This was my final paper for my freshman course, Introduction to Interactive Entertainment (CTIN-190) with Jeff Watson. It’s a paper examining how “adventure” has changed in the course of the last thirty years by examining Naughty Dog’s three Playstation trilogy franchises: Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter, and Uncharted. I’ll update when I get a grade for this essay.
Platforming and Players: The Value of Adventure Across Three Playstation Platforms
In the time from 1984 to 2014, the last thirty years, the game industry has changed a lot and not smoothly. It has gone from a “one man, one computer” mentality of computer hackdom to a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry where teams of hundreds work for years on one product alone. (Ramsay, 2012). A product with huge marketing campaigns and a monetary investment that could be as great as $500 million (Maiberg, 2014). It has faced technological limitations throughout the years, from input to memory to graphical incapability, and faced cultural challenges as it has developed and matured into a medium. It continues to do so. Developers see “long work hours, job instability, shifting business models, the fact that good games are hard to make, and cultural issues such as sexism” as problems that the industry still poses (Gamasutra, 2014).
As the technological, infrastructural, and cultural aspects of the industry changed and allowed for different expressions and more importantly ways to convey those expressions, the objects of those expressions changed as well. In particular, one of these major developments in the games industry has been of the action-adventure genre. The theme and value of adventure continues to change greatly. One developer who helped forge the path and chart these changes in how adventure is perceived and expressed is Naughty Dog; a company whose thirty-year past attests to a surmounting of struggles both with design and the rhethoricizing of procedures to create these aesthetically pleasing experiences. That is: Naughty Dog, through the creation of their games have helped define and change the value of adventure through gameplay. Through examination of their titles; the trilogies of Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter, and Uncharted; we can learn to appreciate and understand how the value of adventure has evolved in the last three decades and what aspects of adventure have persisted, both in concept and in design philosophy.
In 1984, Naughty Dog was just two teenage boys working together on Apple IIs under the name JAM (Jason and Andy’s Magic). Working together to program smalls games and recreate Nintendo’s Punch-Out! on floppy disks, Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin collaborated, at the young age of 14, as early indie Apple dev on the path to become one of Sony’s crown jewel developers. The studio, now a 30-year old, Santa Monica-based, first-party, has become one of the industry’s finest (Moriarty, 2013). Their franchises have served as both testaments to the skills of the developer, but also show a very linear progression of the development of adventure through its presentation on the Playstation systems. For this reason, this paper will address how adventure was defined in each and how that definition compares and contrasts over three console generations of gaming.
Crash Bandicoot, Naughty Dog’s first Playstation franchise, was created during the last 90s as platformers were in their heyday. “The coming of Crash Bandicoot … can be likened to the coming of [Sonic and Mario]”(GameRevolution, 2004). “These games set new standards in the platform-type game and helped drive their parent companies to great success.”
Crash was one of the first forays of the platforming genre into 3D, and it was something that Naughty Dog wasn’t the only one exploring. Super Mario 64 and NiGHTS were both, in-secret, being developed during the time (Moriarty, 2013). The reception to the series is one of nostalgia though. Crash Bandicoot brought classic platforming action to the adventure genre, but didn’t add much outside of the 3D. “As a platform game, it fails to achieve anything really new or revolutionary” (GameRevolution, 2004). Crash is a model of the basic adventure game because it follows the same traditional foundations that had long “been favorites of legions of gamers” (Cooke, 1998). The foundation, so to speak, for this paper.
In the industry, the platforming genre had begun to wane in popularity due to lack of innovation in a changing market (Arey, 2004). Moving away from their Bandicoot roots, Naughty Dog decided to try something different with Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy. In this title, their goals were to introduce a fully-rendered world of adventure where story was integral to the gameplay, something they wanted to accomplish with Crash, but never could. (Ramsay, 2012) The premise of the story is that Daxter, the deuteragonist, has been turned into a half-otter, half weasel “ottsel” after falling into a vat of “dark eco”: the dark variant of five types of elemental substances that govern the world of the first game. (Later in Jak III, light eco was introduced.)
The way that The Precursor Legacy differs from its simple platforming predecessor, as well as its contemporaries such as Super Mario 64, is in how it presents the mechanics and interweaves it with the story and experience. (Ramsay, 2012) The game doesn’t just have platforming for the sake of platforming. It’s platforming that encourages action. The game features a variety of short, medium and long-term goals; from simple exploration to collecting precursor orbs, the de facto currency of this universe, to finding Gol Acheron, the dark sage needed to turn Daxter back into a human. Or whatever species the main characters are.
