The Last of Us marked a massive leap forward not only graphically, but also in terms of video game narrative.
We sat down with the visionary writer and creative director for the title, Neil Druckmann, to get his side of the story – and see what’s next
When I was nine years old, I found myself so enamoured by Crash Bandicoot that I sent a letter to the studio behind it – Naughty Dog – asking whether the firm would take me on.
It sounds like a shot in the dark and, for me, it was – I never heard back. But for Neil Druckmann, his passion and persistence landed him the role that would go on to make him a gaming storytelling star.
“I played the first Jak [and Daxter] game and was blown away, and just happened to run into [Naughty Dog co-founder] Jason Rubin,” he recalls. “I started hounding him and eventually he gave me an internship on Jak 3 – I think he just got annoyed.”
In less than a year Druckmann was promoted to the role of writer and designer for Naughty Dog’s first next-gen title – Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. The game was a hit, and Druckmann was made lead designer for its critically-acclaimed follow-up, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, in 2009.
Despite Uncharted 2’s massive success, it is Druckmann’s next project, The Last of Us, that many will recognise as his magnum opus. The game told the story of a teenage girl, Ellie, and a grisled middle-aged man, Joel, who bond as they struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic America. The dark and touching tale struck a chord with players, winning over 200 Game of the Year awards from various publications.
The Last of Us’ brutal and desolate world was a far shout from the light tone of Uncharted. But Druckmann argues that, despite the gulf in tone between the two franchises, without the hijinks of Nathan Drake, Joel and Ellie’s adventure might not have come to light.
“I don’t want to downplay what we’ve done in Uncharted – it is a character-driven story – but with Uncharted we were trying to capture the summer movie blockbuster, to say ‘Here’s this kind of pulp action adventure, and we’re going to put you in it, we’re going to put you on the stake, and you’re going to feel like you’re this hero’,” he says definitively. “I hate using the words ‘light-heartened franchise’, but it is somewhat light-hearted – it never gets too heavy, and that’s part of the fun of it.
“With The Last of Us the approach was: ‘Okay, we’ve learnt all this stuff with Uncharted, now how do we apply all these things to more serious and personal themes?’”
He adds that, in contrast with many games on the market, The Last of Us was designed with an engaging and thematically complex story in mind – a challenge that the team itself saw as perhaps its greatest to date.
“Our agenda from the get-go was to construct an experience where everything we do, whether it’s story or gameplay or music or art, has to come back to this relationship between this teenager and middle-aged murderer and the bond and love that they develop between each other. And we were like: ‘Can we, through a series of interactive sequences, get the player to love these characters the way that they love each other? The theme of being a parent and having this irrational love where you would do anything for your child – can we make the player feel that?’”
He laughs. “It sounds insane and ridiculous and unachievable – but that was what we were shooting for the whole time with The Last of Us.
“That’s not to say that there haven’t been good stories in the past,” he quickly adds, as if defending against a backlash from irate Half-Life 2 and BioShock evangelists. “I grew up playing adventure games; those are some of the strongest narrative memories I have from my childhood.”
But now, he says, story-telling is becoming an essential part of the way big-budget games are created, rather than an afterthought.
“There’s something happening, at least in the triple-A space – and some of it is in part due to the success of The Last of Us – that when you integrate story into your pipeline early, you get better results with your narrative than just trying to bring a writer in the second half – or even the last few months – of a game and saying: ‘Here are cool, fun gameplay set pieces that you’ve got to tie together’,” he muses.
“With that, you get the result you’d expect, which is that it’s a fun romp, but the story isn’t really compelling and the characters aren’t engaging or honest or real. So, at least on the development side of things, people are trying to shift their pipeline and how they incorporate story into their development.”
"Game creators are trying to shift their pipeline and how they incorporate story into their development."
Neil Druckmann, Naughty Dog
Programmer, designer, writer and director – Druckmann seems to have done it all. And his unique odyssey through the multiple aspects of game creation is likely to be his greatest strength, helping him envision franchises that unite narrative poignancy and entertaining gameplay.
