Transcript: The Path Forward: Video Entertainment with Neil Druckmann

MR. PARK: Welcome–and hello–to Washington Post Live. My name is Gene Park. I’m a reporter for The Washington Post covering video games and gaming culture. Happy New Year.

Thanks so much for joining us, and I have the real pleasure to be joined today by none other than Mr. Neil Druckmann, co-president of the studio–the Sony PlayStation Studio, Naughty Dog. He started as an intern there, not–really the kind of story that you don’t really hear these days anymore, kind of like started from the bottom and going up there. And he’s also the creator and writer of the video game, “The Last of Us,” which debuted in PlayStation 3 in 2013 and is now being adapted as an HBO premier series debuting this Sunday.

Mr. Neil Druckmann, welcome. Nice to finally meet you.

MR. DRUCKMANN: Gene, looking good. We’ve been talking about doing this conversation for a while. I’m glad we finally get to do it.

MR. PARK: Yeah, man. This was your idea. Don’t forget that, so–

MR. PARK: How are you doing?

MR. DRUCKMANN: Well, you called me on an interesting day, at an interesting time, in that today I have–after this interview, I’m driving across town to do a premiere with Naughty Dog. The whole Naughty Dog gets see the first episode for the first time, and then afterwards, I have the HBO premiere, kind of like a Hollywood red carpet event that I have no idea what to expect from that, so–and then at midnight, we have reviews drop for the show. So kind of–you caught me at my most anxious, nervous, so we’ll see how this goes.

MR. PARK: Sounds good. Well, we have a lot to cover. So let’s just jump right in and get you out of here.

Let’s talk about “Last of Us” in a broader sense. For those unfamiliar, it’s a story about a man named Joel from Texas who suffers unimaginable deep loss at the start of a global pandemic, and we follow his story 20 years later. He’s grieving. He’s a shriveled-up man, and he’s a black market smuggler. And his latest assignment is smuggling a 14-year-old girl across the United States in the hopes of hopefully ending the pandemic.

In the past, you described the games as being about unconditional love and about how it is those emotions can drive people to do wild things, and many others consider your last game, “The Last of Us Part II,” as simply a game about how revenge is bad and it doesn’t do anything. And to be fair, you have also described “The Last of Us Part II” as a game about being revenge.

You know, it’s been two years since “The Last of Us Part II” came out and 10 years since “The Last of Us Part I” came out. In hindsight, how would you describe the themes of the story so far?

MR. DRUCKMANN: Yeah. When you say it like that, I just feel old.

MR. DRUCKMANN: No, it’s just been kind of a wild ride, and, you know, you say certain things when you market a game versus what it might actually be about. But from–I remember the moment we first started talking about “The Last of Us” at Naughty Dog, my earliest conversation with Bruce Straley, my directing partner. We were talking about creating an experience of the unconditional love that parents feel for their child, and that love is so primal, biological, that it can make you do really wonderful things. It can make you feel the most intense happiness you’ve ever felt in your life. Like, sometimes people ask me, “Oh, what is it like to have a kid? Do you feel anything new?” And I’m like, “No. It’s the same feelings you know, but it’s a much more intense version of those.” So it’s a kind of joy you’ve never known before, but it’s a kind of fear you’ve never known before either and a kind of pain. And a parent’s greatest fear is losing their child.

And then, you know, as I get older, as my family gets older and my parents get older, there’s this other fear of losing these people that have raised you, that have connected with you, and so much of “The Last of Us Part II” was about that, kind of the opposite side of that, that love connection. And, you know, when you look at the world we live in and some of the greatest things and some of the most horrible things have often come from that feeling of love, and to me, “The Last of Us” has always been an exploration of that.

And our approach with the show was the same thing. That is at the core of it. Everything is growing out of that. Everything is a conversation about that. So I think–I think we’ve been pretty successful. From my standpoint, I really enjoy the kind of back-and-forth conversations that happen around our games. Even when sometimes they could get quite toxic, I still get a lot out of it, of just seeing what people take away from it, how they interpreted it, and I’m really proud of what we did at Naughty Dog and now what we’ve done with HBO that’s pretty much been inspired by the work Naughty Dog has done.

