Award-winning game director discusses why she nearly turned down 'Star Wars', the importance of improv comedy and why she's barely played 'Uncharted 4'
Award-winning game director discusses why she nearly turned down 'Star Wars', the importance of improv comedy and why she's barely played 'Uncharted 4'
The walls of video game director Amy Hennig's writing room are full of secrets. There are photographs, movie stills, drawings, storyboards, and a few thousand neon Post-it notes filled with tiny scrawl. A giant felt board holds pinned rows of colorful cards, each labelled with a different scene title. "I need to see it all at once, laid out before me," she says, "and then step in when I want to zero in on a particular scene or level."
Hennig is hard at work on Electronic Arts' untitled new Star Wars game, due in 2018. Her desk at EA's campus in Redwood Shores, California, just outside the writing room, is covered in multi-colored chaos: action figures, stuffed toys, DVDs, shot glasses, and half-filled coffee cups in various degrees of putrefaction. Most of it is Star Wars-related, including a Sphero BB-8, a bust of Luke Skywalker, an 18-inch statue of Obi-wan Kenobi, and a complete set of The Empire Strikes Back drinking glasses from an Eighties Burger King promotion.
At 52, Hennig is one of the most recognizable names in gaming. She has spent the last 27 years working as a writer and creative director for companies like EA, Crystal Dynamics, and Naughty Dog, where she co-created Uncharted, one of the most acclaimed video game franchises of all time. She grew up wanting to make movies, but instead ended up making games that were as good as movies, with a visionary, deeply humanistic approach that’s helped raise standards for the entire industry.
When people talk about the cinematic arrival of video games, Uncharted is perhaps the first example. The Los Angeles Times once suggested Uncharted wouldn't look out of place on a cinema screen. The Boston Globe said Uncharted 2 looked as if it had been "shot by a team of cinematographers". But it's really the emotional depth of the characters in Uncharted – still a rarity in video games – that has helped make the games so popular. And this is what Hennig excels at. She co-wrote and co-directed the first three Uncharted games, and was two years into development on the last game in the series, Uncharted 4, when she left Naughty Dog in 2014 after 11 years – a highly publicized and contentious move that prompted rumors she was forced out because of creative differences with studio management.
Uncharted 4 came out in May this year. And, although Hennig's name appears in the credits, she's barely played it. "If you break up with your spouse and they get remarried," she says, "you don't want to see photos of the happy couple on Facebook, do you?" She pauses, then adds: "When you're pulling these characters out of yourself, it's kind of twisted, in a way, to see them in the hands of someone else."
Acting is really reacting, and when you're recording one actor doing a scene, they need to be reacting to something.
Hennig can't talk about why she left Naughty Dog, but she does say that anybody who knows her and her work knows she would never willingly leave a project in the middle of development. Voice actor Nolan North, who plays Uncharted hero Nathan Drake, said on a Metrocon panel in 2015 that eight months of work on Uncharted 4 was lost when Hennig left; Hennig says it's more like six. Naughty Dog recast some of the actors, for example, and changed some scenes. But the game's main storyline – of Drake and his brother Sam, the pirate utopia, the links to the brothers' past – remained.
Evan Wells, Naughty Dog's co-president, declined to comment. Instead, Naughty Dog sent me the same statement they provided to media at the time of Hennig's departure.
Hennig is not making Star Wars Uncharted
Hennig has just returned from Los Angeles, where she directed a two-day ensemble shoot for the new Star Wars game. A lot of games feature motion capture, but very few go a step beyond to performance capture, which allows the game to map actors' actual facial expressions onto characters, the way Andy Serkis powers the CGI ape Caesar in the Planet of the Apes movies.
In motion-capped games, the sound is added later. Even when a scene features several actors, the usual practice is to record one actor at a time and add in each bit when animating the scene. Hennig doesn't work this way. She will gather the actors together and record a scene from beginning to end, capturing everything from their facial movements to their voice. Her ensemble recording sessions are almost like theater. The actors gather on a sound stage and act out each scene with no breaks. A lot of the process sounds downright uncomfortable – skin-tight lycra suits, marker dots on the face, helmet cameras – and stuff sometimes does go wrong: an errant elbow, or someone looking the wrong way. But that stuff can be fixed later. All Hennig cares about is getting the feel of each scene correct by having the actors reacting to each other in a way that feels natural.
