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Amy Hennig: The Brilliant Brain Behind Nathan Drake

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Amy Hennig

Amy Hennig never planned to enter the world of video games. In fact, her entry into the industry was simply a contracting job, means to finance her postgraduate studies in film. “1989 was when I started,” Hennig recalled. “It was completely one of those fluky situations that you just stumble into.”

28 years after accepting that first gig, Hennig has not only stayed in the industry, but attained a legendary status as one of the brains behind some of the most immaculate achievements in storytelling and character design in the history of gaming. Named one of the “10 Most Powerful Women in Gaming” by Fortune.com, she is applying her immense talent to Electronic Arts’ upcoming untitled Star Wars game, slated for release in 2018.

While it is almost painful to think of a world without the revolutionary titles in the Uncharted franchise, Hennig’s early aspirations had her walking a markedly different path than the one that would lead her to the halls of Electronic Arts, Crystal Dynamics, and Naughty Dog.

A Life Before Gaming

After spending her childhood writing short stories inspired by CS Lewis and Tolkien, Hennig had aspirations of becoming a writer. She earned her bachelor’s degree at UC Berkeley, studying English literature, before pursuing film school at San Francisco State in 1989.

Despite her love for the art of filmmaking, Hennig’s first steps into the world of the silver screen changed her view of the industry dramatically, causing her to question whether film sets were her true home.

“I loved the idea of making Hollywood films,” she said in an interview with IGN. “But it was so clear, even from that little bit of film school I had, that [that] industry was so entrenched.”

“It was hard for women, too. I could tell, just as a student, that it was going to be an uphill climb, especially for the job I wanted.”

Still, Hennig continued her studies, performing side jobs to pay her tuition. One of these positions introduced her to the Atari 7800, changing the trajectory of her career forever.

“It was purely for pay,” Hennig said of her freelance artist days on the unreleased Atari game, ElectroCop. “But once I started, my wheels began to turn and I had a light bulb moment: that this was a more interesting and pioneering medium than film.”

This revelation was the final push for Hennig, convincing her to leave film school behind to commit herself to video games full-time. However, she carried one lesson with her from San Francisco State: the way to get her foot in the door was to meet the right people and work harder than anyone else in the room.

“It’s a meritocracy in the sense that if you’re a hard worker and people see you have an aptitude; you get a shot usually,” mused Hennig. “Then your fate is in your hands.”

Entering the Industry

This drive led her to Electronic Arts in 1993, and allowed her to rise to the role of lead designer on Super Nintendo’s Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City after the original lead designer quit the project. She then moved on to Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf, with both titles receiving a positive response upon release.

Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City

Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City was Hennig’s first video game release.

The upward momentum from these successes carried Hennig from Electronic Arts to Crystal Dynamics, where she left her mark as a design manager on the Legacy of Kain franchise, and as a writer for Soul Reaver. Continuing to grow and expand her skill sets, she was beginning to make a name for herself amongst other industry professionals.

While she was enjoying her time at Crystal, personnel changes and shifts in the company led Hennig to begin imagining life at another studio: Naughty Dog.

“Once my friends had gone there, my colleagues had gone there, it felt like there was an obvious pull,” Hennig recalled. “Creatively and technically and ambition-wise, there was this kindred spirit feeling.”

Naughty Dog had recently been sold to Sony, shifting its status from one of an independent company to a first party studio exclusively supporting PlayStation consoles. Coming from a background at EA and Crystal Dynamics – who develop games for a variety of systems – could easily have made the idea of being locked to one console seem suffocating.

For Hennig, the option of downsizing felt quite the opposite.

“I had been at Electronic Arts and deliberately left because it was becoming a big company. Then I went to Crystal Dynamics and it started to grow. I liked that garage shop mentality, and Naughty Dog still had it.”

Jak 3

Hennig worked on Jak 3 upon her arrival at Naughty Dog.

She went to work on Jak 3, but the heads of Naughty Dog wanted her to do something greater: to begin work on the IP that would mark the studio’s transition from the PlayStation 2 to the unmarked territory that was the PlayStation 3.

Despite her role as the head of this new endeavor, which proved more challenging than any would have expected, Hennig refuses to take much of the credit. Instead, she gives it all to the team behind her.

