s tendency to always be crawling and moving all over Aladdin. These animations make it look like there is real weight behind every movement but they also do a lot to show the personality of each character.

Precursor Orb

Creating the game was not easy, it turns out. The team that was working on Crash Team Racing wouldn’t join the rest of the team on Jak and Daxter until January 2000. So for the first year, there was only technical development being made, with no gameplay aspects being added at all.  There was an issue that needed to be dealt with before any work could be done on the game: the console itself. Andy Gavin states how, “PS2 was difficult to program, particularly in those early days when no workable examples or libraries existed.” This sentiment was not exclusive to the team at Naughty Dog. Compared to its predecessor and the N64 from Nintendo, the PS2 required intimate knowledge of all its different processors and its memory spaces to even perform the most rudimentary operations. But these barriers were not enough to stop Andy Gavin, who made an entirely new programming language called GOAL and built the entire game on that foundation. This allowed for that seamless world that the team had dreamt of in the early days of planning. With that hurdle overcome, the rest of the game could be laid out.

Yet just because they had a good foundation didn’t mean that the vision for the game was coming along perfectly. Coming off of a linear arcade-y experience like Crash and then trying to tackle a wide open-world adventure like Jak and Daxter was like going from crawling to driving a car. Even into its second year of development, the game ran poorly on their engine and there were issues with rendering and code.

Flut-Flut in Jak and Daxter

Beyond all of that, the team still hadn’t nailed down what was “fun” about their game. The team went back to the drawing board over and over, trying to get the gameplay flow of Jak and Daxter to feel right, as well as actually function in the first place. The team crammed and worked as hard as they possibly could for a long time, eventually having to delay the game from an ideal Thanksgiving release date. Aspects of the game were being tweaked and added even until the last second. Sam Thompson, an associate producer on the game, stated how, “The Precursor Bot, the last boss fight in the game… went in 48 hours before final… I think we had a day to tune it before it went into the can.” The game was wrapping up though, even as the team was breaking. The end was very near.

Development of Jak and Daxter finally ended and the game released on December 3, 2001. The reception was extremely positive. There was a lot of emphasis placed on the seamless world and the tight controls. The characters of Jak and Daxter appealed to children while the gameplay was more than substantial enough to sustain adults. The game scored very well and currently sits at a 90 on Metacritic.  It ended up selling over 2 million units by 2007 and ended up getting a “Greatest Hits” edition in the United States and a “Gold Prize” edition in Japan. However, even with the success of the game, the sales were incredibly skewed towards North American and European players. Even as they were trying to appeal to the Japanese audience with the design of the characters, the market didn’t respond as favorably as they had with Crash. This trend would continue and even be exacerbated by the tonal shift the franchise was yet to undergo.

A Break From The Past

Promotional art in Jak II

Immediately after the successful release of Jak and Daxter, plans for the sequel were put into place. However, there was an event that took place as Jak and Daxter was being released that would go on to heavily influence the series: the release of Grand Theft Auto III. Naughty Dog, still immensely proud of what they had accomplished with Jak, started to see the shift in the market once games like God of War and Killzone and especially Grand Theft Auto came out. “Everything started to change,” Sam Thompson would say later, “You had Grand Theft Auto III coming out. All of a sudden, it’s about real worlds, photorealism, gritty stories, a lot more violence.” This shift was undeniable and, knowing the emphasis Naughty Dog was putting on cinematics and story, it made sense for the series to adapt.

The next entry in the Jak and Daxter franchise, simply known as Jak II, would have a much darker tonal shift from what came before. There were still mystical elements to the story and eco was still a large part of the world-building they had previously established, but it was all grounded in more realistic stakes. The game would take place in a city divided by political strife, with rebel groups working from the shadows to uncover the truth about those above and dirty dealings going on all throughout the city. Jak is tortured in the game and starts out the adventure as an angry, angsty young man, and who is also given a voice for the first time in the series. In this vision for the franchise, a silent protagonist was no longer needed. The first words from this new Jak come out, threatening the life of someone who wronged him and cementing a tone very distinct from the previous entry.

