by Rob LeFebvre
Neil Druckmann is the creative director and writer for developer Naughty Dog’s latest acclaimed video game, The Last of Us. Naughty Dog has been popular for making award-winning cinematic games since 2007’s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and its breakout sequel Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
Druckmann started his career in video games as an intern for Naughty Dog, eventually working his way up the ladder, programming for early Naughty Dog games before working on the design team on Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, and becoming lead designer on Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, a universally praised game with an average Metacritic score of 96 out of 100. Based on the success of Uncharted 2, Druckmann was offered the opportunity to run the entire show, working as both the creative director and writer for The Last Of Us, a PlayStation exclusive title that currently sits with a 95 out of 100 on Metacritic: a resounding critical success. Riding a huge wave of buzz, The Last of Us sold over 1.3 million units in the first week alone, and, as of July 2013, has sold 3.4 million units, making it the fastest-selling PlayStation 3 game ever.
The Last Of Us is a departure for the studio, portraying a much darker, grittier world than the earlier games. The story revolves around Ellie, a 14-year-old survivor, and Joel, her reluctant protector, as they move through a world torn apart by a long-standing infection that turns humans into zombie-like killing machines.
Druckmann has come a long way since his programming days with Naughty Dog, and his creative director title has him interacting with more than just the written script or the technical aspects of the game. His ability to work with actors (whose performances are motion-captured for the numerous cinematic scenes throughout the game) as well as technical artists, has earned him a well-deserved acclaim among critics and fans alike.
ROB LEFEBVRE: Please tell us a little about yourself.
NEIL DRUCKMANN: Originally, I grew up in Israel. And I lived there for ten years before my parents decided to move to the US, and then I went to middle school and high school in Miami, Florida. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself for three years. I was a criminology major for a long time. And then at some point, I took a programming class, and it came easy to me, and then it just clicked, “Wait, this is what people do to make video games!” I had a very naive understanding of what it takes to make video games. But that’s when it first dawned on me that I wanted to go down this road to make video games instead of wanting to be a lawyer or an FBI agent or something that for me is very silly. And that’s when I changed my major to Computer Science.
Then I moved to Pittsburgh, where I went to Carnegie Mellon and got a Masters Degree in Entertainment Technology, which is this weird major that combines storytelling with programming and art. They’re very project- oriented. In a short amount of time, you work on these projects that are very similar to how our game is put together. You have to combine all these different disciplines into a product that then has to say something and be entertaining at the same time.
Then I went to the Game Developers Conference (GDC). Jason Reuben, who at the time was the president of Naughty Dog, spoke there. I approached him and I bugged him and I told him that I wanted to break into games. He foolishly gave me his business card, and then I started just bugging him and sending him my portfolio and at some point, he emailed back and said, “Hey, we’re looking for an intern. Are you interested?” And I said, “Yeah, of course I’m interested.” I was a big Naughty Dog fanboy. So in 2004, I started Naughty Dog as a programming intern and a couple months after that they offered me a full- time position as a programmer. So I was a programmer on a couple games before I became a designer on Uncharted 1.
I’ve always been more interested in the storytelling aspects of games as something I really wanted to pursue and push. Eventually, I was able to convince the powers that be at Naughty Dog to give me the chance to do that. So I moved over to the creative/design/writing side, and that’s when I started working on the writing of Uncharted 1. I worked closely with Amy Henning on structuring the story and writing some of the scenes. On Uncharted 2, I became a lead designer and took a bigger part in the core writing of that game.
When we finished Uncharted 2, they got the opportunity to grow Naughty Dog and split it into two teams. They offered me and Bruce Straley, the game director, to head up a new project. So I became the creative director on what later became The Last of Us and I wrote the story. That’s my life. (laughs)
LEFEBVRE: As creative director/writer, have you written anything before other than video games? Have you played around with screenplays and teleplays, things like that?