“It’s a huge leg up,” he admits modestly. “When I’m talking to a programmer we can talk about Ellie as a state machine, as weird as that sounds, like states she could take, and how we use dialogue to trigger different things. Sometimes it’s difficult to jump between the two worlds (writing and programming), but that’s often the best way to tie them together.
“Bruce Straley, my directing partner, is similar in that he is very technically-minded and he comes from art, so he’s not only thinking from a gameplay perspective, he’s thinking from an art direction, end-system, and we’re all speaking the same language. You have to be a jack-of-all-trades so you can communicate with each one of the disciplines to bring it closer to that original vision.”
This close communication allowed the team to fully consider a number of approaches when working on the game that would become The Last of Us.
“Early on, before we had settled on The Last of Us, we debated doing a multiplayer narrative experience, and discussed the challenges,” Druckmann reveals. “It is solvable, but the challenge of having a multiplayer narrative is that you always have to have something happening for each one of those characters.
“The Last of Us would be an almost impossible story to tell in multiplayer because there are situations where Joel is on his own. The story always has to have multiple characters that are active, and that really limits the kinds of stories you can tell.”
Ultimately, he explains, having a virtual character evoked a more human reaction from players.
“You’re playing with someone who is making decisions, who has interesting things to say based on the context that you’re in and is reacting to your behaviour,” Druckmann says. “As early on as you’re murdering people, Ellie is horrified by it and is reacting to it, but over the course of the game those reactions go away as she becomes desensitised. Through AI and how we record and write her, she has a sort of arc that plays out in an interactive space. Then it’s animation – how she follows you in fluid ways, how she path-finds in interesting ways – that makes her feel not like an automaton that’s not just tracking you but like a person who’s looking around corners and that when she comes and sees a beautiful forest, she reacts to it.”
Given that Ellie’s lauded performance was achieved with the creaky power of a seven-year-old platform, what does the future of realistic gaming look like on new consoles?
“There’s obvious technology that you’re seeing such as motion capture and how we render faces so we get more of the nuances of how flesh moves across bones,” says Druckmann. “Then there’s less obvious ways which are more on the systemic side, like how we can have NPCs react dynamically to what you’re doing. We feel like we’ve just scratched the surface with some of that stuff.”
It all sounds very impressive, but a lot of these new technical abilities didn’t materialise in The Last of Us: Remastered on PS4. Why not?
“We tried to avoid the downward spiral that would happen if we started doing stuff like that,” Druckmann explains. “Once we start fixing this thing, it’s like: ‘Oh, let’s re-work this encounter it wasn’t quite right in our minds’, ‘Oh, that dialogue’s always bugged me, let’s bring the actor back in and re-record.’ Soon it becomes a brand new game and it’s like: ‘What have we done?’
“Remastered was about fixing certain bottlenecks and limitations we had with the PS3. We weren’t able to display the artists’ assets – we had to downgrade a lot of the resolutions or the shaders or the lighting or the framerate issues – so we chose to resolve all of those things so we could show The Last of Us the way we pictured it in our minds and do no more.”
"We’ve learned a lot from The Last of Us and there are lessons that we’re applying to Uncharted 4."
Neil Druckmann, Naughty Dog
Part of the reason for the fervour surrounding The Last of Us harkens back to an argument almost as old as games themselves: whether an interactive narrative can offer the same level of experience as a novel or movie.
For Druckmann, there’s no question: “It’s just our perception,” he states. “In many ways games surpass those other formats. Fatal Frame 2 is the scariest kind of experience in any medium; I haven’t seen a movie that comes close. And Ico has me connecting to another character in a way that no book ever has. Likewise, a lot of games can make you feel guilt: that’s something a film can never do.
“Interactivity does sometimes limit the kind of stories you can tell, but likewise film limits the kind of stories you can tell; in two hours you can’t tell the same kind of story that you can in a game like The Last of Us, which is 15 hours.
“Different mediums have different strengths; games just have this bad perception that they’re slowly overcoming. I’m promoting the idea that games are this compelling narrative form, just as strong as films and books.”
But if Druckmann can’t tell the story of The Last of Us in a two-hour film, why have he and Spider-Man director Sam Raimi announced their plans for a cinematic adaption of the game?