"There's no such thing as ensemble recording in games, really," Hennig says. "And that's dumb, when you think about it, because acting is really reacting, and when you're recording one actor doing a scene, they need to be reacting to something." Hennig likes to let her actors be themselves, which is why she usually hires comedians, specifically those who do improv. "It gives the scenes an ad-hoc quality, which I like.
Performance in games is still somewhat undervalued. This stretches back to the early days of the industry, when story was treated more as an afterthought. Gameplay, graphical fidelity, and replay value have always been thought to be more important than a great story, and this continues to be the case, at least in the world of high budget games. "The origin of our medium is engineering, so it's taken us a while to wrap our heads around the fact that we have to use the same skills as a film director when we're making games," Hennig says. She doesn't think too highly of those in the industry who feel that the focus on story is stunting the medium's growth. "The argument is that if we get too hung up on trying to recreate the language of other mediums, we're not going to discover our own... Which sounds poetic – but it's kind of dogmatic."
Outwardly, Hennig is polite and measured. If she likes you, she might let you glimpse some of her trademark sharp-tongued shrewdness. If she really likes you, she'll swear. (She says "asshole" a lot.) "Amy's whole attitude is 'I don't give a shit' – in the best possible rock star, take-it-or-leave-it way," says Jade Raymond, the veteran game industry executive who now leads EA's Visceral and Motive studios.
Hennig was initially skeptical of EA's offer on Star Wars. When Steve Papoutsis, the GM of Visceral Games, explained that EA wanted a "scrappy" third person action adventure – a genre with which EA doesn't traditionally have much experience – Hennig couldn't shake the image of a poorly made licensed game whose ambitions went no further than cashing in on what is arguably the world's biggest intellectual property. "Imagine how heartbreaking it would be," she says, "to work on something I love so much only to be crushed under the combined wheels of EA, Lucasfilm and Disney."
While the new Star Wars game will be spiritually similar to Uncharted, Hennig insists it won’t be "Star Wars Uncharted." It's an important distinction to make. For example: you'll never see an Uncharted game cutting away to the point of view of the villain. It may be third person, but we're always following the hero, as in the Indiana Jones films. Star Wars, however, is different. It's more of an ensemble adventure with multiple character arcs, which enables everyone to do things in parallel – witness the Death Star escape in A New Hope.
Hennig was 12 when the first Star Wars film came out. She saw the trailer in a movie theater in 1976. She remembers turning to her best friend and whispering something along the lines of, "Hoooooleeeeeee shit." "There was something about it that felt completely different to what we'd seen before,” she says. "It was almost like a door had opened in my head." The following year, she asked her grandparents if she could borrow their 8mm Bolex movie camera to make her own films. The camera didn't have sound, and it didn't even have a motor – you had to wind it up to use it. Hennig used it make stop-motion movies with her grade school friends, conscripting Mego action figures and Barbie dolls as actors. She also tried her hand at primitive special effects: making stuff fly, or disappear and reappear. "You know, low-rent George Méliès stuff," she says.
What ultimately convinced her to take the Star Wars gig was the promise of a close collaboration with Lucasfilm, specifically with Kiri Hart, the head of the company's story group, and Doug Chiang, Lucasfilm's executive creative director. To Hennig's continued delight, there have been frequent visits to Skywalker Ranch since work began work on the game, at first to photograph and scan props for the game – costumes, masks, original artwork by Ralph McQuarrie – and then simply to soak up the atmosphere. "There's this giant warehouse full of Home Depot shelves stacked with precious things from your childhood," Hennig says. "Luke's Stormtrooper costume, the original Yoda, just kind of saggy and slumped over on this dusty shelf...it's almost silly, seeing all this precious stuff just sitting there so unceremoniously."
Ben Burtt, the legendary sound designer who worked on the original Star Wars, walked in wearing a Raiders of the Lost Ark baseball cap.
Hennig’s writing partner on the game is Todd Stashwick, also an actor who was most recently seen as Deacon on the Syfy show 12 Monkeys. Stashwick refers to these trips as "touching the hem of the garment." Every few weeks, he and Hennig head up to the ranch to get some writing done. They usually work outside, in the garden, or, if the weather is bad, inside George Lucas's reference library, a stately, Beaux-Arts affair with dark mahogany banisters and leather armchairs. Hennig and Stashwick were in here one day when Ben Burtt, the legendary sound designer who worked on the original Star Wars, walked in wearing a Raiders of the Lost Ark baseball cap. (He also worked on that film.)
