Neil Druckmann

Neil Druckmann
Neil Druckmann SDCC 2015.jpg
Druckmann at the 2015 Comic-Con International
Born (1978-12-05) December 5, 1978 (age 42)
Nationality Israeli, American
Alma mater
Occupation Creative director, writer, programmer
Years active 2004–present
Employer Naughty Dog
Title Co-president
Spouse(s) Maya Druckmann
Signature
Neil Druckmann signature.svg

Neil Druckmann (Hebrew: ניל דרוקמן‎; born December 5, 1978) is an Israeli-American writer, creative director, programmer and co-president of Naughty Dog, best known for his work on the Uncharted and The Last of Us video game franchises. He was born and raised until the age of 10 in Israel, where his experiences with entertainment would later influence his storytelling techniques. He studied computer science at Carnegie Mellon University before searching for work in the video game industry.

Druckmann's first video game work was as an intern at Naughty Dog. In 2004, he became a programmer on Jak 3 and Jak X: Combat Racing, before becoming a designer for Uncharted: Drake's Fortune and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. He led development of The Last of Us as writer and creative director, roles he continued during the development of Uncharted 4: A Thief's End. He has also written comics, including the motion comic Uncharted: Eye of Indra and graphic novels A Second Chance at Sarah and The Last of Us: American Dreams. He was promoted to Vice President of Naughty Dog in 2018, during the development of The Last of Us Part II, and was promoted to co-president alongside Evan Wells after the game's release in 2020. Druckmann is currently developing a television adaptation of The Last of Us for HBO.

Druckmann earned high praise for his work on The Last of Us and Uncharted 4, receiving several awards and nominations for his contributions, including two British Academy Games Awards, two D.I.C.E. Awards, and three Writers Guild of America Awards. His work on The Last of Us Part II polarized critics, with some praising the nuance while others criticized the pacing and themes; the game won awards at The Game Awards and the Golden Joystick Awards.

Early life

Neil Druckmann was born in Israel on December 5, 1978,[1][2][3] to Yehudit "Judy" and Jerry Ilan Druckmann.[4][5] He was raised in Beit Aryeh,[6] a town in the West Bank, where he recalled witnessing recurring violence.[7] As an escape, Druckmann's older brother Emanuel showed him comic books, video games, and movies at a young age.[8][7] These forms of entertainment, particularly video games by Sierra Entertainment and LucasArts,[1] helped Druckmann learn English.[9] Druckmann became particularly interested in storytelling and wrote his own comic books.[8] He moved to the United States with his family in 1989.[1] He attended middle school and high school in Miami, Florida, then studied criminology at the University of Florida,[8] aiming to get experience as an FBI agent to use when writing novels.[10] His brother sneaked him into the Electronic Entertainment Expo in the late 1990s;[11] he attended the conference in 1998, 2000, and 2002, as well as SIGGRAPH in 2002 and 2003.[12] Druckmann worked as a clerk at My Favorite Muffin and as a sales person at PacSun.[13]

From July 2002,[12] Druckmann spent a year as a graphics research assistant for Dr. David Banks at the Visualization Lab at Florida State University,[14][15] while living in Tallahassee, Florida.[1] During this time, he began developing the game Pink-Bullet, for Linux and Microsoft Windows, with some friends.[12] At one point, he wanted to be an animator, which required enlisting in art classes, but his parents forbade him from doing so.[16] After taking a programming class, Druckmann realized that it was his preference,[8] and in December 2002 began a Bachelor of Computer Science with a minor in math, which he completed the following year, graduating cum laude with a grade point average of 3.61.[12] Due to his academic results, he was a member of the Golden Key Honor Society.[12] Druckmann moved to Pittsburgh, where he attended Carnegie Mellon University (CMU);[8] in August 2003, he began his Master's degree in Entertainment Technology[12] at the Entertainment Technology Center.[17] As part of the degree, he took a game design class by Jesse Schell, which taught him philosophies he would use later.[18] In April 2004, Druckmann developed the game Dikki Painguin in: TKO for the Third Reich for the Nintendo Entertainment System as a student at Carnegie Mellon, in collaboration with fellow student Allan Blomquist.[19][20]

Career

Intern and programmer (2003–2005)

