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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Rhianna Pratchett on the Art of Writing Video Game Characters

It's 2007. Your partner asks you why the little, evil dudes in a certain game called Overlord speak as if they were stolen from a Monty Python sketch. Your terse response—being an evil Overlord while commanding a horde of unruly minions is hard goddamn work, after all—is that someone was paid a good amount of money to make them sound that way.

But the question sticks in your mind as the in-game banter continues to amuse, so much so that you find yourself laughing out loud. As the credits roll, you make sure to note the person responsible for the quips and barbs: Rhianna Pratchett. After a quick Google search, you find that she’s the daughter of the famous Discworld author Terry Pratchett, and that she began as a gaming journalist before crossing over to write for games rather than about them.

Since her breakthrough in Overlord, Pratchett has gone on to work on some of gaming’s biggest franchises—Mirror’s Edge, Thief, Bioshock, and Tomb Raider—and even won the prestigious Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing award at the 2016 Writers Guild of America Awards for her work on Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Pratchett recently spoke with WIRED about her illustrious career so far—including her latest game, Lost Words: Beyond the Page, a narrative platformer available for PC and all major consoles right now.

This interview has been edited for both clarity and length.

WIRED: What's the first thing you remember writing? For me, it was a short Christmas story in the first or second grade. 

RP: I'm not sure, but there was a competition when I was in primary school. And my dad had set the competition to write a short story. Now, being a fair-minded man, he wanted me to be able to enter as well, so he said, “I won't judge it. I'll just give the prize," which I think was a gift certificate for a book.


The headmaster of the school actually judged the contest. And I wrote a story about a little girl that goes back to Viking times. I was quite obsessed with Vikings at the time because I'd seen some gentlemen dressed up as Vikings going around the valley that we lived in. And I didn't really understand the concept of LARPing back then, or I guess then it was sort of live action reenactment.

I had my Asterix thermos and lunchbox with me at the time, so I remember that they drank water out of my Asterix thermos. And I gave one of the Vikings my apple then my dad wrote to my teacher saying if Rhianna talks about seeing Vikings over the weekend, it's perfectly true. And so I do remember writing that story and being slightly sheepish about winning the competition.

WIRED: So running across those LARPing Vikings is what inspired the story then?

RP: Yeah, it sort of inspired a love of Vikings. I was a big fan of Asterix, and Asterix is very good at teaching kids about history in quite a subtle way. Like you were learning about history without realizing you were learning, which is always the key to getting kids interested in history and things like that. You know, I just realized one of the first things I also remember writing was Asterix fan fiction, but I didn't know it was fan fiction at the time. I wrote an Asterix story called Asterix and the Magic Carpet.

WIRED: Very cool. So, extrapolating off of that: What is the first game you recall sucking you into its world specifically, via the narrative or story?

RP: There was a lot of game playing that I used to do with dad because I was an only child, so I didn't have any siblings to play with. So dad became a bit like an older brother, and he was very into electronics and computers and technology of all kinds, and I would sit next to him in his office. And while he played games, I would get out the graph paper, and I would draw the maps for him. Later, I heard from a friend of the family—and I don't remember this, but it sounds like something he might do—he used to pay me to complete the early levels of things like Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy, if he couldn't be bothered to.

WIRED: Sounds like your dad was an innovator of the whole “gold farming” thing before that was really a thing.

RP: I didn't know what I was doing or he was doing, really. It was like he suddenly dropped a few extra coins in my piggy bank or something like that. But games with stories, right? I used to play adventure games with a little girl who lived next door to me, Katie. There were no girls my own age around until Katie moved next door. Her dad worked for Hewlett Packard, so he used to get all the top PCs and the top adventure games at the time and obviously during the ’80s it was still the heyday of adventure games and things like King's Quest, Space Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry. Things like that.

WIRED: I don't know if two young kids should be playing Leisure Suit Larry though…

RP: Well, it was “age gated” and all that. I remember it used to ask us questions about the American political process. So, we would sometimes have to go look things up in books to keep playing. But back then, it was just a collection of pixels and it wasn't particularly risqué. Although we did learn the word “prophylactic” from Leisure Suit Larry, so that's important.

WIRED: Do you miss writing about games rather than for them? You started off as a video game journalist rather than somebody who actually writes scripts and dialog for games.