Stashwick, unable to contain himself, asked Burtt if he could buy the hat off him. "He was joking... I think," Hennig says. "But the point is, you see stuff like that all the time when you're there."
Hennig grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and studied English literature at UC Berkeley with vague plans to become a writer. She wrote a lot as a kid – short stories inspired by CS Lewis, Tolkien, and Laura Ingalls Wilder – but the constant churning out of papers throughout college left her feeling burned out. Plus, there was the constant dissecting of literature, which Hennig found overbearing. "My grad paper was on semiotics – so we were pretty far up our own assholes by this point."
To break the monotony, she took some film classes, and eventually began helping out on student projects, eventually working her way up to casting and production. She graduated in 1987 and applied to film school, aiming to follow George Lucas and Steven Spielberg into the world of blockbuster adventures. But it soon became evident that wasn't going to happen. One of Hennig's professors was particularly adamant that as a woman, Hennig could not be a cinematographer, a director, or a filmmaker. He argued that women simply weren't strong enough to carry film equipment. Hennig was intent on combating that stereotype. "One time during one of these student projects," she recalls, "I was carrying equipment on set and this guy came up to me and he was like, 'Can I carry that for you?' And I was like, 'Nah, man, I'm good,' and he turned to me and said, 'The only thing worse than a macho man is a macho woman.' My jaw dropped. I was like, 'Well, fuck me.'"
Hennig's sister had just divorced, and needed help raising two young children. Hennig moved in with the family. She started taking odd jobs to pay the bills: software testing, word processing for a pharmaceutical company. On a Sunday afternoon in 1989, she ran into a friend from high school at a garage sale in the East Bay. He asked her what she was up to, and she mentioned she'd just dropped out of school and was looking for work. "And he was like, 'I have this friend and he's making an Atari game and he needs some help with the graphics and design. Are you up for it?'" Hennig said she was. She'd studied some animation in school, and was already spending a lot of times playing NES games at home with her niece and nephew, then six and nine. "A lot of young people always ask me how I got into the industry, and here's the truth. It was luck, basically. I admit it's not great advice to give someone... but there you have it."
Hennig spent the next few weeks playing NES games. She went out and bought a copy of Nintendo Power magazine, and used a magnifying loupe to pore over the screenshots of games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Batman, Metroid, Double Dragon, Castlevania, Mega Man, and Ninja Gaiden. "There was an art to getting the most out of the limited palettes, pixels and graphics memory of those older systems. It helped to see what tricks other developers had employed to make detailed background tiles and character art with only three colors. I just wanted to see how they were using their pixels, basically."
Hennig worked on the game for the next year, driving out to the programmer's house in San Jose and spending hours finessing sprites and pixels. "It was art within constraints, and it was glorious, seat-of-your-pants stuff. Compare that now, when we sit there for days on end analyzing the reflection of light on a character's cornea."
Hennig's first industry job came later the same year, as a junior artist at EA. The studio was local, which made things easier. She worked on Bard's Tale 4, which was never released, and then the beloved Sega Genesis helicopter action game Desert Strike, her first published game. Then came Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City, a wacky side-scroller about the famous basketball player and his teammates. Halfway through development, the lead designer left, and Hennig was promoted. She used the opportunity to try new things: rotoscoping, which involves tracing over footage frame by frame to make an animation look more realistic; rudimentary 3D modeling; and hand-printing some of the backgrounds in the game before digitizing them.
In 1995, Hennig left EA to join Crystal Dynamics as a design manager on vampire-themed adventure Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, and later on Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. When someone pointed out that Soul Reaver was still missing a writer, Hennig put her hand up. "They're like, 'Well, somebody is going to have to write this, I guess'. That's kind of how it was back then. It wasn't like a big, 'This is my shot' moment because that's not how writing was thought of. It was more like something that needed to be done, and preferably quickly."
While Soul Reaver's dialogue is somewhat overwrought – "Gazing out across the plains of possibility, do you not feel with all your soul, how we have become like gods? And as such, are we not indivisible?" – Hennig did it on purpose. "The games needed to feel sort of gothic, ornate and otherworldly. If the dialogue was too grounded, the story and characters might have felt too mundane and ordinary," she says. (The game received mixed reviews, but the one thing most critics seemed to agree on was the script's charm.)
