In the second of our ongoing series of interviews from the Yorkshire Games Festival, TechRaptor's Dom O'Leary speaks to Rhianna Pratchett, the script writer behind such well-known titles as Overlord, Mirror's Edge, Heavenly Sword, and Tomb Raider. The brief chat happened just before Ms Pratchett was due on stage to be live interviewed by Game Republic's Jamie Sefton in a conversation about her career as a script writer in games. Sefton is a former colleague of Rhianna's from when she began her career as a games journalist with PC Gamer.
The daughter of the famed author and knight of the realm, Sir Terry Pratchett, cut a surprisingly unassuming figure in the cafe of the National Media Museum. A large diamante Batman ring her only ostentatious adornment, she was as down to earth, intelligent, and humorous as you could want. After being shown over to her table and rudely interrupting a much-needed flapjack-snack-attack, we sat down to get some insight into the difficulties of script writing for games, characterization, and a certain president-elect.
TechRaptor: What I did want to talk to you about first of all is script writing in general. You might be touching on this in your talk, but , you've written for TV, movies, and comics, as well as games is that right? So what differences are there? Is writing for games a very similar process, what do you have to consider?
Rhianna Pratchett: I mean what makes games unique is that is the role of the player. And you know when you watch a movie or TV you're sitting there passively absorbing the story, being told the story and there's a sort of a real clear division between what's happening on the screen and the audience but in games you know you are the story, it’s being shaped around you and your actions. Yeah it's all about you basically and yet there's no other medium that's kind of has to think about its audience in quite the same way that games do. So you're always thinking about how the player is going to move through the world and making sure that player and player character is aligned as closely as possible. Thinking about how that player is potentially going to break the game. As well as getting kind of feedback from players and play testing feedback it's used a lot in the games industry in a way that it's just not in movies and TV, I mean it tends to get used to a lesser extent, but you get play testing feedback the entire time you're doing a game. So it's like trying to write a movie with an audience sitting behind you going 'oh I don't like that line', that kind of thing.
TR: Interesting. So is that comparable, the feedback, more to TV where you might put something out as a pilot first of all and then make changes, or not, based on what your audience say?
RP: It's kind of like TV in that the big games have definitely moved toward writing teams more than you know say in the old days. Sometimes you'd get one writer on the projects, I did all the Overlord games on my own, Tomb Raider we had two writers on it and we had four for Rise and even four is quite small compared to like Assasins Creed or The Witcher which you know is huge it still sort of felt quite small so you get kind of a writers group type of vibe to it and that was lovely. Because it's quite... you know, when I started out in the industry I would often be the only one on a team that cared much about narrative on the team and having other people around you care about narrative and storytelling, as much as you do, you kind of just want to mentally hug them every day. Also the rise of 'narrative designer,' as well, as a discipline has also helped a great deal. I mean I think the title's been around twenty years or so but it's still relatively new compared to other disciplines.
Now I've completely forgotten the question, I might have gone off track, OK so what makes games unique. So yeah it's a little like TV in that regard. Also brevity of scenes the scene lengths you often try to turn characters and situations in quite a small space of time you don't necessarily have that kind of luxury of the bigger film scenes, theater is also... I think has a lot to kind of lend into games this really about the sort of the theatrical experience and I think it's interesting how theater has now started to borrow from games with all that interactive theater, with the punch drunk theater company who've become quite famous for that for their interactive theatrical experiences that they're doing. We can sort of learn from all entertainment mediums and also, you know, there's crossover in terms of good storytelling, characterization, things like that but you do get unique challenges in games. Games are not story lead either, usually, they might be more if they're RPG games or adventure games with those they tend to be sort of story and gameplay lead the same time but I mean a lot of the sort of teething troubles we've had in the games industry is because the industry is not being used to thinking about story and it has been used to sort of tacking on story towards the end, yet we're still a young industry still grappling with how best to use writers and integrate them into the development process.
TR: OK So do you think, well, do you feel personally that you've had more scope to work with proper narrative storytelling on your last few games than you may have done on earlier projects then?
RP: Teams I think is probably the main thing, having other people around with the same kind of your desires and drives that you do and the kind of understanding of storytelling. That's probably been one of the big things, the big shifts, just having other storytellers around you so it doesn't make you feel quite so isolated, the improvements in technology as well to particularly mocap. So when I did Heavenly Sword I think that was the first game to capture facial and body motion capture at the same time. That had been done in films and we had Andy Serkis as our dramatic director and our antagonist as well so he did all the directing on that and yeah that was kind of a remarkable thing to happen at the time. That's a couple of things. I keep forgetting the question, I'm getting tired, I had a late night staying up to watch the election. Get me back to the question again so I'm not going off on tangents.
