Exclusive interview with Rhianna Pratchett about her work on Tomb Raider, Mirror’s Edge, Overlord and more!
Recently I was given the opportunity to sit down and chat with Rhianna Pratchett about her career so far, what being a game narrative writer actually means, and try to get some info on any new projects she may be involved with. Spoiler alert: I failed:
You started off doing journalist work. How did this then transfer into writing for the actual games rather than about them?
I worked on PC Zone magazine for a couple of years on the staff. And then I left to go freelance, I always wanted to be freelance, offices never suited me really. So I spent long enough to get the contacts and then I went back to the pyjamas and writing in bed, that sort of thing. And I just got a call one day from Swen Vincke of Larian Studios and they needed a native English speaker to help polish their script for Beyond Divinity, their standalone game to Divine Divinity which I really enjoyed. I think I was the journalist that enjoyed it the most so they thought of me. Obviously I had no idea that was going to happen but as a journalist, once I got into a game, I really got into a game.
So I worked with them for a little while polishing the script, doing a little bit of original content, I wrote a little novella as well. But this was my first experience of the development side of it. At this time, I didn’t really know that games writing could even be a job. I mean, there were people doing it, but they were usually designers or producers, there wasn’t really dedicated games writers out there. I’d sort of wandered into it and then used my contacts to get a few more little projects. I did level dialogue for a Spongebob [Squarepants] game and a Pac-Man game. And I did some mission dialogue for Stronghold Legends, which was a more fantasy Stronghold game. That was done by Firefly Studios down in London, another series I’m a big fan of. So I was just doing these little things until I did Heavenly Sword which was my first ‘big’ game.
The one that was on the PS3?
Yeah, the early days of the PS3. So I’ve been doing a whole console cycle now.
As an Xbox site, we are more familiar with Mirror’s Edge and the Tomb Raider reboot and the Overlord games. But going to Mirror’s Edge, one of my all-time favourites, while there’s a story there, it’s almost hidden away in cutscenes. How does this translate into you having a say in the rest of the game, if any?
No real involvement in the rest of the game just because I came onto Mirror’s Edge so late. The whole game had been designed with no narrative in mind. The city looked like it did, but no one knew why. Faith looked like she did but no one knew who she was. The mechanics were in place but no one knew why they were parkouring around the place. A lot of what I was trying to do was fill in the gaps.
So this maybe isn’t the best example then because it was quite restrictive?
Yeah it was basically working in backwards to how you would do it for any other medium. So you know where the characters got to be, you need to work out a way to get them there. Like from the sewers to the top of an office block. So that was difficult because of the action, I had no input to that, and action equals character and you would normally have control over that in any other medium. I already had the action, I just needed to fold that into a character and what kind of world would make most sense with that to justify the action.
But normally, are you saying you have a bit of a say in the action?
Sometimes. Probably more with a game like Overlord and a smaller team. The bigger the team, the less power you get to write as a freelance writer unless you are a game director or creative director like you know the Neil Druckmann’s, Amy Hennig’s and Ken Levine’s of this world who actually have hard power. The bigger the team, you get a bigger budget, access to the best actors and the best tech but you also have hundreds of people giving you feedback. Then there are shareholders, publishers and platform holders to consider, all who want a say. But with smaller teams, it’s easier to get your voice across and your stamp on something because you’re not competing with lots of other people.
Sometimes you can have an input on the mechanics but it often depends on when you are brought on board. If it’s early, and they are still coming up with the mechanics and the world, something which I feel writers need to be more involved in, then you can have a bit of influence.
Even though the game wasn’t received very well, [Overlord] Fellowship of Evil, I came up with a mechanic for that which came out of the narrative. I’m still weirdly, slightly proud of it even though the game didn’t do very well and the mechanic didn’t work as well as it could have. It was a creeping wave of good affecting the Overlords domain as opposed to a wave of darkness popular in other fantasy games. So everything was covered in flowers and was all twinkly. And if a Minion went into it they turned into a pink bunny creature and would start attacking you. I actually thought that was a lot of fun and when we were play testing it people would get obsessed with clearing it because once you got more powerful you could burn your way through it but when you’re weak it can hurt you. It became a good level mechanic for barring your way to certain areas and giving you extra challenges. This just all came out of narrative. I still got to work in the Overlord world again which was fun but obviously as a whole it didn’t turn out so great. But it does show that if you are involved early on you can come up with these mechanics that were formed from the narrative but work on other elements as well.
Does it hurt when you get negative feedback? Especially on something you were involved with from the beginning like the Overlord series.
By and large, the Overlord games tended to get positive feedback for their script and characters. They tend to be, particularly Overlord one and two, the games that stop me from being hurled into the fiery pit of hatred on the internet. Even if people hate the rest of the games I’ve worked on ‘Oh well, she worked on Overlord.’ I clamber back out with Overlord because the team just integrated me really well and they were superb to work with. And with Fellowship of Evil I was just sad for the team because it didn’t really get the love it needed, unfortunately, for a whole variety of reasons I can’t go into. Jim Sterling [The Jimquisition] said I wasn’t funny (laughs).
Did that one hurt?
Yeah I told him that one did. I don’t think he remembers saying it at all. But it is always the negative things that stick in your head. Any writer will tell you that you get 99 positive reviews and one negative review and it’ll be the negative one that sticks with you.
So it sounds with Overlord that you were on-site a lot of the time. Does this differ from project to project?
Yes it is different. With the first two Overlord games, it’s only in The Netherlands so not too far away, I went over a few times. But I was more technologically close to the team, so I had them on IM all the time. I was linked up to their file convergence system so I could see all the documentation and could update things quickly and easily, and they could do it their end. I would talk to all the level designers and make sure the script I was writing fit with them. That still has to happen with bigger games but there are more levels of people to deal with but with Overlord I just got to talk to the people that were going to make it happen which made it much easier to do. I always look back at my time with them fondly, and I don’t know if this is rose tinted glasses with some of the other projects I’ve had to work on, but that was a really fun project. I wasn’t on-site that much but they made the effort to make sure I was properly integrated in the team despite them working with other contractors as well like the audio department was also based in the UK. They treated me like a full team member.
Is that not always the case then?
If you are freelance, you only really have the power that other people will let you. And it’s something you have to get used to as I give up power for freedom, I don’t have the power that I would if I was in-house. But I do get the freedom to work in other mediums and strengthen myself as a writer. I knew it was a difficult choice but it works for me and is one of the reasons I will never go in-house. But that does make it difficult to keep hold of things and you become very reliant on the team around you. One of the reasons the Tomb Raider games worked really well was because we are a solid team, and we’ve always been a solid team. There were two of us for the first one with Noah [Hughes] overseeing it all. Then we expanded to four for the second one. We were war buddies, in the trenches together. So the team around you is really important.
I noticed as well that Bioshock: Infinite is on your CV as well, what was your involvement with that?
It was quite minor. I was an Additional Writer so I worked on the Vox Populi and their background, nothing on the main narrative.
So you wouldn’t be able to explain the ending then?
[Laughs] No I wouldn’t be able to. Projects, especially AAA projects, you do need a full team of writers, you don’t get a situation like I did with Overlord where you can just do everything with one writer. You do need other writers doing level dialogue etc. and the Vox just fell on me. It was a real pleasure to work on and have admiration for Ken [Levine]. I’m a big fan of the Bioshock series.
Massive thank you again to Rhianna for sitting down and having a chat with me. And thank you again to everyone at Yorkshire Games Festival for arranging everything.