Amy Hennig sees a social future for storytelling games

In a chat with Double Fine boss Tim Schafer at DICE 2019, Amy Hennig talked about a more frictionless game experience and why storytelling games can be better when played together.

After Amy Hennig's wild year that saw the unfortunate demise of Visceral's Star Wars game, the veteran game director has been keeping an eye on what kinds of experiences game developers will be working on over the next few years.

In conversation with Tim Schafer today at the 2019 DICE Summit, Hennig argued to the audience that it's a future filled with collaborative experiences, delivered unconventionally on platforms that won't resemble the modern day console space. 

If that sounds a bit heady for those of you who weren't there, here's some context. Hennig told Schafer she's been thinking about two observations from her long career in games. First, there's a massive audience for the kinds of games stories can tell, even among people who don't think of themselves as "gamers." Second, it's getting really, really hard to make triple-A games in the fashion of Uncharted. So in her spare time, Hennig's been looking for ways to tell compact interactive stories that can get into people's homes as easily as Bandersnatch did last December. 

Who's ahead of the curve?

If you're wondering what game model could possibly fit this format, Hennig's got a few that have caught her attention. Games like Florence, Until Dawn, and Detroit: Become Human all caught her attention because of how accessible they felt to storytelling audiences who might not normally pick up a game controller. 

Florence, for those who might not remember, was a simple love story that invited players to interact with the title character's life, while Until Dawn and Detroit: Become Human offered opportunities for observers in the room to yell about what choice the characters should make. 

Pre-empting concerns that these players might not be the kind to invest in video games, Hennig pointed out that these people are already game-players, given how often they turn on the TV to experience a story, then pop open their iPhones to play a more mindless game at the same time. With games like Until Dawn, "I keep coming back to that phenomenon [I] witnessed which was people actively, collaboratively playing. Which was, people were engaged, they just didn't want the controller in their hands." 

How do you get to those people?

When Hennig was exploring a hypothetical world of collaborative video games, she also talked about a need for a "Trojan Horse" (though the deceptive nature of that terminology may not hold up well, admittedly). Hennig talked about her impressions of Netflix's Bandersnatch, which she admired more for just being accessible on nearly every TV then she did for its narrative mechanics. 

For Hennig, Bandersnatch's design did feel somewhat "backwards," since the movie was swapping the kinds of interactivity she's implemented in games like Uncharted. "It takes the thing [players] want to be doing and makes it passive, and takes the thing we want to be intentional and crafted for us and makes ita  choice." But to Hennig, Bandersnatch's delivery method wasn't something to be ignored. The experience of "watching" that movie felt frictionless to her, with no decisions to be made about pricing, hardware compatibility, or other concerns that video game players need to make before jumping into a story like Horizon: Zero Dawn. 

Hennig couldn't elaborate what that "Trojan Horse" would properly be, but she grasped at the straws she had to try and help the audience see what she was seeing. "If it's a streaming service, it's just a virtual console, and you're just talking to gamers. How do we get it coming into people's homes the same way Netflix and Hulu do? something that's Trojan-Horsed itself into our lives and is this gateway to these games." 

All she truly felt confident remarking on was the fact that one technology she hadn't seen capitalized on yet was the fact that every player is holding a virtual controller in their pocket in the form of an iPhone (though obviously games like Jackbox and PlayStation's PlayLink technology have been experiments in this field).

Against dogmatism

One word Hennig (lovingly) used to refer to some of her colleagues was "dogmatic." Both she and Schafer lamented those who had insisted to them that there wasn't any space for storytelling in video games, that players would always want to make choices and determine their own paths.

But the pair both pleaded for their colleagues to recognize that games could be more then that, or even more then the narrative adventures they've dedicated their lives to building. "It's not going to happen through machine learning, it's not going to happen through AI, it's going to happen because people with authorial intent make things that land in a certain way," said Hennig. 

This also moved into a discussion about how games are so often about mastery and competition, and how the low finishing rates for narrative games seem tied to the scaling difficulty and increasing length of those triple-A adventures. Between the "either-or" of narrative games and play-driven games, Hennig said she's looking for an "and" category full of games not being made yet. 

What's particularly interesting about Hennig's talk is the fact that the veteran developer seems uncommitted to any new major projects as of this writing and that she, like many game developers around the industry, is waiting to see how the next platforms (whatever they are) shape up. 

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