Please support Game Informer. Print magazine subscriptions are less than $2 per issue


Storytellers Of The Decade: Amy Hennig Interview

by Meagan Marie on Dec 02, 2010 at 11:30 AM

Expanding upon our cover story featuring the decade’s 30 greatest characters, we’ve called out a handful of industry professionals who’ve earned the title of master storytellers. Amongst the selection is Amy Henning, perhaps best known as the creative director and lead writer on the Uncharted series, and a seasoned industry veteran who honed her voice on franchises such as Legacy of Kain. We talked to Hennig about the evolution of the industry as a storytelling medium, her personal inspirations, and touch on the upcoming Uncharted movie adaptation.

Your original intent was to pursue a career in the film industry. What inspired you to switch mediums?

Yeah, it's funny, there was no intent behind it. I'm not even sure there could have been intent, because I ended up joining the industry in1989, so it wasn't as if something like that was a career people even considered. Maybe some people, but I think most of us back then stumbled into it one way or the other. I'd always liked video games, especially when I was a kid, I was one of those kids who saved up any allowance I could and blew it all at the arcade. It was like, Sea Wolf, Night Driver, Pong... It's so primitive compared to what we think of now.

Once I got caught up in school and all that stuff, I put games to the side. I had sort of rediscovered them a little bit when my niece and nephew were little, and we got some of the 8-bit machines and were playing games together. I had done my English degree and I was working on a master's in film theory and production. I was trying to pay my way through grad school, so I was taking any odd job I could get. Anything from word processing to illustration for technical manuals to page layouts. Anything. I was living in the San Francisco bay area at the time and just driving up and down the peninsula. This opportunity just sort of fell in my lap, completely by coincidence, to basically do the art and design for an Atari 7800 game. At the time I thought it was just a job that would help pay the bills.

I've described it before as like having a light bulb go on. I worked on a game that unfortunately never actually saw the light of day. We finished it but it just never got published. I realized that there was something intriguing about this medium, even though back then, we're talking about just little pixel guys, almost no memory, three colors. But trying to be creative and push the boundaries within those limits, I thought was really fun. And I thought it was very interesting to try to jump into an industry that's this nascent, this pioneering. So I put that stuff together, made a portfolio, went to Electronic Arts, and dropped out of film school.

What was that first project that you worked on? The one that didn’t see the light of day?

It was actually Electric Cop, but not the one for Lynx. They wanted to do a version for the Atari 7800, but it wasn't at all related, it was just the same name. So it was basically just a horrible Robocop rip-off that we were doing. We were trying to push the boundaries of the technology at that point. But it was right at the tail end of the 7800's lifespan, and I think they were starting to either push the last projects out or cancel them. So that's why it never got published.

Where to next?

From there I went to Electronic Arts and worked on another game for a year that never got published, which was Bard's Tale 4. I had joined as an animator and artist. Then I did a little work on Desert Strike –  just a very little bit of work doing interstitial screens and stuff. That was my first 16-bit console game, learning how to work with that. And then I moved into game design, actually ended up inheriting the Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City platform game, as lead designer. So the concept was already in place, crazy as it was, and it was a matter of implementing against this idea of putting Michael Jordan in a platform game. So I did that, and again I always tried to take the opportunity to try and push the boundaries of the hardware. Even back then we were doing streaming technology. It was interesting, you look back and you think that you could make some of these games in a weekend, knowing what we know now. How did we struggle for a year with a decent-sized team trying to get these games done? It's obviously the evolution of the technology.

From there, let's see, I went to Crystal Dynamics in '95, and I was the design manager on the first Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain game, as well as some other titles like 3D Baseball and Blazing Dragons. And then I went back to being a director on a single project after being there for a year, took over the Legacy of Kain franchise. Soul Reaver was the first game that I worked on after Blood Omen. I did that for eight years, and then came here in 2003. So that's my big long story.

As creative director, what are your current responsibilities at Naughty Dog?

I think a lot of creative directors' roles are pretty similar these days. It's just trying to keep the holistic vision of the project. In my case, that also means being the key writer on the thing. Working with the actors for performance capture and all that, but also working with our game director on the nuts and bolts of the game design. I always say that I keep an eye on the forest and let people work on the trees, you know what I mean?