DRUCKMANN: I used to, but what got me into writing initially was I wanted to write comic books. I was a big comic book nerd growing up. The thing probably worth mentioning, when I was really young, like four or five years old, I had a brother that was five years older than I. And he was really into comics and video games and movies and making short films. Because of that, I was exposed to that stuff really, really young. So I started drawing, and I would write my own comics, just for myself. And then when I got to college I became interested in maybe writing a book. I just had this itch to tell a story, and I wasn’t sure about the medium or exactly how to express it.
It was at that point that I really got into writing, and wanting to write comics. So I started reading books by Brian Michael Bendis. He writes almost all the Marvel stuff now, but he did this series called Powers. And he released a script book, where he had all the scripts for the trade paperback. So I bought that, and I was reading it and then he started talking about his process, and that’s the first time I heard about Robert Mckee’s Story. And that’s when I got into really studying the craft of screenwriting. That book kind of blew my mind. I never thought of storytelling in that way—the depth you need to go to understand characters and how important structure was for telling a dramatic tale in a short amount of time.
LEFEBVRE: Right. So you have a formalized or structural process to your writing approach?
DRUCKMANN: Yeah, very much so. Right now I’m sitting in our story room, and I’m looking at all of the notecards we have of an initial pass of putting the story together, with the arcs where the characters change and all the conflict for each section. You know, there’s the extra-personal, the personal and the internal conflicts and how you want to bring all those together at the end to have a satisfying ending.
LEFEBVRE: How did your process change between Uncharted 2, which was a knockout hit because of the narrative, and The Last of Us?
DRUCKMANN: Well, on Uncharted 2, I wasn’t the creative director; it was Amy Henning. And while I had strong ideas that got incorporated into the structure, at the end of the day, it was her responsibility to decide what goes in and fits with the vision she had. And that was a learning process for me, because sometimes you get really attached to your ideas and it’s hard to let go.
And then with The Last of Us, it was how do you make it personal? I think that’s what got me super invested in it. A lot of this story is very personal and, ultimately, it’s trying to say something I felt was very honest. And that was one of my big takeaways from the Robert McKee book. In a chapter toward the end where he talks about the responsibility of the writer, it’s not to be moral or anything like that, it’s to be honest. You have to make sure that even if people don’t like it, your writing has to be honest. Otherwise you’re trying to please some other person, and then you start losing what makes the writing good. So I always try to keep that in mind. Is this honest, am I being honest to myself, am I being honest to the characters? Writing The Last of Us I became very conscious of that for the first time.
LEFEBVRE: The Last of Us is set during The Zombie Apocalypse, right? How do you bring that honesty, that personal focus, to a story trope that’s been tread for a while now?
DRUCKMANN: Yeah, the good thing about a story that’s been tread is that you can get rid of the exposition pretty quickly, because people have seen this before. You can get into the meat of what I find interesting, which is the characters: the interactions of the characters and what are they trying to say and ultimately what are you trying to say as a writer through them. So, at least in games, I will say that this genre has usually been very plot driven instead of character driven. It’s usually about how did this outbreak happen, what is the science behind it, is there a government conspiracy like they were trying to build some secret weapon that has escaped? It’s all about trying to chase that and make things right. The Last of Us is really not about that. It’s about a family. It’s about a family unit and it’s about a guy that ultimately is trying to, I don’t want to say “fix” himself, but he learns to invest his love in someone again. She becomes like a daughter to him. And then, ultimately, it becomes about how far he’s willing to go to save his daughter, and what are the sacrifices that he’s willing to make.
And for her, it’s this coming-of-age story. What does it take to become independent in this world? I approached the story from both ends realizing these two characters have their own arcs. By the time you reach the end of the story, you know their arcs; what each is trying to achieve and how they are in conflict.
LEFEBVRE: So you’ve got two main characters with their separate arcs, but both traveling the same path through a twenty-hour-plus game. How do you manage that?
DRUCKMANN: Uh, you take three and a half years to do it! You start with the broad strokes and what each section of the game represents. The thing that makes writing this game much easier is that the structure is very episodic. So you can look at each area that they reach in the game as a mini story, its own short story, its own arc. Each mini story changes them in some minor way that over the course of the game changes them in a significant way.
