A naughty dog? What in the world does an undisciplined canine have to do with the medium?
Recently, I’ve been getting into a video game series called Uncharted. The developer of said series happens to be called Naughty Dog.
Let’s go back a little ways and look at something that put this very developer on the map. By 1996, one of the big things that was “in” in the video game world was platforming games starring likable anthropomorphic animal characters. Five years prior to that, one platformer dared to challenge Nintendo and offer an equally excellent experience. That very game was Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog.
The success of Mario and Sonic spawned countless imitators, some being good and others being very contrived. By 1996, with the big and earth-shattering success of Super Mario 64, the family-friendly platforming game was in. Platformers were now going to go 3D, and boy did they! Naughty Dog had been around since the mid-1980s, but hadn’t made any titles that really caught on, and they hadn’t really created franchises akin to Super Mario Bros. A team of top folk at the company saw the move to 3D graphics before their eyes, and wanted to be among the first to bring the action-adventure platformer genre to that high-tech plateau.
The result was Crash Bandicoot. The goofy, instantly likable marsupial and his island adventures immediately caught on. He became something of a sorta-kinda mascot for Sony Computer Entertainment, and without much fuss, Naughty Dog banged out a second and third installment in the span of two years, both of which were major improvements over the already-impressive first game. The Crash Bandicoot trilogy, and its kart racing spin-off Crash Team Racing, enjoyed outstanding critical reception and strong sales.
What set the first game apart from its contemporaries was its lean towards the comic energy and fun of animation’s Golden Age. One of the series’ creators, Andy Gavin, had stated on his blog years back that they were attempting to go for those Looney Tunes and Tex Avery cartoons, and in the process they created a character who could arguably fit in with those animated legends. Story-wise, the first game was pretty straightforward. Crash is a lab experiment of the evil Dr. Neo Cortex, who mutates various marsupials, hoping to turn them into an evil army. Crash was supposed their leader, but due to technical failures in the machine, he ended up becoming a dim-witted goof. His objective is to beat Cortex, his minions, and save another experiment, a Jessica Rabbit-esque bandicoot named Tawna. The adventure unfolded over a series of islands, the levels mostly consisting of jungles.
Naughty Dog did not repeat themselves when it came to the sequels. Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back had Crash and his sister Coco – a replacement for Tawna, who had attracted controversy – dealing with Cortex. Cortex uses Crash, fooling him into thinking he’s helping him, while Cortex’s former assistant tries to sway him from doing the main baddie’s dirty work. On top of that, Crash now accessed parts of N. Sanity Island via portals, bringing in all different kinds of environments and a variety of locations. They even tried to squeeze in a few additional gameplay elements, such as jet packs. Crash Bandicoot: Warped took things even further, setting Crash and Coco on a time-traveling adventure that took them to several places, had lots of different gameplay elements, and many more… It was truly the bigger and badder sequel… And a more than fine closing to the trilogy!
Naughty Dog decided to call it quits after that, leaving the character with a rock-solid original trilogy and a great spin-off. Other studios continued to milk Crash, some successfully, some not so successfully. Instead of making another Crash Bandicoot game or something that was in a similar vein, Naughty Dog sought to take full advantage of the oncoming PlayStation 2. Their answer was a project they began developing at the beginning of 1999, just mere months after the release of Warped.
Taking roughly two years to realize, they wanted something different. No more linear levels and lightweight stories, in came fleshed out worldbuilding and wide open sandbox-like levels, but with the same platforming traditions.
The result was 2001’s Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy…
Set in a weird, compelling world where the humanoids had elf-like ears, the protagonist and his comic relief critter sidekick set out on a quest to save their world. Characters spoke, except the titular character for some weird reason. This is later poked at in the sequel: “Maybe this guy’s a mute, like you used to be!” Regardless, everyone else talked, especially the motor-mouthed Daxter. In Crash, the only speaking characters were Coco and the bosses, but it was minimal and you heard it after completing levels. Crash himself had some random noises that he made, and his signature “Whoa!” whenever he gets hit.
The game kept the fun vibe of Crash Bandicoot, but wasn’t overtly cartoony. There was enough in it to differentiate it from the earlier franchise. E-rated and family-friendly like the Crash games, it felt a little more like fantasy adventure movie from the 1980s, but with a more modern twist. You still collected items and fought bad guys, you even had a spin attack similar to Crash’s. All of that aside, the game was a huge hit with critics and was a hot seller.
So with the second one, you would think that Naughty Dog would’ve pulled a Crash and made what was essentially the first game but with many improvements? Right? Ho-ho-ho-o-o-o- no.