However, these goals encourage each other and complement the story. Unlike star-collecting in Super Mario 64, the reason you collect the equivalent “power cells” are so that you can power devices such as your ridable Zoomer over the fire canyon (Satterfield, 2001). This helps remove any sense of ludonarrative dissonance usually created by collection-based platformers. “The storytelling does not come at the expense of the gameplay,” said Gavin (Dutton, 2012). The game makes you feel that what you are doing is significant. “It was important to us that Jak’s world make cohesive sense” (White, 2002).
You are also part of this world. Everyone from the mayor to your uncle is attempting to solve problems of their own and achieve goals themselves; albeit with the player’s help, of course. But, because of this context, you are able to see the ramifications of your actions. In fact, as you affect the world of the game, when you return to areas that you have previously explored, you’ll find that the changes you have made in that area persist. If I defeat the enemy at Sentinel Beach controlling the cannon, I won’t have cannon fire being shot at me as I explore the area later. If I collect two hundred pounds of fish for the fisherman, he’ll be found at the river laughing in glee every time I visit and let me use his boat found back at the starting village. A boat that was always there, but was before inaccessible (Zdyrko, 2001).
The way the world is constructed by the designers is intended to encompass this theme of exploration and persistence to truly create a value and aesthetic of adventure. This is the journey of the player through this world achieving goals and being rewarded through story context. The level design of the world helps to encourage this as well. The placement of collectables throughout the game form paths to guide the player not only to their goals, but also to areas of the game they might not have otherwise explored. The game is ultimately very linear. Hub areas are connected in an ambiguously linear fashion and ultimately ends at Gol’s Citadel.
But unlike platformers where missing a jump usually end in the player’s death, in The Precursor Legacy, these moments often lead to another kind of adventure: misadventure. There are multiple paths and goals in each area and around each corner. In the Forbidden Jungle, there are two main paths as you enter. However, if I fall below the bridge, there are collectables and areas to explore underneath as well. (In fact, you’ll find the aforementioned fisherman down here).
The world is not simply designed well on a level by level basis either. One of the goals of the production were to create a seamless world with no load times between each area (Dutton, 2012). In this respect, the developers succeeded immensely. You can not only move between each area of the world, reloading after death is instant and in some parts of the game, you can even see locations that you have already visited from the one you are currently in. (Granted that the player is high enough to look over the mountains) (Satterfield, 2001).
With these kinds of design choices, Naughty Dog created a sense of immersive world. “It’s the way the whole world feels connected (and never, ever loads). It’s the way a desert night feels like a desert night, and an intricately detailed deathtrap of a precursor ruin feels ancient and deadly” (Sulic, 2004).
There is a sense of belonging and motivation for the characters, of the persistent effect of their actions, and of the geographic dimension of this world. It’s a world begging to be explored. The mechanics are not the driving force of the progression, but rather, contextualized curiosity. Even a simple task like herding “yakows” into a cowpen is teaching the player how to use the mechanics to fight and control Jak.
Adventure, in the context of this title, is that of player freedom to discover within this space and to do it through action as encouraged by the game’s much contextualized design. It is adventure defined by story. This is in opposition to Crash, whose adventure values are rather of enclosed levels with little to no story context: platforming. However, they do align when it comes to their action-based environmental design. Soon Jak would become play a pivotal role in becoming an expansion of the platforming genre (Perry, 2003).
With Jak II, Naughty Dog once again distanced itself from the platforming genre by “running away from its roots as fast and hard as possible” (Perry, 2003). Although still relying on elements of the platforming genre, Jak II took the existing game franchise and adapted it for modern appeal; taking the game into a new future setting with a more mature and dystopian atmosphere (Arey, 2004). It introduced several new mechanics including racing, shooting, and hoverboarding. What is most significant and what can be most directly seen in Jak II, however, is the focus on using story as the driving force of the game rather than mere curious exploration of a world. “We wanted players to be driven forward in the game not just by the fun, but also by a sincere desire to find out what would happen next” (Arey, 2004). Haven City, the new locale, is a much more limited space with an autocratic leader and greater hostilities than in the previous title.This shows a detraction from exploration that can also be seen through the more linear level design. Many of the areas only have one path for you to take.
However, the variety of things to do in a particular area is not lost by this more linear design. Although, unlike in The Precursor Legacy, you do not have multiple pathways or options within a space, the missions of Jak II will have you revisiting the areas to complete different tasks in different areas of each map. For instance, during the beginning of the game, the player visits the Slums to retrieve a flag from the top of a decrepit castle tower in order to prove his skills to the Underground leader. Much later in the game, you return to the Slums, but instead of taking the route on the right, the mission calls for the player to enter a large robot machine to break down the walls on the left side and explore the area beyond. In this way, the game designers have created ways for the space to be reused and repurposed rather than explored. The ‘Titan’ is one of the many new tools that allow for variety of gameplay. In this sense, variety is still about the number of ways to play the game, but its purposefully designed so that the story has to provide for each different way. There are reasons Jak goes one way or another, it’s his mission. In one moment, it may be that you are trying to locate one of the Underground’s informants. On another, you’re trying to reactivate a warp gate in that area (Matulef, 2012).
