“There’s so much room to grow still that I hope The Last of Us helps in that regard.”
Its been a crazy 18 months for Naughty Dog and creative director Neil Druckmann. The Last of Us launched in June 2013 for PlayStation 3 to an absolutely incredible reception from critics and the gaming public at large.
For me, if you’ve known me on Twitter/FB/real-life in this past year-and-a-half, I don’t even need to tell you how here how much The Last of Us means to me – as much as I loved it for entertainment reasons, it did help me realise again how much I love games just as it seemed like I was starting to fall out of favour with them – because I already have and thensome.
But of course, the game meant something more, more personal to other people by the time DLC Left Behind, which had the player control Ellie, released. In fact, so barren was this year’s releases for me that for a good portion of the year, it actually topped my GOTY list for most of the year (slight bias may have played its part in getting so far up my list) until the recent Autumn games downfall.
And not to mention the release of Remastered on PlayStation 4 back in August. All whilst it was confirmed Druckmann would return to the Uncharted series with TLOU partner-in-crime, game director Bruce Straley, after being asked to take over the mantle of Uncharted 4 by Naughty Dog co-presidents Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra.
In July, I interviewed Druckmann for a special feature in Official PlayStation Magazine UK to note The Last of Us’ inclusion as the best PlayStation game of all time out of 100 as voted by the OPM readers to celebrate the magazine’s 100th issue. Most of the answers have already turned up in feature form, but figured it might be best to post the entire transcript of the interview to give a better insight of just how excellent I found Druckmann to be as an interviewee. Only so much you can write in 3000-odd words.
To say, it’s a piece I enjoyed doing from start to finish – one I’ve wanted to do since the game came out – would be an understatement, it was perhaps the only time in my career where I didn’t mind the copious amount of transcription.
But, as I’ve written recently on this blog a few weeks ago, it’s now also a feature that has the biggest personal sentiment to me following recent events these past two-and-a-bit months.
One day, I hope to do a proper deep-dive on TLOU with both Druckmann and Straley without any time-limits – I was only given half an hour by Sony which is BARELY enough time to even comb 1/4 of the game’s strengths and other aspects – but as a first attempt, this was otherwise pretty darn fun.
Here’s how it went.
[MASSIVE SPOILERS FROM THE THIRD QUESTION ONWARDS FOR THE MAIN GAME AND LEFT BEHIND]
Johnny: You’re coming off the back of Uncharted 2, one of the greatest action games of all time I’d say and you’re building this second team for a second time, so talk about the pressures of building that second team, as well as creating a new IP that is so dark and twisted and brutal compared to past stuff where it’s lighter like with Uncharted and then getting it greenlit, especially in the midst of Uncharted 2’s success and when you also had PS3’s life-cycle winding down.
Neil Druckmann: We tried going to two teams before and we weren’t ready for it, it didn’t really workout. We were doing a Jak PSP game and we underestimated the demands Uncharted 1 needed, so that whole team got folded into Uncharted. Then, we did Uncharted 1, Uncharted 2 was coming together really well. We felt like we had something really special in our hands, but even before that game came out, our bosses [Naughty Dog co-presidents Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra] started thinking of like, ‘Well, we’ve grown over Uncharted 1 and 2, maybe it’s time to try the two team thing again’. And you’ve no idea how difficult it is to create a new IP, it’s like you’re starting from scratch. You have no idea what’s going to work insofar as story or characters or gameplay or like, ‘Do you go first-person, do you go third-person?’.
So to make our lives easier and to say, ‘Okay, we’re gonna branch off and start this whole team, lets start with an established IP, lets not give ourselves too many challenges at once’. And we were given the task of rebooting Jak & Daxter. So for a long time, we had really great concept artists, we gave them free reign to go, ‘Okay, if you were to rethink the look of this franchise, the look of the environments, where would you go?’ And we have folders and folders filled of them and some of them are really beautiful concepts of this fantastical world. And Bruce and I would brainstorm gameplay mechanics, start thinking about narrative ideas. And there were a few narrative nuggets here and there that became intriguing and then we’d sit in a room and talk them through and try to flush them out. Then, we’d get some interesting arc and we’d step back and we were drawn to stuff that was much more grounded and we were removing some of the aspects that defined Jak & Daxter. in fact, one of the things that as intriguing was to have a Daxter that didn’t talk because we felt the tone of it wasn’t right for the things we were drawn to.
