Bruce Straley, Neil Druckmann and The Last of Us

Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, the directors and writer of the computer game “The Last of Us”, are games directors working for the developer Naughty Dog.

Bruce Straley:
Bruce Straley was the games director who co-directed The Last of Us, alongside Neil Druckmann. Straley began work in the games industry in the early 1990s, working as a designer for two games at Western Technologies Inc, two more at Pacific Softscape and one at Zono Incorporated. He has worked extensively on the popular Uncharted series, and is best known for his acclaimed work on The Last of Us.

Straley was employed at the developer Crystal Dynamics in the 1990s, where he worked alongside many future Naughty Dog employees; this included the co-president, Evan Wells. Straley joined Naughty Dog in 1999, and has remained there since. When he initially joined the company, working on the game Crash Team Racing, he performed many tasks outside of his job description due to the small size of the development team. From this, he learned various aspects of game development, which he later put to use on the Jak and Daxter series, being credited with creating the look of the games and bridging the gap between the technical and artistic teams. He was appointed the co-art director of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, and was then promoted to game director for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.

Following Uncharted 2, Naughty Dog split their development into two teams, to work on two games at once. Straley was chosen to head one project, which became The Last of Us, alongside writer Neil Druckmann. They had worked together on Uncharted 2, and found that they had similar interests; they jokingly described their relationship as “like a marriage”, in that they had different ideas but were working for the same goal. Although he was officially in charge of gameplay, towards the end of development for The Last of Us Straley started performing other roles, described by the lead artist Nate Wells as “intern tasks”. Straley is best known for his work on The Last of Us, which was widely acclaimed by both critics and gamers.

Neil Druckmann:
Neil Druckmann was the co-director and writer of The Last of Us, working on the narrative while Bruce Straley focussed on gameplay. He was rasied in Israel until he was ten, where he showed great interest in both comic books and video games, particularly those by Sierra Entertainment and LucasArts. It is known that he took a particular interest in the storytelling aspect of both media. After studying Criminology in Florida, he worked as a research assistant in the Visualisation department of the Florida State Univerity School of Computing, where he developed his first game, called Pink Bullet, with some friends of his.

Druckmann’s parents forbade him from taking art classes required to become an animator, so he took a programming class, moving on to graduate with a Bachelor of Computer Science. He earned a Master’s Degree in Entertainment in 2005, developing “Dikki Painguin in: TKO for the Third Reich” for the obsolete NES with friend Adam Blomquist while studying.

Druckmann began work at Naughty Dog as a programming intern in 2004, graduating to a full time position a few months later. He asked repeatedly to be transferred to the design team, but was refused by co-president Evan Wells, who agreed to review his designs if they were completed out of working hours. He succeeded in impressing Wells, and was appointed designer for the first Uncharted game, ending up working closely with the writer on the core narrative as well as the design, and becoming lead designer on the sequel Uncharted 2. In 2009 and 2010, he created a motion comic based on Uncharted and published a graphic novel of his own writing, A Second Chance at Sarah. He was then chosen by Naughty Dog leadership to work on a new game with Bruce Straley, which eventually became The Last of Us.

The Last of Us was based on an idea he had as a student, of combining the gameplay from the game Ico with a zombie apocalypse, with the player character similar to John Hartigan from the film Sin City. His wife gave birth during development, with the resulting daughter being a “huge inspiration” to Druckmann. He took acting classes before recording the voice actors, to better engage with them while directing. For his work he earned multiple awards, including a BAFTA and a Writer’s Guild of America Award.

The Last of Us:

The Last of Us is set in the near future, and begins with an outbreak of a mutant strain of the fungus Cordyceps, creating what amounts to a zombie apocalypse. The player character must then escort his daughter, and later another woman, through the remains of civilisation, avoiding the decomposing remnants of the human race and those still alive who wish to do you harm. The majority of the gameplay is set 20 years after the opening, leaving time for infrastructure and civilisation to degrade to the extent shown on-screen.

The fungus shown in the game, Cordyceps, is a real fungus. It also has the effect of essentially rendering its host a zombie before bursting out of their head to spread spores. For the moment, and for the foreseeable future, these abilities are restricted to ants and other arthropods; many people actually eat the Cordyceps fungus as a homeopathic medicine (1). The chances of a random mutation allowing the fungus to do the same to human beings, vastly more complex and larger beings, is unlikely. It is not impossible, however, that biological warfare laboratories, being notoriously secretive and morally bankrupt, are researching something with effects similar to that shown in the game. In either case, the developers have clearly researched the fungus, both for the effects it has on hosts and the appearance of the hosts in the later stages of infection, with the fruiting body of the fungus erupting from their heads.

The level of decay on the buildings is, however, provably realistic. The majority of buildings in The Last of Us are overgrown with plant life, and are falling apart due to the lack of maintenance. This happens in real life when buildings are left abandoned for 20 years, as seen on Hasima Island in Japan. The island was built for a mining operation, but for a number of factors was abandoned  once the mine was emptied, and the residents left the island in 1974. The ruins came to prominence in the 2000s. This was due to having been undisturbed for 30 years, and being built very similar to the city centre buildings of the time that were still in use on the mainland: the island gave a look at what the world would actually look like after an apocalypse. It is widely used by the media for this purpose, and the ruined landscape bears more than a passing resemblance to that of The Last Of Us.(2)

The Last of Us was widely critically acclaimed. Writer Neil Druckmann was given several awards for his writing, including a BAFTA and an American Guild of Writers awards, and the game itself is one of the highest awarded games of all time, and received very favourable critical reviews with both Metacritic and GameReviews scoring it at 95% or above. The games site IGN gave it a 10/10
(3), calling the game a “masterpiece”. I personally agree, and I find their vision of the future compelling; I do not find it at all hard to believe that biological warfare departments would create such a strain of fungus, and I find the human deterioration over 20 years believable.



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