“It’s a collective effort,” she said. “I would never call them my games.”

The Rise of Uncharted

The initial concept for Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune – internally known as Project Big — morphed a number of times as Hennig and the team worked to craft a story and experience that would set Naughty Dog apart from the rest of the industry, which was focusing on “grim, gritty, gray, drab shooters.”

“We wanted something that felt like it was continuing the spirit of what we’d done as a studio, as far as color and charm and humor, but was taking advantage of the realism that we could accomplish on the hardware,” said Hennig.

Inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark, Buck Rogers, and the Doc Savage pulp novels, she found the spark to what would become one of the most successful video game franchises in history. Using what she’d learned at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State, Hennig aimed at crafting a product that would combine the multidimensional characters, romantic intrigue, and intricate “set pieces” that she’s known for today.

Uncharted Drake's Fortune

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune stood out amongst the gritty shooters of the time.

“It was going to be an homage to pulp adventure cinema, but with the player in control as the hero,” Hennig recalled. “Obviously, that doesn’t seem very groundbreaking now, because a lot of people are doing that now, but the idea, at the time, of doing a character-centric story with the set pieces and all that stuff, and really trying to make it feel like you were in a movie playing it, was actually somewhat radical, strangely enough.”

After an arduous development cycle, Uncharted was released on Nov. 19, 2007, thrusting Naughty Dog and Hennig into the limelight. Nathan Drake, the game’s titular character, would become PlayStation’s mascot for the forseeable future.

As she began work on Uncharted 2, she was reminded of how far the industry had come. Her first game, ElectroCop, was headed by two people using a total of four colors for the entirety of the art. For Uncharted 2, Hennig organized a group that at times totaled 150 people, including artists, programmers, designers, and actors, using more sophisticated tools and technology to craft a realistic gaming experience.

“This is an industry in which you constantly have to relearn things and almost start over,” she mused when speaking to the LA Times. “If you can’t do that, you don’t last.”

Hennig’s ability to adapt while creating remarkable stories led to her holding directing roles in each of the first three Uncharted games.

A Bitter End

Despite her arguably being the force that made Uncharted into what it would become, Hennig would not see the franchise to its end. She parted ways with the studio in March 2014, just after her 10th anniversary, after months of working on writing and developing an Uncharted title for the PlayStation 4.

Amy Hennig

Hennig released three Uncharted titles before parting ways with Naughty Dog.

Sources claimed that Hennig was “forced out” by Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley of The Last of Us, but this was denied by Naughty Dog’s co-presidents and Sony representatives.

“Things change, and sometimes change involves very high profile individuals. That’s all that’s happened here,” Sony’s Scott Rohde told IGN. “There’s nothing else. There’s no more to dig at.”

After talk of the controversy died down, word surrounding Hennig died down considerably. She came back with a force in 2016 as news broke that she’d be the creative director at Visceral Games for the next Star Wars title from Electronic Arts.

Although this was enough to draw excitement and buzz from across the entire industry, it was another interview regarding her past with Naughty Dog that became the real news. Bringing a darker side of the industry to light, Hennig’s frank speech on the destructive nature of AAA development sparked conversation amongst journalists and studio heads alike as to how to address an industry that potentially asks too much of its artists.

“The whole time I was at Naughty Dog — ten-and-a-half years — I probably, on average, I don’t know if I ever worked less than 80 hours a week,” she stated. “I pretty much worked seven days a week, at least 12 hours a day.”

Noting that she was not alone on these weekends – much of the team stayed on during off days to continue work on their enormous projects – Hennig recalled some of the more challenging moments during her history with the company.

“[Uncharted] 3 was hard, because even though we had two years again, it was two years after two projects that were a crunch,” she said, in the candid interview with Soren Johnson. “And it was a time when we were also trying to grow the studio and split into two teams, and deal with all of the recruitment issues that went into that.”

Uncharted_3__Drake_s_Deception_12919191591849

Uncharted 3’s development was difficult on the entire team, Hennig included.

Having directorial roles on Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3 gave her no time to rest between projects, saying that she was still performing post-release work on Uncharted 2 while other members of her team were returning from vacations, ready to embark on another adventure.