And that was one of those things we had to ask ourselves, ‘Okay, is this still Jak & Daxter?’ And the answer was, we felt, no. And we went back to Evan’s office and we had a discussion and I was like, ‘Why are we doing Jak & Daxter because it’s not making our lives easier from an IP standpoint, we’re going for something so new. So are we just doing it from a marketing reason and if that’s the case, are we going to alienate the hardcore Jak & Daxter fans because we’re changing too many things?’ At the same time, maybe there’s people who weren’t drawn to Jak & Daxter and expected to be cartoony and wouldn’t check out what we were trying to do with the story and what we’ve learned from Uncharted 2 as far as storytelling. So we really kind of challenged ourselves with asking, ‘Do we have to do Jak & Daxter, is it possible to do something completely brand new?’ And it was funny as to how quick the discussion went where Evan was like, ‘Oh, I thought it’d make your lives easier, but if you want to make something totally different, go for it’.
And that was kind of like this double-edged sword in like in one sense, it was freeing to say, ‘We’re not attached to anything we’ve done before, we can really reinvent what we do’. And on the other hand, it was like, ‘Oh my God, the sky’s the limit, how do we narrow this down, how do you start finding those constraints so you can build towards something?’ And those were several months that were exciting in some ways, but also difficult in that we would brainstorm fantastical settings. We would brainstorm first-person shooter mechanics, we would brainstorm a Left 4 Dead kind of multiplayer only game that had very minimal story. And we kinda branched off to explore all these aspects.
And also, that was a good exercise in we were really asking ourselves, ‘What is a Naughty Dog game? What do people expect when they buy a Naughty Dog game?’ If we didn’t already work at Naughty Dog, what would we want from the studio. And that was when we started shifting towards characters, it seems like our strength is characters. We have a lot of amazing animators, concept artists and a pipeline that’s built around these very narrative focussed experiences and we’ve really been honing our craft with the Uncharted series. It was like, ‘Okay, what if it’s the evolution of that, maybe that’s where we should focus our energy?’ And it’s around this time we came up with this concept, ‘Okay that’s kind of our strength as characters, what if we made an narrative that was all about characters and lets go as simple and intimate as possible, it’s just about these two characters and we’ll do everything in our power – whether it’s music, story, gameplay or art – everything will be constructed around the bond that these two characters form’. And over time, those characters became Joel and Ellie.
You mentioned the notion of trying to make what a Naughty Dog game is and up until The Last of Us, past games from the studio have kept it light and loose in terms of the story, although each game has increased with maturity. But with The Last of Us, you kept it heavily grounded in reality. After coming off Uncharted 2, how much difficulty was there in making that jump to a story that needed to keep itself grounded in reality?
Going grounded is very, very, very difficult. And again, I think sometimes people think the opposite, which is ‘oh, it’s real life, it’s easier’. Lets say you’re making a sci-fi game and you’re like, ‘How do I get the player into this level design?’, well you could create forcefields, you could create what some games do like a demon kind of forcefield and you have to defeat a bunch of enemies before you can leave this space. But those kind of narratives give you so many outs… ‘Okay, how do we switch up the gameplay?’, oh lets give you a jetpack, lets give you supernatural powers.
With Uncharted, we felt pretty constrained coming off Jak & Daxter, because Jak & Daxter was like, ‘Oh in this mission, Daxter is going to ride a missile and in this mission, you have to fly through a bunch of rings and in this mission, it’s going to be a top down shooter’. With Uncharted, it felt pretty grounded, but we still had the big spectacle, the setpieces that we kind of figured out with Uncharted 2 that let us switch things up. With The Last of Us, it felt like the story we wanted to tell needed to be more grounded, needed to… I don’t want to say take it itself more seriously because it’s not like Uncharted didn’t take itself seriously but tonally, it wanted to go a little darker to explore a sadder theme than what we’ve done in the past. But that was, again, such an undertaking.
