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Interview: Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann on THE LAST OF US Live, UNCHARTED 4, and More

Last night, some of you – okay, more like 2 million-plus of you – watched The Last of Us Live, Sony and Naughty Dog’s livestream event that brought last year’s survival horror hit to the live stage. I don’t know what it looked like for you online, but for those of us in Santa Monica’s The Broad Theater, it was an odd, exhilarating, and at times, infectiously emotional experience.

Sure, that was in large part thanks to the actors/performance capture artists featuring leads Ashely Johnson (Ellie) and Troy Baker (Joel). But if you were in the crowd, you couldn’t help but feel something for the game’s writer and Naughty Dog creative director Neil Druckmann. Nervously hurrying through his notes for the handful of scenes, Druckmann at one point promised himself that he wouldn’t get choked up, even going so far as to call The Last of Us Live a sort of farewell to Joel and Ellie, who also received an all-new farewell scene performed exclusively for those of us in the audience.

“It’s always amazing to hear fans get attached to the material,” Druckmann told me, sitting at the Dark Horse booth during San Diego Comic-Con. Last year, Dark Horse and Naughty Dog teamed up for The Last of Us prequel comic, The Last of Us: American Dreams, co-written by Druckmann and the book’s artist, Faith Erin Hicks. The miniseries introduced readers to not only the game’s teen heroine Ellie, but her best friend Riley, whose shared story plays out across the comic, DLC for The Last of Us, and a heartbreaking anecdote at the end of the game.

It’s a fluid approach to telling the game’s story in an industry that’s pushing more and more for multi-screen experiences: how does the comic tie into the toy which ties into the prequel video game which will lead to the movie? Instead, Druckmann says he and Naughty Dog director Bruce Straley look at how best to tell their story, embedding little bits and pieces here and there without worrying about how it can spin off into something else.

“[These] opportunities came up – Dark Horse approached us and there was this really great opportunity to explore more of the universe. And instead of relegating that to some third-tier character that you don’t care about, we said let’s [look at] the character we care the most about.”

When I asked Druckmann why fans were so drawn to Ellie’s story, one of the standouts of 2013, he had some theories: maybe it’s the opportunity to play as a teenage girl in a big-budget action game in a field dominated by musclebound white males. But Druckmann had another idea about Ellie’s appeal to some segment of the audience: “Sometimes it’s her sexual identity. I’ve been talking to Ashley Johnson who did panels and said teenage girls would come out to her.”

When it came to The Last of Us, they were looking for the best possible way to tell a simple story: “It’s about the love of a father and a daughter.” Druckmann says that they took the same approach when Sony opened up discussions about the recently-announced film. It was important to Neil and Bruce that they had a choice in how the story was being told and who told it, earning Naughty Dog the final choice on the filmmaking team and cast for the adaptation.

“That’s kind of been our approach when it comes to licensing [The Last of Us]. We’ll license it as long as we can protect it,” Druckmann adds. He’s currently in the process of writing the film, and says that he’s approaching it in the same way he approached the game: before, he was writing something he’d want to play and now he’s writing something he wants to see on the big screen.

Druckmann warns fans that he won’t be able to fit the entirety of the game into the film, instead focusing tightly on the journey of Joel and Ellie.

The story was one they could hardly contain in the game itself: during the Live event, Druckmann debuted an all-new scene. Serving as an epilogue of sorts, it was an answer to some fan requests to find out what happened to Joel and Ellie following that last, emotionally-fraught conversation where Joel lies to Ellie about the fate of the Fireflies and the cure.

Naughty Dog has no plans to release the five-minute scene anywhere else. But fans shouldn’t feel like they’ve been kept out of the loop somehow: it’s just another farewell for these characters. In it, Joel and Ellie, now living with Tommy and his people in their camp, have maintained a kind of frosty peace. The scene starts with Joel visiting Ellie in her room, attempting to tell him a little about his life in the last few weeks: he’s been working patrols and his brother is trying to set him up with a girl. Things only start to thaw when Joel pulls out a guitar, singing a heartfelt ballad to his surrogate daughter and leaving it with her with the promise to teach Ellie how to play.

It’s an intimate and sweet scene between the two characters and yet another way that Naughty Dog has found to expand upon the game’s story.

When I brought up the forthcoming Uncharted movie, which has seen a lot of starts and stops over the years, I suggested that in a way, it was like Naughty Dog would be ending Nathan Drake’s journey as a new audience of filmgoers was meeting him for the first time. Druckmann says he hadn’t thought about that particular parallel, but he hoped with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, he and his team could tie together some of the threads from the three previous games.

When it comes to the film, which recently attached Seth Gordon as director, Naughty Dog didn’t get the same creative control that they were able to swing with The Last of Us. Still, Druckmann says that in meetings with Gordon, he feels like the director “gets” the material and what it’s about.

“We’re kind of excited to see it as well.”

The Last of Us: Remastered is out this week on the PlayStation 4.

Did you play The Last of Us: Remastered? Did you watch The Last of Us Live? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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