Using story to guide the player through the different areas not only helps them succeed in their goal of a more story-focused game, but also solves the problem they created by choosing to stray more from the platforming genre. One of the features missing from its predecessor is collectables. Precursor orbs are much rarer in the future, according to Daxter. In The Precursor Legacy, the purpose these orbs served in encouraging the player to explore are no longer present. Story fills this void and kills two birds with one stone because “it’s the story that gives this game the feeling that it’s an adventure” (Perry, 2003).
This marks a clear differentiator between the values of adventure present in first and second game. While both games express a contextualized journey of the player not present in the Crash series, as they both include large and well developed worlds, they differ in respect to what kind of journey they experience. In the first game, the journey is defined by exploration: the player’s physical movement through the world. In the second, the journey is defined by narrative: the player’s journey as they meet new people and the events unfold. “It is the first time in the genre’s history that the story has taken the lead” (Perry, 2003).
This can be further seen in the game’s emphasis on deeper characterization in the latter (and later in Jak III), whereas in the former, many secondary characters are two-dimensional and easily forgotten. Both tell of Jak’s journey to solve a very core problem; the first being Daxter’s condition, the second being getting home; but the presentation is quite different even though the main characters and core mechanics stay the same. This runs parallel to the growth and development of the main characters themselves such as Jak who goes from silent hero to gruff, talking anti-hero with ever-changing goals and motivations. Just like the two games, each maintains core features, but each journey shows their evolution (Arey, 2004).
This is even more so the case in Jak III, the most radical departure from The Precursor Legacy and its platforming roots (Sulic, 2004). The game constantly has the player moving from section to section and is a testament to Naughty Dog’s increasing mastery of the form of story-driven action. There are still platforming elements in the game; however, these are mostly relegated to tomb-style adventuring of certain sections of the game rather than movement through the different areas of the game (Matulef, 2012). Much of that change can be accredited to the vehicular focus that Jak III presents. If Jak II was a vast city game, Jak III presents the vast wasteland game, as much of the game is spent driving outside of the city in weaponized vehicles rather than exploring different areas of the city of Spargus itself. “A sign of Jak 3 evolving its predecessor’s madcap sensibilities” (Matulef, 2012).
If the Jak franchise represents story-driven adventure, then Uncharted represents character-driven adventure. As you can see through the progression of the series, Jak and Daxter became more and more about characterization. This was penultimate to the Uncharted franchise which contains a much more “minimalist” and streamlined story in lieu of depth of characters (Druckmann & Lemarchand, 2008). The adventure presented in Uncharted is very much about Drake, his companions, and the interaction between these characters. The betrayals, the backstabbing, and the back-and-forths. The trilogy is about the struggles of a treasure hunter and the motivations of supposed heroes and villains to do what they must to get what they want. Naughty Dog wanted to create a contemporary pulp adventure akin to a cinematic “summer blockbuster” and the “stories we [developers] loved as kids” (Lemarchand, 2010). To do this, the focus was much more on the humanity and vulnerability of their characters (Druckmann & Lemarchand, 2008) and the set pieces that are delivered in each moment that the character experiences (Lemarchand, 2010) rather than the experience of the player in that characters shoes. “Though it seems less radical by today’s standards, we wanted to create the feeling … where you were in control of the hero the whole way through. This is how Nathan Drake was born”. (Wells & Balestra, 2014). This is Drake’s story more so than anyone else’s, whereas the exploration aspect of the two previous franchises allowed more for the player to enact their own narrative.
This subtle change can be seen even more dramatically in the platforming which is “automated… no more a platformer than heating up a dish in the microwave” (Matulef, 2012). The movement along cliff sides and the movement of the characters is a lot more controlled by the system than the player. Naughty Dog was more focused on “how [the player] can tackle their moment-by-moment experience, especially in terms of combat” (Lemarchand, 2010). This approach to the player’s control of a character shows a great deal about how adventure has changed from that of exploration to emergent character narrative.
Crash Bandicoot was a franchise where the definition of adventure was defined by the classic platforming. In Jak and Daxter, it was defined by its story-driven contextualization. Lastly, Uncharted delivers adventure as a character-driven experience. All of them, while focused on adventure, have different versions presented. For Crash, the mechanics themselves defined the experience as one about collection and game-clearing, as was common of platformers of the time. Jak and Daxter shows how that game-clearing aspect can be contextualized through story and given a higher emphasis on the player’s journey through “open” worlds. It features a greater emphasis on the dynamics of the mechanics used by the player. Uncharted, however, defines adventure through its emphasis on its characters. Its much less about the mechanics or dynamics of the game system, but more about the dynamics of the characters’ narrative. All of these franchises include a very linear, exploratory adventure in an organic environment with action-packed set pieces. However, each provides a different kind of aesthetic experience because of where they choose to focus their presentation. This change of presentation was driven by the industry and the needs and wants of the player base, according to Naughty Dog, such as can be seen in the aesthetic change between the first two Jak games (Arey, 2004).