Promotional art in Jak II

Having already done the dirty work of creating a stable engine to build within, the team set about creating the game at a much more consistent pace. The team had come up with a lot of new ideas for this game. Vehicles were finally given the prominence that the team had initially envisioned and were introduced along with a GTA-style alert system, which could have city guards come to chase you down if you caused too much trouble. Guns were added to the mix and had different variations that were all distinct enough from each other to not be redundant. A hoverboard was also added, due to the influence of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, an extremely popular franchise at the time. A transformation for Jak was implemented, turning him into Dark Jak and allowing him to use special Dark Eco powers and attack enemies with claws (a subtle nod to Charles Zembillas’ idea from years back? Probably not).

Platforming was still involved in the game, but it had to compete with tons of other gameplay mechanics. Collectibles were no longer the name of the game; instead, missions all had story-centric objectives, whether it was to escort armed men through a sewer or destroy a drilling operation in a cave. Jak 2 had changed drastically from the first game and this would come with its own benefits and disadvantages.

Dark Jak in Jak II

Jak II released on October 14, 2003. The reception was very positive. There was much love given to the abundance and importance of the story and how the characters had actual personalities. Gameplay was praised and players enjoyed the different mechanics introduced but had one reservation that even Josh Scheer acknowledged, saying that, “[the] game is just way too fucking hard.Jak II, for all of what it did right, also did not interest the Japanese market at all. Even with small concessions, like removing Jak’s goatee in the Japanese version, players were not interested in this darker and less whimsical adventure. Despite that and rumblings, some local fans had about the drastic change in tone, the game was a success and proved to be important to Naughty Dog in realizing more complex storytelling.

A Little More Gas in the Tank

Cover art for Jak 3

It followed suit that another sequel was put into production. Jak 3 entered development immediately following the launch of Jak II and continued its more dramatic storytelling and gameplay style. More locations were added, more characters were introduced, and more weapons and transformations were given to the player. This time, however, it was a different Rockstar game that was inspiring gameplay mechanics: Smuggler’s Run. In this game, you drove around in vehicles, some of which would show a striking resemblance to the eventual “Sand Shark” in Jak 3, collecting contraband and returning it to a central location. Josh Scherr remembers how “Jason [Rubin] was playing [Smuggler’s Run] and he’s like, ‘hmm.’ All of a sudden, there’s a lot of driving in buggies and desert sands in Jak 3.” Aside from the added importance placed on driving, the game would largely follow the gameplay flow established by Jak II, with story beats setting up activities you would go out and shoot up, drive to, or jump on.

When Jak 3 was released on November 9, 2004, only a little over a year after Jak 2 was released, it was met with praise. This game was a culmination of all of the tricks Naughty Dog had learned while developing for the PS2. The graphics were cleaned up to great detail and animations were smoother than ever before. Cutscenes had an almost cinematic feel to them with dynamic camerawork, lighting, and an underlying score. Gameplay and vehicle handling were tightened even further, creating the most responsive control the series had seen to this point. The story was featured prominently and expanded upon the relationships established in the other two games. Jak 3 really did advance and refine everything that came before. The trilogy of Jak games had been completed.

Gameplay shot from Jak X

In a move reminiscent of how the Crash series panned out, the last title Naughty Dog would release (but not the last title in the series) was a racing game. This title would be known as Jak X and would enter development right as Jak 3 finished up. The concept was of a more fleshed-out driving experience than Jak 3, with weapon pickups and mechanics that were more focused towards circuit races. The title continued to tote that cinematic angle, with plenty of cutscenes, story, and character interactions. It was also the first Jak title to be multiplayer and was even playable online. It garnered its share of fans upon its release of October 18, 2005, but it didn’t light up sales numbers like the mainline titles did. Still, the title was incredibly solid and was a nice treat for fans of the series. This level of quality from Jak and Daxter games would soon be in question, however. Because even though the mainline games were done, the franchise as a whole still had a few more games to put out.

