Druckmann began working at Naughty Dog as a programming intern on the company’s PlayStation 2 platformer Jak 3, but later moved onto the narrative-based Uncharted series, in which adventurer Nathan Drake solves historic mysteries while negotiating bad guys and physical obstacles.
”I was of the mindset of, how do we tell better stories in games?” he explained. “We were a studio making cartoony mascot action games. And then we were telling stories about a character who doesn’t wear a crazy outfit. To be able to get on that and help shape it was like a dream.”
In the Uncharted games, story drives gameplay. “We were trying to come at things less as set pieces,” Druckmann said. “With Jak and Daxter, we were, ‘Great, now he can ride a rocket. Let’s figure out how that fits in the story later.’ Now we were more interested in character motivation.”
He went on to co-direct The Last of Us in 2013. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic world where a hero tries to protect a girl from zombies.
”None of these games start as just one idea,” Druckmann said. “It’s a lot of ideas from different people.” But much of the premise was based on one of his own “failed student projects” about a man and a woman in a zombie world, which he had unsuccessfully pitched as a comic book. “I kept toiling away at it,” he said.
He was working on a Jak and Daxter reboot when the team decided they wanted to go in a different direction. “We asked [company management], can we do something else? And they said yes, sure. We started talking about how we develop characters through gameplay and it grew and evolved and became The Last of Us.”
”Gameplay genre and narrative genre are not always the same,” he added. “The Last of Us is an action shooter, but the story is about guardianship. So we tried to understand the classical structure of those genres and we looked at how we could subvert them in interesting ways.”
He said that he always tries to move story forward with handcrafted gameplay moments that differ from a game’s central activities. “You have the core mechanics but then you have specific moments that are one-offs. They take a lot of work — unique sets of animations and tech, for what might be a five minute section — but it’s so important to pull that off.”
Speaking at DICE this week, The Last of Us game director Neil Druckmann talked about his inspirations for making games with strong narrative appeal.
Interviewed on stage by director Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane), Naughty Dog’s creative director talked about his love of story-based games while growing up.
“I was especially drawn to narrative games, like Monkey Island and the Sierra games,” Druckmann said. “I remember being blown away by Half–Life.”
During the stage session, Druckmann hardly spoke about his current project, The Last of Us Part 2 for PlayStation 4, but he mentioned in passing that the game’s dialog is inspired by the Channel 4/Netflix series The End of the F***ing World.