One of Druckmann's professors paid for him to attend the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in 2003, where he attended a presentation by Naughty Dog co-founder Jason Rubin.[12][21] After Druckmann "bugged" Rubin, the latter gave him his business card.[8] Some time later, Rubin contacted Druckmann and offered him an intern position, a first for Naughty Dog. By the time Druckmann responded, the position had been taken.[22] When encouraged to apply for internships by CMU, Druckmann reached out to Rubin for advice, and was told about a new internship at the studio. He was put in contact with game director Evan Wells, who offered him the internship after an interview at GDC. During this time, he had also been offered an intern producer position at Electronic Arts on The Sims 2; he extended the offer in order to interview with Wells.[23] In around May 2004, Druckmann joined Naughty Dog as a programming intern.[8] He began working on localization tools and gameplay programming on Jak 3 (2004). During this time, he would also offer assistance with additional design tasks. By the end of the internship in August, he was offered a full-time position by Wells and Stephen White, then co-presidents.[24] He received credit for the second year of his Master's degree through his work at Naughty Dog,[25] earning the degree in 2005.[8] He programmed the menu screens on Jak X: Combat Racing (2005), which he considered one of the most difficult tasks of his career.[26] He continued to assist with smaller design tasks where possible.[27]

Druckmann (left) accepting the Game Developers Choice Award for Best Writing with Josh Scherr (center) and Amy Hennig (right).

Designer and writer (2005–2009)

During the development of Jak 3 and Jak X, Druckmann continued to ask Wells about joining the design team.[28] Wells restrained from transferring him, as he was originally employed as a programmer and lacked experience in design,[29] but agreed to review Druckmann's design work if he completed them in his spare time.[28] Druckmann iterated on several level designs with Wells's feedback, initially on graph paper and later using Adobe Illustrator.[30] Following the development of Jak X, Wells concluded that Druckmann was skilled in design, and gave him a design position for Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier.[31] Several months into development, Wells transferred Druckmann to work as a game designer on Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (2007), which was facing development troubles at the time;[28][32] High Impact Games took over work on The Lost Frontier, which was released in 2009.[33] In his position as game designer on Drake's Fortune, he worked closely with Amy Hennig to construct the story, before working on Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009) as a lead game designer, becoming more involved with the core writing of the game.[8][17]

In 2009, Druckmann worked on the motion comic Uncharted: Eye of Indra, as writer and director. A prequel to Drake's Fortune, Eye of Indra tells the story of Nathan Drake prior to the events of the first game.[34] Druckmann's first graphic novel, A Second Chance at Sarah, was published by Ape Entertainment in February 2010.[35] With illustrations by artist Joysuke Wong, the novel relates Druckmann's interest in traveling back in time to meet his wife at a younger age. "There's something cute and poetic about that idea," Druckmann explained.[36] He felt that he shares many similarities with the novel's protagonist Johnny, and that "a lot of Johnny's flaws and fears are based on [his] own shortcomings".[36] The comic was originally released on February 24, 2010;[37] critics particularly praised Wong's illustrations, as well as Druckmann's writing and character development.[38]

Creative director (2010–2018)

Following the development of Uncharted 2, Naughty Dog split into two teams to work on projects concurrently. With one team working on Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (2011), co-presidents Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra chose Druckmann and Bruce Straley to lead development on a new game; Druckmann was chosen for his determination and talent for design.[28] Though they were originally set to develop a new game in the Jak and Daxter series, the team felt that they "weren't doing service to the fans of [the] franchise", and decided to create a new game, titled The Last of Us.[39]

When conceiving ideas for The Last of Us, Druckmann used a concept that he created as a student at Carnegie Mellon University. His idea was to merge the gameplay of Ico (2001) in a story set during a zombie apocalypse, like that of Night of the Living Dead (1968), with a lead character similar to John Hartigan from Sin City (1991–2000). The lead character, a police officer, would be tasked with protecting a young girl; however, due to his heart condition, players would often assume control of the young girl, reversing the roles. He based The Last of Us on this concept, replacing the police officer with Joel, and naming the young girl Ellie.[40] Druckmann wrote The Last of Us with the intention of having the story "rooted firmly within reality", a stark departure from Naughty Dog's previous "light and loose" feeling. "It needed to go a little darker [than Uncharted] to explore a sadder theme," he explained.[41] Prior to directing the game, Druckmann took acting classes in order to "talk to [the actors] in the same language".[17] The game was released on June 14, 2013, with praise for Druckmann's work on the story.[42] He earned numerous awards, including a BAFTA,[43] a D.I.C.E. Award,[44] a Game Developers Choice Award,[45] a Golden Joystick Award,[46] and a Writers Guild of America Award.[47]

A man with short brown hair, sitting next to a man with curly black hair hugging a plush giraffe, both smiling at something to the right of the camera.
Druckmann (right) with game director Bruce Straley (left) at PAX Prime 2014. The two worked closely throughout the development of The Last of Us and Uncharted 4: A Thief's End.

