Gameplay and Narrative in Jak 2: The Function of Power
© Copyright 2018 Vincent Maher, Ryerson University
In the year 2003, Naughty Dog Studios had just released a sequel to the successful platformer game, Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, titled Jak 2. (See Figure #1) Compared to its predecessor, it adopted a new form of style allowed it to soar to new heights and as a result, became a more mature game compared to its kid friendly predecessor.
Due to this, it traded in its original E for everyone game rating, meaning that it was aimed towards a more mature audience, this becoming a rated T for Teen game. This was a rating determined by the ESRB. “The ESRB is a nonprofit group largely funded through the game industry that assigns games one of five ratings: E (everyone), E10+ (everyone 10 or older), T (teen), M (mature), or AO (adults only), which we coded from 1 to 5, respectively.” (Przybylski, 246.)
What’s been able to set apart the first and the second Jak & Daxter games was its shift on its tone, and further enhanced dynamics of the gameplay features. In addition, the tone consists of the story revolving itself around the idea of power and plays on that idea by expanding it throughout the presentation of its own play area, which the gameplay has had a major role in with regards to enhancing the presence of its drastically shifted tone and gameplay. And again, this game was made for a mature audience, and thus contributing to its expanded gameplay. “Earlier studies on appeals focused on investigating appeals of video games specifically for certain demographic groups, such as children, teens and young adults, or college and high school students. Malone identified the three strongest reasons children are attracted to games: challenge, fantasy, and curiosity; Selnow discusses multiple factors that motivate people to play: gameplay is preferable to human companions or teaches about people and provides companionship, activity or action, or solitude or escape.” (Lee, 128.)
To start, Jak 2 has an open world styled play area that allows players to take control of the protagonist, Jak, and do as they wish within the respective play space they were given. However, within that play space, there were rules and conditions that players needed to be aware of in order to navigate it successfully. Whether players realized it or not, the gameplay presentation has contributed to enhancing Jak 2’s presentation of power through three key major things.
The first being visual language through sights, meaning what the play area is like in terms of finite space, and what they see within that respective play space. So in that respects, take a look at what dominant colors represent the play space in addition what the common feel of that the play space is, plus what’s visually present for the player’s eye to notice.
The second is sound, though they have to be payed close attention to, they are still details that players could have still picked up on while playing the game. This includes things such as sound effects (i.e weapons firing, walking, playable music/soundtrack), and dialogue voice overs.
And the third, but most essential aspect of Jak 2’s presentation is the gameplay, which means how a player is able to, with the pre-programmed controls that they have been given, navigate and progress within the respective world of Jak 2’s story and environment. This also ties into features such as enemy combatants and consequences that are contained within attacking non-combatants.
As stated, one of the core main things when introducing a game’s setting is its presentation of space. With Jak 2 being set in a future dystopian city titled ‘Haven City’, the way that the play space of Haven allows you to travel are by foot, or by hover crafts.
Visually, the city is not very appealing in terms of any unique color. The dystopian streets at every corner that a player turns to, there’s only one color that they see: Gray. Commonly, gray has is a color that has been ingrained into the city’s play space, thus strengthening its role as the city’s power structure in the name of control and restraint.
“Stories in games rely on narrative entry-points, which hinge on the different game narratives evident in the texts. Juul (2005) talks about event-based games. From this perspective, the video game relies on rules, and rules carry power for players. Alongside this, Juul identifies another narrative construct as “embodied fictional themes”. These are game narratives that rely on emotions and affect. In other words, there are game narratives that function on experience and actions with rules shaping game play. Then there are games that work within imaginary worlds and that function on responding to and transacting with stories. These stories not only rely on the integrity of existing franchises such as the X-Men but also on the assumptions and predilections of the gamers coming into the experience. The video-game story as a narrative sets up a series of variables to exist in another domain entirely, allowing children and adolescents to take on different ways of talking, writing, understanding and producing images and experimenting with different parts of their identities.” (Roswell, 52.)