So then you can think, what are we trying to say in this part of the game? Who are the characters we are introducing in this part of the game, and how are they reflecting some personality trait back at them… how are they different at the end? Then use that as the starting point for the next area.
So you figure it out again, the broad strokes, and pretty early on we can capture some of the cinematic movies, knowing things might change. Some things did change. Then as the levels are being put together and constructed, and you understand more of the characters, you can write more of the connective tissue: the in-game dialogue, the stuff that’s a bit more dynamic between the much more defined cinematic beats.
LEFEBVRE: I think that most people understand the idea of a movie screenplay, they know how that’s put together. It’s very linear. There’s no player agency whatsoever. So what’s the difference in writing a game? What do you focus on while you’re doing a linear and non-linear progression?
DRUCKMANN: In some ways, writing a passive medium is freer in that the story can go anywhere. You could have a moment that it has no physical conflict in it. Characters could just sit at a table and talk for fifteen minutes. You can’t do that in an action game. So everything you’re doing, everything you set up has to lead to some physical conflict in an action game. Obviously, there are other genres of games where you don’t have to do this.
One of the reasons we picked this genre and this world, is because it affords us a lot of personal conflict, but at the same time there’s this extra-personal conflict of the infected or the other survivors that are up against Joel and Ellie. So I guess that might be similar to writing an action film. You can’t just have characters sitting and talking the whole time, they have to arrive at some climax.
I think the most obvious thing that’s very different is when you’re writing in-game dialogue. So much of it depends on how the player is playing or what different variables are at stake. For example, when you’re fighting other guys, it’s possible for you to shoot them from far away or you can to have this really intimate, “survive by the skin of your teeth,” brutal melee where you slam a guy’s face against the corner of the desk and kill him that way.
And then you say, okay, what if Ellie saw that? If Ellie is right next to you and she witnessed this thing? And then you have to write a bunch of dynamic dialogue. You don’t know for a fact this is going to happen, but this might happen anywhere in the game. So then, for that instance, you say, okay, how does Ellie’s character change?
Okay, so for the first third of the story, she might be pretty shocked by this. So I will write a bunch of reactions where she unexpectedly sees this thing and she just reacts. Then midway through the game, she’s a little more used to it, but it’s still a little disturbing to her, so her responses are more subdued. And you just write what we call “buckets”—it’s like a bunch of lines she might say based on the different variables of what happened.
By the end of the game, Ellie’s much more of a survivor herself, so these things aren’t going to affect her. So she might be relieved when you kill someone, even if it’s kind of in a horrific manner. Consequently, her reaction to that is going to change. Then you have to work closely with the programmers to make sure all these lines that you’ve worked with the actors and recorded get triggered during the right moments. Because if one of those lines is used inappropriately, you’ve just broken your character, you’ve just disrupted their flow and arc.
Another set we did that’s very different for us for this game, is all the side conversations that might happen and the players might miss. An example of this happens pretty early in the story. A character named Tess dies as you’re making your way through the country. And Joel makes it very clear to Ellie, “DO NOT bring Tess up, I don’t want to talk about this.” Then they meet this other character, Bill, and the three of them are traversing and trying to reach this scroll. If you go off the beaten path, and go exploring, there’s this certain house that if you enter and you go in this little kid’s room, there’s a journal there that you can pick up and read. It’s this kid’s journal about what happened in the world. Then if you wait a few seconds, Ellie shows up and she says, “Do you have a second? I want to talk to you about something.” And you can choose to interact with her and engage in this conversation or not.
If you do decide to engage with her, all of a sudden she gets into this whole conversation whereshe says, “I know you don’t want to talk about it, but I’m really sorry about Tess. There, I just wanted to say it.” So you get these options and you have to write in branches and instead of writing in something like Final Draft, you’re writing in an Excel sheet. You’re just keeping track of these variables and how they’re affecting the characters’ state and how that affects their dialogue.
LEFEBVRE: What tools do you use for the writing besides Excel, then?
