As a Lead Designer at Naughty Dog, Neil Druckmann is probably most well known for his work on “Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune” and “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves,” both of which he co-wrote the stories for. Since its launch in October, “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” has sold over a million copies and sat atop many “2009 Game of the Year” lists, receiving critical acclaim for its storytelling in particular. Druckmannn also wrote the motion comic “Uncharted: The Eye of Indra,” which serves as a prequel to the original game. Druckmann’s second foray into the world of comics will come in February, as Ape Entertainment will be publishing his first graphic novel, “A Second Chance at Sarah.”
CBR spoke with Druckmann about “A Second Chance at Sarah,” as well as the creative process behind the book and the differences between writing for comics as opposed to games.
CBR News: First and foremost Neil, how does it feel to have “Uncharted 2” being so widely recognized for the quality of its writing?
Neil Druckmann: All the recent awards that we’ve won for “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” have been amazing. We at Naughty Dog have slaved away on this project for two years, and to come out on the other side to this kind of reception…well, the whole thing is quite surreal.
As far as being recognized for the writing, I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to know that the people appreciate the road we traveled to get the kind of story we ended up with. As writers (led by our Creative Director, Amy Hennig), we’ve wracked our brains trying to create compelling characters with believable, grounded relationships. Every motivation, conflict and line of dialogue was held under scrutiny to make sure it was necessary and natural. Additionally, it was important to us that the story wasn’t just told in cutscenes – the storytelling had to bleed into the gameplay, which presented its own set of challenges. In fact, every level, set-piece and player mechanic went through the same scrutiny to make sure it fit with, and even complemented, the story.
Often, we questioned whether the amount of effort that we poured into the story would be worth it at the end. It’s so gratifying to hear players reacting so well to the final game.
This past year, you wrote the “Eye of Indra” motion comic that serves as a prequel to the original “Uncharted.” Was that a story that never made it into the game, or was it always planned as a comic?
Between projects, we brainstorm a lot of different ideas for gameplay, story, characters, etc. After we finished “Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune,” we toyed with the idea of doing a short downloaded chapter to keep us busy until we hit full production for “Uncharted 2.” Josh Scherr (our Lead Cinematics Animator) and I wrote a short pitch for a prequel heist that involved Nathan Drake and Eddy Raja robbing a notorious criminal. The climax of the story ended with an escape on a moving train.
The logistics for making a downloadable episode didn’t work out, but the idea of the train made it into “Uncharted 2” while the story was stored away. Several months later, Sony San Diego approached us with the idea of creating an “Uncharted” motion comic. It was a natural choice to go back to our prequel-idea as a starting point, and that’s how “Uncharted: Eye of Indra” came to fruition.
Slowly, that original game idea evolved into the story for the motion comic. I had to squeeze writing the scripts and collaborating with the talented guys at the Sony San Diego’s Visual Arts Service Group in between finishing “Uncharted 2,” but it was a lot of fun to work on a motion comic, which I’ve never done before.
For those “Uncharted” fans that haven’t checked it out yet, I urge you to go on the Playstation Network and download the four episode mini-series to see what Nathan Drake was up to right before the events of “Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.”
In February, you’ve got your first graphic novel coming out with “A Second Chance at Sarah.” Can you tell us a bit about the story?
“A Second Chance at Sarah” is a supernatural adventure involving love, loss, and time travel. It’s about a husband, Johnny, whose wife falls into a mysterious coma after giving birth to their first child. Johnny discovers that his wife, Sarah, made a deal with a demon several years ago, and her soul was just collected. Desperately, Johnny makes his own deal with the demon and is sent back in time to his youth. Now, as a teenager again, Johnny has 24-hours to befriend his future wife, uncover why she made the deal with the demon, and stop her from going through with it.
The 94-page book is painted by Joysuke Wong and is being published by Ape Entertainment. You can check out the first 24 pages at ApeComics.com. If you like what you see, please support the book by placing a preorder at Amazon.com or at your favorite comic book store.
The idea of going back in time to try and alter past events is always intriguing. What inspired your particular take on the concept for “A Second Chance at Sarah?”
Those that have significant others will probably know what I’m talking about; whenever I see pictures of my wife when she was young or hear stories about her youth, there’s a part of me that always wishes I could’ve been part of her life before I even met her. And being a fan of time-travel stories, I’ve wondered: if I ever could travel back in time, how could I convince my future wife that I’m her husband from the future? The crux of the problem is: what hidden information could I present her with that no one else knows except for her? I used to bug my wife with that question and it always lead to interesting discussions about her past.
Those playful conversations sparked the idea for the story – what if a teenager had to convince a young girl that he’s her husband from the future? Eventually, I incorporated the whole “deal with the devil” story device because it gave me the freedom to use time-travel without too much exposition, and it allowed me to develop a hidden story about Sarah’s past for the protagonist to uncover.
How long have you been working on this book? How have you found the time while working on the “Uncharted” games?
