Back in October, Dark Horse Comics announced that they would be working with Naughty Dog on a comic based on their upcoming survival-action game, The Last of Us. The comic – titled The Last of Us: American Dreams – will serve as a prequel to Ellie’s story in the game and tell how she came to partner with the game’s other protagonist, Joel. The four issue mini-series will be co-written by the game’s lead writer and Creative Director, Neil Druckmann, and co-written and drawn by cartoonist, Faith Erin Hicks.
Thanks to the fine folks over at Dark Horse, I had seven minutes in heaven with both a game writer that I admire immensely and the creator of one of my favorite web comics, The Adventures of Superhero Girl, at New York Comic Con.
Nick Boisson for Comics Bulletin: Okay, let’s start at the beginning. How did you get your start in the video games industry?
Neil Druckmann: Oh, wow! [Pause] Almost nine years ago, I went to the Game Developers Conference after wanting to get into the industry for a while. I had met Jason Ruben, who was Co-Founder and Co-President of Naughty Dog at the time. I got his e-mail and I bugged him for a long time – maybe a year or a year and a half – until Naughty Dog had an opening for a programmer internship. I started as an intern working on Jak III, then as a programmer on Jak X Racing. Then I switched to design where I worked on an unannounced project that we ended up canceling. Then I became a designer on Uncharted, Lead Designer on Uncharted 2 and now I am Creative Director on The Last of Us.
CB: So, you started at Naughty Dog working on Jak III?
Druckmann: Jak III was the first game I worked on, yeah.
CB: What was it like coming fresh into an already established series, and even the last game in that trilogy, working with many who were a part of that series from the beginning?
Druckmann: Well, I was a huge Naughty Dog fanboy. So, my first few days, I was telling myself, “Don’t freak out. Don’t geek out. Don’t show them that you’re completely geeking out right now.” [laughs] It was just awesome! I came into it as a fan. I had played Jak and Daxter and Jak II. As for coming onto Jak III, I just couldn’t believe that I was helping shape that experience. Changing things, programming, working with designers on gameplay; it was awesome.
CB: Uncharted, in many ways, reshaped the way stories can be told in a video game. When Naughty Dog began that game, how did you guys approach structuring that game’s narrative?
Druckmann: We’ve always been very character-driven as a studio, even from the early days of Crash Bandicoot. It’s always been about defining these characters and then building the world around them. With Uncharted, we were very drawn as a studio to the old action-adventure pulp stories – the most famous of them obviously being Indiana Jones – and we wanted to bring those kind of stories to a more contemporary setting.
So, a lot of time was spent figuring out who Drake is, what kind of journey was he going to go on, who are the cast of characters that are around him and what are the relationships. Then comes figuring out the arc. What is the journey that these characters are going on and how they are going to change over time. And once you’ve figured those things out, you try and get into a flow or a rhythm where you understand the characters, you know where they need to go and there’s a certain tone that is very important to Uncharted where – like the early pulp action-adventure stories – it can never get too heavy, it can never get too cynical and dark. We have to have these very lighthearted moments intertwined with big blockbuster action.
CB: Well, Dark Horse just announced that you will be working on a comic that ties into your upcoming game, The Last of Us, with Miss Hicks here. How is it different structuring a comic narrative, having come from a video game background?
Druckmann: With the kind of stories we tell at Naughty Dog, we don’t have branching storylines. So, from a high-level structural standpoint, they’re not that different. You’re telling a story about people. There’s conflict, there’s arcs, the characters change over time, you try to find intriguing relationships, you try to find interesting contradictions within those characters which make them intriguing. So, on that level, it’s the same.
But on an execution level, it is very different. Pacing a game is very different than pacing a comic. In pacing a game like The Last of Us – which is survival-action – the action is a very important part. You always have to think, “When is the next action beat? When is the next moment where Joel and Ellie are going to be in trouble?” In a comic, you don’t have the same gameplay restrictions, so the stories you can tell in a comic are very different than one you can tell in a game. But I’m sure Faith knows more. She’s the more experienced comic creator. [Laughs]
CB [to Faith Erin Hicks]: What is it like working with Naughty Dog and working in a world they created?
Faith Erin Hicks: Oh, they’re a bunch of jerks! Just a bunch of jerks. [Laughs] No, it’s been great! I’ve really enjoyed it. For me, it is a privilege being allowed into their sandbox and into their story world to play. I have been able to express myself creatively and have been a full partner in making this comic, and I really appreciate that. The Last of Us is a world and a setting that I was really drawn to. I knew about the game before I came onto this project and was really fascinated by it. I like Naughty Dog games and I like what they do with story. So, I’m really thrilled to be a part of this project.
CB: With a story like The Last of Us, you are mainly dealing in the world of survival-horror–
Druckmann: Survival-action. [Laughs]
CB: Right! Survival-action. Well, how are you approaching a setting like that and making it different from comics like The Walking Dead and video games like Resident Evil and Dead Island?
Druckmann: Well, I guess our focus isn’t to make something that is different but focus more on who these characters are. If that becomes our focus then the story will stand on its own. It will become unique because the characters are unique. And it’s really focusing on who Ellie is and what it’s like for a teenager to grow up in a world that is completely destroyed.
And for Joel, what is it like for someone who has lost so much that he has to go to a place that is so dark to become a survivor in this world? What is it like for him to start caring about someone again? So, it is in exploring those themes that drives us and that is what has been helping us make a very unique
Hicks: I don’t think I have very much to add there. In terms of the artwork, it will be a comic that looks much different than the average horror or survival comic. My artwork is very much inspired by the works of Paul Pope and Japanese artist Naoki Urasawa. I am a big fan of ink. I like a strong, black ink line. I’m a big fan of that.
Druckmann: And you work traditionally!
Hicks: And I work traditionally, as well. Everything I draw is done traditionally. So visually, it is going to be very different from a standard horror book. It’s not going to look like a horror book, so the horror will kind of creep up on you as the story progresses.
CB: Awesome! Well, I am looking forward to both the game and the comic and I want to thank you guys for talking to me.
Hicks: Thanks a lot!
Look for the first issue of Dark Horse’s The Last of Us: American Dreams to premiere in Spring 2013 and The Art of The Last of Us to launch in conjunction with the game’s release.