DRUCKMANN: For the cinematics and actually a lot of the writing, I use Final Draft because I’m really used to it. It easily lets me have my list of characters and flow into dialogue. And when you get into the more systemic stuff, it’s just easier to work in Excel. For example, in combat, we might have a line where Ellie says, “Look out behind you!” Then I might need that line to be projected if she’s far away from you and there’s a guy rushing you, so she’s gonna yell this line. Or it might be in stealth, so I might write three variations of that line ‘cause you don’t want to hear the same thing over and over. And so it just becomes much easier to manage in an Excel sheet so you can see all of them as a group together, right next to each other.
LEFEBVRE: Do you use any visual organizing tools or are you basically still just using notecards on the wall?
DRUCKMANN: Notecards on the wall. We have a giant cork-board with all kinds of different, color-coded cards. I guess the other thing that’s been key is this thing called the Macro. And it’s an Excel sheet again, but what it does is it outlines the whole story from beginning to end, and it’s broken down by location. And then it has little notes on what we’re trying to achieve in that part. Maybe it’s a new gameplay element, and then how that gameplay element ties back to the story, which characters get introduced, how do they exit the story, how do they come back in, and that’s all color coded. So anyone can just open that document and get a quick, high-level glimpse of that part of the story.
LEFEBVRE: Ultimately, how much dialogue did you have to write for this game? How many hours of single player gameplay are you looking at?
DRUCKMANN: I never really counted how much was in there. I know it’s a lot. So there’s a feature length film in just the cinematics. And then you have, at a minimum, 12-13 hours of gameplay. Some people take 20 hours. Granted, not every minute of that is dialogue. But a large percentage of it is. And the way I do that is, I might take a quick pass at some dialogue there, and then I’ll get in the audio voice-over booth and record with the actors.
I like writing that stuff really close to the end when the level is almost done and I know the gameplay beats. I’m working with Bruce, the game director, and the designers and making sure the flow is good. Then I’ll grab a video of someone playing through that level, and while watching that, I’ll write to it. I’ll think, “Okay, I’m here with Joel and Ellie, how would they react to these situations?” And at that point, you’re really going for quantity. You want a lot of stuff. And I’ll tell them don’t worry about being precise with these lines, that they’re more of a blueprint.
I’ll even have them watch the video and because they embody so much of these characters; I’ll have them riff off the written lines. These lines are just a guide, but they’re free to go off script, so we get as much material as possible. Then what we do is cut it into little snippets, and based on what they’re doing, where they are, and what they’re seeing, it’ll trigger all sorts of different lines throughout the game.
LEFEBVRE: It sounds like a much more collaborative process when you’re talking about “screenwriting” with your actors and your designers and everything, more so than sitting down and writing a movie script.
DRUCKMANN: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, while the core story has remained pretty much unchanged, the scripts themselves have changed a lot based on what the game needed or the input of the actors. We write as we go. And I find that really important because it lets the actors own those roles and feel like they’re really a part if the storytelling.
Ellie’s initial story arc was she wouldn’t have shot a person until the end of the game, and she would do it to save Joel. What we found early on is that it didn’t really work for gameplay. You wanted more of Ellie. With how much she was experiencing, you felt like she would become more capable, more quickly. And we found we had to change her arc and give her a gun much earlier on.
One reason was because of gameplay, the other reason was because of the way Ashley Johnson, the actress who played Ellie, was really pushing for it. She said, during one of the first scenes we shot, “I feel like I’m too helpless here. I feel like I’d hit the guy as he’s holding me.” Then hit him, I said. It felt better, it felt more natural for that character to be in that state because she grew up in this post-apocalyptic world. And then that really affected how I viewed the character. That meant changing a bunch of scenes, but I felt like the story became better for it.
LEFEBVRE: What part of The Last of Us story is you? Did you come up with the seed of the story? Did you come up with the main concepts? Or were you given this world and these characters and you went with it?
