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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”