Wiki-Icon-NR.png From uncertainty to opportunity, this storyteller's journey is anything but ordinary in Electronic Gaming Monthly issue 257 (by Brandon Justice)

"Calm, quiet, and unassuming, Naughty Dog's Amy Hennig is not exactly what you'd expect from the mind behind one of this generation's most impactful examples of interactive storytelling. But somewhere amidst a pile of unread scripts, thoroughly bookmarked novels, and randomly scattered game paraphernalia lies the blueprint for where our industry is headed, even if the 48 year-old creative director isn't quite sure how she got here in the first place."[1]

Profile[edit source]

Uncharted Territory[edit source]

"I'd always enjoyed games as a kid," says Hennig. Back in the late 70s, when I was about 12ish, I loved to go to the arcade; I went every weekend and spent all my allowance. And then you get older, and you get into high school and college, and you focus on other things."

As an aspiring cinematographer in the 80s, Hennig took on a series of odd jobs to fund her education until a random encounter with an old friend forced her to reevaluate her career path.

"In an example of just fate or dumb luck, I went to a garage sale," she calls. "I ran into a friend from high school. I don't even usually do those kinds of things -- go out to garage sales or stuff like that. It'd been seven years since I'd seen this guy. He asked what I was doing, and I talked about some of the artwork I was doing, and he was like 'Would you be interested in doing art for a video game?'"

She took the job as a way to help meet her tuition needs but ended up stumbling on something much more significant: an industry free of longstanding gender roles and expectations of Hollywood, rife with potential.

"I wanted to become a cinematographer," she confesses. "But you get the message, especially as a woman, that it's like, 'Think of another dream, because that one's never going to come true.' The more I got back into video games for the purposes of educating myself so that I could make this game, I realized how much I missed them and how much I loved it, and I realized there was a huge amount of potential in this industry."

EGM: That must have been a pretty big risk back then. I mean, at that point, games were still essentially considered toys to most folks.

Amy Hennig: I don't think I even thought about that, explicitly. I think there was still a part of me that was like, "I need to make money, and here's an opportunity," and then that opportunity become not just an opportunity to fund my schooling, but also an opportunity for a potential career.

I was just so curious about it, and I think the thing is the people who do well in this business really embrace the challenge of having to figure things out. There's absolutely no resting on your laurels.

That's the really exciting part -- it's the engineering aspect. It's the invention. It's the "How are we going to solve this problem?" It's not even, "Oh well, I get to tell my stories, I get to make this thing," it's the excitement of feeling like, "OK, yeah, you've got three colors and only this much memory. How are you going to do an entire game on one page of graphics? Figure it out."

EGM: Yeah, and it's funny. That comes through in the designs of games like Tomb Raider and Uncharted, that solving those problems can be fun instead of a hassle.

Hennig: Well, if you think it's a hassle, you're probably not going to make a very good game, and if you're purely repeating what you've done before and you're not trying to push the envelope and say, "Well, that sounds impossible. Let's do it," you're probably not inspiring yourself or your time very much.

That tends to be what inspires people here at Naughty Dog. You think of some crazy technical challenge, and the first response is, "There's no way you can do that," you're kind of like, "Well, let's try."

EGM: Your first big break came at Electronic Arts. You had to be a bit of a gunslinger from the jump there, huh?

Hennig: It was sort of this pioneering environment; EA was very small back then. There was a lot of opportunity if you were driven and had ideas, so I went from being a junior artist in '91 to being a lead designer in two years.

The game I was lead designer on was Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City for the Super Nintendo, which I still stand by in terms of the actual implementation and layout and all that kind of stuff. Strange as hell concept. The two games were being worked on simultaneously, Shaq-Fu and the Michael Jordan game so I probably drew the longer straw as far as that goes.

EGM: It's a tough one there. I was going to ask if you thought you guys took it to Shaq-Fu or not.

Hennig: It was a great learning experience. It got pretty decent reviews, even though people had to acknowledge that the concept was a little bit of an issue. So, I did that, and then the department I was in, there was a brief flirtation at EA with doing arcade games and doing location-based entertainment.