Druckmann later worked on the downloadable expansion pack The Last of Us: Left Behind, a prequel focusing on Ellie's relationship with her friend Riley,[48] which received critical acclaim.[49] He earned additional accolades for his work on Left Behind, including a second BAFTA[50] and Writers Guild of America Award.[51] In particular, he was praised for writing a scene involving a kiss between two female characters, which was named a "breakthrough moment" for video games.[52] He also co-wrote the four-issue comic book miniseries The Last of Us: American Dreams, with writer and artist Faith Erin Hicks. It was published by Dark Horse Comics, with the first issue released in April 2013,[53] and was lauded for Druckmann's writing and character development, as well as Hicks' simplistic illustrations.[54][55]

Following Hennig's departure from Naughty Dog in March 2014, it was announced that Druckmann and Straley were working on Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (2016) as creative director and game director respectively.[56] Initial reports claimed that Hennig was "forced out" of Naughty Dog by Druckmann and Straley, though co-presidents Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra later denied this.[57] Druckmann co-wrote the story alongside Josh Scherr;[58] Druckmann considered Scherr the "funny one", allowing him to write the humour of Uncharted 4 due to Druckmann's self-professed inability to write jokes. He appreciated the collaboration of writing on Uncharted 4, having written The Last of Us almost entirely independently.[59] The game was released on May 10, 2016 to and praised for its story.[60] It was awarded Best Narrative at The Game Awards 2016,[61] and Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing at the 69th Writers Guild of America Awards.[62] Druckmann acted as head of narrative development for Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, released in August 2017.[63]

In March 2014, Sony announced that Druckmann was writing a film adaptation of The Last of Us, produced by Sam Raimi and distributed by Screen Gems.[64] By January 2015, he had written the script's second draft, and performed a read-through with some actors.[65] Very little work occurred following this, as Druckmann stated in April 2016 that the film had entered development hell,[66] and in February 2018 said "I don't want that movie to be made."[67] Druckmann worked as a playtester for What Remains of Edith Finch (2017).[68] In August 2017, he was featured as a guest judge on an episode of Face Off.[69]

Vice president and co-president (2018–present)

Druckmann was promoted to vice president of Naughty Dog in March 2018.[70] He returned as creative director for The Last of Us Part II (2020), co-writing the game alongside Halley Gross;[71] Straley did not return to co-direct the game.[72] The game's themes of revenge and retribution were inspired by Druckmann's own experiences growing up in Israel, where violence was a frequent topic.[7] He specifically recalled watching footage of the 2000 Ramallah lynching, and how, after hearing the cheering crowds, his mind immediately turned to violent thoughts about bringing the perpetrators to justice.[73][74] He wanted the player to feel a "thirst for revenge" before making them realize the reality of their actions.[7] Druckmann noted that some members of the team felt reluctant about the game's cynicism, but ultimately he preferred a divisive story than a "mundane" one.[7]

The Last of Us Part II released on June 19, 2020, to critical acclaim.[75] The story polarized critics; some praised the writing for its nuance and effectiveness,[76][77] while others criticized its pacing and repetition of themes.[78][79] The audience backlash towards the story led to Druckmann becoming the target of online hate and death threats, which were condemned by Naughty Dog.[80] Druckmann makes a brief cameo appearance in the game as the voice of Briggs, a Washington Liberation Front soldier.[81] An Easter egg in the game's collectible trading cards also references Druckmann in the fictional character Doctor Uckmann.[82] For their work on the game, Druckmann and Gross were awarded at the Golden Joystick Awards,[83] The Game Awards,[84] and the Titanium Awards.[85]

Druckmann was promoted to co-president of Naughty Dog, serving alongside Wells, on December 4, 2020.[86] He was included on the Variety500 list in December 2020, identifying the most influential business leaders in the media industry.[87] With Craig Mazin, Druckmann is acting as a writer and executive producer on a television adaptation of The Last of Us for HBO, expected to cover events of this game and possibly some parts of its sequel.[88]