MR. PARK: Yeah. We’ll definitely talk about all that stuff later, but you talk about the world we live in. “The Last of Us” is very obviously about a post-pandemic world, and this was back in 2013. And, you know, some critics of this game and the story say that it was unusually dark and very cynical, is a very dim view of the human spirit and its capacity to care for others.

But I know for myself in the last two years in the now and still very real pandemic world, I think reality has only reinforced some of those aspects of the game, where there are so many competing interests, and in a survival in setting, how would they clash?

But I want to hear from you. How has the last two years changed your perspective, if at all, of that original vision? And how did this, if any–did any of this inform how you approached some of the new changes in the show? Because there are a few changes that you’ve talked about in the show, and, you know, people will see that. I want to know if any of that, any of the past two years, that experience has kind of informed, you know–kind of made you rethink the game, and also, has any of that appeared in the show as well?

MR. DRUCKMANN: Yeah. I don’t know if it’s a rethink. Obviously, the pandemic has been a wild experience. I’ve lost a relative to covid-19. So it’s been–

MR. PARK: I’m sorry to hear that.

MR. DRUCKMANN: –quite intense.

But I think it’s more just reaffirmed what I’ve always felt, that we’re capable of wonderful things and really horrible things, and when you see people fighting about masks or vaccines, it’s disheartening. And then when you see people come together and really help one another, that’s the thing we’re all striving for—-or at least some of us.

So, yeah, I don’t know if it’s really changed much. Logistically for the show, we just knew people would be kind of wiser to how these things operate. So we wanted to make sure we’ve done our research and we’re as scientifically grounded as possible, just, again, because people are more savvy to how pandemics work and how the government and society can react at large.

But, you know, the game and the show are really not about a pandemic. Like, there’s one episode that’s about a pandemic. Everything else is what happens afterwards, and likewise, the first 15 minutes of the game are about a pandemic. Everything else about what happens afterwards, it’s about relationships and people. That to me is the meat of what “The Last of Us” is. The other stuff is dressing to get to that meat, to get to those relationships. That is the core of what we were building.

MR. PARK: What is your view on humanity? What is your–do you have an optimistic view or a pessimistic view or somewhere in between?

MR. DRUCKMANN: It’s somewhere in between. You know, maybe I’ve gone, one could say, more cynical but maybe a bit more grounded over the years. When I was starting out, I used to be, I think, a lot more naive and think, oh, man, we’re going to make these games that will change the world and affect a bunch of people. And, recently, I’ve had some conversations and my–I don’t know if this is quite your question, but I’ve been thinking about art and, you know, the stuff we’re making. And I’m more interested now, I think, in affecting a few people deeply and inspiring people, and it made me think back to growing up and what are the things that have inspired me and wanted to make me get into video games.

It’s been really cool recently, and it’s been happening more and more. We’re growing quite a bit at Naughty Dog, and as part of the interview process, you know, we just talk to people on where they come from and why they wanted to–why they want to join our team, and so many people talk about whether it’s “Uncharted” or “Jak & Daxter” or “The Last of Us” has made them want to get into games. So that’s the stuff I kind of focus on now. It’s like, okay, how do we mentor the next generation of creators? How do we create openings for them to really express themselves?

And I get, I think, more so now a feeling of pride of seeing other people kind of rise through the ranks and leave their mark on the industry, and that’s the kind of cycle that I think about a lot. I don’t tend to think about humanity as a whole that much. I try not to watch the news as much as I used to anymore. It just kind of can bring you down. So I try to stay informed but then focus on family, focus on my work, and just people close to me.

MR. DRUCKMANN: That was a weird–that was a weird rambling answer. I don’t know if I quite answered your question there.

MR. PARK: That’s okay. We have a question from the audience. Thank you to Matt St. John from Louisiana who asks, “How has your time in the gaming industry impacted the choices you make as a writer when it comes to big ideas and stories? What do you choose to focus on first when creating a story?”

MR. DRUCKMANN: It’s funny. I have these conversations a lot with Craig these days about our process, which tends to be quite similar. I like some clear thematic ideas, some simple concept that everything could be strung on, hung on, whatever term you want to use. Without knowing where we’re heading, it’s hard to make creative choices, especially when you look at something that’s a massive collaboration like a video game or a TV show.

