The Last of Us

Above: Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us.

Image Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony

Sinclair: I’d love to see that happen, and I’ve for the audience to recognize when that sort of commentary is put in a game. Right now, media literacy in general — even just with the written word, on the whole it’s so — it’s rare that people will actually look for substance in the stuff they consume as it is. And then to do it in something so soft as systems, as opposed to something so literal as the words on the page and what you’re saying —

Raymond: They might not be able to verbalize it, but they’re probably coming to conclusions. Early in my career I was at EA working on The Sims. There was a lot of research being done at the time about The Sims and why people played it and how they played it. What was interesting about that research is it found a lot of different people playing the game for a lot of different reasons.

People from outside the U.S., Europeans, were playing the game as a way to sort of role-play American life and the American value system – the capitalist ideal of getting more money and getting more things to become more efficient and work harder at my job and back around. That’s the gameplay loop of The Sims.

Hennig: What about trapping people in a walled area with no bathroom?

Raymond: That was a different demographic. That was the American bro thing to do. But people from outside the U.S. were actively role-playing an American lifestyle. I don’t necessarily think Will Wright had it in mind to codify capitalist values in his game. But without acknowledging it, people were still realizing, “Okay, this is the value system at work here.” They were coming to that conclusion without verbalizing it.

To me, that’s another exciting thing about games. We have the narrative level. Let’s not throw it away or discount it. We have all this stuff that exists in movies that’s so powerful. But we can also reinforce it with game systems. When you make sure that’s all in line, you can really impact people.

GamesBeat: The Last of Us might be my favorite game of all time. There was more of a match between —like, Tomb Raider, at the end of the game, you’re killing too many people. They become disposable. But in The Last of Us, every single fight is a life and death struggle. It matches.

Hennig: That’s what I mean about genre. It was very smart to pick a genre that suited the brutality of the gameplay. They could make sure there wasn’t this cognitive dissonance between what you had to do to play the game and what it meant in the context of the story. That’s very smart. But not every game can do that.

The question is, then—A game like Uncharted that might have that dissonance, should you not make that? Or do you just do your best to make sure it’s as non-dissonant as possible?

GamesBeat: It got to a point where Drake would joke about how many people he had to kill.

Hennig: That’s why we took some of that away. And we did do a little winking back at the audience at how ridiculous it was. “No, we don’t take this seriously either.” But it becomes tough. Movies are a passive medium. You’re the privileged observer. You aren’t necessarily meant to identify with the protagonist. If they have flaws, you just observe them. If that character is the one you’re playing, though, you’re complicit in their actions.

Taken to the wrong extreme, it means we’re very limited in the kinds of games we can make because we’re trying to avoid causing that dissonance, and that would be a shame. It’s a tricky problem to solve. I don’t think we throw up our hands and say, “It’s just a game, get over it.” But it is hard to solve.

The games I’ve found most effective actually played into that. Did you play Brothers? That was a great example of using mechanics to make you feel something.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

GamesBeat: Yeah, that was great.

Hennig: Ico and Shadow of the Colossus affected me in the same way. It’s interesting watching people play Ico and make that experience their own. Everyone had to get through certain gates of the story, but I watched some people play it – usually young guys – where they’d say, “God, this girl is so annoying. I’m going to plant her in a corner and do all this stuff and then go get her.” But other players were all about keeping the girl with them. Their experience was completely different, even if it was all still very authored within that. That’s the kind of stuff we should be aspiring to.

Any game that makes you feel something through mechanics is great. That’s hard to do. I feel like some of us have succeeded with it at moments in our games, but then the rest of the game maybe devolves into the typical. You just have these shining moments where it all comes together. And then there are games where they’re able to maintain it. Those are the ones I remember.

GamesBeat: What I remember about The Last of Us was that it was almost heavy-handed in some ways. The story was controlled by the game designer, not you. The first 10 or 15 minutes of it —

Raymond: The beginning of The Last of Us was really tough. It had to teach a lot of basic stuff – where I want to move, that kind of thing. It’s a great game. But I felt like, on a basic level, I wasn’t allowed to go where I wanted to.