I remember Bruce and I were talking about the project in a room and we’re like, ‘What kind of hole did we dig ourselves into, we have so many gameplay challenges that are hard to overcome?’ It really took us months to find a solution. And so many attempts were made to go, ‘Okay, well, what if Joel had a hookshot or what if Ellie had some power?’ and we’d start joking about it and then we’d just explore it
seriously. Sometimes I’d be the one pushing that stuff and Bruce would bring me back or sometimes Bruce would be the one pushing that stuff and I’d bring him back and it really took the two of us challenging and encouraging each another to stick with this challenge, we could see it through. And that’s when we started to understand, ‘Okay, this story is about survival, how do we build mechanics around survival? If we can get that aspect, maybe we don’t need big jumps and big traversal mechanics’, it’s
like it really can be grounded around the survival of Joel and Ellie.
One of your biggest, greatest aspects of the game is connecting to the world and its characters. This is more of an observation than a question. It takes a while for most games to get you into the world and its characters, near the end in fact. But with The Last of Us, and I mean what happens to Sarah and Joel, it’s like five or ten minutes. And it’s probably also the fastest I’ve ever welled up at a game because the only two games that have only done that for me was Metal Gear Solid 3 and Journey and that was at the end whereas The Last of Us did that at the start. Talk about that kind of process of connecting the world and itscharacters to the player.
We really liked the idea of seeing the beginning of the outbreak. Seeing Joel as a loving father so that when you pick up his story later and you see such a different man, he’s still working towards that or at least you think he’s going to make it back to that person, you find out that person is kind of gone.
And for a long time in that intro, you were playing as Joel. And we were really struggling with it because it felt like, ‘I’ve done this before’. I’ve either seen this in a movie or I’ve seen this in a game where the apocalypse is starting. You were gonna play as Joel and you were going to hear this scream at a neighbour’s house and you were going to see the wife’s dead and the husband attacks you and you have to kill him. You run back to go get Sarah, so everything was seen from Joel’s perspective.
And maybe that would have been fine.
But it was during one of our brainstorms with one of the designers who was working on that level and we’d been talking about how it’s like it all feels pretty pedestrian, ‘I can tell what’s going to happen before it happens’. And then it’s just like, ‘What if we didn’t play as Joel, what if we saw everything through Sarah’s eyes?’. And all of a sudden, that became a lot more intriguing. It let us build a kind of the fear of seeing the apocalypse from a kid’s point of view instead of the adult’s point of view. And as a kid, you’re kind of being lied to and you’re trying to be protected. And I think through interactivity, it lets you connected with Sarah really quickly that i think in a movie would be very challenging to connect with Sarah on such a level. But somehow, seeing you with the stick moving her, I think, is the magical thing about games, is I believe you start thinking as Sarah, you start seeing the situation as Sarah.
So I think that that was the shift that helped the intro kind of work and set up the world and I feel like once you buy into Sarah and you really like Sarah and then she’s gone, you feel Joel’s pain. So that when you’re starting the game later and he’s in this quarantine zone, he’s not a good guy. In fact, he’s kind of a dick. You still have the imagery of that loving father and that helped us create empathy with this guy that’s really not a good guy for a while. And then Ellie comes into the picture and he’s still rejecting Ellie and we actually had to make some changes there so Tess gets him to push on. And that really bought us time to like, ‘Okay, Joel’s going to take hours to start connecting with Ellie and therefore, we have all this time to get the player to connect with Ellie as well’, so that was a really good structure for us to get you first to connect with Joel and then over time, as he starts to care more and more for Ellie, the player is doing something similar through the gameplay.
One of the other big aspects that I really loved about the game was the lush, overgrown environments. Near towards the end of Boston and, to give a better example, the lush area in Lincoln. Those kind of environments had an I Am Legend vibe, even when the game was announced, it was immediately obvious it had that I Am Legend vibe of how nature was taking back the Earth. Were there other inspirations that kind of inspired that direction, I know Mark Davies came onboard, he was a key member for Ninja Theory on Enslaved.
