This is a submission for the TAY Theme Month: ‘That Special Place’.
Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy was an early release for the PlayStation 2 in 2001. Its impact was huge, with the game (and sequels) dictating how platforming adventures would develop throughout the PlayStation 2 and Xbox era. It redefined the formula which platforming games had taken in the PSX era, with the removal of separated levels, and replaced it with the inclusion of a continuous single world with which to double jump and punch through. This world, whilst potentially a side-note in the broader history of the franchise, is by far one of the most fascinating aspects of the game.
Developed by Naughty Dog, The Precursor Legacy can be seen as a spiritual successor to the Crash Bandicoot series. Indeed, the move-set between protagonists Jak and Crash are remarkably similar, with both having a spin attack and double jump. What distinguishes J&D from its hugely successful predecessor however, was its removal of segregated levels like Hog Wild, or N. Sanity Beach. Instead, the game became a platforming open world.
Of course, J&D wasn’t the first 3D platformer to attempt the open world. That claim can be argued to be held by Mario 64, or even the original Banjo Kazooie. And it’s those games that acted as large influences for Naughty Dog when developing their games. However, what was revolutionary for the time, was the complete removal of loading screens from the game. Instead of having a hub world, with paintings to jump through, or doorways which acted as transitory gateways, Jak and Daxter had one, single, big level. The open-world genre was beginning to take off in 2001, with GTA3 redefining how video games were viewed in mainstream culture and the still-impressive-now Morrowind only a year away. But Naughty Dog’s effort was particularly special for the time in its own way.
The open world system Naughty Dog were looking to embrace into Jak and Daxter was incredibly ambitious, and considering they were developing for a new console in the PS2, doubly so. Andy Gavin, co-founder of Naughty Dog, actually had to develop his own programming language in order to handle Naughty Dog’s vision for the game: that of seamless loading transitions. This meant no separate states or levels with which the player would load into. Just the initial load when the console was turned on, and then, from the players perspective, that was it. Titled GOAL, the programming language was built from the ground up for both J&D and the PS2.
Lead Developer on the game, Gavin explains that,
‘to realise the ambitious graphical goals, we invented a roster of brand new technologies: several different level of detail systems, perhaps 10 rendering engines, seamless loading from DVD, advanced runtime physics and joint animation systems to rival the offline tools. It was really, really crazy and basically took us about 20 months just on the engineering side before the engine was able to produce the kind of levels we wanted.’
The GOAL system turned out to be incredibly effective, achieving many of the aims it set out for. Using a dynamic linking system, the GOAL compiler was able to replace arbitrary amounts of code without interrupting the game with debugging software. In practice, this meant being able to dynamically load each area as it was being traversed across to, without the need for any loading screens at all.
This was so revolutionary, that Gavin actually filed for, and received a patent for the concept. That of dynamically loading game software for smooth gameplay. As of 2017, any game that would like to use the concept as detailed in said patent would actually have to appeal to SCEA, the current owners. The ethics of this is a whole other article in its entirety, but it demonstrates the magnitude of the idea and also how impressive it was that it was pulled off so effectively on the first attempt.
(This patent might be why we now have elevators that we have to wait ages for whilst games load in the background. Mirror’s Edge I’m looking at you in particular here.)
Fascinatingly, if you go back and play the original Jak and Daxter on your PS2, you may find that there are moments where Jak may trip and fall over for a few seconds whilst transitioning between the distinct ‘levels’ in the game (traversing quickly to the Forbidden Jungle for example). If this ever happens, it is because the game hasn’t fully loaded all of the assets for the next section. As such, the ‘trip’ was built into the game in order to slow the player down and give the game time to catch up. It’s unavoidable and completely not down to the players control. This is something to watch out for if you are ever watching a speed-run of the game.
SIDENOTE: It was the unique programming language of GOAL that actually led to problems when porting the games onto the PSVita in the recent Jak and Daxter Collection. The GOAL system was so integrally woven into the PS2’s framework, that Mass Media Inc., the company tasked with developing the port, had to virtually re-write much of the game.
Whilst to newer players it may seem relatively small, the open world was so rich and detailed for its time. And as a young boy who was restricted to playing only a few hours a week, it took me a good couple of months to traverse in its entirety. It was the continuous nature of the world that really stood out though. It was a whole new world (ha) of immersion. Gone were the shorter challenges of segregated 3-minute experiences of Hog Wild, or Up the Creek. Instead, the world was consistently alive. When the townsfolk at Sandover Village thanked me for clearing out the Lurkers from the Sentinel Beach, I could literally grasp at the importance of that task, because I could see how said quest giver could physically travel there.
In the later games, Jak II and Jak 3, the loading areas would be much more obvious, with large doors that would slowly open whilst you were waiting outside. This ended up more overtly segregating those levels from each other. Admittedly, both of those later games had a much more detailed open world, with Jak II’s city being an impressive feat in its own right. However, it never held that feeling that the original had. That of a single, continuous world expanding before your very own eyes.
The trend would be adopted by many later PS2 platforming games, most notably in Crash Twinsanity, which whilst being a severely underrated gem, still couldn’t capture the smooth transitions between sections in the world that The Precursor Legacy did.
So even still today, at a time when I can spend over an hour driving across the U.S. in The Crew, or fight my way across a massive Colombia in Ghost Recon: Wildlands, none of those games will impress me as much as when I would roll-jump my way through Rock Village or the Boggy Swamp.
Cleon is on Twitter, where he is seamlessly transitioning from 140 characters to 280 without any loading tweets at all.