She doesn’t regret going through those years of toil, as she’s incredibly proud of the Uncharted franchise and what it became. However, when asked if AAA development is really worth the sacrifice, Hennig’s answer was clear.

“I don’t think so. There’s people who never go home and see their families. They have children who are growing up without seeing them,” she said. “And there were people who, y’know, collapsed, or had to go and check themselves in somewhere when one of these games were done. Or they got divorced. That’s not okay, any of that. None of this is worth that.”

Hennig’s remarks are still the topic of many discussions surrounding AAA titles today, though it is difficult to tell if this has caused a change in any studio’s policies.

Star Wars and Visceral Games: What Lies Ahead for Hennig?

After being under that level of stress for such an extended period of time, she was wary of returning to the industry when she received EA’s initial offer on Star Wars. It took convincing from Steve Papoutsis, the GM of Visceral Games, before she decided to join the project.

Hennig has made it very clear that this will not be “Star Wars Uncharted,” although the game will bear a spiritual resemblance. The ensemble cast that creates the universe of Star Wars makes it a markedly different world from that of Uncharted, where the player is always following the hero, Nathan Drake.

She still finds her inspirations from similar sources, transforming her offices into reference libraries used to drive her through any sort of writer’s block.

“I’ve been lugging my library from job to job since the ’90s,” she says. “If you just look at something else, or even another medium, you’ll solve problems a lot easier than just staring at them.”

Many may ask what’s next for Hennig, and why she doesn’t aspire to be a manager. For her, though, the way is clear.

“I don’t know why I’d want to be promoted out of doing the thing that I love,” she said in an interview with Glixel. “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.”

As far as retirement plans go, fans of Hennig’s work have no need to fear. She has no plans of going anywhere anytime soon.

“I want to keep making games and telling stories until I’m too old to do it anymore.”

Sara Winegardner is a lifelong gamer and aspiring journalist currently based in Washington, DC. Being fed a steady diet of Pokemon, Final Fantasy, and MMORPGs since she can remember, Sara will play just about anything, even if it means grinding for hours on end. Her childhood dream is to walk the E3 floor at least once.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. datdude

    February 7, 2017 at 6:57 pm

    Great interview, thank you! Amy is a legend. Uncharted 2 still stands as my favorite Uncharted game (Chloe and Elena make that game magic for me), and I eagerly wait to see what she creates with the Star Wars franchise.

    • Sara Winegardner

      February 8, 2017 at 12:57 pm

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I love what she’s done, and I really admire the careful process she takes to make sure that she does a story justice. Hoping for a return to form for this Star Wars game!

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Game Reviews

‘Coffee Talk’ Review: The Best Brew in Town

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

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It’s 9:00pm. The rain just started coming down softly a few minutes ago, and the street outside is reflecting the lights above it. Neon signs shine brightly in the distance, although it’s hard to make out the words. You unlock the doors to the coffee shop and wipe down the counters in order to get them clean for the customers. The rain makes a soft sound as it hits the glass and passerby speed up their walking pace to avoid it. The bells chime as a tall, green orc walks in and sits down at your table in silence. You wonder what their story is…

I wanted to set the tone for this review because of how important atmosphere and audio/visual design is in the world of Coffee Talk. While it’s easy to boil the game down as a visual novel-type experience, it’s honestly so much more than that. A unique cast of characters, incredible user interface, and a mysterious protagonist combine to form the most enjoyable experience I’ve had this year on Switch.

Coffee Talk
Some of the subject matter can be pretty serious in nature…

Coffee Talk is beautiful because of how simple it is. The entire game takes place within a single coffee shop. As the barista, you’re tasked with making drinks for the patrons of the shop as well as making conversations with them. The twist is that earth is populated with creatures like orcs, werewolves, and succubi. The relationship between the various races is handled very well throughout the story, and some interesting parallels are made to the real world.

Making drinks is as simple as putting together a combination of three ingredients and hitting the ‘Serve’ button. If a unique drink is made, it will be added to a recipe list that can be referenced on the barista’s cell phone. This is where the awesome user interface comes in, as the phone has a series of apps that can be accessed at any moment in the game. One app houses your recipe list, another acts as a facebook for the characters in the game, one allows you to switch between songs, and the other houses a series of short stories that one of the characters in the game writes as it progresses. It’s one of the coolest parts of the whole experience and helps it stand out from other games in the genre.

