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,” she says.
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 hasn’t 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.”
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.