The Last of Us Jak and Daxter Art

The critics have spoken, and Naughty Dog‘s epic zombie adventure The Last of Us has proven that in the realm of cinematic video game storytelling, they’re at the top of the heap. But according to one of the game’s directors, Neil Druckman, the now-famous quest of Joel and Ellie started out as something completely different.

Fans already know that the development team behind The Last of Us was initially charged with rebooting Jak & Daxter. In his keynote speech given at the International Game Developers Association conference in Toronto, Druckman offered more details on how the shift took place, with the newly-released video revealing the first look at the studio’s initial design for a rebooted Daxter.

According to Druckman, the success of Uncharted 2 back in 2009 led the studio to split the creative team responsible, allowing the most promising or ambitious programmers to flex more of their muscles. Led by directors Bruce Straley and Druckman himself, the new team was made responsible for a brand new Jak & Daxter. But they soon ran into a few philosophical problems:

“Our task was… to reboot Jak & Daxter. So we spent a long time exploring the world of Jak & Daxter: how would we reboot it? What would it mean to bring these characters back? What are some story ideas that we were getting excited by?… And as much as we liked a lot of these concepts and exploring this fantastical world, we found that the ideas we were passionate about were kind of getting away from what Jak & Daxter was.

“We were questioning: are we doing this for marketing reasons, and naming something ‘Jak & Daxter’ when it’s not really Jak & Daxter? Or are we really passionate about it? And the answer was: we felt it was more for marketing. We felt like we weren’t doing service to what fans of this franchise really liked – even if the reinvented Daxter is pretty damn good-looking.”

Jak and Daxter Reboot Concept Art

Those questions led to doubts, and when Druckman and Straley took them to their superiors, they were granted complete freedom to tell whatever story they wanted, existing franchise or no. It was Druckman’s experience as a graduate student five years prior that sparked the concept of The Last of Us; specifically, a group project to create a game based on Night of The Living Dead that would then be pitched to director George Romero himself, the mind behind the genre-spawning zombie film, and a friend of Druckman’s professor.

“So this was kind of the idea I was working on: basically ripping off the mechanics of Ico, ripping off the character of Hartigan from Sin City, and plopping them into the world of Night of the Living Dead.

“You had this cop character, and he was trying to protect this girl in this world of zombies. You know, he held her by the hand, very Ico-like, and fought them off… the interesting bit was just like the character Hartigan in Sin City, he had this heart condition. And every time this thing would act up, you would switch control between the cop and the girl.”

The idea was a flop with Romero, but Druckman held onto the concept for years, slowly developing it internally into a comic book format; the main male lead would now be a criminal, protecting the girl as a form of surrogate daughter. More time passed, and the rest, as they say, is history; Druckman and Straley shaped the game into The Last of Us, and Jak and Daxter remained on a shelf. For now.

Druckman’s full keynote can be seen above for a more in-depth look at the process that resulted in the finished game, but be warned: it’s spoiler-filled.

How do you feel about the decision to pursue the team’s passions, instead of trying to make it fit into the Jak & Daxter brand? Does this explanation help soften the blow, or will you be disappointed until Naughty Dog decides that they’ve got the perfect way of rebooting the series? Sound off in the comments.


Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.

Source: IGDA Toronto 2013