PAX Australia has a track record of attracting intriguing keynote speakers. Rhianna Pratchett, the writer who worked on Bioshock Infinite, the recent Tomb Raider games, Overlord and Mirror’s Edge, joins that club this year.
So in advance of her PAX Q&A, I spent an hour chatting to Pratchett about the practical process of writing in video games, working from home, and the art of narrative triage.
This story has been republished ahead of PAX Australia later this month, where Rhianna Pratchett is the keynote speaker.
Pratchett’s career in video games writing is a common patch: like others, she started in games criticism and journalism first. She’d just gotten published for a snippet on one of Neil Gaiman’s Death graphic novels, and the editor of Minx asked if Pratchett would be interested in writing about video games.
That later turned into a staff job at PC Zone magazine, where Pratchett was able to build up a network of contacts and wealth of knowledge about the industry. “I didn’t really know it existed as a career – I’m not even sure it did as a solo career, a games writer who just did games writing, so I kind of went into it accidentally,” she said.
“I’d just left PC Zone … I’d gone freelance, and I was phoned by Sven [the founder of Larian Studios] and his PR guy, and they were throwing around names who might be available to be a story editor on Beyond Divinity, and they knew I was a big fan of their previous game. And they thought of me, and it just so happens that it coincided with me going freelance.”
Pratchett’s work then involved polishing up Larian’s existing script, while producing original material and holding all the strands of an RPG together. “It was the early days of Divinity games,” she said.
But the experience opened a window. “This is an interesting way of paying the bills – this feels better than endless rounds of pitches to editors. I’ll see if I can get more work like this,” Pratchett explained, following up that interest with some casual emails to the contacts she’d made in the industry seeing if any studios were interested.
That opened up the door for a smattering of work: level dialogue on a Pac-Man and Spongebob game, writing for a castle-building game, and Pratchett continued on that path until she worked on Heavenly Sword.
An intriguing part of the process is the actual, practical implementation of writing for a video game. Different studios have different tools. Larian, for instance, had a bespoke dialogue system for Beyond Divinity that took some time to become accustomed to. “It was quite tricky to get my head around, but that’s always the case with RPGs when you’re dealing with so many different threads of dialogue and different outcomes, you need to build your own tools,” Pratchett said.
More cinematic games, like the Tomb Raider reboots, were done in Word documents that were layered more like a traditional screenplay. “Final Draft, it’s obviously still a big player in movie and TV screenwriting, although there are different programs out there now … I have been on projects where they’ve tried to use Final Draft, but the problem is that everyone who needs to read it needs to have Final Draft as well,” she said.
Pratchett added that while the work on the Tomb Raider games from her end was done in traditional documents, people inside Crystal Dynamics would import that into their internal dialogue management system. “It didn’t require – I wasn’t required to write into it – but I think maybe some of the narrative designers on site wrote into it,” she said.
Each project is different though: Pratchett has even worked on projects that used Microsoft Excel. “[It’s] deeply unsexy, and terrible thing to give to actors, but it’s used a lot because it’s easier to manage lines in something like Excel.”
While Pratchett’s career as a games writer has won plenty of acclaim, a lot of that work is still on a freelance basis. At multiple points throughout our conversation, she mentions working off-site, or in-house writers that will import work into the engine and toolset for that particular game. Pratchett still works full-time, but it’s largely all done from home.
“Most of the time, I always say that I’d go off-site to write and I come on-site to fight,” she explained. “You do a lot of the working out stuff and heavy narrative lifting on-site with other people, like the creative director, narrative designers, and you’re working through problems.”
“Most of the projects I’ve had time on site, working through problems, and on Tomb Raider I used to – both the Tomb Raiders, actually – I used to spend the morning in meetings with the guys at Crystal, and then I would go back to the hotel and write up new scenes, and do whatever kind of writing that needed to be done, file that at the end of the day and then we would go through that in the morning.”
Writing out of the office has plenty of advantages: no office politics, for a start, but it’s also much easier to work through blocks of narrative when your train of thought isn’t being railroaded by meetings or colleagues saddling up to your desk. Pratchett was adamant that you needed a balance, however, which is what Crystal Dynamics did for Rise of the Tomb Raider.
“We were balanced between on-site and off-site people, on-site people who could work closely with the design team and make sure that everything they was doing was being supported by the writing, what we were doing was being supported by design, and then off-site writers — which were myself for quite a long time, then Philip Gelatt – we could focus on doing the writing, the iterations, and not have to do all the endless rounds of meetings,” Pratchett said.