In this paper, I hoped to explore the value of adventure as it has changed in the last thirty years. I have attempted to explore this issue through an MDA-inspired format. This paper has attempted to examine how Naughty Dog game designers crafted the systems to create different aesthetic experiences. That is, examining the mechanics created by the developer, the aesthetics experienced by the player and the dynamic between these two relationships. This has been in an attempt to examine how those dynamics expressed certain types of value of adventure and how those have changed in the last thirty years and in what ways have they not.
Further deliberation would have gone on to elaborate on how Naughty Dog made their design decisions through examination of the changing industry.
Overall, there have been consistencies in the way that they have been explored, but not in the way they have been presented. Furthermore, I believe that we will continue to see growth and mutation of adventure in the coming decades. Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us perhaps can shed some light as to which direction that is heading with its character-based narrative of a Jak and Daxter-like journey, which shows more of a middle ground between the character-focused adventure and the story-focused adventure. Only time will tell where Naughty Dog, and adventure games, will go next.
Articles (in alphabetical order by last name):
Arey, Dan. (2004, January). POSTMORTEM: Naughty Dog’s JAK II. In Game Developer, 11(1), 40-48. Retrieved from http://hope.ly/1vGTHm0.
Cooke, Mark. (2004, June 4). Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back Review. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1udzkIC.
Druckmann, Neil & Lemarchand, Richard. (2008, April) NAUGHTY DOG’S UNCHARTED: DRAKE’S FORTUNE. In Game Developer, 15(4), 24-n/a. Retrieved from http://hope.ly/1uelVPN.
Dutton, Fred. (2012, August 24). Behind the Classics: Jak & Daxter. Retrieved from http://hope.ly/1vGP6jN.
Gamasutra. (2014, August). Gamasutra Salary Survey. In Game Career Guide 2014 (Section 14). Retrieved from http://dc.ubm-us.com/i/360245.
GameRevolution. (2004, June 4). Crash Bandicoot Review. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1wVgufs. Note: The author is unlisted on GameRevolution’s website. All references will be cited as by GameRevolution. However, the author itself may or may not be a direct representation of GameRevolution and the opinions thereof.
Maiberg, Emanuel. (2014, June 8). Destiny Budget “Nowhere Near” $500 Million, Bungie Says. Retrieved from http://l.gamespot.com/1mayVYj.
Matulef, Jeffrey. (2012, February 16). The Jak and Daxter Trilogy Review. Retrieved from http://hope.ly/1vGPj6t.
Moriarty, Colin (2013, October 4). Rising to Greatness: The History of Naughty Dog. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1udyyeS.
Perry, Douglass. (2003, October 9). Jak II. Retrieved from http://hope.ly/1uejRXW.
Ramsay, Morgan. (2012). Jason Rubin. In Gamers at Work (Chapter 16). New York, NY: Apress.
Satterfield, Shane. (2001, December 4). Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy Review. Retrieved from http://hope.ly/1uej2OW.
Sulic, Ivan. (2004, November 5). Jak 3. Retrieved from http://hope.ly/1uekn8c.
Wells, Evan & Balestra, Christophe. (2014). Uncharted: 2007-Present. In The Art of Naughty Dog. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Books.
White, Stephen. (2002, July 10). Postmortem: Naughty Dog’s Jak and Daxter: the Precursor Legacy. Retrieved from http://ubm.io/1vGJN3Z.
Zdyrko, David. (2001, December 4). Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy. Retrieved from http://hope.ly/1uejvQV.
Lemarchand, Richard. (2010, March). Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. In Game Developer, 17(3), 20-n/a. Retrieved from http://hope.ly/1vGT0JA.
Images (in order of appearance):
Eric-ND. (2014, April 11). The Art of Naughty Dog. Retrieved from http://hope.ly/1vHewOa.
AndrewGAT. (2013, August 16) Retrieved from http://hope.ly/1ueymLg.
Unknown. (Unknown). Retrieved from http://hope.ly/1ueyxGt.
Martinez, Napoleon (2014, December 8) Taken by author.
Enolianslave. (2006) Kiriban. Retrieved from http://hope.ly/1uezcb2.
Naughty Dog Studios. (2014, October 14). The Art of Naughty Dog. Page 106. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Books.