We actually hired up a lot of vets, like [Asteroids co-developer] Dave Ralston, [Paperboy designer] John Salwitz, and [Gauntlet developer] Will Noble, and we worked for about a year, I guess, on figuring out what this could be before EA thought, "Nah, there's actually no business model for location-based entertainment, so never mind."

We were all kind of like, "OK, well now what?" and some of my friends had moved to Crystal Dynamics, and that was the first place I checked out. The work that I'd done at EA was enough to get me into the design manager role at Crystal. My main task was to work on Blood Omen: The Legacy of Kain with Silicon Knights.

EGM: Vae Victus!

Hennig: Exactly. So, I worked with them and at one point, we had 10 of our designers on the game. I think six were actually working up at Silicon Knights in Canada for about six months to work with them, because Silicon Knights had this great design, and they'd worked on a the story and the cinematics a lot, but I think they had one in-house designer. They really didn't have the staff to make this sort of Zelda-ish, ambitious game, and so we took it back to square one and built it back up with them.

I'd said when I started at Crystal that I didn't necessarily want a management role, so I said, "I'll do it for like a year, but then I'd really like the chance to work on a project." After we finished Blood Omen, I started working with a very small team, just a couple other people, and the concept for something we were calling Shifter at the time, which became Soul Reaver.

It wasn't originally intended to be a sequel to Blood Omen; it was a standalone idea but then, pretty shortly, management came to us and said, "We really love your idea, but we really want it to be a sequel to Blood Omen. Can you solve that problem?" After sort of wailing and gnashing our teeth, we just settled in and figured it out. That's what we do in this business: creativity within constraints.

EGM: At that point, 3D action-based platformers were virtually non-existent, but you had this idea for this game. What was it like dipping a toe in the water, which was a tiny puddle at that point?

Hennig: Well, we were really under the radar for a while, because it was just two or three of us, and then we started getting a few more team members. We weren't sucking a lot of resources, and it gave us the opportunity to develop this idea that -- if it had been a little bit more scrutinized -- probably would have been shot down before it had a chance to gel. We had some ambitious ideas. The two major ideas that we wanted to do, the programmers at the company were saying, "Are you crazy?" And we're like, "Aw, let's try it."

EGM: So, how did you get from working on that project, which was pretty well received, to transition into the world of Nathan Drake?

Hennig: Crystal went through a lot of changes in terms of structure and personnel and management -- repeated changes -- and that became very hard, because there were so many cooks. Just when working on the final game, Legacy of Kain: Defiance, I think I had literally five or six bosses in sequence.

I don't mean simultaneously, but five or six presidents of the company that came and went over the course of the project -- and of course, everyone had their own opinions about what the game should be. Things get diluted.

So, I was working on Defiance when I got a call from [current Naughty Dog co-president] Evan Wells. I first met him back in '95 at Crystal Dynamics when he was 21 and I was 31; he was the genius whiz kid. Little did I know that, eight years later, he'd be calling me and offering me a job. He'd moved to Naughty Dog and called me in the spring of 2003 and said, "Would you come join us?" and I thought, "Dude, I can't. I'm right in the middle of a project. I'm not going to leave in the middle." He said, "Well, just come talk to us," and I did.

It was clear that Crystal Dynamics was not intending to do any more Soul Reaver or Legacy of Kain games internally, and I kept putting Evan off, not giving him an answer one way or the other, when I finally said, "Yes, but you're going to have to wait till I'm done," so I didn't join Naughty Dog until November 2003.

EGM: But there were some interesting changes going on at Crystal, then, too?

Hennig: It was during that time that there was a transition with Crystal Dynamics, where it became clear they were taking the Tomb Raider license away from Core. That was part of my decision process to say, "What's happening with that? Is it something that I can be involved in?"

The thing is, of course, that Eidos was very protective of that franchise and very concerned that they needed to revive it, and they felt that they needed to bring in somebody new from the outside -- in this case, it was [System Shock and Deus Ex developer] Doug Church -- to head up the project of taking on Tomb Raider.

