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Graphic Novel Friday: The Last of Us with Neil Druckmann (Part One)

Spoiler Alert! The Last of Us is a new, bestselling video game for the PS3 that has players talking about its secrets, reveals, and fascinating storytelling. In this interview, we do not delve too deeply into specifics, but general plot and characters are discussed. The Last of Us is best enjoyed with as little information as possiblefair warning!

I hope regular Graphic Novel Friday readers won't mind a break from routine. I heard enough buzz about The Last of Us game that I picked it up on release day—sleep did not soon follow. This terrifying game stars hard-edged Joel as he reluctantly leads young Ellie out of a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

Dark Horse Comics (publisher of the new The Art of The Last of Us and a forthcoming graphic novel prequel) coincidentally approached me with the opportunity to speak with the game's Creative Director and writer, Neil Druckmann. We discussed character storytelling, origins, game mechanics, the art book tie-in, the graphic novel, and more.  Part One of our interview follows below: In The Last of Us, beyond the gameplay, the visuals, the scares, what fans keep coming back to is “the storytelling.” What sets this game’s story so apart from its contemporaries?

Neil Druckmann: If I had to put a finger on it, the focus on it all along has been [that] we are not telling a post-apocalyptic story; we’re not telling a survival story—although the story is those things—we’re telling a story about a relationship between two characters who, over the course of the game, come to love each other as if they were father and daughter. In making this game, every decision along the way has been with that in mind.

The writing, the music, the environment, the mechanics we’ve implemented—where you are learning to rely on one another, has been in service of that relationship. That clear focus has allowed us to do some pretty subtle stuff in the storytelling but also some engaging, immersive stuff from a gameplay standpoint that has really allowed gamers to take part in forming that bond, that relationship, in a way that you couldn’t experience in a movie, or a novel, or a graphic novel. They’re engaged with these characters on a level that they’ve never experienced before. They are there every step of the way as they form that bond between Joel and Ellie.

Omni: Is beginning from a pair of characters rather than a set-piece or overarching story an anomaly in gaming? Is this unique to your brand of storytelling?

Neil Druckmann: I think it’s unique to Naughty Dog [Studios, the game's publisher]. The way we think of story is that “character is story and story is character.” For me, a lot of video games aren’t as interesting when they become more about the world or the lore, and to me, it becomes very exposition-heavy. I might be engaged with the game because of its gameplay or aesthetics, but for the most part I find video games are lacking in character storytelling.

I’m sure you’ve noticed, we don’t have to use as much dialogue, because so much of the storytelling can be told through expression or a gesture. Coming back to mechanics, as Joel comes to rely on Ellie more, the player does as well—so when you are separated [in the game], you begin to miss this person, because you’ve begun to rely on them.

Omni: Speaking of reliance, I remember a point in the game when Joel jumps atop an elevator and it drops before Ellie can join the player. I spent the next level in a panic, wondering, “Is Ellie okay?” as I made my way back to her.

Neil Druckmann: Yeah, Joel has come through the initial outbreak and seen some terrible things, so he’s become very cynical. Yet, the more time he spends with Ellie, the more his humanity comes out. Whereas for Ellie, the more time she spends with Joel, the more she becomes independent and a survivalist. I don’t want to spoil it because you’ve haven’t gotten there, but there’s a point when these two character arcs collide and things change pretty dramatically. That was always the idea before we even had the genre and idea worked out. We always wanted the story of Joel and Ellie to be paramount.

Omni: There’s plenty of character storytelling within this game. It’s not just Joel and Ellie, as the cast is peppered with peripheral but memorable characters. One of my favorites is Tess. How much backstory was written for her that players never saw?

Neil Druckmann: Quite a bit. You’re trying to figure out who she is and what motivates her. What is her relationship with Joel? It all does come back to Joel and Ellie, though, and Tess is there to reflect back certain qualities of Joel. In the beginning, we see Joel as this loving father and then we jump 20 years later, and he is a ruthless survivor. Tess is just as ruthless as he is, if not more so, and we see Joel has shut down and is relying on Tess to tell him, day in and day out, what to do. Tess is there to show the state that Joel has come to and also to provide a moment of hope when they discover what Ellie may be. For maybe the first time in her life, she’s given an opportunity to do something good. She’s so desperate for that—she clings to it. Without her, I think Joel would have given up.

Omni: In The Art of The Last of Us, it mentions that Tess was initially considered to be the main antagonist. What changed?

Neil Druckmann: There were a lot of things that changed. One was that we felt, incorrectly, that the story needed an antagonist who was there throughout the entire narrative. It sounds cool in concept, but to write the stuff and implement it never felt real. We couldn’t buy into this character of Tess and why she would chase Joel all over the country. There was a personal vendetta—maybe her brother died—and it all felt contrived. Plus, Joel would have to betray Tess in some way in order for her to pursue him. It all became problematic—why would Joel buy into the mission with Ellie if not for Tess? By having Tess not become the antagonist, it let her give him one last command, to buy time for them to form a bond. It becomes a personal journey for Joel. I think the story became more powerful without the—for lack of a better term—Hollywood structure to it.

Omni: You stated earlier that the core of the game is not a post-apocalypse, and yet when the first trailers were released, a lot of gamers understandably initially assumed “Zombie Post-Apocalypse.” But , there is a fungal aspect to the plague that provides the game its unique, terrifying twist on the genre. I have to believe there is a story behind this infection.

Neil Druckmann: Bruce Straley, the Game Director on The Last of Us, and I both watched this BBC documentary, Planet Earth. And in it, there is a whole section on fungus. There’s this insane thing in nature that actually exists called “cordyceps,” where spores infect insects—like ants—and burrow their way into the ants’ minds and change their behavior. They take over the mind and cause the ants to act erratically, but this beautiful fungus grows out of their heads and eventually bursts. The spores spread and destroy the entire colony. It was this dark, morbid thing in nature, and we were really fascinated by it—and the documentary shows other types of insects and their own aversion to the cordyceps fungus. At the end of this segment, the narrator says, “The more numerous a species becomes, the more likely it is to fall to the cordyceps fungi.”

This was so powerful, and immediately Bruce and I said, “What if this leapt to people?” In densely populated areas, you can imagine it would alter our minds and behavior, and it would grow out of our heads and our bodies in these beautiful, saturated colors. This was the starting point of our infected, and it is kind of a zombie tale, but it was so grounded that we became fascinated by it and the world we could create from it.


Look for Part Two next week, folks, where we discuss the graphic novel prequel and game mechanics.


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