Writing style

Druckmann's writing philosophy, which he realized while talking to game designer Cory Barlog, is "simple story, complex characters"; Druckmann dislikes video games with complicated exposition, but enjoys writing complex character relationships.[59] Throughout his writing, Druckmann approaches scenes with focus on every character, attempting to enter the mindset of each one. He tries to ignore character tropes in an attempt to write "honestly".[89] Druckmann also writes with a minimalist mindset, often asking himself "What is this scene really about? What's the least we have to say or do to convey that and no more?"[89]

Before writing a game, Druckmann and Straley create an entire outline of the story, before exploring the narrative more intricately, discussing the "moment-to-moment beats" of each level that lead to a bigger event. They generally begin with the middle of the story, as it is the core of the gameplay and narrative, before exploring the game's climax and character development.[59] The Frame host John Horn identified a repeating theme in Druckmann's stories, including A Second Chance at Sarah and The Last of Us, is the concept of characters attempting or hoping to alter their past in some way; Druckmann admitted he had not noticed this trend, though agreed with it and recognized its recurrence.[90][91]

Influences

Druckmann cites game writer Sam Lake as a large inspiration, naming himself a "longtime fan".[92] Druckmann's favorite video games include Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge (1991), Ico,[93] Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001),[94] and Resident Evil 4 (2005),[93] and he is often inspired by character-focused comics such as Preacher (1995–2000), and Y: The Last Man (2002–2008).[91] Druckmann was also influenced by the character-driven storytelling in the adventure game King's Quest by Roberta Williams.[95] While writing The Last of Us, Druckmann was inspired by several films, including: Unforgiven (1992), for its ability to make audiences support the protagonist despite his immorality; No Country for Old Men (2007), due to its subtle and sparse execution, forcing audience engagement;[89] and Gravity (2013), in regards to simplicity and intensity.[96]

Views

Druckmann is a regular advocate of gender equality in video games, citing Anita Sarkeesian as an influence;[98] he presented the Ambassador Award to Sarkeesian at the 2014 Game Developers Choice Awards,[99] and regularly advocated her projects.[100] When Druckmann found that he regularly wrote about "white, straight, Christian male" characters, he was prompted to instead create more diverse characters.[91] Throughout the development of Uncharted 4, Druckmann was influenced by concept artist Ashley Swidowski to include more female characters in the game. "She is constantly challenging me and pushing for diversity in our cast", he said.[91] Upon focus testers' criticism regarding the inclusion and portrayal of female characters in Uncharted 4, one of whom was forced to leave due to an outburst, Druckmann expressed "Wow, why does that matter?".[98]

Similarly, Ellie of The Last of Us was initially received negatively in early focus tests. Druckmann is proud that Ellie is a "strong, non-sexualized female lead character", and hoped that other developers would take similar approaches to characters without fear of unpopularity.[8] Druckmann and Straley were surprised by some of the backlash in regards to gender roles in The Last of Us, although Druckmann noted that "the more progress we make, the more those problems stand out".[101] He declared it a "misconception" that female protagonists hinder game sales,[102] evidenced by the success of The Last of Us.[101]

Personal life

Druckmann is Jewish.[91] He is an American citizen, having voted and promoted voting in the 2016 United States presidential election,[103] 2018 midterm elections,[104] Super Tuesday 2020,[105] and 2020 presidential election.[106] He currently resides in Los Angeles with his wife, Maya,[107] and their children.[40][108][109] He began dating Maya while studying his undergraduate degree.[110] He became a father during the development of The Last of Us,[40] and has said that his daughter was a "huge inspiration" to him when writing the game.[111] He found that the birth of his daughter reinforced his ideas about family, as he realized he would "do anything" for her.[91] He joins his children in playing video games such as Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020) and the Pokémon series.[109]

On his first day as director on The Last of Us, Druckmann suffered from headaches and began seeing double; he discovered the following day that he required emergency eye surgery, as an infection threatened the vision in his left eye.[112] During production of Part II, Druckmann underwent intermittent fasting, which was referenced in one of the game's collectible cards.[113]

