GamesBeat: Did you ever run into opposition to things like dropping in the literary references? Why do we have to do extra coding for Sullivan’s Travels?
Hennig: No, nobody’s paying enough attention. It’s not extra coding. The boat has to have a name, right? So paint something on there. Victor Sullivan has to have a name, so it may as well be something that resonates for me. There has to be something on the chalkboard at the beach bar. That’s not really the culture of Naughty Dog anyway. It’s not like there’s anybody you’re going to for permission. You just make stuff. If you were trying to do some too-elaborate thing….
GamesBeat: Maybe an artist would say, “I like it better this way, so I’ll change whatever this name is.”
Hennig: I suppose that could happen a few times. “No, there’s a reason for it to be that way.” A lot of that stuff, as the creative director you decide. You don’t have to explain why to everyone. You just say, “This is the name of the boat.” I didn’t tell anyone what the reason was until later.
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GamesBeat: A lot of games don’t have that, I think. That’s why I notice it.
Hennig: I think Naughty Dog has always been good at attention to detail and care in all kinds of things. There was the famous newspaper in the bar in Uncharted 3 that actually foreshadowed The Last of Us. Did you find that? Talking about an outbreak. I guess that implies that Nathan Drake and his buddies are all dead. I don’t know. It was just funny. Somebody had to take the time to make that newspaper and put it in the bar. But in the same way, you want to make sure that the cracks in the buildings and all the little environmental storytelling bits make sense. A lot of people pour their love into it. Any time you can put some sort of hidden meaning in, people love that.
GamesBeat: Given the contrast between Tomb Raider and Nathan Drake, did you ever wish that Nathan Drake was a woman?
Hennig: No. It was nothing we could even consider, because Tomb Raider was a thing. We already got criticized for — oh, well, you’re just making Dude Raider. Seriously? Do you know how long of a tradition there is in pulp adventure cinema? She doesn’t get to own the whole thing. So we deliberately chose to have a guy, not a woman, because it would feel like we were invading that territory. She was this aspirational, acrobatic, James Bond character, so we made ours a little hapless, a little clumsy, more like Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones. Right at the limit of his ability a lot of the time. On his heels.
GamesBeat: A creative opposite in some ways?
Hennig: Kind of? That became part of the design. We’re structuring this differently. It’s about companions. She’s sort of a lone wolf. That all changed, obviously. It’s interesting, because there’s almost been a dialogue between the projects. Once they saw what we did with Uncharted — and look, this was also a trend. You look at James Bond, he used to be an aspirational character. Then they rebooted the whole thing, reimagined him with Daniel Craig as being a much more vulnerable character. Not perfect. That’s become more of a trend. Tomb Raider has become a bit more like Uncharted because of that, I think.
GamesBeat: I forget whether you overlapped much with The Last of Us.
Hennig: No, I was there. I was working on Uncharted 3. That was the hard part where we tried to grow the studio and do two projects at once. We had a lot of growing pains trying to make that work.
GamesBeat: What do you remember most now about The Last of Us?
Hennig: I didn’t work on it, since I was working on Uncharted at the same time. What I remember most about all the projects is how we just crunched, and it got worse with every project. It was weird for me because I was always in the midst of it myself. It was odd being on Uncharted and not being on The Last of Us and being able to objectively watch people crunching and seeing the effect it was having.
That cemented some of my desire to — man, if I ever get a chance, if I was ever to have a studio, I’d do it differently. That’s not a criticism of Naughty Dog. I don’t mean it that way. I just mean that — I don’t know. You also just get to an age where you can only — doing that crunch time in the trenches, you start realizing how debilitating it is, physically and emotionally and psychologically and relationship-wise. Just wondering if we could do things differently, do things better.
GamesBeat: Have you ever fully explained why you left Naughty Dog?
Hennig: I don’t really talk about it. I always steer away from things that feel like they could be used for sensationalist clickbait-y kind of stuff. Not that you would do that, but you know how these things go. Fundamentally it’s just creative differences. We had a different idea about which way we should go. That happens.
GamesBeat: Having done that, was it hard to leave these characters behind?
Hennig: Sure, of course. When you live with these characters — they’re coming out of your brain. You’re writing them. They feel like children or something. It’s very hard. I said, ineptly or inarticulatly, at one point — it’s like if you split up with your spouse and they have the kids. You wish them well, but you don’t necessarily want to look at their pictures on Facebook with the new spouse. It was hard for a while, because there was something distant about it for me. I’m not doing it anymore, but it’s continuing, when I lived with it internally for so long.
GamesBeat: I wonder if that’s how George Martin feels about Game of Thrones now that HBO is ending it.
Hennig: Maybe? I would think that it’s hard for any creator that really pours themself into something. You identify with it. To separate from it, I just think that’s normal, for it to take some time.
GamesBeat: It seems like the Tomb Raider reboot was generally a good thing. Fresh eyes took a look at the same thing and decided to go in a different direction.
Hennig: I think so. I’m sure it helped that we blazed a bit of a trail there. Here’s a different way to approach similar material. But also, I think we were all — it’s part of the zeitgeist, like I said. The fact that they took the Bond franchise and rebooted it, envisioning him as a much more flawed, vulnerable, complex character, as opposed to this slightly two-dimensional caricature, this aspirational caricature that James Bond was. We’re not necessarily gravitating toward that kind of entertainment anymore. We want our characters to be complex and flawed and interesting and layered, as opposed to a cartoon.
