To kick off PAX West, Amy Hennig had a fireside-style chat with Jerry Holkins. Hennig has become one of the most respected game developers, especially when it comes to narrative. She was behind the creation of Nathan Drake and the characters of the Uncharted series. She talked about the extent of her experience, but focused mostly on story and narrative.
“I think we’re all natural storytellers,” she said. “We even put stories on things that don’t inherently have them. But in games you need to consider the player as a collaborator.” She said good writers are essentially their own play testers. They need to take a step back and get a feel for how the player is responding, not only in terms of game mechanics, but also the emotional connection to what’s going on within the game and the game world.
“You have to have empathy with the player,” she said. “You need to give them enough room to engage with the story. We want to inspire curiosity.” Putting your shoes in the place of the player doesn’t just apply to the writers or designers. Hennig said she often has the voice actors come and watch what’s going on in the game where their lines come in. “We start with a script, but a lot of the actual voiceover becomes some improv based on what the actors were seeing and feeling.”
She also said being flexible is a necessary trait to have as a game writer as a game can change drastically from the concept phase to the end product that actually gets released. “You can never look at the job as ‘I wrote this thing and now we’re going to make this thing.'”
Holkins joked to Hennig, that with the rise of open-ended games like Minecraft and No Man’s Sky, where the player gets to tell their own “story,” that it might be the end of story-driven games.
“There’s space for all kinds of games,” Hennig said. “But a story is only a story if it has an author and intent. A story can’t be ‘and then,’ ‘and then,’ ‘and then.’ A story needs to have ‘buts’ and ‘therefores.'”
The biggest news about Hennig right now is the fact that she’s working on an unannounced project based on the Star Wars universe. She wasn’t able to give any specifics, but she did drop a few hints. She said she’s been fortunate to have the whole team at Lucasfilm at her disposal to help really get her entrenched in the universe. “In order to tell an authentic story, you need guides along the way.”
More specifically, she mentioned tat Nathan Drake was inspired largely by Indiana Jones,. “Indy has some clear sidekicks,” she said. “The focus doesn’t ever shift from him, but Star Wars is always an ensemble. Different things are going on that one character doesn’t know about.” In that case Hennig referred to us as audience members as “privileged observers” since we get the full picture from multiple perspectives. There are what she calls “co-protagonists.” And she hinted about how that might work in a game, which leads me to believe that the Star Wars game she’s working on will have multiple playable characters in a variety of settings. But we’ll just have to wait and see.