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To cut to the core of the matter: no Amy Hennig, no Nathan Drake, no Uncharted franchise, and no Naughty Dog as we know the studio today. It's really that simple.
Sure, action-adventure video games with a gentle layer of puzzle solving and over-the-shoulder shooting existed before Uncharted - Resident Evil 4, Gears of War, take a bow - and plenty more released subsequent to the series' debut in 2007, most notably the rebooted Tomb Raider, which borrowed influences from Uncharted just as Naughty Dog's game had Lara Croft's prior adventures.
But the sheer style of that first release, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, was genuinely game-changing. It wore its high-production values on its sleeve (and on its soundtrack), and looked to Hollywood precedent in a way that games rarely had before: not to imitate, but to exceed. To bring wit and warmth and relatable human situations and relationships into an action-packed game. And at the centre of it all was our protagonist, Nathan Drake - Hennig's career-defining creation.
Watch the debut trailer for Uncharted, the movie, below - it's released in 2022
Love or loathe Drake, he makes Uncharted what it is. And it's Hennig, as the director of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune and its sequels Among Thieves (2009) and Drake's Deception (2011), who shaped him into the star he so quickly became - a star about to make his debut in cinemas when the Tom Holland-starring Uncharted comes out in February 2022.
Hennig already had an impressive CV before joining Naughty Dog to work on 2004's Jak 3 - she'd directed Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver at Crystal Dynamics (remake, when?), and its two sequels; and had been an artist on EA's acclaimed Gulf War strategic shooter, Desert Strike. But Uncharted needed to be something else, something more. And for all of the extraordinary set-pieces the player would move through, who they controlled couldn't be another Jak, or Kain, or Naughty Dog's own Crash Bandicoot. They had to be... plain, really, so as to be best contrasted against the technical showcase Naughty Dog had planned, a game that made the most of its then-new PlayStation 3 hardware.
Hennig looked to cinema for some of the inspiration for Drake - which is why it seems like he's coming home, somehow, with the Holland-led movie. Indiana Jones and the National Treasure pictures are obvious, and accurate, touchstones - but Hennig went further, to the scientist and adventurer Clark Savage of the Doc Savage comics in the 1930s and '40s, and to Hergé's famous Belgian reporter and explorer, Tintin. There's some of Jackass star Johnny Knoxville in Drake's DNA (indeed, his early character model bore an uncanny resemblance) - but most of all, Hennig and her team needed Drake to be "a regular guy", as she explained to PC World in 2009:
"We had to have a hero who was completely relatable, just a regular guy. That was a deliberate move on our part, to say look, he's just a guy. He's just like you and me. Maybe a little bit extraordinary in the sense that he's got stronger fingertips. [People didn't know what to expect], because they were used to these exaggerated characters. It wasn't until they played it that they fell in love with it."
Drake sure can climb cliff faces better than more IRL humans, and take more bullets to the chest before falling over. In that sense he's undeniably still as superhuman as those other exaggerated characters. But Drake's personality grounds him. There is an astonishing amount of dialogue in the Uncharted games, and that began with the first entry, in which our hero is so, so far from a silent protagonist. He cracks smart and reacts in time with the player: shock, awe, affection, and panic.
It's a guarantee that the words on Drake's tongue can cut deeper than any weapon - and that relatable sarcasm, and laughing in the face of danger, came from Hennig and Drake's actor, Nolan North. North told G4 in 2009: "Amy's writing is outstanding, but they wanted me to bring part of my own personality to this character. You're always allowed to bring your own things to the table." He later told me, in 2016, that playing Drake was "the greatest job I've ever had. To be the Indiana Jones, the John McClane, the main guy in something that has lasted so long."
Hennig has referred to her writing on the Uncharted series as being on the "bleeding edge" of action-adventure games with cinematic ambitions - and there's no doubt that Uncharted really pushed the envelope for this particular breed of video game. Where once video game avatars were primarily silent vessels for the player to occupy on a journey, playing Drake's Fortune was akin to being the director of a fantastic motion picture, with North as Drake responding to cues and prompts but ultimately being a very singular, very striking character. It's impossible to play one of the newer Tomb Raiders, Red Dead Redemption and its sequel, 2018's God of War and Naughty Dog's own The Last of Us without tracing a line back to Uncharted and the impact of its extraordinary everyman.
Hennig left Naughty Dog in 2014, having begun work on what would become 2016's Uncharted IV: A Thief's End, a game ultimately co-written and co-directed by Neil Druckmann, creative director on 2013's The Last of Us and its 2020 sequel. We've since heard stories of what Hennig's fourth Uncharted game might have been like - she'd have made Nathan's brother, Sam, more of an antagonist than an ally, and there was no Nadine character in her drafts.
Hennig's next project is 2022's Forspoken, for Square Enix - and the last trailer we saw for it, premiered during September 2021's PlayStation Showcase stream, sure seems to have more of that sharp and sparkling dialogue, full of player-in-their-shoes "whoa"s and interactions in real time between characters, no cutscenes required. Whether or not it'll attract the same awards and acclaim as Uncharted remains to be seen, but as one of the most immediately recognisable writing talents in gaming, there's no doubting that Hennig's script work will shine as bright as anything ever uttered by Nathan Drake.
This piece is part of a series briefly profiling influential game creators, true masters of style, and their key works. Read the previous entry on Fumito Ueda here.
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Featured Image Credit: Amy Hennig Photo Credit: Official GDC / Game Art: Sony Interactive Entertainment
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