RP: I don't know how games journalism is in the US, but when I started over here I was actually writing for a women's magazine called Minx which was aimed at 18- to 24-year-old young women. And I was a big fan of the magazine. In the last year of my university degree I was sort of told to hit up different publications for work. So I wrote something, which I can't remember what it was, and I mocked it up to look like a page in the publication and sent it and that caught their attention. And the reviews editor got me to do a couple of bits and pieces and I think I wrote a little review about one of Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels.

Then I wrote something about being a “lady gamer” and I think that caught their attention because they decided to cover games for a few issues. And that got me on the press list for PR people in the UK who send out codes to access games. There were very few women doing that then, but there are lots of women in PR, so I think that I was somewhat of a novelty. So I did a bit of game reviewing for Minx while still trying to find a full-time magazine job. I interviewed at PC Pro, which was really too tacky for me, but it was kind of like, “I really need to get a proper job,” because what I was doing at the time was a lot of mystery shopping and mystery traveling.

Then I met the reviews editor of a new magazine that was coming out called PC Gear, and I met him at the launch party for the third Tomb Raider game. And dad had been a big fan of the Tomb Raider series. I got to be his “plus one” to the launch of Tomb Raider 3, which was held at the Natural History Museum. There I met Dan Emery, who was the reviews editor for PC Gear. They were starting up and looking for folks to review games. By then I was on the press list for a few PR companies, and I started doing a little bit of work for PC Gear.

Then Dan recommended me for an editorial position on PC Zone, which is the oldest running UK games magazine, and I was a big fan of it. I went into the interview and just ranted about how I totally disagreed with their Diablo II rating. And that seemed to secure it for me. I spent a couple of years working as the assistant section editor for PC Zone, and I did all the small, weird stuff at the back of the mag.

WIRED: The “nuts and bolts” type stuff?

RP: Yeah, help letters, cheats, internet news. All kinds of little bits and pieces which definitely introduced me to a few characters in the games industry during my time there. And I spent a couple of years there going around the world, talking to developers, and just seeing how sausage was made.

Then I went to freelance for The Guardian, which has always had very supportive games coverage. The Guardian gig led me to Larian Studios working on Beyond Divinity, which I think I was probably the biggest fan of in the UK. And I think they [Larian Studios] remembered me because the rest of the British press hadn't been quite so keen on it back then. Once I finished writing for Beyond Divinity, I was like, “What! This is amazing!” Specific game writers were not really a thing then, so I didn't really know what I was doing, it seemed like a much more interesting way of paying the bills than the constant round of pitching that you have to do as a journalist.

WIRED: You've written comics, games, TV scripts, and journalistic pieces … which do you find easiest and/or the most rewarding? 

RP: I have some kind of bits of prose, but I don't think it's necessarily where I'm strongest. It's something that I've been working on. I think I probably enjoy just the general scriptwriting, whether it's for film, TV, or games. That sort of cinematic style of scriptwriting, I enjoy that a lot. But I also sort of enjoy world-building as well, that you don't get so much of in film and TV. That's one of the things I really love about games, the world-building side of things.

Heavenly Sword was my first big game, but prior to that I worked on a couple games doing mission dialog, or level dialog, or things like that. I really did little bits. Every game was a little bit of a step up. So I started with Beyond Divinity and then I did some work on a Pac-Man game and I did some work on a SpongeBob game. I did mission dialog for Stronghold Legends, which I was a big fan of as they are kind of castle-building sims. So I built it out from there until I started work on Heavenly Sword for the PS3.

WIRED: I loved Heavenly Sword. I'm still waiting for a sequel. 

RP: Me too, me too. That game really sort of set me on the path for a very cinematic style of storytelling, and particularly female-led stuff as well. It was hard, but it was a real baptism of fire. For all of us at [Heavenly Sword developers] Ninja Theory, I think. We were all kind of learning. But getting to learn much more about how stories are put together. And, of course, being able to work with people like Andy Serkis and Anna Torv was such a great experience. And that experience led me on to things like Mirror's Edge and the Tomb Raider reboots.

WIRED: Do you have a specific writing process or schedule that you follow, like listening to music or going to a specific place or spot? 

RP: I always had a healthy fear of deadlines. I always hit a deadline because I trained as a journalist. I now have a proper office in my house. So I go there to write. If I'm stuck, I have a window seat. I guess you could call it a daybed. It's a very wide window seat. There are lots of soft blankets and cushions there. And it's particularly nice when it's raining. I've fallen asleep on it a lot of times, but it's a really good place to go and think.

WIRED: Falling asleep is one thing I can say I’ve never done while trying to write.