Jak II, released two years later, was a complete 180 from the kid-friendly adventure. Now sporting an “edgy” T for Teen rating, Jak II took us away from the colorful islands and thrust us into a brutal, rundown totalitarian city and introduced many complex elements. The game played a lot more like Grand Theft Auto than Crash Bandicoot, complete with guns and hovercraft highjacking! Our main hero alternated between a normal side and dark, vicious side. Said titular character now spoke, and his first words weren’t quite pleasant! (“I’m gonna KILL Praxis!”) A game with some swears here and there, innuendos aplenty, and rougher violence, Jak II was not the bright and breezy escapism that the first game was.
At the same time, it added so many elements and expanded the lore of this oddball world. Best of all, it wasn’t all that forced. Met with universal acclaim, some fans of the first one felt a bit alienated. Some of the added elements were considered tacked-on, and the main setting was too cramped. Others felt the opposite about the tone, thinking it suffered from that “edgy” and “attitude” syndrome that was prevalent back then. Ironically, I criticize things of the era like Shrek for it, but not this. I feel it works here. The shift from fun fantasy adventure to murky totalitarian epic is a bit abrupt, but hey…
It seems as if Naughty Dog tried to combine the best of one and two when making the third installment, Jak 3. (No Roman numeral for some reason!) Taking you to multiple open-ended locations, you weren’t frustratingly trying to get around the dingy Haven City anymore. You roamed a vast desert, traversed an old village, and several other places. You do return to Haven City as well, but it’s all blown apart and you can navigate the place with ease. The story remained intriguing, dark, and adventurous. It had Jak II‘s grit, but just enough of it! Going against the roughness is a tone akin to the first game’s mood, and that pure adventure vibe that was mostly missing from the second game. A perfect balance if you ask me, making it my favorite game in the series and one of my all-time favorites.
You see, Naughty Dog took risks here. With the success of Crash behind them and the first Jak game taking off like a phoenix, they could’ve stayed the course and made more games like them… They didn’t. The Jak series went full-on Harry Potter, going from kid-appropriate to something a little darker, a little sinister, and very action-packed. The mainline Jak series ended in 2005 with, no surprise, a racing spin-off. Naughty Dog left the series…
What was next? A dark fantasy adventure akin to Jak II? No.
Try a rougher Indiana Jones-esque adventure that was set to play out like a thrilling summer blockbuster. Your real-world human protagonist is after treasure, and so are ruthless men. It’ll take a lot of thinking and puzzle-solving to get there, too, and that’s not stopping your enemies. The result was Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune…
A high-octane love letter to classic adventure films, you went through lost civilizations and jungles, and fought armed baddies. It was definitely not a family-friendly game, and it was certainly not the sort-of 10-and-up edginess of the last two Jak games. Despite sporting realistic gritty violence and a script laced with language, it wasn’t entirely forced, and it created an engaging story with likable characters. I had a blast playing it for the first time (big shock, I’m actually very behind in the world of video games!) a week ago, though I did find the gameplay itself to be rather repetitive. I’d argue 85% of the game is running around and getting in shootouts with the villain’s goons.
The second game – Among Thieves – improved upon everything I didn’t care for in game numero uno, and had lots and lots of variety. You were truly playing the best summer blockbuster movie you’ll never get in theaters. My pulse was pounding when I fought my way up a Himalaya-bound train, when I ran like hell through an old Nepalese village that was being raided, when I squared off against a freakish mountain creature that looked like a yeti and Satan combined, and when I was trying to take down an assault chopper in a war-torn city. Now I can see why they’re having so much trouble getting the long-gestating movie adaptation off the ground… The game is already a movie, and it’s awesome!
Naughty Dog recently wrapped this series up with a fourth installment, breaking their tradition of ending things with numero tre. Uncharted: A Thief’s End is truly it, the final Uncharted game. Now before they got to doing that, Naughty Dog launched yet another series, and one that was yet again another breakaway from what was working before: The M-rated survival horror game The Last of Us. (No, I haven’t played it. You guessed right!)
It’s amazing, really. Naughty Dog didn’t shackle themselves to an image or an identity, and are a developing team that made a cartoony romp about a wackadoo marsupial, a sprawling fantasy saga for older kids, an old-school treasure hunt epic for a PG-13 crowd, and an adult-oriented horror game. The Last of Us 2 is Naughty Dog’s next big thing, but who knows what genre and style they’ll tackle after they finish this series. What could it be? That’s what’s so exciting about them, to me, as someone who is returning to playing contemporary video games regularly in a world full of homogeneous, bleak, dull titles.