On this game that I'm working on currently, I am pretty much the primary writer. On previous games, we've had people on the team who were also inclined as writers, so we would collaborate on things. Sometimes people would write drafts of scenes. So at the end of the day, I'm the one responsible for doing the majority of the writing and also taking any ideas from the team, or any rough drafts, and making it all cohesive. And then taking that stuff and working directly with the actors to make sure that it's all coming alive on the stage.

Where do you derive inspiration from as a writer and as a creative director?

I have to think about that for a second. Obviously we all take our inspirations from all the stuff around us, right? There isn't a specific answer to that, because it's maybe graphic novels that we're reading, or television shows that we're enjoying at the time, movies we see, it's the whole amalgam of all the media around us. It may be stuff that's kind of unexpected, too, it may be that you're really into a certain sitcom or something like that, and that ends up infusing itself into your creative psyche a little bit. I think we just absorb these things, even if we're not actively hunting out inspiration, if you see what I mean.

Looking at what our other colleagues are doing in video games is inspiration too. We have to keep pushing that ball down the field. We look at each others games and say, ‘well, here's where they faceplant and here's where they succeed, so let's not faceplant.’ We won't make that mistake, but we're going to maybe leapfrog off an idea that somebody else had. I think that's what's cool about our industry; it's like this organism where we're all looking at each other's work to keep evolving the medium. And then of course for me too a lot of inspiration comes from being able to work so closely with our actors, because everything we do is such a collaboration. Specifically, say, the scene work. And then the same thing goes for working with the team here, because everything we do is a collaboration. Any one of us may have good ideas. Tt's when we combine them and challenge each other that... That's where the magic comes from. You take idea A and idea B and then when you collaborate you get this third thing that neither of you alone would have come up with. So it's a really vague answer to your question, but it's all that stuff, I think.

Up next: the evolving industry…

How has storytelling evolved since you first entered the field? Both in terms of industry-wide practices and your personal approach. 

When I started it was pretty tough to tell stories. One of my biggest inspirations, going back to your previous question, was getting the Atari 2600 when I was a young teen. I had this moment where I realized this was a new medium and imagined what was possible with it. One of the games that was most thrilling to me was Adventure, which, you look at it now, there's almost nothing there, you're a square carrying an arrow around. There's pixel-ducks coming after you. But it was riveting, and actually, if you pop it in today, it still works somehow. And so I think it was even possible back then to be telling more sophisticated stories by kind of...collaborative inference with the player.

Now, with the improvements in the hardware, it's kind of like the shackles are off. We always say that with every hardware evolution, and it just becomes even truer. It makes liars of us every time there's new hardware that comes out, because we realize we can do more and more. But I think it's that – If it's appropriate to the game that we're making – we can emulate some of the tried and true production methods of other media like film and television that we just couldn't before. Certainly the graphical fidelity that we're able to present makes the experiences that much more nuanced and immersive.

One of the things that's exciting, too, is everybody being online and digital distribution which we just didn't have a few years ago. We're seeing a huge spectrum of games being made now. Ones that never would have seen the light of day, or even if somebody was working on them in their garage, it wouldn't have gotten distributed. And now we can have all these cool indie games that are being made and distributed in a mainstream way. So the fact that you can have everything from a game like Uncharted to a game like Limbo and they can all exist in the same space, that's awesome. Looking at it industry-wide, the fact that we can tell this whole variety of types of stories that are as spare as a game like Flower or Limbo, or as traditional and complex – in the sense of the complexity of producing it – as a game like Uncharted. And that it's all equally valid is awesome.

For me personally, in terms of my career, going back to the early 90s, we were dealing with cartridges and you didn't have much memory. You couldn't do voices. On that Jordan game we had a couple of voice clips that would play, the rest of it was text that would come up. And then when I started working on the Soul Reaver games, getting the actors in the studio... We were always trying to push that envelope. We asked how we could get more authentic performances. We tried having the actors in together performing. Even though it's all got to be hand-animated, we could at least have them performing as if they're doing a radio play. And then of course once we got into Uncharted, we could push the envelope even more with performance capture. Getting more and more authentic performances out of the actors. So that's one of the things that's been most exciting for me. It doesn't apply to all games, of course, but it certainly applied in my career.