Given that so many of Pratchett’s crucial narrative elements are borne out of solitude, I asked if there was a particular routine or setup she had. Were noise cancelling headphones the order of the day? A particular cup of tea? Pratchett explained that her schedule wasn’t that rigid, but having just moved house when we spoke, but she’d been using some apps to get back into the groove because of the move.
“Quite recently I’ve been using an app for managing my time – focusing my time – because I’ve had a couple of weeks … where I haven’t done any writing,” she said. “I’m the kind of person who finds it quite easy to go from 60 to 120 miles per hour, much easier than going from 0 to 60. So to try to get myself up to speed again, I’ve used time focusing apps, fiddling around with what block of time I want to write and focus, what breaks I want … that’s quite militant, but it’s been good for getting me back up to speed again.”
“It’s made me work out, OK, how much full-on creative writing can I do a day, how many breaks I need, that kind of thing. I make my own hours, stare at the empty page until blood comes out of my eyes and at some point I start writing, and then it all kind of happens.”
Pratchett doesn’t have an office or specific room where she goes to writing, mainly because she’d been renting for the last year and a half. “I have a little wheelie desk that is a bit like the kind of desks you get in hospitals … this one is specifically designed for a laptop, and it’s got a separate little mouse desk, and it goes on my bed. So I often sit on my bed and write – it’s a bit studenty, actually,” Pratchett explained.
“Maybe being comfortable, maybe having the possibility to lie down at any point – maybe this is why I don’t suit an office environment. Being able to lie down, have a big think, have a short nap, cuddle a cat, make a cup of tea, I think I need a comfy, cozy environment to write in, a writerly burrow. But I don’t have an office at the moment, and that’s working out quite well.”
Because Pratchett isn’t full-time at any one studio, companies will often bring her into a project after a treatment or synopsis has already been prepared. Sometimes it happens late in the piece, which is what led Pratchett to coin the term “narrative paramedic”, a moniker for writers that are brought in to save a project.
“I coined the term narrative paramedic for how writers get used in the games industry, when they get hired late in the process, when the story was bleeding profusely, and just told to save it,” she explained. “But there would be all these conditions to save it: ‘You can save it, but all the scenes must be exactly the same length as they are now.’ Or ‘you’ve got to save it, but every line has got to be exactly the same length as the line is now’. All sorts of weird conditions like that.”
Mirror’s Edge didn’t have weird conditions like that, but as Pratchett explained, it was a classic scenario where the developers built the game before they thought to build the in-game world. “The trouble was that they designed a lot of the game with no narrative in mind,” Pratchett said.
“They designed the visuals of the world, the mechanics, how Faith moves through the world, the parkouring aspect, what Faith looked like, what the other characters looked like, with no narrative in mind. So nobody had thought very much about why the world looks like this, how that came to be, why Faith moves through the world like this, and none of those questions – which would be fundamental if you were working on a TV or screenplay – had been answered. So you had to go back and retrofit narrative around scenes and mechanics and level, which is a very backwards way of doing things.”
Off-site writers will more commonly get brought in about a year into development, which gives a team time to do lots of prototyping, asset building, nailing down settings and other art work. As the industry transitions to adopt more cinematic directors, narrative designers and storyboard artists, however, that process has become easier for writers on Pratchett’s side of the fence.
“As more and more development teams embrace narrative designers and cinematic directors, storyboard artists, narrative directors, it’s more likely that there will be some thought gone into the narrative that you can work with,” she said. Tomb Raider, for instance, had received some pre-production on the story before Crystal Dynamics contracted Pratchett as lead writer, providing a series of boundaries and guidelines that she was able to work with.
Pratchett mentioned earlier that you go off-site to write, and on-site to fight. Not all of those battles were victories, and one such fight she described to me was the characterisation in Rise of the Tomb Raider, where Lara turns to her father’s research to find answers, while coping with her own posttraumatic stress disorder.
Pratchett has already been vocal about not wanting Lara’s father to be as prominent in the story as he was, and I asked her about the importance of female protagonists being defined by their own motivations and traits, rather than the people (particularly male characters) around them.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily defined – and I had to sort of wrestle with that in kind of, Lara sort of wrestles with that as well, and I wrestle with that in my real-world life, in that I wrestle with being my own person, having my own career and also being the daughter of a genius-level [writer] in a similar career and incredibly well known,” Pratchett said, referring to her late father, Sir Terry Pratchett. “So I’ve definitely had real-world experience of dealing with that.”
It’s an established trope, and it can be just as one-dimensional across the gender spectrum. “So while it’s already assumed that the women can feel, they just need to be made strong by terror and violence. Men: they’re already strong, so they’re need to be made to feel by terrible things happening to women in their lives.”