An equivalent to this developer is Insomniac Games, who were and are close buddies with Naughty Dog. Their big start was, like Crash Bandicoot, a lightweight platformer series. None other than Spyro the Dragon! After finishing the purple dragon’s series with a fine third entry, they went on to do the Ratchet & Clank series, which was like the Jak sequels: Edgy and for “big” kids, and also packed with worldbuilding and wildly imaginative fantasy worlds. Then years later, they made the stylish future-set shooter Sunset Overdrive, which was definitely just for adults. They did some other shooters like that, such as Resistance and Fuse, but then they offered up something different and more kid-friendly after that, the very artistic Song of the Deep. Like Naughty Dog, no household name or brand there, they were to move around and try other things.
Now my question is… Why can’t we see a mainstream American animation studio be just this?
I’m excusing Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar. They’re great, something that quite frankly doesn’t need to be said by me for the umpteenth time. They do what they do right, the well-balanced animated family film that’s smart for adults and entertaining for the younger set without pandering to one side or the other. Walking that fine line is hard work, and I admire them for doing it right on a consecutive basis. It’s the Walt Disney way. At this rate, neither Disney Animation nor Pixar will be allowed to ease into more PG-13 territory.
Other studios? Well… Ermmm-errrrmm…
DreamWorks is a studio I can’t make heads or tails of, because they’ve gone through so many different phases and have operated on management orders. Management seemed to have a different idea of what to do every couple of years. In the beginning their work was edgy, serious traditionally-animated films and edgy, snarky CG comedies. Eventually, the serious movies were out when 2D was deemed “outmoded”. The snarky CG comedies stuck, especially after the runaway success of the first two Shrek films. Then came a woefully short phase where they balanced out goofy comedies (Madagascar sequels, Monsters vs. Aliens) with heartfelt fantasy adventures (Kung Fu Panda, How To Train Your Dragon), but after many upper level muck-ups, that came to a swift end. Now we’re in the “pick up the pieces” era, which should be over by the end of the decade. Prior to Comcast’s acquisition of the studio, the management decided to have DreamWorks focus entirely on silly, colorful family comedies like Trolls and Boss Baby, with founder and former CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg spearheading this direction. But he’s retired, DreamWorks may find itself a “new self” by 2020. Whatever that new phase DreamWorks will be, we don’t know. Maybe it’ll be experimental, or maybe it’ll be just another American animation studio churning out safe PG-rated romps.
Illumination Entertainment truly has surged to the upper ranks of the pack, but their work barely deviates outside of a few small things here and there. Despicable Me is pleasant cartoony fun, little else. The Lorax was nothing like the subtle Dr. Seuss story it was based on. The Secret Life of Pets is fun animal fodder, okay. Sing at least tried to do a few interesting things while keeping that candy-coated, Minion-esque Illumination frosting. Look at their horizon, though. Another Dr. Seuss adaptation is coming, and sequels to Despicable Me/Minions, Pets, and Sing. Where are the likes of Johnny Express and Flanimals? Illumination goes after the Disney/Pixar/DreamWorks goldmine.
Blue Sky, being one of the older studios, does it too. Sony Pictures Animation? Yep, and they’re making The Emoji Movie on the heels of alienating top talent like Lauren Faust, so I don’t see any progress from them any time soon.
LAIKA is on the cusp. They go a little step beyond. Coraline and ParaNorman were pure animated family horror stories not dissimilar to the rougher PG fantasy adventures of the 1980s. The Boxtrolls was eccentric fun, and Kubo and the Two Strings was a thoughtful and meditative trip. Their next film aims to be a story about an adult that will be very adult in tone, but will still be appropriate to take the family to… Well, that depends on the kids in tow, which LAIKA films aren’t afraid to scare or upset.
Perhaps our hope lies in a little guy called Reel FX. Their first animated feature was Free Birds, which seems like something they picked up anyways. A sort-of “we took the job” kind of film that had already went through multiple writers and script “doctors”. Then a year later they fired a little turbo shot into the animation coffee with the visually delicate, celebratory The Book of Life. While still a rather safe PG romp, visually it had something to say and was pretty quirky. They have a wide array of equally off-kilter things in the works.
See, not all of these studios seem to be firm brands. Despite turning 30 this year, is Blue Sky really a household name or a recognizable brand name? Same goes for Sony Pictures Animation. Illumination? Maybe not by name, but when you see a Minion and some Minion-looking animation, you would know what it is. Reel FX? No way. Paramount Animation hasn’t even found its footing yet.
So maybe it’s time one of those studios takes advantage. It probably won’t be Blue Sky or Sony, as both are trying to establish themselves as family movie creators. LAIKA’s mission statement – via their website – implies that they’ll make family films, but passion project family films.
Outside of studios, we have the groups. Companies sending the work to multiple studios and collaborators. Warner Animation Group? Hardly. Paramount Animation? Probably not at this rate, but it doesn’t seem like they are aiming to make a brand of it. Reel FX is a possibility, as they don’t seem to pass themselves off as a maker of animated family movies. At one time, they were planning on making a film based on the not-so-kid-friendly graphic novel Beasts of Burden, a film adaptation of that would probably call for a PG-13 rating.