What is unique to the Uncharted franchise that has helped it become such a successful example of narrative and character-driven gameplay? What is Naughty Dog doing that other studios are just beginning to explore?

I guess there's a few answers to that. One is that, I think we've always tried to push the integration of story and gameplay, and not somehow promote one of those things above the other. I guess the thing is, when you look at a lot of games, I think we've been good for a long time in our industry at telling sort of plot-driven stories. So maybe they're very visceral and they engage you on that visceral level, but you're not being engaged on an emotional level. That's been the difference, unfortunately I think, between games and the way... The reason they've maybe been regarded as being not as serious of a medium as film or television. Whether that's fair or not, it's because, I don't think we've necessarily been telling very sophisticated stories. And the difference between that is, are you telling a character-driven story or are you just telling a plot-driven story? The plot-driven stories don't tend to do well in film or TV, because you're just watching. That's how a lot of games are made. But what you want to do is still engage them viscerally and interactively, but then also engage them on an emotional level by making it character-driven.

When people play the Uncharted games they just get caught up. They don't want to put the controller down. Some of that has to do with working on the pacing and making sure that there aren't dead points or frustration points, as much as we can, but a lot of it has to do with wanting to see what happens next because you care about the characters. So I think it's that, it's looking at how story and gameplay can be integrated as a singular goal. So that we're not just saying, here's our story breakdown, then here's our levels. You know what I mean? It's not something that can be broken apart and reorganized in any order. What's happening in the game is happening because it's being driven by the story, and what's happening in the story is being driven by the gameplay at the same time.

As a whole, then, do you think that cycle is one of the industry practices that needs to be adopted for more compelling stories to be told? Or are there other practices that should be integrated for the medium to be taken more seriously?

Well, first off, I hate it when people are dogmatic about this stuff. There are certain people who would say that a game is a game and it shouldn't be even trying to tell a story. There are certain games that that's perfectly true of, and I would be equally dogmatic to say no, there must be a story, right? On the other hand, I think it's human nature to interpret things as stories and tell stories to each other. We've been doing it forever, right? So when you have a game that's even as minimalistic as something like Flower, we are then actively engaged as the player in interpreting and inferring a story. That's part of our interactivity, is leaving room for the player to interpret.

Now, having said that, obviously we set off with Uncharted to do something a little different because our genre demands a little bit more of an authored experience. But even so, I think we always look at it and say that we want to keep it interactive because that's the way you keep the player engaged in interpreting the experience, even if it's not quite as spare and poetic as something like Flower. Our train level, for instance. We conceived that train level as a technical challenge for ourselves and as something we thought would make thrilling gameplay. It started from that idea, not from a story idea. We had no idea where the train was leaving from or where it was going to arrive or why he was on it. We just knew that we wanted to do this. But then, you can't then drop the ball. This is maybe what we've done in our industry for a while.

We had to look at it and make why he was getting on the train important. How the level resolves itself has to be a meaningful part of Drake's story, the progression through the story. And so saying, well, I'm getting on the train because someone I care about may be in trouble, and I'm going to have to work my way from the back of the train to the front to try to save this person, but then to have the added emotional complication of saying, I don't know if she even wants to be rescued, she may have turned against me. I think that puts an emotional quality to the "what," gives it the "why" which is really the key. So no matter what kind of game you're making, I think you want to engage the player on an emotional level. In our case, by telling a character-driven story. I think that's something that we could all do better.

Are there any challenges in fleshing out a male protagonist as a female writer?

I don't think it's any different, honestly. Actually, it's funny, because people sometimes say, oh, you write good female characters. You just write people, honestly. It's not any different. I think that if you're over-focused on the gender, you're probably writing a pretty one-dimensional character. Gender's not that huge of a component of personality, I don't think. At the end of the day, I think our humanity is the bigger component. I try to just write everybody like...genderless in some ways. Which I think is what makes them interesting.

Up next: the Uncharted movie…

Many game franchises, including Uncharted, are being translated into movies. Do you think this practice adds to the overall brand capital and awareness? Or do you think it creates a disconnect because of diverging storylines?