Voice actor and director Gordon Hunt (The Jetsons, Scooby-Doo, The Smurfs) was the game's voice director, and when Hennig was tasked with the script, the pair began working together closely. It was Hunt who taught Hennig to think of actors as collaborators, and to give them room to infuse their character with their own personalities. "Amy probably heard me doing my job in the only way I've learned how – taking the role of guide to the actors rather than that of 'the boss'," Hunt tells me. Since the dialogue was already a mouthful, it was important for Hunt and Hennig to be able to rework the lines with the actors to make sure it flowed when says out loud. "As serious as the dialogue was, in between takes it was all jokes and impersonations and laughter," Hennig says. "Obviously, we couldn't make the story a comedy, but their humor definitely influenced me to weave more wry commentary into the dialogue wherever I could."
Evan Wells was also working at Crystal Dynamics at the time, on Gex, a franchise about a wisecracking gecko. Even though he and Hennig never directly collaborated on a project, they got along well, and when Wells eventually moved to Naughty Dog, he called Hennig and offered her a job on Jak 3. This was 2003, and Hennig was still in the middle of directing the last Legacy of Kain game. She told Wells he'd have to wait. "I would never leave a project in the middle of development," she says. There was also the fact that Naughty Dog was in Santa Monica, and Hennig didn't want to leave her family. Still, she accepted Wells's invitation to come and see the studio and, after Crystal Dynamics turned down her offer to take over the new Tomb Raider series, she packed her car and headed south. "At the time, I thought, maybe I'll do this for a year and see how it goes."
We relate more to damaged heroes, and that's what we wanted Nathan Drake to be.
Halfway through development on Jak 3, Wells, who was in the middle of transitioning into his current role as co-president of the studio, told Hennig Naughty Dog had signed on to do a new game for the PlayStation 3, and he wanted Hennig to direct it. Hennig still remembers the early brainstorming sessions for what would later become Uncharted. "There were all sorts of references to post-apocalyptic settings. We were even playing around with the idea of a game set completely underwater, like BioShock."
From there, thoughts turned to an Indiana Jones adventure set in the present. What would a current day Indy look like? What kind of clothes would he wear, and how would he talk? Indy's appeal is that he is entirely relatable, by no means the aspirational hero. On a practical level, almost everything can, and often does, go wrong.
At the time, it was somewhat radical to imagine a video game hero as an ordinary human. Why have a dude in t-shirt and jeans when you can have Kratos, the Spartan demigod hero from God of War with his Blades of Chaos? Even Lara Croft was more James Bond than Indy, consummate and unfaltering. "The thing is, we relate more to damaged heroes, and that's what we wanted Nathan Drake to be," Hennig says. For example, Hennig never perceived Drake's connection to Francis Drake as being anything more than a fantasy. Drake wants to see himself as having worth, instead of simply believing himself to be nothing more than a discarded orphan.
It all comes back to the actors. Nolan North, the actor who has played Drake in all the Uncharted games, often tells people, "Amy gave birth to this character, but she let me raise him." Hennig asked Gordon Hunt to come back and work with her on all three Uncharted games; he and Hennig would allow North, Richard McGonagle (who plays Victor Sullivan, Drake's guileful mentor), and Emily Rose (Elena Fisher, Drake's love interest) to go totally off-script, improvising their lines whenever they felt that what was written down didn't quite capture the character's personality. "We would sit around the table on rehearsal days and listen to the words with each other," North tells me. "Does this work? How about we try this? There has never been any pretense or ego about [Hennig]. She allowed us to work through the material with her and make it our own. By the time we got to the stage, it was ours."
Take the scene in Uncharted 2 where Chloe (Claudia Black) saves Drake by taking out his attackers with an RPG. Hennig originally planned to have Black step down from the car she was standing on (which, on the stage, was just a box), and cross the stage to embrace North. But Black asked if she could just jump off the car and have North catch her instead. The actors liked the idea and wanted to try it, and it was so charming that it made the final
This process of improvisation in an otherwise tightly controlled production process might appear self-indulgent if it didn't look so good, or if the chemistry between Drake and the other characters in the game wasn't so believable. You can tell what characters are thinking or feeling from their body language. In one scene in Uncharted 3, Drake, exhausted, rests his head on Elena's lap. The script says, "Nothing romantic in it – just a comfortable gesture between an old couple with a long history." You can tell, when you watch this scene in the game, that what you're getting is a glimpse into a very complicated relationship. The fact that the Uncharted games are so fundamentally watchable also says a lot about the series' legacy. "I think we can agree that most games are not like that," Hennig says. "After you work with someone for a while you understand the cadence of their speech, and you can hear them in your head when you're writing that character. North's humor is really Drake's humor."