Passing the Torch

Gameplay shot from Daxter

Wanting to explore their idea for an Indiana Jones-style jungle adventure in Uncharted, Naughty Dog would let go of the Jak and Daxter franchise. Picking up the slack, there were a few more games that were created in the franchise by different developers. Daxter, a 2006 title released for the PSP, was probably the most prominent one. Developed by Ready at Dawn, it starred Daxter as he went about having adventures between the events of the first and second mainline Jak and Daxter games. Though the gameplay was vastly simplified from the mainline games, it presented itself as a unique enough experience that garnered praise. The title was very well-received and sold an incredible amount, eventually getting bundled with the PSP system. It also incorporated a tie-in to Jak X, where you could plug your PSP into your PS2 while Jak X was running and you would unlock Daxter as a playable character. Of course, while this was a success story, other titles in the franchise wouldn’t turn out as well.

Promotional art for The Lost Frontier

Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier actually started out as a Naughty Dog developed game, being handed off to the side team while the main team worked on Uncharted 2. It was decided early on that it would be a PSP exclusive and that it would feature airships that you could customize and tweak their stats. You would be able to jump from plane to plane and have thrilling dogfights, a first for the series. Neil Druckmann, who would later be well known for his work on the Last of Us series, worked heavily on design for the game. However, the project was abandoned due to more staff being required to finish up Uncharted 2. Once it was abandoned, High Impact Games took over and finalized what was already set in motion. Upon release on November 3, 2009, scores were generally kind to the title but sales were lukewarm and shriveled next to the massive success that Daxter was. This title would go on to become somewhat of a black sheep in the Jak and Daxter community, with many fans downplaying its importance and its gameplay accomplishments. This game was later ported to the PS2 and stands as the last Jak and Daxter game released for both the PSP and the PS2.

“Say ‘Goodnight,’ Jak”

Obtaining a power cell in Jak and Daxter

Aside from appearances in games like Playstation All-Stars or Playstation Move Heroes or collection re-releases, Jak and Daxter have been relegated to cameos in other Naughty Dog and PlayStation properties. The series has laid dormant for many years, seemingly abandoned. According to Josh Scherr, the market, as well as the team, is more interested in “more grounded and a little bit more grown-up” stories and games, like Uncharted and Last of Us.

There was a brief moment of time that the team at Naughty Dog had seriously considered creating a new core Jak game around 2009, but it was ultimately shut down in favor of pursuing Naughty Dog’s next franchise based on fungus and zombies: The Last of Us. Neil Druckmann would later talk about this period, saying how “we found the idea we were passionate about [was] kind of getting away from what Jak and Daxter was. We were questioning ‘are we doing this for marketing reasons? Naming something Jak and Daxter, when it’s not really Jak and Daxter? Or are are we really passionate about it?” Since then, there hasn’t been much talk about Jak and Daxter, with the studio even coming out to state how no work was being made on a new Jak game in response to a concept art leak in 2016. The studio has said how the door is always open for another game in the franchise, but it’s clear that they won’t move on it unless it feels authentic.

Whether or not we’ll ever see another game in the Jak and Daxter franchise is unknown, but the impact that it left is undeniable. Without Jak and Daxter, there wouldn’t be the story-telling prowess or buddy-buddy quips present in the Uncharted series. Without Jak and Daxter, there wouldn’t be a precedent for uninterrupted gameplay segments seen in the Last of Us, curtailing loading screens. And without Jak and Daxter, Naughty Dog wouldn’t have the world-building chops that it does today. Whether or not we’ll ever see another game is indeed in question. But undoubtedly, if that game ever does turn up, there’s going to be a lot of people happy to see Orange Lightning again.