Works

Video games

Year Game title Role
2004 Jak 3 Gameplay programmer[8]
2005 Jak X: Combat Racing Gameplay programmer[8]
2007 Uncharted: Drake's Fortune Game designer, co-writer[28]
2009 Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Co-lead game designer, co-writer[17]
2009 Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier Original design and story[33]
2013 The Last of Us Creative director, writer[28]
2014 The Last of Us: Left Behind Creative director, writer[48]
2016 Uncharted 4: A Thief's End Creative director, lead co-writer[56]
2017 What Remains of Edith Finch Playtester[68]
2017 Uncharted: The Lost Legacy Head of narrative development[63]
2020 The Last of Us Part II Creative director, lead co-writer[114]

Literature

Year Title Role Notes
2009 Uncharted: Eye of Indra Director, writer[34] Motion comic
2010 A Second Chance at Sarah Writer[36] Graphic novel
2013 The Last of Us: American Dreams Writer[53] Graphic novel
2013 The Art of The Last of Us Writer (introduction)[115] with Bruce Straley
2014 The Art of Naughty Dog Writer (section)[116] with Bruce Straley

Film and television

Year Title Notes
2013 Grounded: Making The Last of Us Documentary[117]
2013 Between the Lines with Barry Kibrick Season 13, Episode 25[118]
2013 How Videogames Changed the World Television movie[119]
2015 Conversations with Creators Web series; Episode 2[120]
2017 The Game Makers: Inside Story Web series; 5 episodes[121]
2017 Face Off Season 12, Episode 7: "Feral Fungi"[69]
TBD The Last of Us TV series; writer and executive producer[88]

Awards and nominations

Date Award / Publication Category Work Result Ref.
February 18, 2010 D.I.C.E. Awards Outstanding Achievement in Story – Original Uncharted 2: Among Thieves[a] Won [122]
February 20, 2010 Writers Guild of America Awards Videogame Writing Won [123]
March 12, 2010 Game Developers Choice Awards Best Writing Won [124]
March 19, 2010 British Academy Games Awards Story Won [125]
October 26, 2013 Golden Joystick Awards Best Storytelling The Last of Us Won [46]
December 4, 2013 Inside Gaming Awards Best Story Nominated [126]
December 21, 2013 Hardcore Gamer Best Writing Won [127]
Best Story Nominated [128]
December 24, 2013 Destructoid Best Story Nominated [129]
Giant Bomb Best Story Won [130]
December 31, 2013 The Daily Telegraph Best Script Won [131]
Best Director[b] Nominated
January 7, 2014 GameTrailers Best Story Won [132]
January 9, 2014 IGN Best PS3 Story Won [133]
January 10, 2014 Best Overall Story Nominated [134]
February 1, 2014 Writers Guild of America Awards Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing Won [47]
February 7, 2014 D.I.C.E. Awards Outstanding Achievement in Story Won [44]
March 8, 2014 SXSW Gaming Awards Excellence in Narrative Won [135]
March 12, 2014 British Academy Video Games Awards Story Won [43]
March 19, 2014 Game Developers Choice Awards Best Narrative Won [45]
February 14, 2015 Writers Guild of America Awards Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing The Last of Us: Left Behind Won [51]
February 20, 2015 IGN Australia Best Storytelling Won [136]
March 12, 2015 British Academy Video Games Awards Story Won [50]
November 18, 2016 Golden Joystick Awards Best Storytelling Uncharted 4: A Thief's End[c] Nominated [137]
December 1, 2016 The Game Awards Best Narrative Won [61]
January 7, 2017 IGN Best Story Runner-up[d] [138]
February 19, 2017 Writers Guild of America Awards Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing Won [62]
February 23, 2017 D.I.C.E. Awards Outstanding Achievement in Story Won [139]
March 1, 2017 Game Developers Choice Awards Best Narrative Nominated [140]
March 18, 2017 SXSW Gaming Awards Excellence in Narrative Won [141]
April 6, 2017 British Academy Video Games Awards Narrative Nominated [142]
November 24, 2020 Golden Joystick Awards Best Storytelling The Last of Us Part II[e] Won [83]
December 10, 2020 The Game Awards Best Narrative Won [84]
December 12, 2020 Titanium Awards Best Narrative Design Won [85]
December 22, 2020 IGN Best Video Game Story Won [143]
  1. ^ Co-nominated with Amy Hennig and Josh Scherr.
  2. ^ Co-nominated with Bruce Straley.[131]
  3. ^ Co-nominated with Josh Scherr.
  4. ^ Tied with Inside.[138]
  5. ^ Co-nominated with Halley Gross.

References

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