Hennig often says that game designers should work with players, not for them. Games have to be a collaboration: game designers provide the problem, players the solution. "Give players choices – don't just say, find the path I laid out for you. If the player feels they're being shoved through a greased chute then we're not doing our job." This doesn't always go to plan, of course. One of the criticisms of Uncharted 3 was that at certain times, you could feel the director's hand on your back, pushing you in the 'right' direction. The flashback to young Drake at the beginning of the game, for example, was meant to be more of a sandbox experience. There was a clear goal – trail Sully – but the idea was that players could do that any way they wanted to. The end result was much more linear because the development team simply didn't have enough time to implement that particular experience.
Earlier this year, Hennig made headlines after a candid podcast interview in which she talked about the grueling development cycle of big budget games. This is somewhat the norm at most large development studios, but its impact is rarely discussed. Hennig said it was normal for Naughty Dog employees across all levels – both junior and senior – to work 80-hour weeks. "That was normal routine during the whole 10 years I was at Naughty Dog," Hennig tells me. "At least 80 hours a week, and as much as 100. Sometimes we would do 50 hours straight, without stopping. That beautiful result we talked about comes at a price." She continues: "When you're young it's one thing, but when you're married and have kids, and you realize you haven't been home for dinner in a year and you haven't seen your kids... it's a tough thing to sustain."
That I, in my career, have the privilege of crafting similar experiences for other people...it's humbling.
The answer, if there is one, lies in finding alternatives to the game industry's current business model, which calls for bigger, better games in increasingly faster development cycles. "I think we're at the point where we can be a bit smarter about how we make games," Hennig says.
This is why Hennig admires smaller, independent games, which can often be heavily authored experiences without sacrificing player collaboration. (Like Journey, for example.) For all its recent progress, the video game industry still feels very much in its infancy to Hennig. Not in a bad way – just in the sense that it has a lot of unmet potential. "It's generally indie games that inform my thinking about triple-A [games], more so than our competitors in the space, interestingly," she says.
Last year, Hennig was invited to sit on the advisory board for the Game Developer's Conference, which takes place every March in San Francisco. She reviews all the submissions for each year's talks, provides feedback, and mentors the speakers. She's particularly fond of games that make players feel the emotional weight of the experience "on the sticks" – through the configuration of the game's controls. In the past, she's spoken admiringly about Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, an adventure game released in 2013. The player can control each brother separately using the controller's thumbsticks. Each brother has different abilities, meaning they have to work together to solve various puzzles. When one brother dies, the player is forced to feel the loss in more ways than one, since one side of the controller no longer works.
Back at EA, Hennig showed me her ever-growing reference library: book on art, history, literature, architecture, film and pop culture, stacked on shelves that wrap around her cubicle walls. "I've been lugging my library from job to job since the '90s," she says. "It's my albatross." The library is particularly useful when Hennig gets writer's block. "If you just look at something else, or even another medium, you'll solve problems a lot easier than just staring at them." For example, when she was working on 1999's Soul Reaver, Hennig thought a lot about ruins. Why do ruins inspire such strong emotions? Is it simply the mix of the familiar and unfamiliar? Or does it run deeper than that? "So much of what a game designer does is create virtual spaces for the player to explore. We want to reward curiosity, to keep them asking, 'What's around the next corner?' We want to replicate that feeling of the sublime in a video game world."
People often ask Hennig why she doesn’t aspire to become a manager, or an executive. "I don't know why I'd want to be promoted out of doing the thing that I love," she says, gesturing around her. "Like so many people, I have favorite books, movies and games that shaped me as a person, and that were a refuge in difficult times. They inspired me, sparked my imagination, exposed me to ideas, and transported me to worlds that I would otherwise never have experienced. That I, in my career, have the privilege of crafting similar experiences for other people...it's humbling."
She pauses, then says: "I want to keep making games and telling stories until I'm too old to do it anymore."