We already had that look when Mark came on board. It’s funny actually, I remember when Enslaved was first announced and we were already pretty deep into The Last of Us, we were like, ‘Oh man’. It’s like these games on the surface look pretty similar: it’s a post-apocalyptic world, it’s lush, there’s this guy and this girl going on this journey to the West’. We were actually a little worried. And then the game came out and I felt tonally, they were very different games, even in what they were saying and how they played. I think just on the surface there was just some similarities. But as far as inspirations of the lushness, I think that’s something we really honed on really early, which is if we as people were gone, the air would get cleaner, the water would get cleaner, nature would reclaim its domain and nature can be quite beautiful.
And that’s the idea of this really strong contrast between beauty and death. It’s something that drew us to this project and drew us to this concept and felt like we could do something different, in the gaming space at least, as far as how you show a post-pandemic environment and really find the beauty of it, really find this city street that’s flooded that has all these trees growing from it and it’s really beautiful and it’s inviting for you to go kind of explore it. And at the same time, it’s kind of eery because those trees, those vegetations, as beautiful as they are, represent death. So one of the books we read was ‘The World Without Us‘ and it talks about how quickly nature can reclaim buildings and asphalt and all these kind of things, these powerful monoliths that we’ve created without us pushing nature back, they’re quickly reclaimed. And there was a theory based in that book that kind of had some provocative intrigue that we were looking at that.
The other main key bit of the game was of course the Infected and the Clickers. You mentioned early on how Planet Earth was the big inspiration for that. But were there any other concepts in mind besides the Cordiceps that you could have gone with or once you saw the Planet Earth bit, you thought ‘that’s it, we go with that’?
It was that [Planet Earth]. I remember when we saw the Planet Earth video while we were still working on Uncharted 2, we were all blown away by it and we were like, ‘Oh my God, zombie ants!’ And again, it had that quality of having beauty with death and horror that kind of intrigued that kind of contrast. And we were actually joking, ‘Why is nobody using this, this is a perfect grounding of the zombie lore?’ and we would joke, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool took this and made a game out of it?’ And as soon as we had that
opportunity and we’re talking about these characters, right away, we jumped right back into the concept of the cordiceps and the idea of the beautiful overgrown world. And those were our three elements that propelled the project forward that got us thinking of the story, the arc and the journey.
There’s characters like Joel I could talk about, but I have to talk about Ellie because how you created that character was a stroke of genius, no word of a lie. Ashley Johnson’s acting, the character development, the innocence that shines between from when she first appears all the way through to the end of Autumn. And like all three of my favourite characters in a game ever are all female: The Boss from MGS3, Elizabeth from BioShock Infinite and Alyx from Half-Life 2, at least up until The Last of Us. Talk about the difficulties of creating a character like Ellie because she’s 13 when we see her in Left Behind and 15 by the end of The Last of Us?
We really liked the idea of subverting the tropes. Joel being, on the surface, kind of your typical action videogame hero. And Ellie, on the surface, appearing like the damsel in distress. I remember the thing that has always drawn me to the story that had never changed during the different iterations is these two characters, he’s going to be the more capable one, she’s the more innocent one. And then over the course of the game, they’ll swap roles. And she becomes more independent and capable, he becomes more attached and helpless so that when you reach this climatic moment, he’s going to become incapacitated and she’s going to become the hero, both in story and gameplay. And we always knew if we kept that idea hidden, when you reach that moment and you take control of Ellie, it will be magical. It’ll be like what makes games great. So that was the backbone of where she started.