GamesBeat: I guess that’s a good description of where story-based games have gone.
Hennig: There are still ones that are kind of surface-ey, and that’s fine, because that’s what they’re doing. But in general I think people are getting on board with the idea that when you’re writing characters, you should be thinking about all of their contradictions and flaws and vulnerabilities, not just all of their heroic qualities.
GamesBeat: Sort of like how Iden Versio is very different from anyone in the original Star Wars.
Hennig: That’s probably part of it, just the fact that there’s contemporary DNA in it. It’s hard to separate ourselves from the fact that storytelling is different than it used to be. That was one of the challenges of working on Star Wars, in a good way. It was fun to try to figure out how you honor all of the original choices from the ‘70s and the ‘80s, that tone and structure and style, but if you literally did that today it would feel really corny. You have to put a bit of a contemporary twist on it. Reimagine it through a contemporary lens, but still honor all those things that gave it its DNA. Speaking abstractly, but hopefully that makes sense.
GamesBeat: Do you think lots of writers are doing this now in video games?
Hennig: I think so. I think you’re seeing lots of it in TV and film in general. Look at Marvel. Look at how complex those characters are. They could just be two-dimensional superheroes, but they’re all layered and flawed. They have some dark stuff.
GamesBeat: It reminds me of that Jack Ryan show on Amazon. It’s a very different Jack Ryan.
Hennig: Right, because that’s the taste of today. We’re surrounded by that, so that’s also how we write. Writing something that’s simpler and more two-dimensional feels dated.
GamesBeat: The whole “single-player is dead” thing….
Hennig: Speaking of things getting reduced down to memes. I don’t think anybody would say single-player is dead. Look at the current crop of games. It’s just a harder and harder proposition.
GamesBeat: Why is it getting so hard? I don’t know if it’s the eight years to do Red Dead Redemption 2 or….
Hennig: That’s the problem. We used to make games in a year. Jak III we made in a year. Uncharted took three because we had to build the whole engine. Uncharted 2 and 3 both took two years each. That’s unheard of anymore. Three years is short. Right now you can already see, that’s a lot more expensive than it used to be. A lot of games are taking four and five years, sometimes more. Teams are bigger. The fidelity is higher. There is an apparent requirement, whether it’s coming from publishers themselves or players or whatever, that games have more features and are bigger.
I’ve said that I don’t think a game like the first Uncharted, even though it was the foundational footprint for that series, would be a viable pitch today. The idea of a finite eight-ish-hour experience that has no second modes, no online — the only replayability was the fact that you could unlock cheats and stuff like that. No multiplayer, nothing. That doesn’t fly anymore. Now you have to have a lot of hours of gameplay. Eight would never cut it. Usually some sort of online mode. And of course you see where things are pushing, toward live services and battle royale and games as a service.
All of those things — I don’t know the word I’m looking for, but they play less nicely with story. They’re less conducive to traditional storytelling. That has a shape and an arc and a destination, an end. A game that is a live service, that continues, does not.
GamesBeat: I look at the contrast between Battlefield and Call of Duty this year, where Battlefield has single-player and Call of Duty dropped it in favor of battle royale. It was an interesting test, and it seems like Call of Duty won. That’s almost sad in some ways. I wanted that Call of Duty story.
Hennig: When we say single-player is dead — and again, I don’t subscribe to that — I think people are also talking about narrative games. Not just a game that you can play by yourself, because of course there’s plenty of that, but whether narrative is still front and center as one of our key tenets of the title. It’s just harder to do. Yes, you can look at Spider-Man and Red Dead and God of War, and they’re deeply narrative. But they’re also really long. There’s also an understanding that a lot of people may never finish it. They’ll only play the first part of a game.
GamesBeat: 22 percent finished Red Dead.
Hennig: Right. We look at that thing, which seems like it’s leaning hard into story and this character and this world, but with the understanding that less than a quarter of your audience will see the story through. That just makes me crazy, as a storyteller. That’s like saying I’m going to write a book and expect nobody to finish reading it, or make a movie and expect people to walk out halfway through. It’s counterintuitive to wanting to tell a good story and craft it for people.
The length and complexity and the layers that are in these games now, sub-missions and skill trees, all these things are great. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have them. But it makes it harder. It’s harder to tell a single-player, narrative-focused game. That’s why people go to publishers like Annapurna, but it’s at a different tier.
GamesBeat: Do you think it’s pushing down toward the indies, then?
Hennig: Absolutely. My favorite games that I’ve played are generally indie. Things like Edith Finch and Florence and Return of the Obra Din. Things that, by definition — narrative is front and center. They’re deliberately finite, not very long, and they’re so resonant and memorable.
Versus some of these other experiences that are laudable, these amazing big-budget games, but there’s something — I don’t know. They don’t quite have the same — they’re not as memorable in the way where I read a good book and put it on the shelf. It’s a closed memory. I did that thing. Like watching a great movie. A lot of games these days, it’s very hard to find the time to play them all the way the through, especially if you want to try them all. Who has that time? It’s harder to make the kind of games that used to appear on console in this finite narrative, single-player context.