amy hennig on adding hollywood sensibilities to video games

Video games developer Amy Hennig brings a feminine touch to games that might feel like experiencing a testosterone overdose under less skilled direction. Her characters embody a relatable sensitive edge – unusual in the gaming world.

Having steered the Uncharted trilogy, an adrenaline shot to the Playstation 3 that captured the spirit of Indiana Jones in video game form, and currently leading the development of a “nine figure budget” Star Wars game for EA, to many, Amy Hennig is about as Spielbergian as video game developers can get.

“The great irony is I wanted to direct the next Indiana Jones and Star Wars, and to become a Lucas or Spielberg,” she reflects. “But I was made to feel very early on how hierarchal it all was and discouraged about what I could achieve as a woman in the film industry”.

If you sense Hennig talks a little like a movie director, that’s because she sort of is. An English literature graduate, Hennig set her sights on Hollywood after taking up a masters in film theory and production at San Francisco State. But instead she headed for gaming: “I went into gaming because it felt like a blue ocean for women by comparison.”

Hennig’s first job as a creative lead was on Super Nintendo’s Michael Jordan: Chaos In The Windy City, released in an age where studios wanted to make NBA stars the next Arnie-lite action heroes - yes, Shaq Fu was a genuine fighting game. It resulted in a rapid ascension, in which work on the critically acclaimed Soul Reaver series led to a move to the now legendary studio Naughty Dog to lead the creation of platformer Jak 3 and the cinematic Uncharted trilogy.

Hennig, however, is particularly disappointed that her role as a creative lead in video games development looks a lot like a needle in a haystack. Women only currently make up 22 percent of video game developers.

“When I joined we were about 10% but it’s not increased that much. It is disappointing but the reality is not enough women are joining the industry.  All the negativity is coming from outside the industry on social media and even in education. Female coders are being told not to bother with gaming just like I was told not to bother with cinema,” she explains, before spitting back: “But we will turn the corner soon, it is just a matter of getting in and bulldozing through the prejudice. I am sure I have encountered sexist comments but by the time they were clear to me it was already in my rearview mirror.”

Uncharted was the moment Hennig realised how much she enjoyed rehearsing and collaborating with actors. And by allowing voice actors to improvise on set and break free from the stunted dialogue that usually plagues big budget titles, she made big names out of voice actors - such as such as Nolan North (who voiced Nathan Drake in Uncharted) – who’d usually go unnoticed by the mainstream.

In fact, her voice beams when she reveals Hollywood actors now pay gaming the same respect as cinema.

“I remember when there were actors who simply existed in the TV world and the film world, and the two never mixed, but look how that’s been blown apart. Gaming is sometimes seen as the lowest common denominator medium but it is getting to a point where we’re capable of nuanced facial emotions just like a film is. In the old days you had to really explain to actors what video games were and convince them to be part of it. Now, and I run into lots of Hollywood actors, the weird thing is they are treating me like the celebrity. People said TV was finished, but now it’s where all the best stories are told. Gaming will be exactly the same.”

But during this transition, VR is something Hennig doesn’t want to be abused. ”You don’t want to just reduce a VR headset to another IMAX 3D theater. Its power should be in inference, interpretation and creating emotional experiences opposed to it just being a straightforward story telling medium. That would be too easy.”

After being the creative director for three games of the blockbuster Uncharted franchise, which saw the Indy-esque Nathan Drake explore the globe in search of mythical lost treasure, love and machine gun victims, Hennig fancied a smaller project. The reality was her heart was set on the “more freeing” environment of indie development, where she wanted to create a game “without even a word of spoken dialogue”. She explains: “I was like a movie director in need of a small arthouse project. But then EA and Lucasfilm came calling, and asked me to create the best Star Wars game ever made.” She pauses, before unintentionally quoting Al Pacino in Godfather 3: “And just when I thought I was out, they dragged me back in. How could I say no?”

Details are scarce on her 2018 take on a galaxy far, far away for developer Visceral and publisher Electronic Arts. However, Hennig says her aim is to “make players feel like they are actually inside a Star Wars movie that’s playing on opening night at the theatre.”

She explains: “If you look at Star Wars it is about a merry band of companions fighting for one common goal, there isn’t a sole primary character. You could hardly call Leia or Han Solo side characters. If we want our game to feel like the film, then we need to structure it in the same way. At one point you might be controlling a character in deep space, while your next one is wandering through the jungle. It has to have [multiple characters] or it won’t have that wonderful jangly feel of Star Wars.”

Hennig says she isn’t interested in what “games and movies share” but rather “what games can do, that movies can’t. If you take things you feel emphatic towards in a movie, in a game you can feel that empathy quite literally. In Uncharted 2 you have that moment in Nepal where you get ambushed by the bad guy and your camera man is wounded. The side character says to leave him behind and then Nate has to make a moral choice. He is slowed down by dragging this guy along and you literally feel the pressure on your shoulders. A film cannot replicate that weight.”

But would she be tempted to abandon the very top of video games development, if it meant the opportunity to create a smaller, more spiritual title? After all, while making the Uncharted series with Naughty Dog, Hennig wasn’t working “any less than 80 hours a week”.

“I’m jealous that [indie developers] can take their time and indie development is certainly less straining in ways. It is more personal as it isn’t teams of hundreds of people. But, and I mean this in the best way possible, they are probably jealous of my nine figure game budget.”

And of that dreaded word legacy, she predicts: “I just want to entertain, I want to see game industry be like the film industry where you have directors making films far into their autumn years. There’s no such thing as retirement as far as I am concerned.”

Hennig wanted to sit behind a camera but we’re happier she ended up behind a computer screen.

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