The art of storytelling is an important element of film and television but less so for video games because the most important thing about games is how fun they are to play. The fact that Mario has to save Princess Peach from Bowser isn’t nearly as important as his journey across the Mushroom Kingdom to reach her. So it went throughout most of the 20th century. The story of video games was always secondary. However there were a few stand-out games from the eighties and nineties that were a bit more narratively ambitious than others, especially on the PC where people like Ron Gilbert (Maniac Mansion) and Tim Schafer (Grim Fandango) got their starts developing games that incorporated stories with humor and wit as well as fun and creative gameplay. One person named Neil Druckmann would play games like these as a teenager and get inspired to take the medium even further as an adult working for the video game company Naughty Dog and create the most ambitious video games in the medium’s history.
Born in Israel in 1978, Neil Druckmann was a fan of comics, movies and video games from a young age. He is noted to have been a particular fan of the PC games of Sierra Entertainment (King’s Quest) and LucasArts (The Secret of Monkey Island) and as the games from these companies tended to have stronger stories than other games, it is perhaps no surprise that Druckmann was also a storyteller who would often create his own comic books.
After moving to the United States in 1989 and going to school in Miami, he became a graphics research assistant at Florida State University working in science and technology for a year, during which time he developed video games for Microsoft Windows and Linux along with his friends. He obtained a Bachelor’s degree in computer science the following year.
In 2003 he moved to Pittsburgh and attended Carnegie Mellon University, later earning a Master’s degree in entertainment technology in 2005.
He first came to the attention of video game company Naughty Dog in 2004 at the annual Game Developer’s Conference where he met the company’s co-founder Jason Rubin. He joined Naughty Dog as a programming intern that same year and was shortly promoted to a full-time programmer working on the games Jak 3 (2004) and Jak X: Combat Racing (2005), although he longed to be a game designer rather than a programmer.
After he asked Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells to give him a chance, an initially reluctant Wells concluded Druckmann was skilled in designing as well, and so Druckmann was assigned as a designer on the PlayStation 3 game Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (2007) the story of which he helped construct along with Amy Hennig. The game was one of Naughty Dog’s most popular and Druckmann became a lead game designer as well as a co-writer for its sequel Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009).
He worked on one more game in the Jak and Daxter series and continued to help develop the Uncharted series working as creative director on Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016) and as head of narrative development on Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (2017), but after Naughty Dog decided to divide their teams, one working on Uncharted 3: Drake’s Fortune and another working on a completely original game, Druckmann would create what many people believe to be Naughty Dog’s crowning achievement, The Last of Us.
The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic action-adventure game about a smuggler named Joel (Troy Baker) who escorts a teenage girl named Ellie (Ashley Johnson) across the country while fighting off zombies known as the Infected.
It was directed by Bruce Straley who previously worked for Crystal Dynamics as a designer on the video game Gex: Enter the Gecko before joining Naughty Dog as an artist on the Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter series and eventually directing Uncharted 2. Druckmann however was the creative director and sole writer on the game and he came up with a deep and heart-wrenching story, especially by video game standards but even when compared to most films and television.
When the game was released for the PlayStation 3 in 2013, it received a ton of positive reviews throughout the industry from players and critics alike, some calling it the greatest video game ever made and others simply calling it a masterpiece with notable praise aimed at its strong writing, realistic environments, the relationship between Joel and Ellie, its portrayal of women (Druckmann deliberately made the women in the game non-sexualized and more similar to the way women actually are in real life) and its portrayal of LGBT characters.
The game was commercially popular as well. It is one of the best-selling games for the PlayStation 3 and the remastered version is one of the best-selling games for the PlayStation 4.
Druckmann was promoted to Vice President of Naughty Dog in 2018 but he returned to the Last of Us series as a creative director for the sequel The Last of Us Part II (2020) which also received wide acclaim, and he is currently writing and executive producing a TV adaptation of the game set to premiere on HBO.
Neil Druckmann has sighted many influences on his work, including brilliant filmmakers like Clint Eastwood and The Coen Brothers, comics like Preacher by Garth Ennis and Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and video games like the King’s Quest series, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, Ico and Resident Evil 4.
He is a great writer because he ignores tropes and focuses on understanding the core of his characters and bringing them to life in honest ways. While the gameplay is the most important thing about a game, Druckmann’s writing has led to a large amount of the praise his games have garnered, and the amount of care that has gone into both the gameplay and the story of The Last of Us is why many people think of it as such a groundbreaking interactive experience. Here’s to Neil Druckmann and an often underrated aspect of the enjoyment of modern gaming.