I’ve been crowing about this for years, the mainstream American feature animation world is kind of stuck in the doldrums. Good quality films are being made, but if you don’t aim for different groups, you keep animation in one place. Animation is more than just the family film, as I’ve said many times before. Where are American animation’s equivalents of movies like Akira, The Triplets of Belleville, The Congress, Chico & Rita, Perfect Blue, Princess Mononoke, and several others? We sure didn’t get that out of Sausage Party! Several genres that live-action normally covers, I think, can be successfully tackled by animation… Whether it’s the rough Western or the gangster movie or the small-scale drama or the horror movie. Animation is limitless, and it’s time some studios act on that.
The problem is, that studio would have to keep its name as just that. A name. Say a group like Paramount Animation, with their heads in the right direction, makes Amusement Park and releases it. It’s a good-sized hit. Then they can have one of their studios make an adult-oriented film or something like that, and since there’s no “Paramount Animation” brand, they can release it without fuss. No cries of “how could they?” They did something similar to that once, twice actually! 6 years ago! With Rango and The Adventures of Tintin! The former is why they even jumpstarted this whole project in the first place, along with the fact that they were losing DreamWorks. I remember Rango got so much controversy for its hard PG content, but if that film were Disney, you would’ve seen shrieks and wails, “How could Disney have done this?!” But because it was from some relatively unknown studios and Paramount, you saw none of that.
So, where is mainstream American feature animation’s Naughty Dog? A studio that can safely make all kinds of animated stories without having to worry about their name misleading audiences?
What is the necessary transition, though? A Jak II-style animated movie is a massive risk because it was once attempted here on American soil, before there even was a Jak and Daxter. Do you remember a little movie called Titan A.E.? That was pretty much the kiss of death for that kind of animated film, which is unfortunate, because you CAN tell a story that’s for ages 10 and up. Titan A.E. happened to be – to this writer – a very mediocre film, and its many imitators fell flat at the box office, so this kind of thing is a no-go. Even a well-written, good-quality one. The real goal is, how do you make a film that’s too violent for the under-10 set but not too silly for anyone over the age of 13? That’s a nut to crack, a nut best left to a strong storyteller, not an executive or focus group bigwig.
If a studio like Reel FX or LAIKA or someone else is allowed to make this kind of transition, then that’s what is important when considering that kind of picture. Perhaps they could make a full on jump into something Uncharted-esque, or at least something in the PG-13 realm. That happened a few times, and it always went south. Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World was victim of serious cutting (it was released in 1992, after all) and retooling, it ended up flopping hard. Paramount/Hyperion’s Bebe’s Kids came out the same year, but it didn’t make a mark. Advertising it as “Animation… With attitude!” pretty much killed it, and summed up everything wrong with most “adult” animation made in America. There was also 9, a rather unsuccessful stretching of a short film. The ads for that also blew it: “This isn’t your little brother’s animated film!”
Quite telling that the only successful PG-13 animated film was The Simpsons Movie. A film based on a beloved, ongoing television series. If it weren’t about The Simpsons, who knows how it would’ve done. R-rated? Outside of Sausage Party, forget it. Most audiences only saw Sausage Party because “cartoon characters swearing and doing inappropriate.” You think the story or premise was the draw?
Video games on the other hand… This hasn’t really been a problem. Since the early days, video games and their suitability for children have been questioned. 1976’s Death Race, a crude-looking game where you ran over stick figures that were supposed to be zombies (keep in mind, this was 1976, a few years after the likes of Computer Space and Pong. The more detailed days of Pac-Man and Galaga were yet to come.), caused media outrage. It would only worsen from there, but I think this kind of cemented the idea that video games don’t “have” to be for kids. I’m sure the various space shooters weren’t given a warm welcome by these moral guardians, either. By the early 1990s, the video game industry made it loud and clear, what with the controversial Mortal Kombat (which, ironically, looks over-the-top and silly compared to today’s games and the current Mortal Kombat titles) and similarly violent and adult-oriented games. From that point onward, developers were able to make whatever they wanted. Video games have and have had audiences, not a particular audience.
American feature animation does not have this, despite the fact that a good number of the films being made don’t just target the kids. American animated TV has more freedom, which isn’t surprising given the amount of money that goes into TV shows… But big bucks go into the making of video games, so why not $70-150 million feature animation? We have so many pricey animated family films that bomb, so why not give it a damn shot?
Naughty Dog is interesting amongst game developers because, again, they began with a recognizable kid-friendly franchise, and gradually transitioned into rougher titles. Now if only animation can have a studio like that, or Insomniac.
There needs to be one, and soon. It’s time to shake up the snowglobe and show the full potential only animation can offer…