TR: No that's fine that's more interesting actually. So what's your reaction to Donald Trump?
RP: Oh it's awful. Awful. I really I feel so sorry for America and it's definitely not what I wanted even though I don't live in America but I do think it's going to strengthen Brexit which I wasn't in favour of either. So yeah everyone just seems in kind of shock, but then, you know they say that really good art is produced in times of strife and struggle yeah so at the very least we're going to get some great stuff out of it.
TR: So we should see some great games come out of America in that case.
OK so as I say I think games have become better at integrating writers and considering writers earlier on in the process. So when I started out, you know, when I started out in the industry. The question going around was ‘Do games need professional writers?’ It was like well you've got professional artists and programmers well why are you just giving writing to someone who happens to do it in their spare time, or likes it, or wants a go, or draws the short straw! Why are you trusting part of your game to somebody who isn't professionally skilled in that field? and over the time I've been in the industry they've sort of gone 'OK we'll use professional writers' but there've been a lot of... as I said teething troubles about how to integrate them into the process. There's a lot of hiring writers to tell your great story, I think the expression is why buy a dog and do the barking yourself. It's like there's a lot of people who... as a writer you can sometimes get involved in the project and think Oh you're just hiring me to write your story you don't want me to tell you how to get the best story with these mechanics you just want me to write your story and there's a lot of residual feeling that anyone can do the writing, because anyone did do the writing in the past, writers are sort of seen as, not so much now but they used to be, seen as a bit of a luxury.
You know, you will face this probably in every entertainment medium but there's a lot of people in games who think they understand story because they watched a lot of movies or read some books about it or something but they've never actually got their hands dirty and done it and usually they have more power than the writers. So you're having to kind of learn how to deal with a lot of people that don't really understand story or storytelling. That is starting to change as we get more teams and writer led projects become more successful. Obviously, the Uncharted games, The Last of Us, the Bioshock games, all had writers helming them with kind of real hard power and so I think that's helped writers be taken seriously. You know we've got conferences devoted to games narrative, awards for games writing now so a lot has changed since I first started in the industry to now I mean it's still… as I said it still feels like we're in our adolescence and we're still trying to work out the answer to just so many questions but it does feel like we have got a long way in a short, relatively short, period of time but there's still a long way to go.
TR: In terms of bringing talent into games, then, as you're saying, do you think that has increased across the board and how have things like, for example, bringing in more well-known actors, people who you know are used to acting and motion capture as well as talking—has that helped tell stories?
RP: I think it's definitely helped capture emotion, if you’re actually writing for people to do the act rather than just to voice of course that does make a difference. I mean you have some great actors on the Tomb Raider games and I think Heavenly Sword made great strides in that direction they really felt like you had more cinematic performances so I do think that is a factor. I'm not sure how much they contribute to the audience interest it's one of those things that's hard to tell. Yeah it is you know definitely delightful to work with good actors and I think the acting community has started to take games a lot more seriously and a lot of the kind of Hollywood younger talent are gamers themselves and are very interested. So yeah I do think that it's a factor.
TR: So let's talk about the characters you have written then for a moment. So I'm just going from Heavenly Sword through to Tomb Raider, you also worked on Mirrors Edge in that time, so a lot of strong female characters. Do you think when writing characters there's a gender difference based on the author as to whether you'll write a good female character or a good male character?
RP: Not really, well there shouldn't be. I know plenty of great authors that can write great women characters. My father just could not write a poor female character, I mean a poorly written female character, you know his female characters were amazing and, yeah, there are plenty of other authors that can do so but I think it kind of helps you to I get into the mindset of a certain character. I mean someone like Faith, and Lara a lot more, her kind of femaleness comes through a lot, her gender comes through a lot, in how she deals with friends and how she talks to friends and the intimacy she has that it's very much a female friendship. rather than a male friendship and I don't think it feels like a female friendship written by a male writer. I mean it's hard to pinpoint exactly why, I won't name the movie but I watched a movie about female character and it was written by a guy and you can see that it's written by a guy because they're written like male friendships but with female characters. I mean it did strike me that yes there is a difference in terms of writing some aspects of female characters kind of just because women often have a different way of interacting with the world, moving through the world, that can be slightly different from men. I'm generalizing but often you know women different kind of responsibilities, styles of friendship, and just different ways of moving through the world that are sort of more unique to women and then you have got guys in there and certain things they do are more unique to men and there's always there's a little differences that are kind of inherently more male than female. Male friendships and dialogues often have a different type of rhythm to them actually than female friendships.
