The Washington Post recently conducted an interview with Naughty Dog Co-president Neil Druckmann where they discussed gaming, and had a broader discussion about The Last Of Us ahead of the release of the TV series adaptation on HBO.

Neil Druckman on the set of The Last of Us (2023), HBO Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

The Washington Post’s Gene Park spent a fair amount of time during the interview picking Druckmann’s brain on the concepts of narrative storytelling and how to structure a scene, as well as the evolution of narratives in video games as a medium. 

“It’s funny,” says Druckmann. “My mind goes even further back, like, I think Atari Adventure, you know, just like a square moving around, and you’re trying to project narrative onto it.” 

Anna Torv as Theresa ‘Tess’ Servopoulos and Pedro Pascal as Joel in The Last of Us (2023), HBO

Druckmann then went on to compare Atari’s Adventure to the narrative styles of games such as Elden Ring and Inside as examples of non-traditional storytelling.  

Druckmann said that he was intrigued by games like Elden Ring that can explore a story without the use of cutscenes. Druckmann said that he believes that some of the best storytelling in The Last of Us came from exploration of the environments rather than the cinematics themselves. 

Druckmann said, “I do think stuff–I’m more recently intrigued by stuff like Elden Ring and Inside that doesn’t rely as much on traditional narrative to tell its story and is–I think there’s some–some of the best storytelling in The Last of Us, a lot of it is in the cinematics.”

He elaborated, “But a lot of it is in game play and moving around a space and understanding a history of a space by just looking at it and examining it. And, to me, that’s some–that’s–right now is some of the best joy I get out of games that trust their audience to figure things out, that don’t hold their hand. That’s the stuff I’m really intrigued by going forward.”

Pedro Pascal as Joel in The Last of Us (2023), HBO

Pedro Pascal as Joel in The Last of Us (2023), HBO

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Druckmann clarified that Naughty Dog is not going to stop using cutscenes, but will attempt to use all the “tools in the toolbox to maximize the strength of their story telling.” The use of character movement and the environment 

“And, again, it doesn’t mean we will never have dialogue or cut scenes. I think those are like–those are tools in your toolbox,” Druckmann clarified.

Bella Ramsey as Ellie Williams and Anna Torv as Theresa ‘Tess’ Servopoulos in The Last of Us (2023), HBO

Further on in the interview, Park mentions that he notices new details in the environment and character expressions in The Last of Us Part 1, the PlayStation 5 remake of the original game. He said that these new animations, such as how Joel smiled, created a whole new way of experiencing the game’s world compared to the 2013 release. 

Druckmann replied by stating, “I think that’s some of the best storytelling.”

He then likened this to passive media, such as film or television, where entire scenes can go on without a single line of dialogue, “Sometimes in passive media in TV and film is scenes that don’t have any dialogue, and it is just about reading a person’s expression.”

Gabriel Luna as Tommy in The Last of Us (2023), HBO

Gabriel Luna as Tommy in The Last of Us (2023), HBO

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This philosophy has even led to changes in the HBO adaptation of The Last of Us. One of the major characters, Sam (Keivann Woodard) has been changed to be deaf in the TV series. 

Druckmann said, “You know, one of the changes that we made for the TV show is we made Sam deaf.”

Bella Ramsey as Ellie Williams, Anna Torv as Theresa ‘Tess’ Servopoulos, and Pedro Pascal as Joel Miller in The Last of Us (2023), HBO

The changes to this character have allowed for the use of less dialogue in the show, thus creating a new way to experience some of the game’s most powerful moments. Druckmann went further into his philosophy on how set pieces should be crafted by stating that action scenes should be fully interactive sequences. However, moments where the game wants the player to focus on something specific is what a cutscene should be for. 

He explained, “And it started from a place of just like, you know, a conversation I had with Craig. We’re like what if we could use less dialogue, but then it led to–that kind of constraint led to really interesting storytelling decisions that I would say in some ways make that sequence more impactful than it is in the game, at least for me. And I’m very curious to see how other people react to it.”

“And then, likewise, I think with games, our philosophy at Naughty Dog usually is like if it’s an action sequence, it should not be a cut scene. It should be on the stick,” he detailed. “If it’s something that, again, you want to focus on someone’s face, well, that’s really hard to do in game play, not impossible, but often you have to remove their kind of game-play loops and mechanics that are connecting them to the character. And that’s when we should go to a cut scene.”

“But more and more, as we talk about it, it’s like that’s the last resort of removing interactivity and, like, okay, how can we stay on the stick more and still tell these really compelling character-driven stories,” Druckmann added.

Kevionn Woodard as Sam in The Last Of Us (2023), HBO

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The interview came to an end with one more mention of Elden Ring as one of Druckmann’s favorite games of last year. Elden Ring has had a massive impact on the landscape of gaming. The inclusion of a mainstream talent like author George R.R. Martin brought a previously niche genre of games into the forefront. 

The overwhelming success of Elden Ring has normalized non-traditional storytelling. It’s no shock Elden Ring would get such praise from a seasoned game developer who prides himself on strong narratives. One only has to look at the endless amounts of Dark Souls lore videos on YouTube to see the lasting effect the games have had on the industry.

It’s no surprise that Elden Ring won so many Game of the Year awards, including being number one on our own Top 10 Best games of 2022 list.

Elden Ring (2022), Bandai Namco Entertainment

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