With both its cinematic Uncharted trilogy and post-civilisation drama The Last Of Us, Naughty Dog has been attempting to make something more than games with big stories and characters. Its stated aim is to tell stories and paint vivid characters through gameplay. As a result, the studio has evolved a new approach to game development, a sophisticated collision of traditional design and mechanics with storycraft and performance capture. And this in turn has generated a new kind of highly skilled and multifaceted developer.
Neil Druckmann has been with the company for eight years, and is one such developer. As the creative director on The Last Of Us, he shares overall responsibility for the title with game director Bruce Straley. Together they make a balanced pair. If Straley is the more talkative and technical of the two, then Druckmann is the more guarded and philosophical, dealing with the intangibles of performance and meaning.
The two directors are the bridging point between the studio’s traditional development side of coders, artists and designers, and the relatively new performance capture branch. The latter occupies a sound stage on the Sony Pictures lot and sends dialogue, movement and scenes back to the studio in Santa Monica as a digital river of data. Of course, in practice the divide isn’t that tidy – and as Druckmann points out, nor should it be, since the aim is to unify these strands rather than keep them apart.
“There’s a ton of overlap between us, because story spills so much into the gameplay, whether it’s how the characters speak or the tone you get from the level,” he says. “And likewise the stuff gameplay is putting together [and] art is putting together has to gel with the motivation of the characters. So we’re constantly communicating and critiquing each other’s work, and looking over each other’s shoulders to make sure everything is working in concert.”
Helping Druckmann to work across disciplines is a background in programming. Originally starting out as a criminology major (“I thought I was going to be an FBI agent, that’s how silly I was”), he tried a programming course and found that it came easily to him. Having played games from a young age (“I worried my parents with that”), he then had an epiphany: “People make games. There’s got to be jobs out there to do that.” So he set out to find one, switching majors, enrolling for the Entertainment Technology masters at Carnegie Mellon, and hassling Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells for an internship. He got one – against the studio’s regular policy – and was subsequently a programmer on Jak 3 and Jak X: Combat Racing before moving to the design team for the first Uncharted.
This design work has taken Druckmann a long way from coding, with duties that now include scriptwriting and directing actors. Even in today’s development landscape these remain unusual specialities, having grown out of Naughty Dog’s pursuit of more sophisticated, more integrated storytelling. Druckmann had no specific history or training to aid his scriptwriting, but as he explains: “I’m lucky in that I started my career at Naughty Dog, which has always been very story driven, very character driven.” He pays tribute the studio’s serious approach to storytelling, too, describing ongoing internal discussions and explaining how the team takes advantage of its location to attend seminars run by Hollywood talent such as Pixar and JJ Abrams. “We’re constantly trying to refine our craft, trying to think of ways of using less exposition, making it more character driven, [and] thinking about arcs.”
If writing came naturally to Druckmann, directing was a different matter. He helped select the leads for The Last Of Us: Troy Baker, a successful voice actor recently heard in Bioshock Infinite and God Of War: Ascension, and Ashley Johnson, who’s appeared regularly in films and on television for more than a decade. When it came to working with them, Druckmann signed up to acting classes, showing that same seriousness and enthusiasm to learn with which he credits Naughty Dog as a whole.
“It was a totally scary and horrifying for me to do, because I’m introverted and shy,” he says. “But I felt it was a necessary experience, just so I could talk to them in the same language.” Straying far away from the certainties of programming, Druckmann discovered the importance of communicating with his actors, especially in the prop-less, costume-less space of the motion capture stage. “Showing them concept art, really having them understand, ‘Here’s the situation you’re in, here’s what’s just happened to your character.’” And, though it sounds like an easy cliché, he also discovered the importance of trust. “A lot of times, people laugh when someone says an actor did something brave. [But] there’s a ton of people in that room watching you, and you have to really expose a personal side of yourself, especially if the scene deals with a very difficult decision or a difficult choice. As a director, you have to put yourself on the line for them, and say, ‘Here’s why this is personal to me; here’s where I’m putting myself on the line, on the page.’ The more they see you become vulnerable, the more they’re willing to do it themselves.”
To date, Druckmann’s career at Naughty Dog has taken him from programmer to designer to writer and director. The diversity of his path is a sign of the growing complexity of big-budget gaming, but also, more specifically, of the ambition within Naughty Dog to combine creative disciplines in its work. In this context, Druckmann agrees his past is an asset. “My programming background certainly helps me when I think of the more dynamic parts of the story, or where the story fits with gameplay. It helps me make that
shift in my mind that someone with just a writing background, or just a writing background in TV or film, would have a harder time doing.”
In fact, he goes even further than that, agreeing that polymathic capabilities are a condition of entry when it comes to overseeing the development of sophisticated high-level games. “You have to constantly talk to all these different departments, and on a very basic level you have to understand what they do. If I’m talking to lighting artists, I better have some understanding of key lights, or brim lights, or fill lights. If I’m talking to an animator, I better have some understanding of anticipation [and] follow through. Otherwise, how can I adequately critique their work in any sort of meaningful way other than to say ‘I don’t like it’ or ‘I do like it’?”