The one that assures this exact control is the game’s antagonist, Baron Praxis, the dictator who rules over Haven City, who watches over Haven City and ensures that his rule is continuous and everlasting. In addition to color, non-playable characters that are civilians, each and every animated model that walks about. Both men and women, all share the exact same animation that is walking on the city streets, or travelling at idle speed on a hover craft. Jak, being the main protagonist, has a unique outfit that makes him stand out from the walking civilians, and the options where Jak can be moved openly showcases a rebellion against the common structures of power. His movements and his motivations are unique in that aspect, in addition he’s able to show that uniqueness by running, and speeding with the hover crafts.
Within the world, Haven City is closed off from the rest of the world by a giant wall that surrounds the entirety of the play space. The existence of any sort of natural environments, be it large fields with a lot of forestry or water, appear slim to none. There is only but one section of Haven City that contains plant life, but it’s still wired to an automated system designed for mass production of garden produce. The only time that any other colors that pop up when travelling around Haven City’s streets are billboards posted as advertisements throughout the city. Coming back to Baron Praxis for a moment, there is a giant structure that hangs over the city, ‘Haven Palace’, which serves as the home for Baron Praxis, in addition to being a way to serve as a watchful eye to the streets below.
No matter where the player travels throughout Haven City, the most notable structure that hangs over the city is that Palace that shadows over the city. Now, as much as the visuals contribute to enhancing the player’s awareness of the experience in Haven City’s open world space, one of the core things that brings that space to life are the sound cues that play from various elements within the game.
What does sound contribute to the narrative?
Existing in a symbiotic, hand to hand relationship, sound helps further stimulate the virtual experience of Jak 2’s Haven City play space in order to achieve its goal of presenting how power functions within its own sand box.
“Narrative was the most commonly identified appeal for video games. A vast majority of respondents stated that experiencing some kind of story was a major reason they selected and/or enjoyed their favorite games, and had a longer lasting appeal over time (e.g., respondent 831 (R831) said, “I play a wide variety of games, but the ones that stick with me the most are the ones whose story burns itself into my memory”). According to many responses, for a narrative to be appealing, it needed not only a good story, but supportive and integrated gameplay and mechanics, and relatable characters. Narrative was frequently mentioned in conjunction with gameplay (e.g., “I prefer games that have a narrative component that is creatively manifest through gameplay” (R1047)).” (Lee, 129.)
Even without getting into the main sections of the story by unlocking the accessible areas Jak 2 offers, or unlocking story through animated cutscenes, the player can get a sense of the story of Haven City by listening to the sound cues that are given off by various elements. The first element is Baron Praxis himself, enforcing his rule upon the city through various speaker poles that exist around the city, beaming out messages to make various announcements to the civilians.
There are messages that are addressed to Jak himself, but even then, the citizens in the narrative, who would be attuned towards their dictator’s, would ignore the momentary and dark truth that ironically, the Baron was trying to hide from his citizen. It was just another message, so they move on normally not questioning what’s been transmitted.
A couple examples of the various quotes that Baron Praxis beams out to the streets of Haven City consist of the following:
“Remember your friends could be enemies.”
“Shun those who defy me!”
“Obey and be happy.”
“It is better inside the walls.”
“One way, my way.”
“Give up your freedom, and I will protect you!”
“Defy and die.”
“Don’t try to make a fool out of me, Jak! Just because I haven’t killed you doesn’t mean I’m not onto you. The citizens of this city worship me because I offer them safety. All I ask in return is their lives. I’ll find you, and when I do, you’ll wish you died in prison.”
“Fear not the men in red. Sure, there are occasional complaints about their over aggressive policing, wanton destruction of people’s property during raids, mass arrests, misplaced loved ones and what-not. Hey, we’re only human! Running a city can be tougher than it looks. Imagine how worse it would be if the Metal Heads in charge!”
With all these quotes, they are messages that allow the player to become aware that there is a wired presence lurking over the city. With rebelliousness, however, Jak 2 allows players to destroy these transmitters beaming out the Baron’s messages. Whether they choose to physically attack it or shoot it, it can be used to express players, and Jak’s, determination to go against the Baron’s word in a powerful attempt to silence his power in a small way so nobody can hear the messages being beamed out.
The second major contributors that enforce the narrative of Jak 2’s Haven City streets are the police force named the “Krimson Guard.” Their armor clunks as they walk, and they say regular voiced lines as they walk, showing how their normal procedures are with regards to the patrols they do.
