Amy Hennig’s Naughty Dog departure leaves triple-A game development a poorer, maler place

Sony confirmed that creative director and writer Amy Hennig has left Naughty Dog earlier this week.

Thanks to my job as a journalist I’ve been fortunate enough to visit dozens of games studios over the last ten years. I’ve been to places like Insomniac, EA Canada, Sucker Punch, Sony Santa Monica, Media Molecule, Ubisoft in Paris and Montreal, Sony Japan, Radical Games, Volition, Visceral Games, Criterion – big, busy offices packed with talented staff. I’ve encountered dozens more at press events and trade shows, everyone from Valve to Bungie and Blizzard. And in those ten years I have been invited to interview just one woman as a senior representative of a development team – Amy Hennig at Naughty Dog.

It was confirmed yesterday that Hennig, the creative director of the Uncharted series who was once recognised by Edge as among the most influential women in the games industry, has left Naughty Dog. She had been at the studio for ten years, almost unique for being the driving creative force behind a major series and also female.

My aim here is to celebrate achievements and commiserate loss. Hennig is abundantly talented and is likely to have little trouble finding new work and creating more wonderful things. Moreover, the circumstances surrounding her departure aren’t clear, and it’s not the business of this piece to poke into them. In other words, I have no idea how Hennig feels about leaving Naughty Dog, and it’s not her hypothetical loss that we’re currently concerned with. It’s our actual loss, because, shamefully, her disappearance from triple-A development slashes the proportion of high-profile women in that particular noisy boys’ playground by as much as half (interestingly Rhianna Pratchett, who might be considered the remaining half, reacted to the news by joking with Hennig over Twitter that the pair should “Thelma and Louise this industry up!”)

You can read our 2011 Amy Hennig interview, in which she discusses the balance between story and play, through the link.

This isn’t to say that women aren’t making games, and contributing to the industry in a variety of positive and sophisticated ways at various different scales of production. But at the level of the curiously, depressingly war-sport-and-violence-dominated big-budget sphere – the most visible, lucrative and influential part of the industry – high-profile female voices are in short supply. What makes this particularly frustrating – apart from the obvious fact that it’s insane – is that on the rare occasions the mix is more balanced the results are exceptional. Which, in this particular instance, is to say that Amy Hennig’s Uncharted games are better at female characters than the vast majority of their peers and rivals.

To be fair, the Uncharted games are better at all characters than the vast majority of blockbuster games. Naughty Dog takes an unusual interest in story and character – its creative team attend Hollywood workshops, discuss theory, read Robert McKee. But even so the characters of Chloe and Elena are particularly refreshing and substantial. Uncharted doesn’t tear genre apart or subvert the conventions of adventuring heroes. But it does give us sophisticatedly drawn female characters who are interesting in their own right, and not just in relation to our lead. In fact this is what gives their relationships with our lead such traction.

Uncharted 2’s Chloe, played by Claudia Black, is marked by a depth of motivation – not defined by her feelings towards Drake but ambiguously attracted towards him, another man and, crucially, her own best interests. She’s believable, unpredictable, and dangerous. On the other hand, series mainstay Elena, played by Emily Rose, is a blonde love interest in a game about guns and the amoral killing of endless pirates. But she’s also skeptical and strong, and so when the series does finally bring her and Drake together romantically in the second game – the first didn’t consider it essential – it feels earned and touching. Their relationship is a two-way street of humour and humanity, and is a greater payoff than any climactic boss battle.

The female characters in the Uncharted games aren’t typical videogame damsels – quite the opposite.

Was Hennig responsible for all this? It’s impossible to precisely pin merit to an individual in the collaborative creative wash of games development. But Hennig’s role as creative director gave her overall responsibility for story and character design, scriptwriting, and directing the actors who play such a big role in Naughty Dog’s process.

In other words, her influence is pretty much inarguable – and now, for the time being at least, it’s gone. It’s a loss not just for gender equality in a sector of the games industry marked by woeful under-representation, but for anyone who enjoys excellent games. Whatever she does next will certainly be worth watching, but at the same time we should be keeping an eye on games and asking: “where are all the women?”