And so, I kind of felt like, "Well, maybe this is a timely offer from Evan, then. We're not doing Kain, I'm obviously not going to direct Tomb Raider." So, there's a little irony that I ended up making Uncharted.

EGM: No kidding, right?

Hennig: I wasn't quite sure where my role was going to be anyway, so I thought, "Well, this is obviously the universe telling me something," so I took Evan's offer and came to Naughty Dog.

EGM: So, how did it feel when you'd brought Soul Reaver to the table, and it was successful, and then here comes Tomb Raider? How was it for you when they didn't give you that opportunity? I mean, you must have wanted it.

Hennig: Sure I did, yeah. It was just such an awkward time. There was this ongoing problem, potentially, with Core and with Eidos, having them do yearly sequels, and I think everybody perceived the fact that the Tomb Raider franchise had been worn down a little bit because of that.

To answer your question, I was disappointed. It was a twist to the question, because that occurred after Evan said, "Please come join us," right? I was pretty much at the "yes" state, and then this happened, and I thought, "Yes, unless, because this could be an interesting opportunity, too, and I need to know what's going to happen."

EGM: Do you think you would have stayed if they would've offered you the lead on that?

Hennig: You know, I might have, so I'm glad they didn't, which is a stranger answer -- I don't want that to sound critical. It's just that I'm so happy that I joined Naughty Dog, and what I've been able to do here and the people I've been able to work with.

EGM: So, next you worked on Jak 3.

Hennig: Well, Jak 3 was actually a great palate cleanser for me because after working on the Legacy of Kain series for eight years, I was exhausted.

I was sort of like, "Time for a sabbatical," but instead, I took a new job on a project that had to be done in a year. But because Dan Arey was here, and he was the creative director/writer on the Jak franchise, I came in and could just focus on being a game director.

But after a year of that, I was yearning to get back to it. Our challenge was, "OK, new hardware. New franchise. What's it going to be?"

EGM: What was the thrust for you at that point? What was really important for you in terms of what this game was going to be about?

Hennig: The idea was that we wanted to capture the feeling of these classic pulp adventure stories using inspirations that went all the way back to 19th-century adventure fiction and 20th century stuff -- comics such as Tintin and Carl Barks' Scrooge McDuck stuff -- and movie serials to the latest movies that had come out recently at the time, like National Treasure.

There's this huge tradition of this beloved genre that was undeserved in games, which is surprising. Everybody focused on sci-fi and fantasy, and it seemed to us that the challenge was, "Look, if we're trying to capture this sort of cinematic feel of these movies that we all love so much, we're going to have to take all the tropes from these stories and turn them into game events, game mechanics, chases, hair's-breadth escapes, and stunts and vehicles, all that stuff." We deconstructed all these stories and movies and things, but the most important thing, we realized, was that it had to be a character-driven story.

It was about a protagonist with other characters around him, because you don't tell a story about lone characters. It's about relationships, you know? Taking the principles that seemed like common sense if you were trying to make a film and applying them to a game. And it wasn't really something that anybody was talking about back then.

EGM: So you kind of had to blaze your own trail?

Hennig: One of our challenges was to figure out, "Well, not only do we want to make one of these stories, but we also want to honor this genre that's been around for more than 100 years. But we don't want to do it in a way that's perceived as being retro, because that can also come off as being completely corny and cheesy. How do you contemporize it in a way that doesn't lose the spirit of the original but feels relevant?" And that's always a challenge.

We were looking around at what everybody else was doing, even back then, and it seemed like everything was so bleak. Everything was sort of monochromatic and post-apocalyptic and grim and sort of an adolescent sense of seriousness. We thought, "Why can't games be colorful and funny and charming?"

Some of these decisions seemed sort of simple and obvious, but they were hugely defining for the franchise and made it stand out. It was interesting the fights we had to have internally, even, just about the fact that Drake wasn't iconic enough as a character.

EGM: It's funny that we talk about morality, and in reality, even a character with Nathan Drake, as lighthearted and well-intentioned as he is -- albeit a bit self-serving -- he's still a cold-blooded killer.