RP: Well, you lie down, pull the blankets over yourself then hope inspiration comes before sleep does, but if sleep turns up you probably needed it anyway … so it's all good.

WIRED: What's a game you wish you would have written and or a project that “got away”? It seems to me something like the Fable series would have been right in your wheelhouse.

RP: Well, there is certainly a cool kind of crossover in Overlord and Fable, I think, if you play your Overlord to focus on the fun, evil side of things. Honestly, a Fable recruiter did hit me and my agent up about it at one point and then sort of ghosted us, which I was slightly disappointed about. I'm a big Psychonauts fan. I would have loved to work on the first game. I've kind of nudged  [Psychonauts creator] Tim Schafer a few times about the game. But they've clearly got their own folks working on that. And in some ways, at least that means that I can play it without having to get anxious about the lines not being funny or not triggering right. I find it very difficult to play my own games because you notice that you're forever critiquing yourself, especially if you've been a critic. You’ve got this argument happening inside you. But when I played the Overlord games I would laugh at my own jokes at times because I'd forgotten I'd written them. 

The [2014 reboot] Thief game I worked on was a missed opportunity, I think. It didn't turn out as I would have liked, is probably the polite way of putting it. I did some work on that prior to working on Tomb Raider

I am interested in what the developers that tend to do hypermasculine worlds would do with more female-lead stuff. I remember being really disappointed with GTA V that the three characters were all guys. I know that the Housers [Daniel and Sam Houser, co-founders of Rockstar Games and developers behind Grand Theft Auto] have talked about the GTA series as being an exploration of masculinity and I thought well, masculinity is not just the domain of men and femininity is not just the domain of women. It felt like it would have been more interesting to me to see a woman operating in that kind of world because there were some great female characters in The Wire that kind of had to operate in a masculine criminal underworld. Same with some of the women and stories in Orange Is the New Black. I’d like those developers that excel at the hypermasculine stuff to take a stab at female-lead stories and look at the things that would come out of that, the textures and nuances and all sorts of interesting stuff that we haven't seen before because there hasn’t been a lot of 18/M rated, first-person or third-person shooters with a female lead. I’d really like to see more female characters in that context.

WIRED: So, I think I have the headline for this piece now: “Rhianna Pratchett Wants to Write the Next Call of Duty.”

RP: Haha … not exactly. Maybe something in the Red Dead Redemption world.

WIRED: There's a great, strong female character in Red Dead Redemption 2, Sadie Adler, who has a rather compelling character arc in the overall story. And everybody was saying then, “This character should get her own DLC and her own adventure.” Obviously, that hasn't happened yet.

RP: Yeah. A shame, that. Let me just say that I don't really like the term “strong female character” because you don’t call male characters strong, you can just call them interesting, or textured, or complicated, or temperamental, or stubborn. We don't call them strong because they're assumed to be strong. They don't always try to find it and take time to find the kind of nuance and texture and uniqueness of a female character’s story. That's one of the reasons I really loved Mirror’s Edge, although I didn't come in early enough to do what I would have liked to have done with the game. But there's this cool-looking Asian American female and she's dressed for what she's doing. She is pictured with a gun sometimes but she rarely uses it and she actually says he doesn't like guns in the game. There’s a ludonarrative dissonance problem there where the gameplay is telling you one thing about the character and the story is telling you another thing about the character, but we still haven't got to the heart of that, and I think creating more diverse gameplay experiences will help us align gameplay and character a little better.

WIRED: Who is your favorite character you've ever created or written for?

RP: That's difficult. I’m glad it's difficult because that means it's probably been more than one. I have a real soft spot for Lara. The three main ladies I've worked on: Faith (Mirror’s Edge), Nariko (Heavenly Sword), and Lara (Tomb Raider), I have a lot of love for all three. So I can't really pick one … that's a bit like asking me to make a Sophie's Choice.

WIRED: As I recall, there was a bit of controversy about the opening sequences of Rise of the Tomb Raider with implied sexual assault. Lara is fighting for her life there. She's in these holes and tunnels and the bad guys are chasing her and when things go south, well, the allusions are quite ugly. Can you discuss some of your thoughts on that, or how that content was approached?

RP: I mean, it was a game and things like the deaths and stuff I had nothing to do with, and I found them a little traumatic myself. It's quite like you’re almost like a surrogate mother or father to this character. You’re invested with a character so deeply that it's like, “Oh, my child is getting hurt or robbed.”

