Back in 2003, two years after Sony purchased the studio best-known for the Crash Bandicoot series and early games like Math Jam and Dream Zone, no one expected a "serious" video game from Naughty Dog. Then came Jak II, a follow-up to the cartoonish 2001 platformer Jak and Daxter, that kept the original main characters but replaced everything else. There were guns. There was violence. And there was Teen-rated sexual tension.
Jak II was also Naughty Dog's first dip into exploring how evil a person can become without the norms of society to hold them in check. The Last of Us took that idea to horrifying new heights.
Seventeen years later, Jak II marks the moment when Naughty Dog shifted away from its childish origins and began the long march towards more mature games like The Last of Us and Uncharted. And while The Last of Us Part II often feels like just another step in that 17-year journey, it might just represent a cultural shift at Naughty Dog just as significant as Jak II — for a totally different reason.
Welcome to Last of Us Week! Ahead of TLOU2's release, Inverse is reflecting on one of our favorite games of all time and the studio that made it, Naughty Dog.
How Jak II changed Naughty Dog
2001's Jak and Daxter was a lighthearted platformer about running around lush, natural environments while collecting items, solving puzzles, and punching cartoonish enemies called Lurkers. You played as a mute cookie-cutter hero named Jak and his loudmouth friend Daxter, who's transformed into an ottsel (an otter-weasel hybrid) at the beginning of the game. It's good, clean, early 2000s video game fun.
But Naughty Dog changed course dramatically in Jak II. The sequel begins by sending its heroes 500 years into the future. As soon as they arrive, Jak is captured by a military dictatorship that experiments on him for two years before Daxter finally manages to save his friend. Jak emerges a changed man with disturbing superpowers forced to survive in an oppressive dystopia
Jak II's setting is as memorable as its transformed hero. The game takes place primarily in Haven, a walled-off city controlled by a despotic military leader known as the Baron, while civilization is also under attack from a bug-like alien race called the Metal Heads. As Jak (and Daxter) you join the resistance movement and team up with a ragtag group to save Haven from threats both internal and external.
Jak II features a wide variety of weapons — from futuristic machine guns to futuristic shotguns — and Haven is a bustling city full of hover cars for you to commandeer whenever you need a ride. It's not quite an open-world like the ones we have now, but by 2003 standards it was pretty close, with multiple missions competing for your attention as Jak II's dark narrative progressed.
Naughty Dog never fully explained the dramatic change in tone between Jak and Daxter and its sequel, but if you consider the rest of the gaming industry at the time it becomes clear. While Nintendo's Mario Kart 64 influenced an entire generation of games, including Crash Bandicoot — let's be honest, Jax and Daxter is basically just Crash with a new coat of paint — by the early 2000s, there was a new rising star: Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto. In response, Naughty Dog took its current franchise and turned it into a GTA knockoff in the best way possible. The company may have never admitted it outright, but fans almost universally agree that's what happened.
But more important than its high-tech weaponry or open-world design, cribbed from Grand Theft Auto, the characters and story of Jak II are what set it apart from Naughty Dog's earlier games.
"Naughty Dog weighs in with heavy guns, a dark story, and mature content," IGN wrote in its 2003 review. "Unlike pretty much every other platformer in the world, the story here is filled with characters who you'll either love or hate. It's the story that gives this game the feeling that it's an adventure, like Indiana Jones or even Max Payne. Jak is far more likable now that he speaks, and the fact that he's pissed off and owns honking big guns weaves in an unmistakable new level of emotion into the narrative."
Turning Jak into a three-dimensional character with dialogue and motivations was a big change, and it's one that's reverberated through Naughty Dog's entire catalog ever since. There's no Joel in The Last of Us without Jak's brooding, reluctant anti-hero in Jak II.
Naughty Dog also used its dystopian setting to full effect, telling a chilling story about authoritarianism and life in the police state that feels relevant today. The world of Haven fits right into the zombie-infested future of The Last of Us, where a worldwide outbreak exposes new depths of human pain and suffering.
In almost every way, Jak II represented a huge evolution for both the series and Naughty Dog as a studio. Beyond a few rereleases and a racing game, the developer never returned to its old ways. Instead, the success of Jak II pushed Naughty Dog to lean even more into the realm of mature games with follow-ups like the Uncharted series and The Last of Us.
Almost two decades after its release, the company couldn't look more different, but The Last of Us Part II is proof that Naughty Dog never stopped changing even as it polished the ideas put forth in Jak II all those years earlier.
The Last of Us Part II could change everything, again
The Last of Us Part II could represent an even bigger shift than Jak 2. In Naughty Dog's 35-year history, this is the first game where the main protagonist is a woman. (And, no, I'm not counting Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, which is really just a small expansion of Uncharted 4.)
While the finer points of The Last of Us Part II's plot remain a secret, we know that Ellie (not the original game's protagonist, Joel) is the main character. And based on widely read leaks, the second half of the game is expected to shift the focus to an earlier antagonist named Abby, meaning you'll play as two different women throughout the story.
In 2020, that might not feel like a major shift, but it's a big deal for Naughty Dog. And like with Jak II and its emphasis on violent gameplay and deeper storytelling, The Last of Us Part II could represent an even more exciting new chapter in the studio's history.
Seventeen years from now, we may look at Naughty Dog and struggle to imagine a time when the studio’s games didn’t feature a diverse range of playable characters, instead of relying on white dudes and cartoon animals. And if that's the case, it will be thanks to The Last of Us Part II.
The Last of Us Part II is coming to PlayStation 4 on Friday, June 19.