Defying the conventional wisdom that video games make poor screen adaptations, HBO’s The Last of Us has become a pop culture phenomenon. Starring Pedro Pascal as a smuggler leading a 14-year-old orphan (played by Bella Ramsey) through a zombie-infected wasteland, the critically-acclaimed series was renewed for a second season after only two episodes.
But who is the creative genius behind The Last of Us? His name is Neil Druckmann, a designer and co-writer on the original video game franchise, who subsequently became co-creator, co-writer, an executive producer, and one of the directors on the television show.
Despite becoming a breakout hit, creating The Last of Us was anything but an overnight success story. The 44-year-old drew on his upbringing in the West Bank as well as his early criminology studies in creating the original game. He also had to face down rejection from the granddaddy of all things zombies: Night of the Living Dead director George Romero.
Druckmann was born in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1978. He was raised in a settlement in the West Bank, where he repeatedly witnessed acts of violence, according to GQ. He sought escape in comic books, movies, and especially video games, particularly The Secret of Monkey Island and Metal Gear Solid.
Druckmann’s family immigrated to Miami when he was 10, where he retained his interest in video games. His brother even snuck him into E3, a video game expo, in the late 1990s. He later attended Florida State University as a criminology major, which he thought would eventually help him become a thriller writer. This ultimately influenced his future video game writing, but a computer science course led him to study coding rather than criminology.
“At some point, I took a programming class, and it came easy to me, and then it just clicked, ‘Wait, this is what people do to make video games!’” he told Creative Screenwriting magazine. “That’s when it first dawned on me that I wanted to go down this road to make video games instead of wanting to be a lawyer or an FBI agent or something that for me is very silly.”
George Romero’s rejection
Druckmann first began conceiving The Last of Us as a video game during his time at Carnegie Mellon University, where he pursued a master’s degree in entertainment technology. His family’s experiences in Tel Aviv and in immigrating to the United States were a major source of inspiration.
“It was always about the sacrifices my parents have made,” Druckmann told the Los Angeles Times. “As I got older, and came closer to making it as a game, I started thinking about having my own kids and the fear of raising a kid and what could happen.”
But his idea was met with early disapproval by someone highly influential in the zombie world: George Romero, creator of Night of the Living Dead (1986). During one of Druckmann’s classes at Carnegie Mellon, the legendary director listened to student pitches about zombie stories. Druckmann presented the story that eventually became The Last of Us.
“He didn’t like it,” Druckmann told The Hollywood Reporter. “He picked something else.” Druckmann shelved the idea after that experience, and when he later revisited it, he tweaked the story to focus less on the zombies and more on the relationship between its protagonists.
Pestering his way to a Naughty Dog job
After college, Druckmann landed a job at Naughty Dog, the video game developer behind popular franchises such as Crash Bandicoot and Jax and Daxter. He got the gig by pestering company president Jason Reuben until he made Druckmann an intern.
“I approached him, and I bugged him, and I told him that I wanted to break into games,” Druckmann told Creative Screenwriting. “He foolishly gave me his business card, and then I started just bugging him and sending him my portfolio, and at some point, he emailed back and said, ‘Hey, we’re looking for an intern. Are you interested?’”
Druckmann worked on a few games before achieving his first big success with 2007’s Uncharted, an action-adventure game in which treasure hunter Nathan Drake travels the world to solve historical mysteries.
Uncharted grew into a full-blown franchise spawning three sequel games, several expansions and spinoffs, plus a 2022 film starring Spider-Man actor Tom Holland. Based on his success with Uncharted, Druckmann was chosen to lead a new Jak and Daxter game, but he quickly found his heart wasn’t with the project.
“We were questioning, ‘Are we doing this for marketing reasons? Naming something Jak and Daxter, when it’s not really Jak and Daxter? Or are we really passionate about it?’” he told GameSpot. “We felt like we weren’t doing service to what the fans of this franchise really liked, even if the reinvented Daxter was pretty damn good-looking.”
Success with The Last of Us
Druckmann instead returned to the idea Romero had rejected years earlier. The result was The Last of Us, which was released for PlayStation consoles in the summer of 2013. It was met with wide critical acclaim, became a huge financial success, and landed on several lists of the best video games ever made.
Following the 2020 release of a successful sequel game, The Last of Us, Part II), HBO developed The Last of Us into a television series that debuted in January. It’s become a tremendous critical success, with particular praise for its cast performances and Druckmann’s original storyline.
Druckmann is actively involved with the TV series as its co-creator and co-writer along with Craig Mazin. Druckmann even directed the second episode, and although it was his first time behind the camera, both Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey described him as a dream director.
“As soon as I found out that Neil was going to be directing an episode, I felt like we would be in good hands because he’s created the show, and every time that he said that we did a good job, you can’t help but believe him because it was his child, I guess, his baby,” Ramsey told Screen Rant.
Pascal added: “Surprisingly, he was the most open and excited about interpretation that wasn’t his own. He was the one that was way more into the questions and the not knowing in terms of what our takes were. And I found that really, really surprising and exciting.”
Druckmann will remain involved with the second season of The Last of Us, and he told The New Yorker that he’s currently working on a new video game that will be “structured more like a TV show” than Naughty Dog’s previous works.
Colin McEvoy joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.