Please note this interview has been translated from its original Spanish text, and all credit goes to Indieorama for letting us put up the English translation.
This interview also contains slight spoilers for The Walking Dead and Heavenly Sword, so read at your own discretion.
Indieorama: Let’s start talking about your preferences as a writer. ‘Til now, you’ve worked on multiple genres: epic fantasy, sci-fi, even stories based on our modern world, like Tomb Raider. With which one do you feel more comfortable?
Rhianna Pratchett: I’m not sure if I have a “most comfortable” genre. I think there are interesting challenges in all the genres I’ve worked in. I like games where I can put in a little bit of humor, like the Overlord series. Really, I feel most comfortable with games where I can get my teeth really stuck into the characters.
IOR: Really, all your games have very strong main characters. That’s something you’ve talked about sometimes in other interviews.
RP: Comfort also depends a lot on the team you’re working with and the scope and agency you’ve got for the narrative component of a game.
RP: Neither. Games work in a very different way compared to other entertainment media. Usually the gameplay, level design and art will be conceived first by the developers behind the project. At that stage, they’re only likely to have a writer (or narrative designer) involved if they have one working full-time, on staff, which is pretty rare outside the big studios.
As I work freelance, I am normally called onto a project somewhere between one and two years into development, and I’m given the existing elements to work with. So that might mean a synopsis and some character bios, as with Tomb Raider, or it could mean the whole game has been designed with no narrative in mind, like Mirror’s Edge. My job is to take what exists, fill in all the gaps, sew it together and make it work within the mechanics of the game. And, of course, write the scripts, alongside fleshing out the characters, bios, backstories, relationships and a large amount of world-building.
Games are not normally created by the writer, unless the writer is also someone like Ken Levine, but even then, there’s still a large team working on fleshing out the idea across all departments.
IOR: That’s really interesting, because I think the work of a video game writer is still pretty unknown, at least to the general public. We tend to think he/she is like a TV show writer, maybe. But there are strict premises to follow, as you say: gameplay, mechanics… Do you ever feel “frustrated,” maybe, by not having total freedom?
RP: It’s the nature of the beast, really. I think that developers would benefit from getting writers in earlier to help them create the narrative premise for their games, and the logic behind their worlds, characters and mechanics.
IOR: Those are my feelings too.
RP: Writers are skilled at this sort of thing. It’s not merely about the writing; it’s about creating the worlds.
IOR: As a literature lover, and a fantasy lover, there is something that bothers me. We don’t see too many fantasy or sci-fi writers that make scripts for video games nowadays. Recently, we’ve had Orson Scott Card (he wrote the script for the game Firefall) and R.A. Salvatore (Kingdom of Amalur). Maybe companies still see literature as a separate world, whereas video games have grown in the past few years, becoming more and more complex with their plots. Do you think it’d be necessary to promote this? More writers “from the outside” entering video games?
RP: When it comes to control, games writers are at the other end of the spectrum to novelists. A novelist has ultimate control over their work. Okay, so they will have an editor involved, but it’s still their baby. In games, narrative is just one department fighting for space and agency alongside gameplay design, level design, art, sound, music, etc. Writers rarely have the hard power on a project, unless you’re Ken Levine or Tim Schafer.
IOR: So a “pure writer” probably will suffocate in that enviroment, right?
RP: Tim always tells me, “Rhianna, you won’t get real power unless you start your own studio.”
IOR: It seems he took his own words and made them real.
RP: Well, a writer who is used to having ultimate control might well suffer. Being able to work with, and understand the needs of, other departments is all part and parcel of games writing.
IOR: You lose control on one hand, but on the other hand, you gain perspective, I suppose. And that’s something good too. Some writers have the habit of hiding their head below their desk.
RP: As a games writer, you have to be pro-active. You’ve got to get in there, ask questions, see what’s going on, understand how your work is being used and why. My dad doesn’t really understand why developers don’t just listen to the writer.
IOR: Haha, I bet. About the control of your writing, what differences have you noticed so far between writing for indie video games, in comparison to major companies? Do they generally give you more freedom when creating? They’re smaller, with less staff, so I guess it’s a more comfortable environment.