And then as far as defining her – that was such a collaboration in an ongoing thing, our concept artist did so many iterations as far as what she would wear, how do we capture this tomboyish personality and her wardrobe and anaesthetic. And then, Ashley Johnson, there was some humour in the script, but Ashley just took it to this other level in terms of her timing and it always felt organic and real, it never felt quippy. That was kind of an important thing for me when writing it, it was like, ‘Nothing should feel quippy, if there’s ever humour, it should feel like it just comes out naturally from the situation’. And the other thing that Ashley did is she brought this…it’s funny, if you know Ashley, she’s this kind of super quirky funny person, but she’s also a kind of a badass. People can piss her off and she can have this short fuse, not on the set necessarily, but rude people in life. And she brought those qualities to Ellie. And because we write as we go as part of our process, so much of how Ellie speaks, how she behaves, how she stands up for herself, a lot of it was influenced by Ashley.
That was kind of the start of it and as you’ve developed your cast and each person defining the characters is who they’re surrounded with. And once we had W Earl Brown as Bill and you saw him and Ashley in a scene together and the way they antagonised one another in this funny way, again that helped define Ellie and how she’d interact with Sam and the kind of interest to those scenes brought by both of the actors performances helped define who she is. and every time we capture another scene, I had a better understanding of who this character is. And that was kind of the intriguing thing of going into Left Behind and saying, ‘Okay, who was this person before she met Joel and what started defining her as far when this journey started’. Yeah, I kind of miss these characters [laughs].
Moving onto Left Behind because I know I’m starting to run low on time. You mentioned in your IGDA keynote that Ellie was your thing, but Faith Erin Hicks had the remit to shape Riley as she saw fit during American Dreams. How key was that to you because I get the feeling not many developers would want that kind of major story lore outsourced?
I love working with people I really respect and I was a big fan of Faith Erin Hicks from her previous works in comics. And when Dark Horse came to us, I wanted to work with a writer/artist who understood the medium. I thought it’d be cool to suggest someone that not necessarily had their fortay as horror even though she’s done some zombie comics, but that their fortay would be characters and a lot of her stuff is these coming of ages stories with teenagers.
And I thought, ‘oh how perfect, she could help define Ellie’s past and helped define [Riley’s] character, at least how we thought of that character at the time. And yeah, I leaned a lot on her as far as finding the humour between these two characters, their relationship. But it felt like a great division of labour because, ‘Well, I’ll just think of this storyline from Ellie’s perspective, you think of it from Riley’s perspective and really flesh out Riley’. And she came up with Riley’s look, how Riley speaks. And so much of the story was this really nice collaboration that I told Faith if she ever wanted to do it again, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
This is more of an observation than anything. With gameplay mechanics in Left Behind, in The Last of Us, they’re used for brick throwing and gunplay, they’re used tokill enemies. But they’re repurposed in Left Behind, you were throwing bricks at windshields and you were shooting water guns instead of actual guns. Was that an intentional thing?
Yeah, very much so because we really liked the idea of exploring the event that led to Ellie being infected and Ellie with her friend being infected. That was the initial concept for the DLC and we really liked the idea of jumping back and forth to this missing segment from Winter to show how Ellie took care of Joel and how she stitched him up and just to show how different of a character she was between these two timelines and kind of paralleled between these two malls in terms of the
environment. But then, we’re like, ‘Well okay, Ellie can’t really fight anything in the past because she hasn’t, she’s never seen a Clicker’. So it’s like, ‘What do we do,
how do we create a bond between these two characters?,’ that became our challenge. And we’re like, ‘Okay, lets take on this challenge, how can we repurpose mechanics we have’ and with the motivation of, ‘okay Riley is trying to win Ellie back,’ she’s trying to win her back and release that guilt of leaving her and now she’s really going to leave her.
At the same time, Ellie trying to keep Riley at arms length, but she really cares for her, and it’s like, ‘So okay, how can Riley draw Ellie back into this fun space?’ and there’s things we hinted at in the comic book using interactivity, it was like, ‘How can we get the player to have fun?’ Not necessarily with violence and the things we usually go to in games. And that’s a huge, huge, I can’t describe to you the kind of challenge that is. Maybe it’s because we’ve never done something like that, but it’s also like the brick throwing was core gameplay, the water gun – that was an early idea – that was core gameplay and those were easier things to figure out.