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

Coffee Talk cycles between talking with customers and making drinks for them. In the beginning, they will ask for basic beverages that can be brewed on the fly. Later on however, they may ask for a specific type of drink that has a unique title. These drinks often have certain descriptive features that hint at other possibilities in terms of unique dialogue. If the wrong drink is made, you’ll have five chances to trash it and make a new one. If the wrong drink is made, don’t expect the customer to be pleased about it.

The gameplay really is not the focus here though; it’s the characters and their stories that take center stage. An elf with relationship issues, a writer that can’t seem to pin down her next story, and an alien whose sole goal is to mate with an earthling are just a few of the examples of the characters you’ll meet during the story. There are tons of memorable moments throughout Coffee Talk, with every character bringing something unique to the table. The barista develops an interesting relationship with many of these characters as well.

Coffee Talk
Appearances can often be deceiving in this game.

Even though serving the wrong drinks can change some of the dialogue, don’t expect any sort of options or branching paths in terms of the story. It’s not that kind of experience; the story should simply be enjoyed for what it is. I found myself glued to the screen at the end of each of the in-game days, waiting to see what would happen in the morning. The first playthrough also doesn’t answer all of the game’s questions, as the second one is filled with all kinds of surprises that I won’t spoil here.


Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen. It’s an easy recommendation for anyone who loves video games, not just visual novel fans. There are characters in the game that I’ll certainly be thinking about for a long time, especially when the setting brings out the best in them. Don’t pass this one up.

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The Magic of Nintendo: How Mario and Zelda Connect us to Our Inner Child

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Magic of Nintendo

Nintendo is special. Many excellent developers depend upon story or progression systems to entice engagement, but not Nintendo. Nintendo games captivate because of their immediate charm. There is no need for a payoff. The games, themselves, are enough: they elicit feelings, hard to find in adulthood. Through intrepid discovery, playful presentation, and unfiltered whimsy, the best of Nintendo connects gamers to their childlike selves.

The heart of any great Nintendo game is discovery and no encounter encapsulates this better than Breath of the Wild’s Eventide Island. First, finding the island requires genuine gumption. Found far from Hyrule’s shore, the island is only clearly visible from other islands, and even then, it’s only a speck in the distance. Reaching the island requires players to brave the open ocean and head towards something … that could be nothing. Then, upon arriving on the beach, a spirit takes all the player’s gear, including clothes and food. Link, literally, is left in his underwear. From there, players must make clever use of Link’s base skills in order to steal enemy weapons and make traps. The scenario creates a marvelous sense of self-sufficiency brought on by one’s own desire to discover. The player comes to the island purely of their own choosing, tackles the sea, and then overcomes obstacles without the aid of their strongest tools. The game turns players into plucky children who are discovering they can take care of themselves.

The intrepidity of Breath of the Wild and other Nintendo greats mirrors the feelings Shigeru Miyamoto, the father of many Nintendo franchises, experienced as a child. “I can still recall the kind of sensation I had when I was in a small river, and I was searching with my hands beneath a rock, and something hit my finger, and I noticed it was a fish,” Miyamoto told the New Yorker. “That’s something that I just can’t express in words. It’s such an unusual situation.” In sequences like Eventide Island, players don’t just understand what Miyamoto describes, they feel it: Apprehension gives way to exhilaration as the unknown becomes a place of play.

 Nintendo’s intrepid gameplay is often amplified by playful presentation with Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island being the quintessential example. The game’s visuals, defined by pastel colors and simple hand-drawings, appear crayoned by a child while the celestial chimes that punctuate the jubilant soundtrack evoke shooting stars. The overall effect cannot be understated. It takes the surreal and turns it real, allowing players to interact, tangibly, with imagination.

Super Mario Odyssey Wooden Kingdom

Even if one removes the presentation and gameplay from Nintendo’s masterpieces, an unabashed creativity remains that bucks norm and convention. The arbiter is fun; reason and logic have no say. For instance, Super Mario Odyssey’s Wooded Kingdom, takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting akin to Nier Automata. Players explore the metal remnants of a civilization that has become a lush home to robotic beings. However, unlike Nier, the dark undertones of the past have no bearing on the game or those who inhabit its universe. The post-apocalyptic setting is just a fun backdrop. It’s as though a bunch of children got together, began playing with toys, and one of the kids brought along his sibling’s adult action figures. There is no attention paid to the context, only unfiltered imagination.

