Rhianna Pratchett is a scriptwriter and narrative designer working in the game industry. She is best known for her work on Heavenly Sword, Mirror’s Edge, and the Overlord series. Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Rhianna about her career, women in the game industry, female game characters, the role of a narrative designer, and how games can tell better stories. Enjoy.
How did you get started writing games? What drew you to games in particular?
Rhianna Pratchett: I’ve been a gamer since I was six years old and my dad brought home a copy of Mazogs on the ZX81. Apparently, I was initially frightened of the 2d pixel bugs that roamed the game’s titular maze. That was right up until I realized that I could use a little pixel man, brandishing a little pixel sword, to kill them. I was hooked! It’s been a long-term love affair ever since.
I trained as a journalist. Mainly because I didn’t really know what to do with my life and journalism is great for people like that, as it gives you a little bit of everything. Some of my first published pieces were games reviews and I ended up getting a full time job on PC Zone magazine. I stayed there for a couple of years and also started freelancing for The Guardian newspaper’s game section.
About 8 years ago I decided to take the plunge into the pyjama-based world of freelance writing. I kept up the journalism for a while, but also happened to get offered a job as the story-editor on a hardcore RPG called Beyond Divinity. I took it on to pay the bills and at some point suddenly realised ‘Hey, there might actually be some kind of respectable career in this!’ Well, not that respectable, but you get the idea. From then on I started to pick up small bits of work here and there, anything where I could get a credit. Heavenly Sword was my first big script and that really kicked things up a few notches; pretty much sealing my chosen profession.
Can you describe for our readers what your role as a game writer or narrative designer consists of? What are the differences between the two roles?
RP: In the game industry the role of ‘writer’ can vary from project to project. Frequently, it means someone who has come in after the majority of the game has been designed and has fitted and written a story around it. Too often it means someone who has just come in at the tail end of production to polish up the developer-written dialogue or has been parachuted in, narrative-paramedic style, to rescue a badly bleeding story. Occasionally, it means someone who’s been involved in the project from the early, pre-production stages and crafted the story along with the gameplay.
I’ve been all these different kinds of game writer, although the latter type is much more desirable. Ideally my writer role consists of working with the team to develop a story that blends well with the gameplay, creating and defining the characters, world and themes, writing the script (and iterating on it until it fits the changing structure of the game), working closely with the cinematic and audio directors and seeing all the narrative component of the game right through to the end of production.
The narrative designer side of things is more about the techniques of weaving the story into the gameplay and level design, and defining the mechanics by which all elements of the narrative are delivered. This includes things like interactive and non interactive cut-scenes, AI speech systems and environmental storytelling. Some studios, particularly the bigger ones like Ubisoft and Eidos (now Square Enix) have dedicated narrative designers, which is always a blessing.
In most game reviews, the game’s story is usually only mentioned in passing, and it isn’t generally examined beyond whether it provides adequate motivation for the player’s actions. How do you respond to the sense that many gamers consider story secondary or even tertiary to gameplay or graphics?
RP: Perhaps reviewers and gamers have become a little complacent towards narrative over the years because they’re used to it being regarded by developers as a secondary component, haphazardly tagged on. But I think that’s starting to change. I’m certainly seeing reviewers examining stories in a little more detail than they used to and gamers themselves are definitely doing so. Features about narrative, writers and the challenges of story creation in such a unique medium are becoming much more common place. Now every gamer often has their own touchstone for what they consider good game narrative: the Bioshock titles, the Final Fantasy series, Portal, Psychonauts (my personal favourite) the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games etc.
But ultimately it lies with developers to respect narrative enough to allow it to be professionally created from the outset, like all other aspects of a game’s development. And not regard it as something that can be just tacked on by which every member of the team fancies a go. If game narrative is not respected at its creation, how can we expect it to be respected by its audience?
Are there any particular themes or types of stories that you think games are suited to conveying in a different or more interesting way than in books or movies?
RP: I think anything with a strong action component suits games very well, because then you’ve got an immediate idea of what the player will be doing. However, I still think there’s a lot that can be done in terms of translating that action back into the story and characters. One of F. Scotts Fitzgerald’s famous assertions was that “action equals character” and I definitely think more games should embrace this.
Obviously games are based around active experiences, rather than passive consumption, therefore they can create worlds like no other entertainment form. I don’t think there’s any film, book or TV shows that’s come close to capturing the feeling you get when you explore the fallen glory of Rapture for the first time.