But then the photobooth, that must have gone through a dozen iterations and, I tell people this, that was as hard to create as the collapsing building in Uncharted 2 as far as resources, animation, time spent on it. And it takes all these nuances, the dialogue has to be perfect, how quickly you the press buttons between the options has to work, the timing of the humour has to work.
And it has to fit in this larger arc of the relationship between Ellie and Riley so that when you finish the photobooth, you get hint of, ‘Well this relationship is more than a friendship’. And everyone of those mini games had to play all those roles and had to kind of work on those levels and likewise the arcade sequence, it just felt like we can really build up, ‘They’re really going to walk through this arcade and there’s this joystick fighter’ but all the games busted and Ellie’s kind of bummed and to win her over, Riley’s like, ‘Well, there’s another way I can get you to play the game’.
And it became this challenge of…everyone hates QTEs and QTEs has this exact horrible name now in games and everyone wants to avoid them. We were like, ‘You know what, lets make the best QTE ever made in a videogame’. You’re playing icons on the screen, but it’s a character driven moment and you really get the relationship between the characters through it. And if you’ve played Street Fighter or Mortal
Kombat back in the day, you can totally relate to what’s happening and imagining that fight.
The other main aspect of Left Behind that I kind of had an observation about, and I didn’t really note this the first time I was playing it but more the next time I was playing it and this is after what happens with the kiss which was, by the way, a very sweet moment. But the next time I played it, the more I thought of it – and maybe I’m crazy in saying this – as a date between the two rather than just two mall rats? Am I crazy?
No, that was definitely in mind. And when you work with actors that try to find the real world metaphor, like what’s the closest thing you’ve done that relates to that moment? So even if you’re there, I don’t know, seeing giraffes for the first time, it’s like what experience have you had that mirror’s that? And that was definitely between Ellie and Riley, we started thinking of it as a date. The other metaphor was like skipping school. You have two girls skipping school and going to the mall. Of course, the mall here is empty and filled with the ideas of of death and overgrown, but it’s two kids. And that’s things I can relate to from childhood. Like having gone on these weird dates where we’re skipping school and she’s going to have fun and create havoc and getting into trouble. So you’re not crazy in thinking that.
[SCE UK PR jumps on the line to tell us to wrap it up]
One year on, you’ve made one of the best games of all time, you’ve won half a dozen game of the year awards, there’s so many things I’ve been unable to talkto you about that have kind of defined The Last of Us – not even the ending, I could talk to you all day about the ending – but what is the legacy of The Last of Us going forward because there is one, there will be one.
I don’t know, I guess I never thought of it in that way. We keep saying this, but it’s not lip service, we really did make a game we wanted to play. And I hope its success inspires other developers to, even if you’re making an action game, take your characters seriously and treat them honestly and really love your characters and wreck your brain about how you – through gameplay, through interactivity – get the
players to connect more to those characters no matter what game you make, whether you make an RPG, a shooter or a choose kind of a branching storyline adventure game. I think as an industry, we can do more to develop really great stories and really compelling, diverse characters. And I know we’re gonna keep pushing ourselves in that area, I feel like. There’s so much room to grow still that I hope The Last of Us helps in that regard.
Well, I’ll tell you this much, you’ve made an incredible world, incredible characters, I can easily say it is, without a shadow of a doubt, my favourite game ever, an absolutely incredible experience and I have to thank you for that, Neil.
You know, I want to say thanks to you. I remember you wrote that piece after you finished it. And I think those to me, more than anything else, hearing how much the game has connected with fans. Ashley recently told me she went to a convention and there was a few girls who were still connected to Ellie that they came out to her at the convention. And again, knowing that people have related to the material in such a personal level is, to me, the game’s greatest achievement.
That’s the legacy right there, whereas I’ve enjoyed the game for mainly entertainment reasons, it means a lot more to people with something like Left Behind.
Yeah, and that’s what we’re going to keep trying. How do we make the material personal. It should still be fun, it should still be engaging and intriguing, but lets try to say something with it as well.
Neil Druckmann is creative director at Naughty Dog. The Last of Us is out now on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 via Remastered. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End launches sometime in 2016 for PlayStation 4.