Naughty Dog are responsible for some of the best narrative-led experiences on PlayStation 3 -- and have been able to back up that strong storytelling with some equally strong gameplay.
The reason why Naughty Dog's games are so good in this regard is because they expend a considerable amount of effort on developing that narrative rather than simply running with the first idea they have. Creative director Neil Druckmann explained in some detail at a recent keynote speech to the Toronto chapter of the International Game Developers Association.
Shortly after Uncharted 2 shipped, the studio split into two teams, with the second led by Uncharted 2's director and Druckmann. The original plan was for the team to work on a reboot of the Jak and Daxter series, featuring a radical rethink of the original games' visual style. While the concept art for the "new Daxter" looked pretty cool, it clearly wasn't Daxter -- it would have been better suited as a character design for a completely new game.
Dissonance between the aesthetics of the source material and the reboot hasn't stopped some studios from forging ahead and doing it anyway, mind -- just look at the recent reboot of Flashback, for example. However, Druckmann notes that the team were dissatisfied with the direction the project was going, and began to question whether or not they were doing it for the right reasons. It felt like the Jak and Daxter branding was being added more for marketing reasons than to provide any sort of fanservice to series veterans.
However, rather than bowing to "authority" and reluctantly making the game anyway, Druckmann notes that his team spoke up -- and it turns out that was a good idea. The only reason they'd been given the idea to reboot Jak and Daxter in the first place was to give them a starting point; they were encouraged to come up with something else if there was something they felt more passionately about.
The Last of Us was born.
Actually, it's not quite that simple. Druckmann notes that his original idea for The Last of Us came about during his time as a grad student at Carnegie Mellon and had to pitch a zombie game to, of all people, legendary zombie movie director George Romero -- who happened to be a friend of his professor.
Druckmann's original pitch combined the mechanics of Ico with the Hartigan character from Sin City, while using the world of Night of the Living Dead as a backdrop. Gameplay would involve controlling an old cop protecting a young girl, but occasionally play would switch control to the young girl as the cop had trouble with a heart condition, leaving the usually more vulnerable character in the role of the protector. The original intention was to have a tragic ending in which the cop would get bitten by a zombie, and the girl would have to shoot him.
Romero sadly passed on the idea, but that didn't deter Druckmann as he launched into his career. One of the ideas he kicked around with his fellow team leader Bruce Straley, director of Uncharted 2, was a concept they called Mankind. The pitch was very similar to The Last of Us, with one big exception: the virus would only affect women, leaving Ellie as the first (and possibly only) immune female.
This would have been a bold narrative angle with the potential to explore a variety of intriguing themes -- what the world would lose without women; social commentary on misogyny; what the world would be like if it was solely populated by sexually frustrated men -- but equally it had a considerable amount of potential to attract controversy -- and not necessarily for the right reasons.
"A lot of the female workers at Naughty Dog came up and said 'I don't like this idea,'" Druckmann explained. "'I understand what you're trying to do -- it is ultimately a story about the love of a girl -- but the way it's coming off is you're having a bunch of women turning into monsters and you're shooting them in the face.'"
Avoiding accusations of misogyny is high on the agenda of many game developers and publishers these days -- and with good reason -- so the concept was shelved. Or, more accurately, it was remolded into what we now know as The Last of Us. Druckmann notes he had "this kind of awakening and I realized that was not good." It's perhaps for the best; while the potential narrative themes would have been intriguing, there's already a dearth of relatable female characters in gaming, and making a game where almost the entire relatable (read: "human") cast was male wouldn't have particularly helped with that situation, even with Ellie still playing a prominent role.
Besides, ultimately the further brainstorming the rejection of the Mankind idea prompted resulted in what is, to many, one of the best story-led games this generation -- so everything worked out pretty well in the end.