The Last of Us and Uncharted director Bruce Straley joins today’s episode of Kotaku Splitscreen to talk about burning out, how he feels about not directing The Last of Us 2, and why he left Naughty Dog after 17 years.
First, Kirk and I talk about news of the week (5:46) on Quantic Dream’s toxicity, Destiny 2's hullabaloo, and Nintendo’s mini-Direct. Then we talk to Straley about his long career and history (28:47), and finally, Kirk and I rave about the astoundingly good Divinity: Original Sin 2 (1:08:58). You can listen to the full episode here:
Get the MP3 right here. Here’s an excerpt from our interview:
Jason: So you have been gone from Naughty Dog since the end of 2016, and anyone who has read up on what happened over Uncharted 4, most notably in Blood Sweat and Pixels—
Jason: —knows that it was a tough time for you guys, very stressful. I wasn’t surprised when I heard you were taking a sabbatical from Naughty Dog after that process, but do you want to talk us through what made you decide you needed a long break?
Bruce: As much as I can. I’ve been at Naughty Dog for... 17 years at the time, at the end of Uncharted 4. I guess I have to go back in history a little bit. Uncharted 1 was probably the most stressful project. As all video games are stressful and they’re hard to get out the door, and anyone who finishes a game, hats off, it’s amazing that games get done. Uncharted 1 was difficult for reasons that are out there, which is that we switched from PS2 to PS3 and bit off way more than we could chew regarding a new IP and throwing out a bunch of old tech that we should’ve just kind of built upon. So that was really hard. We thought we would hire a bunch of people from the movie industry to help us and that didn’t really work out—games are a unique thing.
I stepped into the game directing role for Uncharted 2, which was really one of the most exhilarating times of my career, learning a lot and pushing ideas of what I thought was going to be a really unique game, and getting to collaborate on story on a different level than I ever had before, and working with people like Amy [Hennig] who are exceptional at what they do, that was really inspiring. But that was also the next-hardest project I ever get out the door, so that was hard, as exhilarating as it was.
From there, moving on to The Last of Us and creating a new IP from scratch. Even though people could say, ‘Oh, it’s just Uncharted reskinned.’ It’s got the same paradigm as far as cutscenes and gameplay, and it’s third-person, but other than that, trying to figure out a game and a world and a story and making it all cohesive, and the stress, especially moving from something: At Naughty Dog, we had this tonally action-adventure, high action, tropey, rooted in pulp action movies from the ‘40s, which is Uncharted. And then we’re moving into something super grounded, and realistic, and gritty, and gore, and all this kind of stuff. And trying to direct a team where they’re looking at us sideways and going, ‘What the hell are you guys thinking? You’re ruining the company.’ So that then became the most stressful project. As rewarding as it was, to finish and work on, and as a designer philosophically to try some things that I thought I had been evolving since Uncharted 2 forward. That was rewarding, but also really stressful.
And then Uncharted 4 showed up and it was like— I guess there’s a difference between doing something for yourself which feels passionate—and I had my own theories that I was trying to expand upon between Uncharted 1, 2, and The Last of Us—and then Uncharted 4 became more like, ‘How do I do this for the team and for the company?’ Because we needed to get the game out the door, and we needed it to be something good, so that it didn’t put a mark on the Naughty Dog name. I felt like, I guess in hindsight I took on that role more for the team than for me personally. Also, we did that game in two years, from the moment that Neil [Druckmann] and I stepped on, almost to the day. Two years to create that beast, that then became the hardest project.
So there was this constant, it had nothing to do with Naughty Dog, nothing to do with games, it’s just me, I’m a perfectionist, what we’re going after, just triple-A. Everything all culminated into, ‘Oh my god, it’s time to take a break. It’s just time to step away.’ I worked out a deal with [Naughty Dog co-presidents] Evan [Wells] and Christophe [Balestra] at the beginning of Uncharted 4 before I stepped on, that look, if I’m gonna do this, I need some time off. And they knew what that meant. To their credit, they appreciated what I was willing to do and what it was going to take to get it done, and without batting a lash they said ‘Sure.’ So utmost respect to them as leaders and people who saw what needed to happen, and respecting my time and my energy, and giving me the time off.
Just to jump forward, having that time off, it just kind of eked into— What was a few months became more months, you know.
Jason: It’s just one of those things, yeah.
Bruce: It was really hard to imagine getting back into the job and feeling as energized as I was back in The Last of Us or Uncharted 2. And so I just felt there was a shift in me—something else was building up in me that was like alright, let’s see what else is out there.
Listen to the full episode for much more on Straley’s career, his thoughts on the video game industry, and his feelings about not being involved with The Last of Us 2.
As always, you can find Splitscreen on Apple Podcasts and Google Play. Leave us a review if you like what you hear, and reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any and all questions, requests, and suggestions.