DRUCKMANN: The initial concept, the initial seed of it, came to me back when I was at Carnegie Mellon, and we had a project we had to do. It was actually pretty cool, because we were in Pittsburgh, and they got the rights to do a Night of the Living Dead project.
The way it worked was we came up with different concepts and then we would pitch to George Romero, who lived in Pittsburgh. So we got to work a little bit with George Romero. I was really intrigued with this concept of these two characters living in this zombie world where the girl at some point would become the protagonist, like a switch. And that’s really all that remained from that story. Everything else is more recent.
Then when we had the opportunity, Bruce and I, worked on a new project. I had these discussions with him and I told him I was really intrigued by this idea. And the two of us were intrigued with doing something where the whole game would be focused on a relationship of two characters, and every decision we make would be helping to form that bond between the two characters. The mechanics it is using, the music choices, the level design and the events that happen in a level, will all help build this bond.
That said, I also leave it really open for the team to have a stake in and be able to interpret the material. The script was also written in a way that it was open to interpretation by the actors. So there are certain things I purposefully leave undefined about backstories, or what characters are referring to, so the actors can bring their own story into it as well.
For example, the character of Bill, was written as someone who warns Joel about living in this world, saying that you shouldn’t care for people because they’ll get you killed. He’s voicing Joel’s own concerns about taking on this mission with Ellie.
However, Bill is actually saying the opposite of how he feels because he had this partner, this person he was really attached to, this other guy named Frank. And it was the actor who really made the choice to make the character gay, because he felt that would take him to the end of the line and would make the relationship even more meaningful, and we respected that. Even though that actually meant that we had to change a scene because of it, I felt like it worked better for the story. I really try to leave things open, because I find that when more people can interpret the material and make it their own, they become more invested in it.
LEFEBVRE: And then the more honest it becomes.
DRUCKMANN: Yeah, absolutely. I think it also goes past these people into the players. The less expositional and defined everything is, the more the player can project themselves into it.
LEFEBVRE: That seems to be the defining difference between a passive media like a movie or a TV show and a video game like this. And maybe it’s why video games are the success they are these days.
DRUCKMANN: Yeah, I really believe The Last of Us, unless you really change the story, wouldn’t be as strong in any other medium. So much of it has to do with the time you spend with Ellie. When your back is slammed against a wall and you think you’re going to die, and all of a sudden Ellie picks up a brick and throws it at someone, giving you that second to run away and/or finish that guy, you can’t help but think, “Oh my god, you’re awesome. I’d like to have you around. I’m going to rely on you not just in story terms, but in survival terms.” I feel like that works really well for this story.
LEFEBVRE: What is your proudest moment in writing The Last of Us?
DRUCKMANN: There’s a lot of stuff I’m really proud of. People might not realize it, but this game was risky for us. Coming off the success of Uncharted, we’re doing a game in a genre that’s overly-saturated, but we felt we could tell a really heartfelt story within it and that it was a story worth telling. We stayed very honest with it.
Initially when we started doing the project, Sony afforded us these focus tests, where you can take early concepts or early pitches of the story and run it by “gamers.” Stuff like having a 14-year-old female protagonist tested really badly. And we just stuck to it. We said, “You know, we don’t have the proper context yet.” People are used to really lame female characters in games, or there are really lame kids in games. We really believed that in the right context, we could make someone like Ellie one of the coolest video game characters you’ve ever seen. We stuck to our guns, and nothing dissuaded us from pursuing that vision.
And at the same time, the tough part about using a new intellectual property (IP) is that you don’t know what’s going to be fun, you don’t know how people are going to react to the world with these characters, and it gets really scary. The team really bought into this vision and worked their asses off to do this game. So really, yeah, maybe I wrote the first pass of the story, but the story got passed through so many hands.
For example, the people who build the levels. There’s so much storytelling that happens in the environment, and there’s so much storytelling in just the sound effects, or when we don’t play sound effects and we just let things be quiet, and then how the composer interpreted the material. So many other people along the way really owned the story, and that’s something I’m really proud of. Nobody tried changing it, everybody understood what it was and what it needed to be and really owned it. So I’m really proud of that.