“There are these particular things; it’s a trope of action-adventure games and stories involving women, like fridging female characters as well to give male characters pain, or putting female characters through rape or sexual assault or some other terrible violent event to make them strong, and with guys it’s also like the women gets put through some terrible event to make the men strong, or to make them emotional or to make them feel.”
In Rise of the Tomb Raider, Pratchett would have preferred to play on Lara’s PTSD a lot more. Instead of returning to her father’s research, Pratchett would have rather Lara’s curiosity and need to find answers been the main motivation.
“I would have liked to have done things like playing more with her PTSD, maybe having things like twisted versions of sequences of the first game that you have to replay, because she’s always replaying them in her head, and they end in different ways that you didn’t see in the first game, and trying to reflect aspects of PTSD,” she said. “But that was something that [Crystal Dynamics] decided not to follow, and I’m not in charge of anything like that, so it’s just kind of my fantasy musings.”
“I would have rather … [Lara] wanted to find out if there were other things in the world if she’d really seen and witnessed what she had, that it wasn’t a hallucination brought on by dehydration, that she really had uncovered secrets about the world, and she needed to find more evidence of that.”
Lara ultimately did define her own path in Rise of the Tomb Raider, although she treads the same path that he walked for a period. “So as long as there was that own balance, not defining herself by her own father – it’s still about finding herself and finding answers for herself, but she’s treading a similar path to do it, but ultimately she finds her own way through that.”
Talking to someone with as much experience in games writing is a reminder of how far narrative in games has come, not only in the way studios think about narratives during development, but also the themes and the manner in which games try to tackle them.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was one example, with Pratchett pointing out the help provided by the Wellcome Trust’s Public Engagement Fund. The trust is a foundation in England that gives grants to projects in film, TV and video games that have a biological or neurological component. Part of the grant process also comes with support from consultants, who work with recipients. For Hellblade, that meant replicating Senua’s psychosis in a convincing and sensitive way, and so University of Cambridge’s Professor Paul Fletcher became integral to the game’s development.
Another project supported by the trust is Lost Words, a platformer set in the pages of a diary. It’s the first project that Pratchett has worked on that’s involved building the story from the ground up, although developers Sketchbook Games had worked on the story and in-game world before Pratchett was brought on.
But the fact that bodies like the Wellcome Trust exist is an indication of the power games can have, particularly when done well. “I think [Hellblade] was done in a very thoughtful and intelligent way – it’s just won 5 BAFTAs – so that’s a great example of aspects of [mental illness] being taken seriously, and not just as a theme, as a topic, but actually built into the mechanics of the game.”
“That’s where games really shine: because we have this ability to communicate theme through mechanics. When we have ways of doing that, you can get a very powerful experience for the player.”
A shot from one of the Discworld games, made in the late ’90s.
Pratchett’s work has slowly gravitated towards traditional media over the years. Deadline revealed earlier this year that Narrativia, the production group with exclusive rights to the Discworld universe, was working with BBC Studios to develop a police procedural series based on the Discworld universe, called The Watch.
But while Pratchett confirmed that The Watch was ongoing, she wasn’t “actively involved”. “There’s been various different hoops … I’ve been working on Wee Free Men, I’ve also got my own projects, so it is still in development … I hope to be involved at some point, and I’m sure I’m going to be,” she said.
Pratchett first announced she was working on a film adaptation of Wee Free Men back in 2013, with The Jim Henson Company announcing in 2016 that they would co-develop the film. Work on that has since progressed to the “pitching stage”, as Pratchett described it.
“We’ve been working very happily with the [Jim Henson Company] and we’re at the pitching stage, where we’re taking the script out to financiers soon, so that’s a whole other world of terror,” she said.
Something that we won’t see any time soon, however, is a return of the original Discworld games. As I reported prior, the rights to Discworld 1, its sequel, and Discworld Noir, are in limbo.
“We’ve certainly been talking to companies like GOG and Nightdive about possibilities of getting a re-release, but we don’t own the game … we own the [Discworld] characters and that has obviously come back to us, but we don’t own the rights to publish a game.”
While the late Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld has been adapted to all manner of mediums, the genius author's quirky universe has only been translated into video games a handful of times. And according to Rhianna Pratchett, an award-winning games writer in her own right, those games will probably never see the light of day again.Read more
Pratchett’s talk at PAX Australia later this year will be more of a “fireside chat”, and while there will be an assigned moderator there will be opportunities to take questions from the crowd. “I do like being interviewed on stage and taking questions from the audience; it’s a much more friendly, accessible way of doing things.”