Take a closer look at the influences and inspiration behind Naughty Dog's upcoming postapocalyptic survival game, The Last of Us.
Making a Connection
Druckmann first came to Naughty Dog as an intern after a chance meeting with the company's former co-president, Jason Rubin. Rubin "made the mistake" of giving Druckmann his number, which Druckmann used to hound the studio head for an internship until, one year into his Carnegie Mellon master's program, he was finally granted a short stint as a programmer on 2004's Jak 3. (Naughty Dog's website now includes a warning to ward off any future Neil Druckmanns: "Sorry, no internships or student works. Please do not send us game ideas.")
Since then, Druckmann has programmed, designed, and written for Naughty Dog titles Jak X, Uncharted, and Uncharted 2. The Last of Us is his first project as creative lead, and the first thing he wants to do is show people that story matters.
The problem with the way games are made, he says, is that 99.9 percent of them don't bother with story or character development.
"I might be engaged with a game, I might love the mechanics, but I don't care whether the characters live or die. Not every game needs a good story or good characters to be compelling, but I really do wish that storytelling was more of a focus in the industry."
He points to Hotline Miami as a good example of how things might look if done properly, saying the game made him care deeply for a character who had only a single line of dialogue. Druckmann wants more of that.
He's also a new father, which is proving more beneficial for his working life than you might imagine. On one hand, he's forced to spend more time with his virtual creations than with his own offspring, something his wife teasingly refers to as "marching off to war"; on the other, his new paternal emotions have afforded him crucial insight into the mindset of his characters. "All of a sudden I realized just how far I'd go to save my kid, things I've never ever thought about before. It's become a huge inspiration."
All his energy has gone into making Joel and Ellie the kinds of characters worth caring about. Joel, born before the outbreak, is a smuggler with no love for life under military rule. Ellie is a teenager who has been living in quarantine since she was born. For her, military rule, ration cards, and public executions are routine.
But there are problems with this relationship. Joel, haunted by memories of life as it once was, has given up hope of ever returning to it. For her part, Ellie knows nothing of life outside the quarantine zone. She is both naive and mature enough to witness and accept death as a daily occurrence. The two characters have very different worldviews.
Druckmann had to look no further than the ravaged war zones of Syria, Afghanistan, and the Gaza Strip to find inspiration for Ellie. He found countless examples of kids being kids, kicking footballs around in the middle of the empty streets or playing hide-and-seek in the rubble of collapsed buildings. Ellie is just like them: conflict is all she has ever known. What both Joel and Ellie have in common is a will to survive. It's pretty broad as far as shared interests go.
"Everything in the game--the mechanics, music, gameplay, story--it's all supposed to come together to help you realize how much they care for each other," Druckmann says.
The paternal relationship is a recurring narrative theme: Luc Besson's Leon: The Professional, Scorsese's Taxi Driver, A.J. Quinnell's Man on Fire, and Joe David Brown's Paper Moon all covered similar ground; more recently, Telltale's The Walking Dead examined the growing bond between a convicted criminal and a 9-year-old girl. (Incidentally, Druckmann says The Walking Dead was one of the best stories he has witnessed in any video game.)
But Druckmann is not aiming for comparisons; he wants The Last of Us to stand on its own as an example of a story that could not have been told in any other way, through any other medium. That's why he has given Joel and Ellie specific roles as characters: Joel--the only playable character in the game--is the practical type. He approaches each environment with caution, taking measures to ensure safety. He takes care of the scavenging and the worrying about how to stay alive from day to day. Ellie's role is to give you another perspective. She lets you see the world through the eyes of someone who has never witnessed natural beauty before: she will spend time noticing the sky reflected in puddles of water, the trees growing at odd angles from cracks in the pavement, the billboards and advertisements from a time and place she never knew. "Once Ellie leaves the quarantine zone, it's like she's in Disneyland," Druckmann says. "The game takes time to help players see that it's not always about fighting and survival, that there is time to admire the beauty of the world, damaged as it is."
One of Druckmann's main inspirations for The Last of Us was David Benioff's City of Thieves, a fictional story about two WWII survivors in a Russian city under siege. The story spends most of the time following the survivors as they search for food, but it balances the bleakness of their situation with lighthearted moments that reflect the triumph of the human spirit.
Still, not everyone will be interested in this kind of thing. But Druckmann hopes enough people appreciate a good story to know when to demand more.
"Steve Jobs once said that consumers don't know what they want until they see it. Once players see a game that has a really well told story, they're going to want more of it. We're all trying to push for this in the industry, to make stories more engaging. I think if we keep going, we'll make more and more games like this."
The Last of Us recently passed its alpha milestone, meaning the game is playable from beginning to end. The next stage of the development cycle will involve the team of a hundred or so programmers, artists, and designers working 12- to 14-hour days until the game is ready to be shipped. All Druckmann will be thinking about for the next four months is lines of dialogue, story points, game mechanics, and, if he gets a chance, Japanese curry.
And after that?
"A very long, well-deserved vacation."
The Last of Us is due out in North America on May 7, 2013.