In 2004, a student of Carnegie Mellon University named Neil Druckmann participated in a group project. At the time, he was pursuing a Master’s degree in Entertainment Technology, and one of his professors happened to be friends with George Romero, the man who directed Night of the Living Dead. This 1968 classic is widely considered to be ground zero for the zombie apocalypse genre. For this assignment, Mr. Romero compelled the students to pitch an idea for a video game. Mr. Druckmann’s idea merged the three works which left an indelible impact on him as a creator. It would feature gameplay akin to Ico, star a protagonist with a personality comparable to John Hartigan from Sin City, and the story was to be set in the world of Night of the Living Dead. The game’s concept centered on a cop would protect a young girl in a ravaged land filled to the brim with mindless, flesh-eating monsters. However, the cop had a heart condition that would act up every now and again, prompting players to take control of the girl in these situations, thus reserving the roles of the protector and the protected. In the end, Mr. Romero chose another project.
Later that year, Mr. Druckmann met Jason Rubin, the co-founder of a game company named Naughty Dog. Mr. Rubin’s company had made their impact on the medium on Sony’s PlayStation platform with their Crash Bandicoot series of 3D platforming games. It was a success that would continue into the following console generation with Jak & Daxter. After “bugging” Mr. Rubin enough, the co-founder handed the enthusiastic college student a business card. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Druckmann joined Naughty Dog as an intern before being promoted to full-time employee as a gameplay programmer mere months afterwards.
When his tenure at Naughty Dog began, Mr. Druckmann began to revisit his rejected game concept, thinking to himself, “What’s another way I can explore these characters?” The answer to this quandary came in the form of a comic book named The Turning. It was to be about a criminal who found himself tasked with escorting a young girl across a dangerous land. The roles would be reversed in the end when he is captured by erstwhile criminal partners and the girl saves his life. He intended to write and draw the comic itself. When he completed the script for a six-issue story arc, he submitted it to an independent comic book publisher. Unfortunately, much like George Romero, the publisher rejected the idea – Mr. Druckmann being told, “I like it, but I don’t love it.”
Meanwhile, as Naughty Dog was in the middle of developing Jak 3 and Jak X: Combat Racing, Mr. Druckmann asked co-president Evan Wells about joining the design team. Although Mr. Wells was hesitant about the idea, he allowed Mr. Druckmann a chance under the stipulation that he completed his design work after hours. Once Jak X: Combat Racing saw its release, Mr. Wells was convinced by his subordinate’s skill and put him in charge of design for their next project: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. This game and its sequel were commercial and critical successes, and Mr. Druckmann soon found himself as one of the lead developers for the series’ third installment.
As he worked on the design for the first two Uncharted installments, Neil Druckmann would often have dinner with co-worker Bruce Straley to discuss ideas about what they should do next. This time, his proposed story followed a man accompanied by a mute girl with whom every point of interaction was executed via game mechanics. During these sessions, they became intrigued with Cordyceps, a fungus that infects insects by taking control of their motor functions and forcing them to cultivate more of itself. This game was to be set in a world in which the Cordyceps began to infect humans, but only women fell victim to it. The girl was the only female immune to the fungus, and the hero had to transport her to a laboratory so a cure may be synthesized. The concept was vetoed when the company’s female employees voiced concerns about a game in which men had to band together against women who became ugly, irrational, and powerful. Not helping matters was its proposed title: Mankind. By Mr. Druckmann’s own admission, “The reason it failed is because it was a misogynistic idea.”
Undeterred by these numerous setbacks, he began to refine his idea, and in 2010, he and Mr. Straley felt it was ready to be pitched. However, it was rejected yet again when the higher-ups felt his new concept failed to mesh with his characters’ arcs. After weeding out the last remaining issues, Mr. Druckmann’s dream project was finally greenlit, being formally announced to the world in 2011. As Naughty Dog received innumerable awards and a large, dedicated fanbase with their trilogy of Uncharted games, this new title, dubbed The Last of Us, became one of the most hotly anticipated titles of its time. At long last, the medium would have a title to show the world that video games had grown up and were every bit as worthy of being considered legitimate artistic cornerstones alongside film, music, and literature. This heavily promoted game was released in 2013, and saying that it received unanimous critical acclaim would be a gross understatement. Critics felt it was one of the medium’s greatest artistic achievements while fans fell in love with the characters and the setting. Essayists have gone into great detail about the game, its themes, and how immaculate the experience is as a whole. Many spectacular titles were released within the seventh generation of console gaming, but many insisted The Last of Us blew every single one of them out of the water. That it managed to somehow surpass Uncharted 2 in terms of accolades is no mean feat. Was Mr. Druckmann able to use his determination over the better part of a decade to create something that stands not only as Naughty Dog’s magnum opus and the seventh generation’s swansong, but also one of the greatest games ever made?