You know, I hear–there’s all these conversations about auteurs. I’m not an auteur. Let’s put that–I’ll make that very clear. This is–what we do is extremely collaborative.

MR. DRUCKMANN: So I think that’s why those simple kind of concepts are useful, because often when you work with so many people, they’ll come to you with pitches, and often–again, when they’re very talented, all those pitches are extremely good and extremely exciting or thrilling. So, when you look at five things and you can only choose one, how do you choose? And, to me, the only way to do that is to understand what your thing is about, what it is that you’re making, creating, and then to say not which one of these is the coolest, but which one gets me closer to that idea? And then in having those conversations, that vision, it’s very strong, but it doesn’t come from a single person.

Now if I’ve had a conversation with people, like, I have to say maybe four noes and one yes. Even those noes are important because now it’s like those people can walk away and be like, “Oh, I have a better understanding of the thing we’re building.” The next pitch is more likely to get in there. And I think that’s a muscle that you just get trained over the years of like coming up with those concepts and really empowering people to tap into that vision and express themselves into it, and I think that’s–these days, that’s some of, like, the greatest joys I get is being surprised by the people I work with and what they bring to the table. And I think it helps make something greater than anyone–any one of us could have done on our own.

MR. PARK: Yeah. I’m glad you said that making video games is a very collaborative effort. So many different ideas and story ideas come from different animators.

MR. DRUCKMANN: I will say unless–unless you’re Lucas Pope and you do everything, that’s the only auteur I know.

MR. DRUCKMANN: But, otherwise, it’s a collaboration, and everybody’s contributing in some way.

MR. PARK: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

You definitely can’t accuse your games of not having a perspective. My next question, you’re co-president of a company, and your last game, “The Last of Us Part II,” was created with the knowledge that it will be quite divisive, and it may anger some of your audience, which it did. As a studio executive and creator, how do you balance managing and running a profit-driven media business with what appears to be your own very strong convictions to stick to artistic choices that challenge people’s perceptions? Was there a fear of that doing what you did would dilute your audience, or was it clarifying?

MR. DRUCKMANN: Yeah. That’s a good question, and it’s something that I wrestle with quite often.

I will say it’s, like, look, as–I forget the exact quote from William Goldman, but it’s like the idea is like, you know, no one knows what’s going to be successful or what’s going to sell or not sell or what critics will be drawn to or will it find an audience. You just don’t know. If we knew, if there was a formula to it, everyone would be doing that. Nothing would ever bomb or fail or any of that. So it’s like there’s no, like, a decision, you could say, okay, that’s the best business decision, and this is the–like–and you could just kind of forget the artistic integrity of it all.

What I have found over the years–and this is where I have to give credit not only to the leadership at Naughty Dog that came before me but even PlayStation–is that people do their best work when they’re passionate about what it is that they’re making. If that wasn’t the case, I’d be working on “Crash Bandicoot 17” right now, but instead, Naughty Dog–and this was when it was run by Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin–very smartly understood that they were getting tired of working on “Crash.” And even though “Crash” was extremely successful for them, they moved on and did “Jak & Daxter,” and then “Jak & Daxter” became a success. And even though it was extremely successful for Naughty Dog, we moved on and did “Uncharted,” which was a big risk for us. We were known for like a–more kind of like childlike, whimsical kind of storytelling and game play, and we went to this kind of cinematic, narrative-driven, you know, “Pulp Action” adventure romp. We moved away from hand-keyed animation to motion capture, and there were some animators that quit over that. But the studio just felt like that was the direction we needed to take. That’s how we needed to evolve, and we did work we were extremely passionate about. And then, you know, I think that vision was realized not so much with the first game, which when it came out did not set the world on fire but with “Uncharted 2.”

And then that was extremely successful for us, and we decided to take a risk, like let’s do our first M-rated game. And that risk led to “The Last of Us,” that when I was working on that game and I’ve–you know, I’ve mentioned this in interviews before–I did not think it was going to be that successful. I thought some of it was too subtle and nuanced, and it’s just–I just didn’t think it would work as well. But it did. Again, I think a big part of it is because we were working on something that the entire studio was really passionate about.