TR: Is it in any way more difficult to translate that to a game?
RP: I mean it shouldn't be you just need writers that can accurately capture the essence of that really so I mean I think it definitely helped with the Tomb Raider games that you know especially in her reaction to other characters and friendships and things like that. I mean I took it very seriously but then again so did the whole of the team members and John, the narrative director at Crystal [Dynamics], he's got two daughters and he feels sort of very responsible to make sure we did a good job with Lara so I think you know the team as a whole were really dedicated to her character and respectful to it and I had a great team around me.
TR: So touching on that a bit further, one thing that I did want to ask was working specifically on Tomb Raider with Lara Croft you wrote a female character who had never been in a situation where she was sort of an explorer, you know, killing and so forth, and there was a lot of talk at the time about the scene where she was driven to kill in the first place. There was also talk, and with the sequel, of how that very quickly transitioned into a standard video game kind of mechanic where you are doing that quite a lot. So did that affect the way you have to write the character, did that impact how you built that story at all?
RP: To a degree, because in other entertainment media you have control of the actions of the characters and you show your character through that and the audience can work out who that character is underneath by seeing them actually do it. With games, the action is a completely different department and also often running in completely different rules, in a different place, than what you might be doing with narrative. So it's really trying to find that sweet spot between kind of balancing the needs of gameplay and the needs of narrative. Certainly with the first kill, I think narrative would have wanted a slower build up but Lara had been given a weapon and gameplay designers and our play testers wanted Lara to be able to use it so we were kind of up against it in terms of people just saying 'but we want to shoot more people'. So that was a battle narrative lost and you will always come up against those things. I think with Rise I think we managed to sort of pull things together in that regard, tighter, because she was just more experienced and tougher with Rise I think this easier for us to do because her character I think was more closely aligned with her gameplay and she, you know, you felt she was kind of going into a mode to deal with it because of what she'd been through before she kind of was willing to meet fire with fire and so on. Like she's been through it and she knew how to handle it and that's sort of based on the things we'd learned with the first game. So if you get a chance to look it up there's a talk in the GDC vault that we did last year and the whole team or rather a large section of the narrative team and we talked about what we learnt working on Tomb Raider and how we applied that learning to developing Rise and trying to smooth out some of some of the issues there.
TR: Well thanks for your time Rhianna, it's been great to meet you and thanks for speaking to us.
With that, Rhianna Pratchett left us to prepare for her on-stage interview. She was a real pleasure to talk to; my only regret was that we were short on time. With that in mind, I immediately entered the hall to watch the interview for myself. The talk was an interesting look into her career in the games industry, from Overlord to Rise of the Tomb Raider. She described the script writing for the Overlord games (1 & 2) as a chance to "cut loose" and flex her comedy muscles. Rhianna went on to praise the way in which those games had brought together elements—such as script writing, art direction, and gameplay—to a cohesive whole which helped to reinforce the comedic tone. Elsewhere, the Tomb Raider writer described her immense respect for script writing heavyweights Ken Levine and Amy Hennig but said she enjoys the ability to pick and choose her projects too much to ever work "in-house."
Expanding on the point she made regarding the demands of narrative versus gameplay, Rhianna described to Sefton how when working on Mirror's Edge she had written a great deal of framing, characterization, and backstory for Faith and the city itself that was never used in the final game. While this was a frustration at the time, she was later able to exorcise this somewhat by working on the Mirror's Edge graphic novels, which she repeated with the recent series of Tomb Raider comics. The writer described this process as "cathartic," allowing for a level of exposition that just isn't possible when driving the narrative of a game. Overall, the talk gave some fascinating insight into the unique challenges that games present for a writer.
Day one of the Yorkshire Games Festival wasn't over there, as there was a panel featuring audience questions for the guests, followed by a delegates reception. For me, however, a long night of transcribing awaited before returning on day two, where I had the chance to speak to gaming's coolest couple: John and Brenda Romero. As well as that, Brenda spoke on stage about her long career in the industry, Warren Spector appeared live from the USA, and Gary Napper gave an enlightening talk about the emerging VR development scene. Join us right here on TechRaptor as I continue my YGF16 interviews in the coming days.