For me personally, and I know others on the team feel like this as well, it is rare to see a strong, non-sexualized female lead character. I’m really proud of that. And I’m proud of it from a really selfish place in that I have a three-year old daughter. I like the idea that we’re starting to create stronger female characters. And I hope other people pick up on this as well. I hope other teams can see the success of the game and think, “It’s okay to do that. It’s not ’gonna hurt our project.” If everything else is good, then people will buy into this, and they can see that the gender and age of a character doesn’t matter, it’s whether you empathize with them or not.
The ending is interesting to me, as well. For Joel, the conflict is about how far he is willing to go, as he’s forming a stronger and stronger bond with Ellie, to save her. Because it’s also how far Ellie is willing to go to save Joel and how she’s willing to cross all these moral lines that she thought she held. What she has to go through to save him at some points almost drives her mad.
But at the end of it, they reach this hospital. This place that’s supposedly going to get the cure out of Ellie and save mankind, but in the process, it’s going to kill Ellie. She’s unaware of this, she’s unconscious. Joel at that point makes the decision that he’s going to kill anybody that stands in his way to get to Ellie and to get her out of this place. And essentially, he makes the choice to damn the rest of mankind to save this girl. That’s how far he’s willing to go.
The interesting thing for me is that anybody who’s a dad gets it. They get it right away. And people who aren’t parents, it’s about a 50/50 split. Some people feel really uncomfortable with the ending. They might appreciate or understand, but they just say, “I wouldn’t do that, and I wish the game gave me a choice not to do that.” Other people were like “No, no, I get it. I’ve bonded so much with Ellie, I understand it.”
It’s interesting how I’ve never seen a dad or mom say, “I disagree with the ending.” That’s the honest part; that choice has become the center of the story for me. You understand, as a parent, it’s illogical. It’s irrational. But you’d sacrifice everything to save your child. The first time you hold your kid, you know that.
LEFEBVRE: What’s the thing you most regret? Either what you weren’t able to put in or you’d like to do differently next time?
DRUCKMANN: This might be a little of a weird one. I really wanted to create more diversity in the game. There’s some really strong female characters and there’s some strong black characters. Because the evolution of the story is so organic, sometimes certain characters’ fates were envisioned in one way, but then when we reached that point, it didn’t feel honest. The story needed something else.
The way everything fell out, we end up killing all the significant black characters. And at that point, I could either remove those beats, but then I felt like I would remove these really cool, complex black characters, or keep it as is and just take the knock for killing all them off. I think I took the lesser of two roads. I decided to keep them in and just take the knock, even though, initially, I thought some of them would survive. But we just reached that part in the story, and the story needed them to die. So I wish I had more foresight with that, and I could have done the less traveled road with the fate of those characters. But that’s one thing that’s been bugging me. Even though I’ve only had one email from a person that told me it bothered them. I am surprised that more people didn’t call us out on that.
LEFEBVRE: Well, that shows a lot of promise for your next game, then.
DRUCKMANN: We’ll see. I’ll do my best. Personal motivations of what I’m trying to do and how I’m trying to advance the medium are important, but at the end of the day, I have to be a slave to the story. And the story has to come first before all of those things. You could also make the argument that Sarah’s death at the beginning of the story is like the “woman in the fridge” trope, when you have a female character and all she’s there to do is to die so she can affect the male character. You could make that argument that Sarah serves no other purpose. I think for me personally, it serves something bigger and she also affects Ellie.
So again, that was still required for the story, and I’ll take the knock for that trope. And I’ll do my best with the time you spend with Sarah to flesh her out as much as I can. And that meant making her a playable character because right away you empathize with her more because you’re playing as her and there’s so much more you can predict. How much was constructed in her room, and how much that tells you about who she is—she’s into sports, and she’s not into the usual girly stuff you would see. She’s complex when she sees her dad shooting the neighbor. So again, I tried with the limited time I had with Sarah to infuse as much personality as possible. But that’s another one of those things I wonder if there might have been a better way of doing it.