“I’m in the middle of it now, and it’s been super difficult because there’s so much that happens in The Last of Us, just in the cinematics, that can’t fit in a film – let alone all the gameplay in-between,” Druckmann reveals. “It almost has this novel quality as far as how much content there is, and a film works really well when it’s laser-focused, so the first part of it was to start with the most important story beats that we can’t lose and cut everything else out.
“What I’m starting to get is this really focused narrative about these two characters. Some parts will be similar to the game and some parts will be quite different, but it’s interesting in helping me understand this other medium and its strengths compared to games.”
Jumping from one medium into another might seem a daunting task, but Druckmann has already seen some success, having written the four-issue graphic novel mini-series The Last of Us: American Dreams.
“We brought in someone from that medium, Faith Erin Hicks, that I really admired,” he says. “It was great working with her, helping flesh out Ellie and coming up with [Ellie’s best friend] Riley. She helped come up with Riley’s look and all of her language, which helped with the Left Behind DLC down the road – but we weren’t even thinking DLC at the time. It was just an opportunity to explore more of that world in this other medium.”
So, was branching out worth it? Completely, Druckmann says – and suggests that there’s more to tell.
“I told Faith that if she ever wants to do it again for The Last of Us, there was a story between what happens in Left Behind and where the story starts, and I would do it with her,” he enthuses.
Given the number of ‘visual novel’ games appearing on players’ screens – partially thanks to the success of Telltale’s The Walking Dead – would Druckmann ever consider a similar adaptation for American Dreams?
“I don’t know if the genre makes a good fit for a place like Naughty Dog, but if the team was ever inspired to do something totally different like that it would be fun and cool to challenge ourselves,” he replies. “With Left Behind, that was our big challenge in terms of not leaning so much on action and we toyed a little bit with branching dialogue. So we’ll see what more we can do in the future.”
Despite the ruins of humanity depicted in The Last of Us, the games industry keeps turning, and Naughty Dog will move on from its gloomy hit with a return to the Uncharted series next year.
However, it seems that the title will take at least a little inspiration from the bleak tale of Joel and Ellie.
“We’ve learned a lot about how we tell stories through interactivity with The Last of Us and there are lessons that we’re applying to Uncharted 4,” Druckmann says. “It’s about finding that right balance for Uncharted – it’s definitely not going to be The Last of Us. But we are trying to make it more personal this time and see how much we can delve into who Nathan Drake really is, and what kind of effect this journey has on him and the people around him.
“At the same time, we know Uncharted is about fun, charming characters and set pieces, and you’re going to see that, too. You’ll see an evolution of that and how we mirror those set pieces to the narrative. That’s our challenge.”
Given the outcome of his last ‘insane’ task, it’s safe to say that Druckmann’s next project will be something worth experiencing.
It seems that every games company is currently weighing up the benefits of adding support for virtual reality hardware like the Oculus Rift and Sony’s Project Morpheus to their games. And given the effect VR could have on realistic storytelling like that found in The Last of Us, it’s no surprise that Naughty Dog is among those considering the technology.
“There are amazing opportunities,” Druckmann says. “We’ve had some brainstorms over here as far as what we could do, and there’s right away unique things of how you can use perspective to get new kinds of experience that you can’t get any other way.
“At the same time, there’s still a lot of prove. There hasn’t yet been that one experience that says ‘Oh yeah, I have to get VR for this’. Someone’s going to make it, someone’s going to make that game that’s like ‘Oh crap, I have to get VR for this game’, but I have yet to see that.”
No Uncharted 4 for Project Morpheus announcement then...
“Not yet,” he laughs.
ACTORS TO AVATARS
The Last of Us’ renowned realism was achieved through a combination of factors, including making the game’s voice actors act out every scene while engineers motion-captured their movements and facial expressions.
For Druckmann, making the leap from positioning virtual models to directing real-life human beings required a completely new approach to the way he envisioned scenes.
“I had never directed actors before, so in order to entrust myself to do that I took acting classes to understand each discipline,” he explains. “I wanted to know how actors work, how they get in the zone, how they use motivation or obstacles to get through a scene. That way when I’m communicating with them about something that’s not quite working, that’s not quite right for that scene, I’m speaking their language.”