Hennig: Right, but again, this is obviously one of my most frustrating topics, because it's a very difficult thing to figure out in our medium. You're not talking about a movie-length experience. You're talking about a 10-hour experience, and the nature of good game design is about mechanics, repetition, combining mechanics, complicating, confounding mechanics, and those all have to do with repetition and choice, right?

So, what in the abstract can be a good game-design mechanic, can have a dissonant qualities as a narrative device. Would Uncharted be better if there were five gunfights in the entire game? That would be a lousy game. But from a narrative perspective, it would make a lot more sense. So, the question as a creator is, what choice do you make?

It's a really tough problem to solve. It feels intellectually easy and somehow dishonest to me when people use it as a sort of some intellectual criticism of the game. For all the times I've seen that brought up, either jokingly or seriously, I've never seen anybody offer a solution.

EGM: It's not an easy thing to find the balance there.

Hennig: Yeah, and that's why some people say, "Well, games shouldn't even try to tell stories. It's not a story-telling medium," and that games should be games, literally, and not be trying to ape another medium. But I think that's silly, because I think humans, by nature, we tell stories. We interpret things as stories. We force stories onto things that don't even have them, because we want things to have a narrative context, even if it's an abstracted game.

EGM: Well, and you almost wonder if these people have forgotten how to be a child, what it really was to come into your imagination and make believe.

Hennig: It's easy to forget, because there's so much cynicism and negativity out there. It's easy to get over-analytical on ourselves. Ultimately, I just want to entertain people.

I think back to my own childhood -- or to my own present -- and you think about a book that you've read or a movie that you've seen that's so memorable that you feel like you've actually got a memory of this thing that doesn't even exist, because you've had an experience that was completely imagined. But it's so real to you because somebody created it, and you feel so grateful to those people or to the person who wrote that story or made that movie that meant so much to you and has this memorable quality. The idea that we can have a job where we're providing that for somebody else? That's incredible.

EGM: And what's more, you've met with some success reaching folks that traditionally weren't even targets for game publishers.

Hennig: Looking at some of the feedback after Uncharted 3, I really get the impression that people are like, "You know, I play these games for the characters and the story, and I want to see what happens next. It's the exploration and the discovery and the mystery."

Across the board, I've seen people say, "There could be a lot less gunplay, and I'd be fine with that." I think there's something changing, and it may be slightly, too, that [Uncharted] always had this really wide demographic appeal that I'm really gratified by. It wasn't designed that way on purpose; it was just the fact that the aesthetic behind it is something that just inevitably has a wider demographic.

If you're telling a character-driven story, you can appeal to both male and female and younger and old. I can tell, just anecdotally, that probably half of our fanbase is women. We'll get fan letters from women in their 50s and 60s saying, "I love these games. It's just a little hard for me, and I wish the gunplay was easier," or "I'll hand it to my son to play the gunplay parts and take it back for the rest." It's interesting.

There's a big, silent demographic out there that we're not hearing from, and I think we're still making the mistake that we think we have to design games for this sort of narrow, 14-to-26 year-old male demographic or something.

EGM: Do you think that women add a unique perspective, and why don't we see more developers from that side of the gender coin expanding our horizons?

Hennig: [Laughs] The gender coin. That's such a big topic. I'm not exactly sure, because inside the industry, I'd say I've never really encountered prejudice or impediments because I'm a woman. I think it's a young enough industry that it's also fairly progressive in that way.

Now, granted, I'm sure there are female developers where that's not true but how disingenuous would that be of me to say that I'd experienced discrimination when, as I said, within a few years, I was leading and directing projects? A lot of those opportunities were from men -- fellow colleagues who happened to be men -- championing me.

I think the question is, "Why haven't more young women been seeking careers in game development?" I don't know the answer to that, whether it's discouragement at the academic level in terms of girls getting discourages about math and science or feeling like they don't quite know what development is, and it doesn't seem like it's for them.

I think it can be discouraging externally, because women are scrutinized differently than men in the industry, outside the industry. And again, it's the nature of the internet, which is the visible form of criticism, unfortunately. If someone in the industry is visible, she's going to get scrutinized, more so than I think a man would.