So then when you think about, okay, the sequel for “The Last of Us,” you know, I think the safe thing to do would have been to do another Joel and Ellie Adventure, something that becomes–like, you try to turn the first game into a formula and try to recapture that feeling again. But I think that would have failed our process.

What I tried to replicate with the sequel was like the–what’s the process that made it successful? It’s like, you know, that’s taking certain risks. That’s putting things out there that is not going to resonate with everyone but might lead to interesting conversations, and, you know, we made something that the team really believed in and I’m extremely proud of. And it was extremely successful, you know. Despite what other people that didn’t like it would want it to be, it was successful. And to me, it reached a level of success that what I always strive for which is not maximum profits. It’s enough to be able to do it again.

As an artist, you know, you just–you want to reach a certain amount of audience. You want it to stick with them so they’re thinking about it past the point of finishing it–it’s not just a frivolous thing–and then you’re successful enough as a business to be able to grow, hire more people, and do it again. And that’s the position we’re in right now.

MR. PARK: Yeah. Conversation we are having right now started because you wanted to chat with me about narrative storytelling and video games. So let’s talk about that. The critic Tim Rogers has likened “The Last of Us” as kind of like the latest and ultimate evolution of the groundbreaking 1991 game by Éric Chahi, “Another World.” I would even take it back further, and the evolution starts back to Jordan Mechner’s “Prince of Persia” and the “Karateka” games.

And it’s well known that “The Last of Us” was originally pitched as a more grounded, realistic version of 2001’s Fumito Ueda’s groundbreaking game, “Eco,” for PlayStation II.

So, you know, in the past several years since your internship at Naughty Dog through now directing “The Last of Us II”–and now you’ve dabbled in so many other mediums. You’ve made comic books, and now you’ve co-directed and co-run an HBO tv series. How has your video–how has your view of effective video game storytelling evolved over the years? I mean, how would you define it now?

MR. DRUCKMANN: It’s funny. My mind goes even further back than “Prince of Persia.” Like, I think Atari “Adventure,” you know, just like a square moving around and you’re trying to project narrative onto it.

MR. DRUCKMANN: It’s funny. Well, the reason we started to have this conversation is, you know, you put some statements out there about “Elden Ring” that just like Twitter does, you know, you’ve gone into some heated conversations about it.

MR. DRUCKMANN: I do think stuff–I’m more recently intrigued by stuff like “Elden Ring” and “Inside” that doesn’t rely as much on traditional narrative to tell its story and is–I think there’s some–some of the best storytelling in “The Last of Us,” a lot of it is in the cinematics. But a lot of it is in game play and moving around a space and understanding a history of a space by just looking at it and examining it. And, to me, that’s some–that’s–right now is some of the best joy I get out of games that trust their audience to figure things out, that don’t hold their hand. That’s the stuff I’m really intrigued by going forward.

And, again, it doesn’t mean we will never have dialogue or cut scenes. I think those are like–those are tools in your toolbox.

MR. DRUCKMANN: And it’s about how do you use all these different aspects, some of it from other medium, you know, some of it found notes and environmental storytelling. And I think there’s a way to push that stuff forward at least for the kind of games that we make at Naughty Dog. I’m really intrigued, again, never resting on our laurels and trying something a little bit new, a little bit different that not everyone is going to like, but that’s okay. And, again, the stuff that we’re working on now, I could tell you that the teams are very excited by the different projects we have at Naughty Dog.

MR. PARK: Yeah. One of the more interesting things–and I think the underrated things about “The Last of Us” series and “Uncharted” as well and what Naughty Dog has brought to the table–is all this unspoken storytelling you do with people’s faces and the kind of expressions that they give. You know, even in the remake for “The Last of Us Part I,” I noticed that Joel was smiling more than he did in the 2013 game. And it’s like that–for me, that tells like an even deeper story than–and a different characterization of him than the original 2013 game did. So, yeah, it’s just been fascinating to see it happen.

MR. DRUCKMANN: Yeah. I think that’s some–that’s some of the best storytelling. Sometimes in passive media in TV and film is scenes that don’t have any dialogue, and it is just about reading a person’s expression.