I’ve been working on this book for a little over a year. As far as finding the time…let’s just say I have a very understanding wife. Nights and lack of sleep were my friends. I made a schedule for myself, making sure that I chipped away at the story every night.
The key to getting it done was finishing most of the writing and thumbnails before we hit the final development crunch on “Uncharted 2.” There’s no way I could’ve finished both projects at the same time without making some sort of deal with the devil myself.
From the writer’s perspective, what were some of the similarities and differences between writing for a game and a graphic novel?
For games, when we’re writing for cutscenes, it’s very much like writing for a movie or TV show. We can rely on an animated performance to convey much of the character’s subtext (the meaning behind their words and actions). In comics, because the images are static, I find that the dialogue can’t always be as subtle and instead takes on a more stylized form. It took me a while to warm up to each medium when I was swapping between the two.
The other difference comes from the limitations of production that are unique to each medium. For example, in comics you can easily have a character change their clothes (like removing a shirt) and it doesn’t affect the artist too much. In games, a change in clothes means creating a new model of that character, which can take months. In comics, however, asking your artist to draw a complicated background multiple times from different angles can be very time consuming. In a game, if the environment is already built, it’s as easy as moving the digital camera to a different location -a simple task. As a writer you always have to keep these limitations in mind and weigh the cost of each decision.
The biggest difference for me (and one of the main reasons why I wanted to write a graphic novel) is that I find writing for comics to be more personal and intimate. In games – at least the way we work at Naughty Dog – writing tends to be a very collaborative process. Making a game like “Uncharted” is a massive undertaking that requires the partnership of many different departments. That means that the story is affected and influenced by level designs, gameplay set pieces, music, game mechanics, animation, the performances of the actors, etc. You have to remain flexible to how your writing will go through different artists’ filters and interpretations before reaching the final game. By embracing this multi-faceted collaboration you end up with a sum that is greater than its parts. While collaboration is just as important in comics, because there’s just two filters, the writer and the artist, the final vision is much more personal.
But as different as they are, the basics are always the same: compelling characters, interesting conflicts that escalate to an engaging climax, and a consistent world that people can lose themselves in. I love both mediums, and if I can keep it up, I’ll keep writing for games and comics for a long time.
How did you end up working with Ape Entertainment on this project?
I researched publishers that accept open submissions, and I decided to contact Ape because I liked the quality and the variety of their books; I could see “A Second Chance at Sarah” sitting within their line-up. I sent them my synopsis and some sample pages, and fairly quickly I received a phone call from David Hedgecock (Ape’s publisher). We hit it off and, after hearing more about the project, David was enthusiastic about publishing the book, even though he knew it was a riskier story to market and sell – but I loved that he welcomed the challenge of getting a supernatural love story on book shelves.
David, Brent Erwin (his partner in crime) and Kevin Freeman (editor extraordinaire) have been patient and helpful in showing me the ropes, assisting in finishing the book, and marketing the story. I can’t speak highly enough about these guys – the book wouldn’t be as good without their efforts.
Joysuke Wong’s painted style seems to be a great fit for the book. Was that the look you envisioned for the book from the beginning?
Sort of. When I first looked for an artist, I placed several ads on-line. I received samples from some very talented artists, but I never felt that their art quite gelled with the story I was trying to tell. I wanted the art to stand out from other books, be slightly stylized and have an expressive range for the characters. I didn’t know exactly what that meant until I stumbled onto Joy’s online portfolio. To say that her artwork blew me away would be an understatement.
It was a shot in the dark, but I sent her an email with the book’s pitch. Lucky for me, she dug the story and agreed to work on it.
Joy designed all of the characters and the environments with minimal feedback from me. She also developed a beautiful progression of color palettes that captured the right tone for each scene. Her art elevated the book to something greater than I’ve ever imagined for it. This is as much her graphic novel as it is mine.
Why do you feel the single edition format was the best format for “A Second Chance at Sarah” as opposed to releasing it as a limited series?
For me it came down to making sure readers will be able to pick up the whole story.
While I originally wrote “A Second Chance at Sarah” as three-issue limited series, there was the possibility that the first issue wouldn’t sell enough to justify printing the second and third issues (that’s a risk that any new series faces.) After discussing it with the guys at Ape, we decided that the graphic novel format was the best way for readers to experience this story.
While there’s a reduced chance of turning a profit by going straight into a graphic novel format (due to greater investment from the publisher and the retailers), at least it guarantees that readers who pick up the book will be able to enjoy the story from beginning to end.
Even though “A Second Chance at Sarah” is a self-contained story, could you see yourself revisiting these characters if the book proves successful?
I don’t think so. Like you said, the story has a definitive end, and I can’t imagine bringing these characters back for another story. Plus, “A Third Chance at Sarah” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
Can we expect other comic projects from you when you’re not working on Naughty Dog games?
Absolutely! It’s been a lot of hard work, but the end result of the finished book was completely worth it. I’m developing a couple of ideas right now, and I’ll start talking to artists soon. On top of that, I can’t wait to spill the beans about what we’re doing next at Naughty Dog – people will be surprised!