Occasionally, it will be radio messages that they receive responding to fellow officers, and often at times, they will say how they personally feel about the section of the city they’re in. Not only is the Krimson Guard important for that type of enforcement shown in the game’s story, but it’s also a challenge that is offered to players since it is an option to attack them. It’s how the game responds to the players’ actions that make the player pay more attention to the Krimson Guards that walk by them.
Consequences for Rebelling
One thing that will draw gamer’s attention with regards to how Jak 2 delivers feedback to the actions the characters take, the game’s functionality related to the Krimson Guards can make players take into account as to what actions they should and should not perform.
“Following a trend in gaming, which celebrates the story as much as the gameplay, pioneering photojournalists are embracing video games as a way to reach a younger generation on tablets and smartphones to educate as well as entertain them.” (Ahearn, 1.)
A mediated experience with regard to a game on a console, can still be used to highlight the significance of consequence within a game with systems and mechanics in place that allows exploration, but still make players wary of their own actions. “Exploration and depth represent two facets of discovery, requiring effort from players to uncover, engage, and understand locations or systems. Exploration addresses the need or option for players to discover new locations, characters, and other components of the game world. Depth addresses the number and types of interactions and gameplay elements present within the game.” (Lee, 132.)
As mentioned previously, attacking non-combatants while exploring the open world aspects of Haven City result in consequences for the player. There is an option in the game to not only attack Krimson Guards, but also civilians as well. Even before the player would fire a shot, civilians would respond by running away if the player has a gun equipped or they punch or kick nearby.
While playing Jak 2 though, there are many other ways to antagonize the civilians and make them run for their very lives, but the point is, the game will alert the Krimson Guards and they will start running after you for sole purpose of draining players’ health bars down to zero. (See Figure #2) The consequence remains severe due to the Krimson Guard’s aggressive assault they will dedicate themselves to. In number, multiple guards can attempt to shoot or tase players, in addition to Krismon Guard hover crafts pursuing the players whether they are on the ground or trying to evade them via hover craft as well, and also automated turrets that pop out of the ground in some sections of the city.
When all this is happening, there is an alarm going off as the guards are chasing Jak, in addition to the normal music shifting into something more upbeat and intimidating that tells the player, “You’re in trouble.”
This contributes towards that functionality of power that exists in Jak 2 due to showing how the world responds to the characters going to extreme lengths to disrupt order and peace in the vision of Baron Praxis. If that peace and order is disturbed, that’s how far they will go in order to eviscerate that rebellious behavior against their order.
In conclusion, the presentation that Jak 2 delivers with its gameplay that consists of sound and visual elements, in addition to the responses that the games gives you for doing specific things, grounds itself in a dystopian future that can be related to ideas seen through what power can look like. With what Naughty Dog Studios had developed in terms of Jak 2, it was a very creative way to craft a video game to express the simplest forms of what a dictatorship can look like, if it were to be applied to a future dystopian space, and show a type of freedom for a gamer playing their game to act rebelliously in the world they constructed.
Ahearn, Meghan. (2013) “Are Video Games the Future of Storytelling?” PDN ; Photo District News, vol. 33, no. 12, pp. 46-46,48. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/1466569936?accountid=13631.
Andrew K. Przybylski, Richard M. RyanC. Scott Rigby. (2009) “The Motivating Role of Violence in Video Games.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 35, no. 2, pp. 243-259. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/doi/abs/10.1177/0146167208327216
Lee, Jin H., Clarke, Rachel Ivy., Cho, Hyerim , Windleharth, Travis. (2017) “Understanding Appeals of Video Games for Readers’ Advisory and Recommendation.” Reference & User Services Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 2, 2017, pp. 127-139. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/1985539693?accountid=13631.
Naughty Dog Studios. (2003) “Jak 2” Sony Computer Entertainment
Rowsell, Jennifer, Isabel Pedersen, and Douglas Trueman. “Playing as a Mutant in a Virtual World: Understanding Overlapping Story Worlds in Popular Culture Video Games.” Literacy vol. 48, no. 1 pp. 47-53. Retrieved from https://journals-scholarsportal-info.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/details/17414350/v48i0001/47_paamiawipcvg.xml