There is more to writing a video game story than we realise. Rhianna Pratchett gives us some insights.
Gamers the world over will recognise the name Tomb Raider instantly. The original PC game was a breakthrough in gaming technology, but the 2013 reboot gave us even more. In addition to excellent graphics, the new Tomb Raider gave players a strong, engaging story that developers soon realised would significantly enhance the gaming experience.
At the forefront of this new strategy was Rhianna Pratchett, a former journalist with a life-long love of games.
We chatted with Rhianna about Tomb Raider, the challenges of writing for games, and what projects she has in the works.
You have said that you resisted joining the writing trade, but are now a celebrated videogame writer. Could you tell us a bit about the journey to becoming a videogame writer?
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be as a kid. Or more accurately, I did, but it changed on a semi-regular basis – Lawyer, actress, artist, mermaid etc. I chose to study journalism at college. Largely because the degree was a little bit of everything, so it seemed great for people who didn’t quite know what to do with their lives, yet still want to be taught how to do something in the real world.
In my last year of college, I started doing a little work for a magazine called Minx, which was aimed at 18 to 24-year-old women. They decided (very briefly) to allow me to cover games as I’d been a gamer since I was six. This got me onto the press list for a few PR companies who started to send me review codes. Eventually, I managed to leverage this into a full-time job on PC Zone magazine. There I cut my teeth in the games industry, travelled around the work interviewing developers, played lots of games and learned more about how the industry wheels turned.
After a few years, I left my office job and headed back to the more pyjama-based world of freelancing. By a lucky coincidence, I was contacted by Larian Studios (makers of the Divinity games) who were looking for a native English speaker to act as a story editor on one of their upcoming games. They knew I was a fan of their previous titles and thought of me. I knew very little about writing for games at the time, as it wasn’t really an established role (I never met any writers during my journalism days) but it seemed like an interesting way of paying the bills.
After I finished with Larian, I decided to use some of my journalism contacts to find more narrative work. I picked up gigs wherever I could. I worked on a Sponge Bob game, a Pac Man game. Anything to get a bit of experience and credits. Eventually, I got work on Ninja Theory’s Heavenly Sword and the unusual career I was carving out for myself really started to take off.
You were at the forefront of reinventing videogame narratives. What kind of challenges did you face? Was there resistance to new ideas? How did you overcome this?
Everyone thinks they can write. Therefore, there is no shortage of people wanting to get in on the feedback and critiques. Although that’s true for all creative industries, the difference with games was that anybody could do it with no real barrier to entry.
That’s left a bit of residual feeling that ‘writer’ is just a fancy title for whoever happens to be doing the ‘word bits’ that day. Sometimes it can feel less like you are a narrative dynamo in control of your creative domain and more like you are trying to construct a daily word dance for dozens of fickle masters. All of whom have less experience and more power than you do. That can be exhausting.
Ultimately, it’s about developing a flexible and robust way of working and, ideally, educating yourself in the ways of games development (particularly in design) so that you can understand the battles and struggles other team members face and can better support them. Often working closely with other team members and showing respect for their discipline, whilst not compromising your own, can get you a long way.
There are a lot of gamers who probably don’t realise how much goes into writing a great game. How does the writing and design process for games work in conjunction with each other?
No two projects are ever the same. A lot depends on the genre of game, the time-frame, budget and the narrative vision of the team. Traditionally, writing was often done by designers, producers or literally anyone who had the time and inclination to do it. It was one part of a game’s development that wasn’t usually done by a professional in that field. That meant that narrative was left until the last minute and wasn’t given the care and attention it deserved.
Over the last decade the industry has started to embrace the idea of using writers, narrative designers, cinematic directors and other storytelling professionals, which is really starting to improve the quality of our stories and the ways in which we tell them.
Ideally, narrative and gameplay need to be developed at the same time, with each strengthening the other. Writers need to work closely with designers to make sure this happens and avoid the story becoming disconnected from the mechanics of the game. It’s also important to realise that, given the immersive nature of the medium, every facet of the game (music, art, level design, animation etc.) can contribute to the narrative whole.
Although story can be relatively cheap and easy to produce and iterate on (at least in comparison to other parts of a game) it is the glue that holds all the expensive parts together.
You’ve worked in videogames and comics. How does the medium affect your writing process?
I always find it difficult to define my ‘process’ since that sounds like I have a formula for writing when largely it boils down to thinking very hard, writing it all down and tinkering and whittling away until you’re happy with it (or as happy as a writer ever can be!).
Certainly, the mechanics of writing a comic are very different – the way you lay out the page, the details you need to include, etc. But at the same time the writer is in charge. Sort of. Often their work is driving the art, or at least pointing it in the right direction.
As a writer, it’s easier to feel a little more creative ownership over a comic project, than in a game, where you are often working in a team of hundreds of people. I’ve certainly felt that the stories I’ve written in the Tomb Raider comics were a little more mine than the stories in the games. Possibly because they didn’t involve being in a perpetual headwind of feedback and rewrites for two years.
What do you think makes Lara Croft such an enduring hero?
Lara initially came about at a time when there were very few female protagonists in games. She had a strong, unique look and an unconventional work ethic. The 3D action-adventure gameplay of the Tomb Raider games was also revolutionary at the time. It really was the perfect package for building a gaming icon.
Since then I think audiences have been captivated by her tenacity, bravery and resourcefulness and how that evolved over the course of the games. Ultimately, when you step into Lara’s well-worn boots you know that you’re in for a wild ride.
We are soon going to be seeing a new Tomb Raider film, based on the video game reboot you wrote. How excited are you about your work being translated to the big screen?
It’s great to see the recent games being such an inspiration for Tomb Raider’s return to the big screen. However, I wasn’t involved in the film, so my connection to it still feels a little distant. Especially as I’m no longer involved in the games. But ultimately anything that opens Tomb Raider to new audiences can only be a good thing
What has been your most rewarding writing experience to date? And conversely, which was your worst?
I loved working with Triumph Studios on the Overlord games, even though they weren’t shiny big-budget AAA titles. Working in a smaller team means that I could work more closely with the designers and have more control of the script from page to studio to game. I had a blast working with the voice actors and it was one of the few games which was as fun to develop as it is to play. That’s a rare thing.
The Thief reboot I worked on was probably my most disappointing project. The development was very chaotic, with lots of team changes, and I wasn’t involved for the last year. It was a shame as I was a huge fan of the franchise.
There are plenty of young writers hoping to work in the gaming industry; do you have any advice?
It’s largely threefold – Write, play and network. Keep up your writing practice. Write stories, go to classes, whatever helps you develop as a storyteller. And read. Always keep reading. Play games. Lots of them. Study the different ways in which narrative is used and the effect it has on you as a player. Then go to as many conferences and festivals as you can. Especially those with show floors where you can meet developers and find out their narrative needs or even just make friends with like-minded people.
What project(s) are you working on now?
I stepped away from the Tomb Raider franchise last year and I was working on the sadly cancelled Suicide Squad game (which was a blast!).
I’ve been working on a little indie game called Lost Words, but mainly my work now is in film and TV. I have adapted several books, including my father’s Wee Free Men and I’m currently working with Film4 on a project. Like most writers I have a lot of creative plates spinning.
Rhianna Pratchett will be speaking at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, March 1-10. Tickets available here.