Art of Naughty Dog

In an industry in which it seems like every other week another studio has gone bankrupt or has laid off hundreds of employees after a game’s release, it’s almost comforting to look back at Naughty Dog’s thirty-year history. Yet it’s not surprising that the studio nearly synonymous with the Playstation brand has prospered, what with four hugely successful franchises under its belt.

As part of Naughty Dog’s thirtieth anniversary celebration, The Art of Naughty Dog, published by Dark Horse, looks back on the respected studio’s legacy. In many ways, the story of Naughty Dog is as much about the history of the industry as it is about one studio.

The History

Art books are inherently an archival genre. A documentation and collection of the visual production of pop culture, these books are curated history. It’s not just the illustrations that matter though–without context, these images merely float in the ether. In that sense, the essays at the beginning of each chapter are paramount to understanding the course of Naughty Dog as a studio.

The first chapter’s essays are appropriately written by the very founders of the studio, Andrew Gavin and Jason Rubin. Starting as JAM Software, it’s actually remarkable to learn about Naughty Dog’s beginnings with a couple of high school kids.

Screenshots of early games are provided, with Rubin and Gavin describing in more depth how they overcame hurdles in a period when developers had unbelievably little computational power to work with. This sets the course for the studio’s future games and foreshadows The Last of Us‘ impressive use of the Playstation 3 hardware. Further tales describe Naughty Dog’s relationship with Universal Studios and Sony, and how the studio’s smash hit Crash Bandicoot series gave the latter the powerhouse mascot it was searching for.

While certainly interesting, it’s hard not to get cynical if you’re familiar with the history of video games from at least the mid-90s. Naughty Dog as a studio seems to both create and replicate the industry’s trends and community’s obsessions with technological progression and adherence to marketing.

Even an art book can’t escape buzzwords, with ‘edgy’, ‘hardcore’, ‘gritty’, and ‘mature’ thrown around and often juxtaposed with cartoonish characters from Crash and Jak. It’s easy to laugh at all this while simultaneously looking back with a certain fondness at what we all use to think was cool.

The market speech, with however much sincerity it may have been written, turns to the slightly depressing though when Uncharted comes into the mix. It’s the quintessential set-piece franchise, the poster child for a generation of games consumed by spectacle and gunplay. Followed by The Last of Us, the curtain unfolds and shows boys becoming men and men becoming fathers, and while the wallpaper may change, the industry mindset remains almost invariable.

It’s fun though, a neat look inside a studio that players don’t get to see very often.

The Art

The real meat of the book remains the art, as always, and to continue this analogy, it is mouth-watering. Cynicism about graphics’ importance aside, it’s clear Naughty Dog has always been populated by a talented array of artists.

The chapters are broken up by franchise, with essays at the beginning followed by pages upon pages of conceptual and promotional art. It’s a treat seeing all the different forms characters like Crash and Jak and Nathan could’ve taken. The studio’s artists employed traditional animation principles such as squash-and-stretch in their character designs, and it shows.

Probably the best spreads are the background concepts, displaying familiar settings and evoking memories of playing within them. They’re never drab, instead a spectrum of vivid, bright color. This was especially cool to see in the section covering The Last of Us–the staff blurbs describe how the artists worked to maintain a strong sense of nature within the game, which sets it apart from most dreary apocalyptic settings.

It’s enough just to take in and admire the studio’s art, but a proper celebration wouldn’t be complete without appreciation for the fans that made the studio what it is today. There’s a section filled with a selection of fan art, which is unique for this kind of book. It pretty touching, and despite whatever one’s feelings about the games might be, it’s a great move of goodwill and passion.

The Past and Future

While celebrating its successful franchises, in its look into and celebration of its past, Naughty Dog also gives a nod towards projects which never developed much beyond the drawing board. In any introspective, this kind of thing is critical. It breaks the illusion that art is about instant success and perfection. Art is constant failure and messing around with ideas and finding one that just might stick.

The book also gives a sneak peak into the studio’s future projects–er, project. While some concept art for Uncharted 4 is all well and good, unless they’re truly not working on anything else, it would’ve been nice to see a bit of some other ideas too.

Any person invested in video game history would do well to check out The Art of Naughty Dog alongside fans of the studio. There are criticisms for sure, and many a word has been written about what the Naughty Dog’s works represent regarding the direction of the industry and its community. It can’t be argued though that it hasn’t been interesting.

The Art of Naughty Dog will be released October 1st by Dark Horse.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

Featured Image Source: Dark Horse


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Categories: Book Reviews


Professional grump. Writes media criticism at Whines on Twitter a lot. Likes rice.

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