You know, one of the changes that we made for the TV show is we made Sam deaf.

MR. DRUCKMANN: And it started from a place of just like, you know, a conversation I had with Craig. We’re like what if we could use less dialogue, but then it led to–that kind of constraint led to really interesting storytelling decisions that I would say in some ways make that sequence more impactful than it is in the game, at least for me. And I’m very curious to see how other people react to it.

And then, likewise, I think with games, our philosophy at Naughty Dog usually is like if it’s an action sequence, it should not be a cut scene. It should be on the stick. If it’s something that, again, you want to focus on someone’s face, well, that’s really hard to do in game play, not impossible, but often you have to remove their kind of game-play loops and mechanics that are connecting them to the character. And that’s when we should go to a cut scene.

But more and more, as we talk about it, it’s like that’s the last resort of removing interactivity and, like, okay, how can we stay on the stick more and still tell these really compelling character-driven stories.

MR. PARK: Was it liberating for you to work on these same characters but like being able to like work on them on the show? Because in the game, you have to really stick with Joel in at least every perspective. They are the player, right? But now with the show, you can actually move the camera around and move the plot around to focus on other characters. How is that process for you?

MR. DRUCKMANN: It’s not liberating, but it was–it was kind of thrilling from two perspectives. One is that, you know, I had a really strong co-writer with Craig Mazin, who’s been thinking a lot about this game and what we could show in it and how we can–again, leave Joel and Ellie’s perspective, and those are thoughts I’ve had. You know, in trying to build the world, you often write and define more than what the player is going to experience. So they don’t see the edges. Again, you want to define as much as–further than what the player sees. So, again, they don’t feel like the world ends where their experience ends.

With the show–and, you know, we have to be very thoughtful about this. We could–because you’re not–you are not Joel. You are not Ellie. You’re watching their journey, but you get to leave their perspective.

By the way, I know you’ve seen the entire show, so I don’t know how–I guess we’re right before the embargo. So I don’t know how much you could talk about it.

MR. DRUCKMANN: But we get to see these really kind of interesting perspectives that speak to that theme of love and the wonderful things that can come of it and the horrible things that can come of it. Again, that is our goal with this story, and in a way, it can strengthen the journey that Joel and Ellie go to.

So, for example, when they crash their truck and they go against, quote/unquote, “hunters,” we get to humanize that obs–what is an obstacle for them. But, therefore, I think their conflict becomes that much greater because you realize they’re fighting against people that are also trying to survive. They’re also trying to find their way in this world. They’re not just henchman, you know, and that’s a concept we try to explore much more in the second game than we did in the first. But I think that’s been really fun is to try to humanize everybody as much as possible, because again, ultimately, we are all people. It’s just something. There’s some motivation. Something is putting us at odds, and then that exploration of like, okay, how do we resolve this conflict? To me, often that’s the juiciest part of the story.

MR. PARK: Playing through games, there’s so many multimedia interwoven throughout the story. A Pearl Jam song is central to the themes of “The Last of Us Part II,” and of course, there’s the Hank Williams Sr. song, speaking of the crashing into the truck, you know, “Alone and Forsaken.” And it was featured in trailer.

For me, I’m fascinated with people who are able to do kind of cross-media inspiration. Like, for example, Steve Jobs was heavily inspired by Bob Dylan and the Bob Dylan pathos and how it inspired him to create the company Apple. So how–who are some of the artists that inspire you, if at all, and do they at all translate into what you do as a video game creator?

MR. DRUCKMANN: Oh, man. There’s so many. I don’t–like, let me think about where to start. It’s interesting you mentioned music, because I think music has always been a large part of my life. I often listen to music when I’m writing or thinking about concepts.

MR. DRUCKMANN: Anybody that follows me on social media knows I’m a huge Pearl Jam fan, and it’s a band that, you know, I’ve admired since I was a teenager. And I’ve–I like artists that are, in some ways, uncompromising, that they–and they evolve. They don’t just stick to the same–again, they’re not just chasing success by trying to duplicate previous success. They’re evolving and changing over the years. If you listen to Pearl Jam music now, it’s very, very different than the early ’90s when they came out. But I find it equally compelling.

