In 2004, when he was still a student at Carnegie Mellon University, Neil Druckmann participated in an exciting group project. One of his professors just happened to be friends with George Romero, widely regarded as the father of modern zombie movies, and he tasked his students with creating a game concept that would be pitched to the venerable director. Romero would then pick his favorite and the team behind it would build a prototype. Druckmann's idea was to merge three of the works that most influenced him as a creator: the game would feature the gameplay of PlayStation 2 classic Ico, a lead character much like John Hartigan from Sin City, and would be set during the zombie apocalypse of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
The concept centered on a cop who would protect a young girl in a world full of flesh-eating monsters. Problem was, he had a heart condition, and whenever it would act up the player would take control of the girl, reversing the protector / protected roles. Ultimately, though, Romero chose another project. "The idea of these characters got shelved," says Druckmann. Nearly a decade later, that core concept would go on to become one of the PlayStation 3's most celebrated games.
This story contains spoilers, including details of the game's ending.
Developed by Naughty Dog, the studio best known for the Uncharted series, The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic story with two characters at its core. Joel is a survivor who loses his young daughter at the very beginning of the game. Twenty years later he’s become a hardened man and a smuggler, and eventually he meets Ellie, a 14-year-old girl and the only known person immune to the virus that has destroyed much of civilization. The two form a bond over time, with Joel taking on a paternal role and Ellie filling in the hole left by his daughter’s death. Ellie slowly develops into a more independent person over the course of the game, and their roles are occasionally reversed, as the player takes control of Ellie. While the core idea is similar, The Last of Us is a long way from that original pitch Druckmann dreamed up in university. And it took a whole lot of failure to get to that point.
Not long after taking a job at Naughty Dog, where he started out as a programmer, Druckmann decided he wanted to revisit the concept. "What's another way that I can explore these characters?" he thought to himself. The answer was a comic book called The Turning. This time, the roles had changed somewhat, as the cop became a criminal who had lost his daughter. When he meets a young girl he becomes her protector. "It was mostly about him trying to get this girl to safety," explains Druckmann. However, at the end it would be the girl who would save his life after he's captured by some former criminal partners.
His plan was to both write and draw the comic in his spare time. He eventually completed the script for a six-issue story arc, and pitched it to an indie comic book publisher. But just like George Romero, the publisher wasn't that into the idea. "I like it, but I don't love it," Druckmann was told.
"It was a misogynistic idea."
Meanwhile at Naughty Dog, Druckmann had been working on the first two Uncharted games as a designer, and both turned out to be critical and financial successes. During this time he and co-worker Bruce Straley (who served as director on The Last of Us) would often have dinner to talk about ideas for what they wanted to do next, and there were a few concepts that they kept revisiting. One was Druckmann's core idea of a vulnerable character and their protector who eventually switch roles, while the other was of a mute girl who would work alongside the player. The conceit was that since she couldn't speak to you directly, all of the communication would take place through her actions. "The idea was that everything that happens between you is all based on gameplay mechanics," says Druckmann. At the same time the two had become fascinated with the concept of Cordyceps, a fungi that essentially turns ants into mindless zombies. And what they really wanted to do was combine all of these concepts into one game.
The result was a pitch for a problematic title called Mankind. Just like in The Last of Us, the game was set in a world where Cordyceps has leaped from insects to humans, turning the infected into dangerous monsters and bringing down civilization with them. The key difference was that in Mankind, the virus only affected women. An early version of Ellie was the only female who was immune, and Joel decided to protect her in order to bring her to a lab where a cure could potentially be created. But they weren't able to sell the idea, especially after several female Naughty Dog employees voiced their concerns. "The reason it failed is because it was a misogynistic idea," says Druckmann.
Around 2010, the two settled on an idea that was much closer to the game that was ultimately released this past June. But, like the previous versions of the story, the initial pitch for The Last of Us failed. "It just wasn't honest," says Druckmann. One of the main issues was pacing and character development, as Joel turned into a father figure very quickly, a process that happens quite gradually in the final product. The ending was also a problem. Initially, the goal was to build up to a scene in which Joel found himself incapacitated — tied up and tortured, with a knife at his throat — and it's up to Ellie to save him by killing another human. It was an ending that didn't really jibe with the character arcs.
"Fail as much as you can early on."
While the repeated failures may have discouraged some, for Druckmann it was actually the best thing to happen to the game. "There's something about how we view failure at Naughty Dog as a positive thing, if you learn something," he says. "The idea is fail as much as you can early on, because all of these failures lead you to better answers. Had we gone forward with those [original] ideas the game would've been weaker for it."
Eventually the ending was completely scrapped, which led to The Last of Us’ controversial conclusion. Like in previous iterations of the story, in the final version Joel takes Ellie to a lab where doctors will attempt to create an antidote using her immunity as the source. But he learns that in order to create the antidote, Ellie must die — and his parental instincts kick in. Players are forced to kill anyone that gets in Joel's way during his rescue attempt, essentially saving Ellie at the expense of the world. It was a decision that angered quite a few players. Later on he lies to Ellie, telling her that the doctors have actually stopped looking for a cure. When she questions him about it, he lies again, and Ellie simply accepts it, saying "okay," before the screen fades to black and the credits roll.
It was a conclusion that was designed to be open to interpretation. What does Ellie do next? Does she really believe him? Druckmann has his own ideas on that front. "It's Ellie waking up for the first time and realizing that she can't rely on him anymore," he explains. "She knows that she has to leave him, and make her own decisions and her own mistakes." For Druckmann, who became a father during the development of The Last of Us, turning Ellie into a strong, capable character was no accident. "I had this secret agenda," he said during a talk at the Toronto chapter of the International Game Developers Association. "I wanted to create one of the coolest, non-sexualized female video game protagonists. And I felt that if we did that, there's an opportunity to change the industry. I know it sounds pretentious, but that was my goal."
He then showed a slide featuring multiple young girls cosplaying as Ellie. "The Last of Us has only been out for a few months," he explained, "but I'm pretty proud of the impact it's had so far."