It's a shame, because if you're an average-looking schlub like me, then you could get people tearing you down for your appearance. On the other hand, I almost think it's harder for someone like [Splinter Cell: Blacklist producer] Jade Raymond. I mean, she gets dismissed as not having earned her success or her career because of her looks. She's brilliant. I don't know if you've ever talked with her, but she's absolutely earned what she's gotten, because she's a smart woman. We're always scrutinized one way or the other. "You're not attractive enough," "You're too attractive." "Who'd you blow to get the job?" "Make me a sandwich, grandma." I get that one. I'll make you a sandwich -- and a triple-A franchise. How about that?

EGM: With or without mayo?

Hennig: That's right. [Laughs] I think that's discouraging to women that are outside the industry, because that's the face they see: women in the industry getting dismissed or judged in these superficial ways.

I'm like, "Ah, whatever. F*** ‘em." I don't even think about that stuff. I sometimes avoid the whole "women in games" issue, because it sort of gets into this really uncomfortable political discussion that just has so little to do with my day-to-day reality. "What's it like to be a woman working in the industry?" It's like, "I don't know. It's all I've ever been. I'm a person working in the game industry. I can tell you about that."

EGM: It's interesting, because there are certainly those camps out there that say, "We want to make games for girls."

Hennig: I think that's such the wrong way to go. I mean, I wouldn't know how to be that cynically focused in terms of saying, "How do you make games for girls?" That idea's just always really turned me off.

I hate saying that, because I have friends who are at ventures and companies where that is the mission statement. It's admirable, but I just think that, by definition, it's going about it the wrong way. The way you make games for girls is just by making good games. That's always been my answer.

EGM: What are you reading these days?

Hennig: I read a lot of history books, biographies, and stuff like that. I also like to read a lot of screenplays. Sometimes, I find it more instructive for thinking about writing and structure than watching a film. I find that if I try to watch a movie analytically, I'm pausing it every two seconds to write down a note, whereas with a screenplay, I feel I can kind of read it through and see what the writer was thinking.

EGM: Speaking of screenplays and films, what are some of your favorite movies?

Hennig: I love movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s, especially screwball comedies. One of my favorite movies of all time is Bringing Up Baby with Cart Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Obviously, I love the adventure genre, which is where the inspiration for Uncharted came from in the first place, but mostly, I just love retro stuff. I feel like I'm displaced, like I should be a child of the ‘30s. But I was born in the ‘60s instead.

EGM: Next up, what are some of your favorite television shows?

Hennig: My work schedule's so nuts that I tend to use television as a pacifier to go to sleep, so I'll try to watch things that aren't particularly mentally taxing. I watch cooking shows and things like that. I also buy a lot of DVD box sets to try to catch up that way, so I've got this massive stack from people saying, "You've got to watch this." I'm also so intimidated by my backlog that it's like, "I'll just watch Chopped." But I also enjoy stuff like Lost -- serialized dramas, mysteries. Things like that are right up my alley.

EGM: You're marooned on a deserted island, and you can only take three worldly possessions. What would you take with you?

Hennig: I never understand this question, because the answer should be "Food, food, and food," right? But, I guess that's not the creative way to answer it. I think I'd take an empty notebook and pencils, and probably an iPod full of music. I guess I'd need a generator to run it. Is that my third thing?

EGM: We'll take it. What are you playing these days?

Hennig: I always try to keep up with the games that my colleagues are doing at other companies and see how other people are solving the problems that I'm tackling. Other than that, I've been going back and looking at some older games that I think inspired me, like Zelda and the Team Ico games. I haven't played anything recent in a while, to be honest.

EGM: One last question. What kind of car do you drive?

Hennig: Right now, nothing. I have a 9- or 10-year-old BMW that I just sort of drove into the ground, so now it's sitting in the garage. It needs to go to the shop, but I just can't be bothered. I live two miles away from work, so I take taxis. So, the short answer is a 10-year-old BMW -- when it's running.
―Brandon Justice[1]

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  1. 1.0 1.1 Archive.png From uncertainty to opportunity, this storyteller's journey is anything but ordinary in Electronic Gaming Monthly issue 257 (by Brandon Justice)

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