Another person that comes to mind is Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails of–another that has evolved his music over the years and has ventured into other media, has now–composes music for–well, has done games but now does film and TV as well as doing–and then there’s–I think the kind of obvious ones from gaming with Fumito Ueda, another artist that to me feels uncompromising in his vision and has a through line for all the stuff that he’s worked on that is something I think about a lot.

Recently, Ron Gilbert is another one who released a new “Monkey Island,” and it felt that it really was a continuation of this–a certain taste that he brough to that series. I was really–I could feel it playing it. You could feel like kind of like that artist hand in that game. Again, it’s a collaboration, but there’s a certain vision there, certain, like, quality to it that felt very much of his taste.

Yeah, those are some of the ones that come to mind.

MR. PARK: Yeah. Last question. What’s the most–what’s exciting thing about video games today and video game–creating a video game, video game storytelling? Like, what excites you about the future, not just 2023 but beyond?

MR. DRUCKMANN: It’s funny. I get this question sometimes like, “Oh, well, where do you think games are going to be in five years?” I think what’s exciting about games is that no one can answer that question.

MR. DRUCKMANN: If you were to go like when I was starting out and try to guess where VR would be or where mobile games would be or free-to-play, I don’t think anyone could have predicted those things.

So the thing I love about games is how broad it could be, that there could be cinematic games next to really intense–like one of my game of the years this year is “Vampire Survivors.” I’ve played easily a hundred hours in that game.

MR. DRUCKMANN: I’m afraid of flying, but I found like they’re–like, if I am playing “Vampire Survivors,” I don’t even think about the plane anymore, and I’m just–I’m just in the zone. I’m in this flow.

MR. PARK: Dude, I’m afraid of flying too, and I actually played a ton of “Vampire Survivors” while I was in the hospital recently too, and it was–it was like the most engrossing thing, you know.

MR. DRUCKMANN: Yeah. It’s just–I don’t know what it is, but it occupies like almost my entire brain and I’m just there.

Another game, also one of my top games this year, obviously “Elden Ring,” massive fan of that.

“The Case of the Golden Idol,” I don’t know if you’ve played that, but it’s a murder mystery, puzzle game is the best way I can describe it. It’s kind of like “Obra Dinn” by Lucas Pope. Maybe, maybe a–sorry, Lucas–maybe a bit more approachable.

MR. DRUCKMANN: But the way it uses puzzle mechanics to tell you the story and to get to invest in these characters and then each level grows in complexity and–complexity of puzzles but also complexity of narrative and the narrative becomes kind of larger, and there’s a larger cast of characters, that by the time I got to the later levels, I was so invested in characters, that on paper, I should not be invested in any of this. And it just did it so brilliantly. It’s hard not to get inspired by that. And, again, I couldn’t have predicted that that’s the kind of game that would have grabbed me to such a degree and moved me emotionally to such a degree, and that’s the thing that I love about games is they’re constantly surprising in where they’re going and what they’re doing. And I find that for me at least, there’s no way to predict where it’s going or what it’s going to be, but I’m intrigued by a lot of it and what’s coming next.

MR. PARK: That’s true. You know, like for me, I was thinking like I really needed a deep, rich, like, story, narrative game. And then “Vampire Survivors” came along, and I was like, oh, this is–it turns out this is exactly what I needed.

But I’m very excited for what Naughty Dog has planned for this year. Again, 2023 is the tenth anniversary of “The Last of Us,” and I’m–like you, I’m very excited and anxious to see how people will react to the show.

But we’re just about out of time. We’re about at time right now, but, Mr. Neil Druckmann, thank you so much for joining us here at The Washington Post. Congratulations on everything, and best of luck to you.

MR. DRUCKMANN: Gene, it’s been a pleasure. Let’s do it again soon. Looking forward to it.

MR. PARK: Absolutely, absolutely. Take care, Neil.

MR. PARK: Oh, sorry. And thanks to–sorry. And thank you all for joining us today. To check out what interviews we have coming up, please visit WashingtonPostLive.com and find out more about all the different talks that we have coming up on The Washington Post.

Again, my name is Gene Park for The Washington Post. Thanks so much for joining us, and have a great day.

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