What became the controversy was not something that was ever designed to be particularly controversial. I think it was just talked about in a way that wasn't completely accurate, and that caused a little bit of discussion on the internet for a while. I wasn't always the biggest fan of the quite brutal deaths because you know, they're quite full on and then the camera sort of lingers a bit. 

WIRED: Yeah, it's almost like watching a snuff film in video game form. I recall having the distinct thought of: “Wait a minute, what am I playing?”

RP: I did suggest for Rise of the Tomb Raider that they could put in a gore filter so that the camera might blur at a certain point. You blur out the gore and don’t linger on the death. And yeah, that didn't happen. But I think it would have been a nice option to have because, you know, if you're invested in your character that's not what you want to see happening.

WIRED: Your latest game, Lost Words, is quite a charming, watercolor-hued experience. Did you have a hand in overall development or were you hired as a contractor? Because it seems, at least to me, that the overarching story told in Lost Words is somewhat autobiographical.

RP: Well, yes and no. There's definitely moments, anecdotes from my own life, that I've either changed a little bit and weaved in, or I've just used for inspiration for something. But it's all very random, like the way I was into Vikings as a kid and [Lost Worlds protagonist] Izzy also likes Vikings and is very sad when she gets a D on her Viking essay.

WIRED: The main narrative literally unfolds through Izzy’s journals. I'm assuming you did a lot of that as a kid a well?

RP: I never did. I remember going through phases where I sort of started it and then I decided no, I didn't want to write my thoughts down, and I wanted to keep them safe inside my head. So I didn't, but I've occasionally done it as an adult when I've been going through traumatic times. But yeah, the shorter answer to the question is, I wasn’t a prolific journaler at all.

WIRED: In a part of the journal sequence in the game there’s a cool Star Wars homage. Was that something you brought to it in terms of narrative, or was that something that came from a design perspective and you wrote on top of?

RP: I think a little of it came from the design. It’s half and half actually. I think half came through design and I came up with Darth Gran… 

WIRED: I’ve got to say that made me laugh. How do you see story in interactive entertainment evolving? Do you think it's going to be in the realms of virtual reality, or do you see it being something as simple as a [open-source game design tool] Twine game that's going to come out of nowhere and blow everyone's minds?

RP: No, I don't know if there's going to be one thing. I'm really interested to see how virtual reality evolves. I’ve been playing Arizona Sunshine, which is a VR zombie game. It's a very popular zombie game and it was kind of fun, but there was virtually no story. There was quite a limited interaction with the world. I enjoyed the shooting-zombies part and playing it with someone else was good fun, but it’s like an arcade game from the ’80s in terms of just being mindless fun. So I don't think there's going to be one thing. I think we all will continue improving. I'm hoping that the big AAA games will grow and look for more ways of interacting with the players.

WIRED: So, if one of the AAA developers—the EAs, the Ubisofts, the Activisions of the world—backed up the Brink’s truck and said, “Hey, Rhianna, we want to be in business with you, make us your game!” What game are you making?

RP: Oh, gosh, I don't know. I think it would have to be some kind of wilderness survival game. I don't have an automatic answer for this because I'm so used to working within other people's worlds and parameters, even if I'm bringing my own voice to the world, it still feels like a complete dream that anyone would ever ask me to do that. I really liked the seasonal aspect of Don’t Starve. For example, the different monsters you face in the different seasons that you have to deal with. There's a lot of things I like from the wilderness survival genre. Also, male characters are allowed to age where women have to remain under 30 at all times.

WIRED: You want to make an “old lady steeling herself against the brutal elements out in the wilderness” game, then?

RP: Yes, an old fucking lady who wants to build castles in the wilderness. Like you are Baba Yaga and you're living in the wilderness and you have a house on chicken legs. No … not really. I just want to see an older female protagonist. So, yeah, old lady in the wilderness. An old lady who lives in the wilderness and then solves crimes!

WIRED: Like Murder, She Wrote in the woods?

RP: Yeah, exactly. I worked on a crime-solving game, a CSI game, and I kind of like those as well. The game then would be part of the time in welfare and wilderness management and then the crime-solving bits.

WIRED: I think that would be a most interesting time. I've always really, really appreciated a game that could blend genres well.

RP: Maybe I'm sort of also the local wise woman? So you've got to solve various problems for the village while also trying not to get burned at the stake as a witch and then you’re trying to get by in the wilderness.

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