When they’re at their best the creators at Nintendo invite gamers to come and play, like a parent arranging a play date. Pulled along by joyful gameplay that expands in unforeseen ways, players desire to play for the sake of play. It’s a halcyon state of being: No messy thoughts or contradiction, just joy.

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‘Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind’: An Utterly Shameless Cash Grab

Coming in at a $40 price point (!!!) Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind offers an 80% recycled campaign, a boss rush mode, and some other trash.

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Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind

In the 15 year long history of DLC, we have seen some really shameless displays. The notorious horse armor incident of 2006 and a notable day one DLC for the ending game of a trilogy notwithstanding, few companies have had the utter audacity to offer so little content for such a high price point. Enter Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind.

Coming in at a $40 price point (!!!) Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind offers an 80% recycled campaign, a boss rush mode, and some social media nonsense for people who really hate themselves. That’s really it, that’s what you get. Honestly, Square-Enix should be utterly embarrassed by this DLC.

It’s been one year: 365 days, 8760 hours, 525600 minutes, or 31556952 seconds, since the release of Kingdom Hearts III. Let that sink in as you begin the meat of Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind. Think of it as the extended version of a movie you really like… you know, the kind where they add 4 minutes to the 120 minute runtime.

Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind

Yes, Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind, really is that cynical. I’m not kidding when I tell you that the game literally starts with an exact cut scene from the base game, and a cut scene that happens to be available from the theater mode of the main game that you’ve already bought if you’re playing this DLC. Yes, the introduction to this new content is… content you’ve already seen.

In fact, that’s kind of the sticking point here: most of what you get for your hard-earned cash is footage you’ve already seen, and battles you’ve already fought, and story you’ve already experienced, just with slight alterations for context. Remember back in the 2000s, when we were super obsessed with prequels? This is like that, except even more egregious.

Generally I’m not so unforgiving as to call a company out for a forthright cash grab, but that’s absolutely what Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind is. There’s just no other way to put it. You might find someone in the marketing department for Square-Enix who would disagree, but being a company that has faced just these sort of allegations for their last two major releases, Square-Enix either doesn’t read the news, or doesn’t care what people think of their products.

Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind

Square-Enix was roundly accused of shipping unfinished products in the case of both Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III — their two most high profile releases of the last decade. I personally gave mostly positive reviews of both games for this very website but if you want ammo to suggest that this company is deliberately trading on the nostalgia and passion of its fan base in order to make financial headway, there are few examples you could draw from that are as obvious as this DLC.

Look, maybe you’re a really big Kingdom Hearts fan. Maybe you just really wanted to know what the context was for that cliffhanger ending in Kingdom Hearts III. Maybe you just don’t do much research before you buy something. Or maybe… you just really trust this company for some reason.

Hey, I’m not judging… hell, I bought this DLC for $40 same as anyone else. I oughta be honest that I’m not reviewing Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind as some holier than thou critic, talking down to you from my position of privilege. No, I’m an angry consumer in this particular case. I’m a person who spent enough to replace a flat tire on my car, or buy my family dinner, on a game that is clearly playing off of my love for a franchise, and using it to bilk me out of money in a method that is so clear, and so concise, that those involved in the entire endeavor should be totally embarrassed for their part in the creation, marketing, pricing, and distribution of this expansion.

Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind

Yes, fans had their complaints about Kingdom Hearts III. “Where are the hardcore boss battles? Where are the Final Fantasy characters? Where are the secret areas? Where are the hidden plot developments?” Still, to address these particular complaints by hammering a few minutes or seconds here and there into already existing content is truly like spitting in the faces of the people who have built the house you’re living in.

I haven’t sat in the board rooms at Square-Enix and I haven’t been in email chains about the planning of projects at their company but what I can say is that there is something rotten in Denmark if this is what passes for a satisfying piece of content for the wildly devoted fans of a hugely popular franchise in 2020. Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind is literally, truthfully, and succinctly, the worst piece of DLC I’ve ever purchased.

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