Did you have to adjust your writing style when working on the Mirror’s Edge comic series? What are the different challenges of writing a comic versus writing a game, or are they similar?
RP: I think it’s more the process that is different, rather than the writing itself. Writing for games is extremely hard work because you’re often constantly fighting for space and recognition. Narrative is often the last thing thought of and the first thing pulled apart by the wild horses of games development. With comic writing the story is usually (although not always) constructed first and the art largely follows the direction of the writer. That means you have a clear run at what you want to do narrative-wise, which was very refreshing for me.
Both Mirror’s Edge and Heavenly Sword feature heroines who have strong friendships with other women: HS has Nariko and Kai, ME has Faith and both her sister, Kate, and her fellow Runner Celeste. This is a rare thing for much of entertainment media, but especially so for games. Why do you think that is, and how could games better explore female friendships?
RP: I’m not sure that games have been that great at exploring friendships in general, aside from the occasional ‘humorous’ buddy sidekick and a bit of macho bromancing. In fact, they don’t seem to delve much into any kind of relationships, outside of male/female love interest ones. I think that’s why it’s great to see a parental relationship forming a key component of Heavy Rain.
Heavenly Sword deals a lot with familial relations in both the good guys and the bad guys. On some level it also has a love story subtext (it’s just one of sisterly love) and Nariko’s relationship with Kai (her adopted sister) becomes a key motivational factor for both characters. I think as players also got to play as Kai, and reveal some of her story, they felt invested in the relationship. I know a lot of players responded well to those two characters.
I think the main reason that we don’t see too many relationship variants in games is that there isn’t enough emphasis put on creating strong characters, in general. I think the importance of good characters is often underestimated. They are the pillars of a game world and need to be given appropriate love and attention, which extends beyond their appearance.
Do you consider yourself a feminist, and does that impact your writing at all?
RP: I do, yes. I’m not sure you can calve out a career path in such a largely male-dominated industry, without being somewhat of a feminist. I’m not sure how this impacts on my writing, though. I guess it probably makes me pay more attention to how I’m representing my female characters. This can cause some interesting conflicts with other areas of development. It was certainly a challenge to write the mistress characters in Overlord and Overlord II – Rose, Velvet, Kelda, Juno and Dark Fay (who could also be Ghost Fay.)
Their looks (quite traditionally RPG ‘sexy’) were largely defined by the game’s artists. Their role in the games (as defined by the gameplay) was to be rescued (more or less), hang around in the dark tower, bicker with the other inhabitants and occasionally give the player rewards and secret bonus sex scenes. Making them into interesting characters fell to me and I decided that the best tactic was to make them fun, knowing, twisted, quirky, amusingly bitchy and each with their own gravitation towards the more fun side of fantasy evil. I think the amount of attention I spent on their characterisation and vocal direction helped make them good fun rather than clichéd or offensive. I’ve often found that humour can be extremely helpful when dealing with issues of sex and violence in games. It certainly worked well for the Overlord titles.
You mentioned before that Psychonauts is your favorite game–what makes it your favorite?
RP: I think it used level design as story telling in a wonderful way and managed to be both very funny and genuinely touching – which is rare for a game.
Aside from the Overlord games and Double Fine titles, humor-focused games seem to have become more of a rarity since the LucasArts/Sierra adventure game days. Why do you think that is, and are there any types of humor that games are particularly suited for?
RP: Many developers seem to view humor in games as just being a case of inserting a few funny lines into the script. I believe it’s something that needs to be factored in right from the off and built into the level design, gameplay, environments and characters. I think that’s the why the Overlord games worked well. We took humor seriously!
Is there anything you can tell us about what you’re working on now?
RP: My main game is announced, but I’m not allowed to talk about it yet (sorry!) Game development can be such a rough ride that it’s best to keep things quiet until you’re confident about the narrative. I’ve learnt that the hard way! I’m also working on the development of a UK indie movie, which is pretty exciting, especially as it has nothing to do with games. However, it does deal with some of the themes I’ve worked with during my writing career. Other than that, I’m always interested to see what’s around the next corner. That’s the great thing about what I do, I never quite know what’s coming next!
And of course, I have to ask: what have you been playing lately, if anything?
RP: I’ve just finished Alan Wake, which I enjoyed much more than I thought I would. Initially I was annoyed because it felt like they’d just borrowed wholesale from ‘80s Stephen King and David Lynch stuff. But when they got going with their own story, it was much stronger. There were some beautiful character moments. One of my favourite games of the year, so far.
Thank you for your time, Rhianna!