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INTERVIEW: 'The Last of Us' Writer Neil Druckmann

With his ever-evolving body of work, it’s safe to say that Neil Druckmann has graduated from storyteller to auteur. Neil speaks with Sonya Alexander and shares insight on world building for video games, how 'The Last of Us' strikes a personal chord and what types of stories he's inspired to write.

Since its release in 2013, The Last of Us has been ripe for the cinematic universe. The multi-award-winning Naughty Dog game struck a chord with a wide demographic range, eliciting emotions from tweens and adults alike. The post-apocalyptic Stygian world that main characters Joel and Ellie have to navigate is one that only the strong can survive.

The Last of Us, Sony Interactive Entertainment

The Last of Us, Sony Interactive Entertainment

Often dubbed one of the greatest games ever made, the twelve-chapter odyssey fuses scintillating gameplay, breathtaking visual, captivating characters and a timeless narrative that embraces moral relativism and the fragility of the human condition.

Neil Druckmann

Neil Druckmann

Soon this phenom will be gracing our television screens as an HBO series. The game’s writer Neil Druckmann is adapting it with Emmy award-winner Craig Mazin (Chernobyl). Hot property Pedro Pascal (The Mandalorian, Wonder Woman) and Bella Ramsey (Game of Thrones, Her Dark Materials) have been cast as Joel and Ellie.

With his ever-evolving body of work, it’s safe to say that Neil Druckmann has graduated from storyteller to auteur. He recently took some time to speak with me about his writing process.

Has becoming a parent influenced or changed the types of stories you're inspired to write now?

Becoming a parent has drastically shifted my priorities. That's affected the types of stories I want to tell. Even with The Last of Us. I started working on it before I had kids, but I was already thinking about having kids and that influenced what I wrote.

When you have kids, you feel fear like you've never felt before and love like you've never felt before. Those kinds of feelings and the philosophy around those feelings have definitely crept into my work, in The Last of Us and Uncharted.

[SCRIPT SECRETS: The Emotional Journey, Part 1]

What movie do you think would make a good game?

The kind of games I work on, big budget, AAA games, could benefit from stories that are more intimate. I remember that was a feeling I had when I saw Children of Men, which obviously was a huge inspiration for The Last of Us. And, likewise, I felt the same way when I saw Gravity. There's a lot of spectacle and action in that movie, but it tells a simple, character-driven, intimate story that we in gaming could benefit from, at least in the big budget, AAA space because there's a lot of that in the indie game space.

What's the biggest difference between writing a game script and a television script?

They're both long-form. When you're writing cinematics in a game, that's probably the closest to them being similar. Where it starts deviating quite a bit is the endgame dialogue where things are aligned on variables and what the player is experiencing the game. More of that dialogue is done in an Excel sheet instead of something like Final Draft. It's trying to think about conditions that would elicit particular responses. Whereas a TV show is more straight forward in that it's a passive experience and going to be experienced by everyone the same exact way. And, therefore, you have those more rigid constraints that allow in some ways more freedom, in some ways, less.

Can screenwriting be self-taught?

I sure hope so because that's how I learned it. The great thing is that there are so many resources out there. There are books by Robert McKee and Save the Cat! Now there are YouTube videos, too, so it feels like there are classes and information right at your fingertips, you just have to go out and look for it.

It's about practicing your craft. Surrounding yourself with people who have a good narrative stance so they can critique your craft. Through iteration and experience, you learn and improve that craft. Whether you do it at school or at home, it's about having the discipline to keep challenging yourself.

How do you shift from writing lighthearted fair like Uncharted to more somber material like The Last of Us?

I find that capturing the tone of the work you're doing involves research. You're researching your subject matter; you're researching other work in the genre to the point where you see all the tropes and you understand what has been done before. So, you understand how to stick to tropes when you need to and when to subvert them but also understand the tone that you're after as far as how heavy things should feel. How serious and heavy the themes are dictates everything - what kind of dialogue you write, the situations you put characters in, and how intense things need to get.

What was your outlining process for the series?

Craig and I both value outlining things quite a bit so for us, it's staying high-level for long periods of time, which is exactly how I do the games. I have notecards that I throw up on a wall. It's playing with concepts for cheap. It's very cheap to throw a notecard on the wall, without any attachments. It's all about seeing the big picture. Is it all falling into place? Are setups being paid off properly? If not, you can just take the index card, rip it up and try different ideas until you have the whole structure in front of you.

Why did the game resonate with so many people?

I think it means different things to different people but when I think of works that have resonated with me, my guess would be there's something universal, yet very specific about them. When I think about Schindler's List, Munich, and even a movie like Saint Maude, which is a horror movie I saw recently, they're saying something about religion or the human condition or relationships that I can relate to. Yet, the characters are so well defined that I can see them as real, three-dimensional human beings. I hope that's what people found resonating with our story.

[Video Games and Screenwriting: What Can Video Game Design Teach US About Screenwriting?]

How important is music for a game or television series?

I think of music as a way into the subconscious. It's another storytelling technique that we have. For example, in The Last of Us, instead of having Joel constantly talk about Sarah and how much that moment affected and changed who he is because he lost his daughter, we had a theme for that moment when Sarah died. Then we sprinkled that theme throughout the story at moments when he wants us to reflect on that or the character is thinking back on it. It allows us to have a more subtle storytelling technique. That's a lot of the conversation I had with Gustavo Santaolalla as I was writing the script for the first game.

What advice would you give up-and-coming game writers?

Whenever anyone tells me they want to work in games, I ask them what aspect of games they want to make, and I tell them to start making it. It's so much easier to make games now than when I was a kid. There are so many engines and tutorials and forums. I would encourage them to find a group of people that are also passionate about making games and start making a game. You can start making an indie game and writing for it and going back to the previous question about craft, you have to get some bad ideas out there. You have to go through the process of making something. Even finding your voice can take a while. Don't wait for someone to give you permission to start writing. You can go ahead and start writing right now. 

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