GamesBeat: In a way that was one of the best beginnings in a game I’ve ever seen, though, even though it was one of the least interactive.

Hennig: The things you could do were meaningful.

Raymond: It was a great beginning, and a good seamless tutorial leading you into stuff.

GamesBeat: And then it’s intentionally bookended with the ending that’s not interactive at all. I think the whole point was to tell you that story in the beginning and compare it to the story at the end.

Hennig: Well, of course. If you had the last-minute branch, that almost seems like a betrayal of the director’s hands on the reins. It needed to end the way it needed to end. It’s like asking for The Road to have a choose-your-own-adventure ending.

GamesBeat: I think I only tolerated that, though, because the story was so good. I wouldn’t want that in every other game.

Hennig: That’s what I’m saying. It’s all a variable based on what game you’re trying to make, what story you’re trying to tell, and how much you invest in that. Rather than just saying, “Yeah, we’ll do that” and not pouring your heart into it. If you’re going to do it, you’re going to pour your heart into it.

We’re all trying to move the ball down the field. Even at Naughty Dog, it’s not like, “Well, this is how games are made. We want it to be rigidly authored.” Everyone wants to figure out how to make you feel the game more, to find that sweet spot Jade was talking about.

The Last of Us Ellie

Above: The Last of Us

Image Credit: Naughty Dog

GamesBeat: Did you find yourself getting into arguments, as the scriptwriter, with the people who were designing the game mechanics?

Hennig: Sure. But we’re all game designers. One of Naughty Dog’s strengths – and that of other games that feel like they’ve been recognized for narrative – is the investment in the writer as one of the core creatives on the game, and not just somebody you hire to write the dialogue. You want to live the story through the actions in the game, not just the dialogue and the cinematics.

It’s a push and pull. Sometimes the game needs something the story doesn’t. Sometimes the story needs something the game doesn’t. You try to find that sweet spot as much as you can. Sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don’t. But you learn from those experiences and try to carry them to the next project.

You’re not going to get it right out of the gate, and maybe you’re never going to get it right. You’re going to move the ball down the field, like I said. As long as each game we make expands on how we do it and shows us doing it better.

GamesBeat: And so, of course, Star Wars — what was appealing to you about this job? The movie guys are creating the story, right? Or that’s the assumption I’m making.

Hennig: It’s the wrong assumption.

GamesBeat: OK. But the other thing was in Battlefront, the demo of Hoth they showed us. You’re fighting there, doing all this stuff, and at the end of it you run into Darth Vader. That’s not what happens in the movie. There’s a constraint, right?

Hennig: Keeping in mind that I’m not working directly on Battlefront, there’s a reason they keep coming back to that nostalgic key phrase – “Let’s play Star Wars.” It’s a manifestation of that nostalgic urge to pick up your action figures and make your own stories. That means you can pick up Darth Vader and Luke on Hoth and put them together, because it’s you in the backyard in the dirt with your action figures. That’s the beauty of that game.

GamesBeat: On your project, do you find an opportunity to be a writer on a game that’s constrained by what’s being done with the movies and everything else? Star Wars as a universe is very expansive, I guess.

Hennig: Sure. And they would say that. They want people to understand that the galaxy is bigger than the Skywalker saga. The galaxy has a lot of stories to tell. You can see that in the stand-alone films. The saga is seven, eight, and nine, and that finishes it out. Rogue One is its own film. The Han Solo film is a stand-alone film. There’s lots of room for other stories and characters and worlds. The galaxy is a big place.

My role, my mission that I was given when I joined, was to say, “How do we tell more stories?” I’ve been working closely with Lucasfilm since I joined, as has my team – with their story group, with their tech group, with Doug Chiang, their creative director. We’re trying to build more. They want people to be telling new stories. Not in the sense of, “How is this Star Wars?” It’s all connected. It’s like the Force. It binds everything together. That sense of destiny and inevitability and fate is really important to Star Wars stories.

But they’re very encouraging to their new creatives. Whether it’s Dave Filoni on Rebels and Clone Wars, or their new filmmakers like Gareth Edwards who’ve joined to work on the films, or Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow, they’re very nurturing of their creatives to expand the galaxy and tell new stories with their guidance. They’ve been great partners.

