Storytellers Of The Decade: Amy Hennig Interview

Posted on December 12, 2010

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…

Go to Source (Game Informer)

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Categories: Game News, Game Secrets

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