Well, I think that our audience is pretty sophisticated, actually. I think people get that it's a different medium and therefore it's a different interpretation. So I think that they can exist side by side and separate, and if they complement each other, that's all I think our viewers and our fans want. I don't think that anybody would agree that any sort of slavish interpretation in either direction, whether you're making a game based on a movie or a movie based on a game, is not the right way to go, because there's differences in our media that should be taken advantage of, right? I think that's why a lot of video game movies do fail, because they're trying to be too slavish and literal, not just taking an idea and making a good film out of it.

Reading comments and feedback online, if there is a complaint about the idea of an Uncharted movie it's that the game is so narrative-driven that people question if it needs a movie. Do you see a point where games will become so cinematic that a movie won't be needed? Or are the differences between the mediums so stark that there will always be an audience for both?

I think there will always be an audience for both. I don't think it will matter how sophisticated our presentation becomes. If that were the case, then why are there novelizations of films, and graphic novels of films? You know what I mean? I think that each medium provides a different experience that can be taken advantage of, and that'll continue to be true. Obviously the main difference is that film is a passive medium and games are an active medium. Hopefully we'll remember that. I know for us that we're always trying to push that boundary. There are times when we do take away player control, but we’re always asking how we can provide that compelling of a narrative experience and take control away as little as possible. Obviously, the more physically engaged the player is through the interface, the controller, the more emotionally engaged they are. And that's why, I think... It'll always be valid to have both.

The challenge for filmmakers is to do this thing justice, but then still do it justice as a film as well. That's why we're so excited to be hooked up with the folks we are, if you think about it... Arad Productions, these are the guys that figured out how to turn comic books into really good films. They've got that whole log of all the Marvel films behind them. They've got this figured out, now they want to do it with games, and it's about taking it seriously and spending the money and not just thinking of it as some sort of quick, cynical buck. And that's why I'm excited to have David O. Russell attached as well, because if the guy that made Three Kings, if he wants to make an Uncharted movie, more power to him. It's exciting to think that there's real quality filmmakers and producers out there, they want to make really good films inspired by these games.

Is it hard to hand over creative control of the franchise – something that you've worked so hard on? Ideally, do you think scriptwriting is something that the game staffer should spearhead? Do those skills translate, or are they two different beasts?

Probably depends on the person. I'm going to give you a wishy-washy answer to that, the answer is yes and no. Emotionally, yes, it's always hard to hand over something that you've been working on for years and been so intimate with, and just hand the baton to someone else. Intellectually, no, because, again, who we're partnered up with is huge. I could see that if I was less excited about our partners then it would be much more difficult. But also intellectually I realize the film has to be its own thing. I'm as excited as anybody else to see what that is and what they do with it.

As far as film writers writing for games or game writers writing for film, there's no... I don't think there's any hard and fast answer to that. I think it's been hard for people to go from one to the other, because what we do is actually so different. I think it would be harder for somebody to go from film to games than the other way around. Because so much of what we have to do in writing for games is...compromise, collaboration, iteration, it's not about being able to just lock yourself in a room and write away. We also don't have pre-production, right? We're kind of in production from day one, and because we're an employee-based business, you've got a hundred, a hundred and fifty people or whatever sitting there ready to go. You've gotta give them stuff to do. I think that would be just anathema to most filmmakers, because they're used to being able to say, well, we're going to get all our ducks in a row, and then we're going to go make this thing. We've got to just go charge out onto that tightrope, not quite knowing where we're headed, and make it as we go. It's just not how film has been traditionally done. So I think that makes us, as writers, by necessity very flexible, which I think would serve us in writing a film as well.

Getting a bit more specific, what are your thoughts on the casting choices for the Uncharted movie, and on the expanded family having a role in the story?

Well, I can't comment on any of that specifically. The stock answer that I can give you is that David is currently writing the script, and until he's done, you can consider all of that rumor. It's just a big rumor mill out there, right? There's lots of conversations that go on, and anybody that's worked in the entertainment industry knows that it's very fluid. Basically, as far as the producers are concerned, talking about casting is completely premature, because, you know, we're still writing the thing. It's all still in the works.

Even with Wahlberg going on record talking about his role in the production?

[Laughs] Well...I guess I just have to give you the same answer, which is, until David's finished the script and everybody can look at it and there's a budget and it's green-lit and they start talking casting in earnest, it's all just chatter.