Star Wars: Battlefront in action.

Above: Star Wars: Battlefront in action.

Image Credit: EA

GamesBeat: I’ve always thought of the Star Wars canon as both a restriction and in some ways an assist.

Hennig: Any time you’re trying to solve a creative problem, you want constraints. A blank slate is paralyzing. People tend to do their best work within constraints, whether it’s creative or time or whatever. They’ve been incredibly generous and free with those constraints.

Of course, it can’t be a free-for-all. “This character can’t be there in that time frame.” They’re trying to juggle all of these stories, including the comics and the novels and the games, to make sure it’s all woven together into this correlated whole. It’s been incredibly humbling to be part of that process. I’ve been working really closely with them for more than a year, fleshing out the story and working with the story group.

Raymond: Amy’s basically down at Lucasfilm every second week.

Hennig: It’s not like going in and saying, “Hey, can we get a rubber stamp for this?” We bring our story and our artwork and Doug Chiang is basically our art director. He’s worked with George and worked with Ralph McQuarrie. He reviews our stuff and helps us iterate on it.

We work with the story group, sitting down with Kiri Hart and Diana Williams and Pablo Hidalgo and the rest of the team. We walk through our story and brainstorm. They say, “Well, what if we did this?” and it grows. We talk to the filmmakers as well. It’s an unusual creative relationship. Their whole spirit is collaboration. They don’t want to have everyone silo’d off working on their projects.

I was skeptical when I came in. “How good could this be? It’s the biggest IP in the world. It’s Lucasfilm and Disney and Electronic Arts.” But it’s been amazing. To be able to work with these people who only want to nurture new ideas and good ideas and protect their creatives—It’s not what you would expect.

GamesBeat: Outside of the movies, do you have any favorite Star Wars stories?

Hennig: I’m a huge fan of the Christmas special. Bea Arthur is actually the hero of our new game. I know that’s going to be controversial, but she’s amazing. It was an awkward motion capture session, because she’s dead. It was a Weekend at Bernie’s kind of thing.

Honestly, I’d say that Dave Filoni blows my mind. I don’t know if you’re watching Clone Wars or Rebels, but the man learned at George Lucas’s knee. He knows Star Wars like nobody. I love what he’s doing with Rebels. It’s a kids’ show, but there’s a reason it’s considered canon. He knows his shit. He’s so passionate, and he’s been so helpful to us.

He’s such a fan of this stuff. He can look at our stuff and—I know that if I get a twinkle or a smile out of someone like Pablo, who’s studied Star Wars for his whole life, and Dave and Doug Chiang, I know we’re doing okay. It sounds like PR, but they couldn’t have been more supportive.

I probably wouldn’t have taken the job. I came in skeptical. “I’m going to be constrained by this giant IP and everyone’s going to be telling me what to do.” But it’s been the opposite. Just opening up the doors, getting to go the archives—We’ve gone to the ranch multiple times and just stayed there to soak up the atmosphere, work in the library, pull out all of George’s reference books and think about our story. We’ve studied all of Ralph McQuarrie’s original art in the archives, thinking about how we can build on that. You end up kind of tearing up now and again, when it hits you.

GamesBeat: Have you ever worked with someone else’s IP like this before?

Hennig: No. I’m trying to think? No. But it’s like my favorite thing ever. Everybody says that, of course. But I was 12 when it came out. I remember—You only have so many crystal clear memories in your life. For some reason they stick. I remember sitting in the theater in 1976 with my best friend, and the trailer for Star Wars came on. I could probably pick out our seats in the theater. We turned and looked at each other like, “Holy shit. The world just changed. What the hell was that?” From then on it, that was all I could think about.

Again, I’m not the only one with that experience. My co-writer, Todd Stashwick, he was eight, and he had the same experience. So did so many other people. Something just clicked into place. We felt it even then.

Battlefront is giving us a whole new look at the Battle of Hoth.

Above: Battlefront is giving us a whole new look at the Battle of Hoth.

Image Credit: Electronic Arts

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