RP: Smaller teams often mean that there’s more trust and fewer people that have to sign off on your work or want to interfere with it. There’s still a rush at certain points, because crunch periods are common to both indie games and non-indies. Beatbuddy was a rush, simply because they found me quite late. So I turned around their story and script in about two weeks. Something like Overlord, which was a much bigger game, while still being fairly indie, was a longer job. On those games, I also worked on the casting and audio direction.
IOR: I guess that helped you enrich the story you had in mind, knowing how the characters were going to “sound.” Do you like to know these details when writing, actually? Not only game mechanics, but also background music, voices, etc.
RP: To a degree, yes. Casting is usually done half way through the writing, although it might be done before on a bigger project. With audio directing, it’s more a case of knowing how you’d like the character to sound and being able to communicate that to an actor. I don’t need to know about the music, but it is very useful to have links to the audio department for things like casting, directing, performance feedback, etc. Likewise, you also need links to the gameplay and level design departments.
IOR: I was going to ask you about the music, in fact, because of Beatbuddy. How do you confront the writing for a genre like this? Did rhythm or music style influence your narrative?
RP: When I came onto Beatbuddy, the initial story they had wasn’t about music. That was the first thing I wanted to work on. I explained to them that this was a game about music, about rhythm, harmony and beat and their importance in the world. Therefore, it needed to be a story about music, because the story needs to be about what the player does and why.
IOR: Having to work with Austin Wintory also helped a lot, I suppose. I think he is a really talented musician, and his works are very expressive, almost visual.
RP: Austin is great, and he’s very in touch with the indie scene, which is why I asked him if he could keep an eye out for cool indie projects that might benefit from my attention, because I never normally get asked to work on them.
IOR: That’s a pity. You’d probably find a lot of unique opportunities to challenge yourself with in the indie scene. Let’s talk a little about indie, actually. And let’s make a trip to the past…
IOR: We’ve read that your first experience as a gamer, or maybe the one you remember most deeply, was Mazogs, on the ZX81. These games, even with few elements on screen, were able to create a whole story and make us connect with its main characters, even though they were just a bunch of pixels back then. Nowadays, it seems that the indie scene is revisiting these elements, using minimalism with intentions other than just a vehicle for nostalgia. What do you think about this trend, about games like Thomas Was Alone? Would you like the idea of writing a script for a game like that?
RP: Oh, absolutely. It’s all about the challenges. You just don’t know what you can do until you get the opportunities, or you make them! I really love the narrative in Bastion, for example.
IOR: Like Bastion, we’ve recently seen some games that explore innovative forms of narration. For instance, Dear Esther, where the backdrop itself acts as the main character, or Storyteller, the game Daniel Benmergui is developing now, where the player becomes the narrator of the story, creating it while they’re playing. Is there any “risky” idea in your mind you’d like to explore… or play? Is there anything lacking, in your opinion, in video game scripts?
RP: No specific ideas as yet for games. I tend to actually enjoy working on other people’s embryo ideas and helping flesh them out and contribute new ideas and direction. If I had the backing of a strong team behind me, then that probably wouldn’t seem so scary. I tend to work on my own original ideas in the TV/film space more than games, because no one ever really comes to writers for original game ideas.
IOR: One of the editors and I were talking about Telltale’s The Walking Dead. It’s indeed a sad game; we’re used to playing games where everything ends well, where players have a reward for beating the odds. But TWD is all about choices, and sometimes, there seems to be no good one. Do you see this style of narration as more advanced, as a more mature kind of story? Do you think games should get rid of the moral and happy endings in order to build complex stories, maybe like literature does?
RP: I’ll show you this quote from my boss on Tomb Raider, about our ending for the game. So, originally, we did have more of a down, bittersweet ending for the game. But it was grating against what players seem to want through focus testing, etc. They wanted to “win.”
IOR: But this idea of “Okay, I’ve won, but I’ve lost so many on the way; is this what I really wanted?” is not often seen. Getting back to The Walking Dead, do you think players don’t feel it’s a happy ending to know Clementine is safe, for instance?
RP: I’m not sure that downbeat endings in themselves are especially mature, because it’s really down to how the rest of the story is structured. Obviously, there have been some great movies with downbeat endings, such as Chinatown or The Descent.
IOR: Yeah, obviously there are more things at stake, not only “sadness,” to make a mature story.
RP: I think TWD ending played very well to what the majority of players were doing in the game, i.e. trying to protect Clem, trying to guide her, etc. Well, we actually did that in Heavenly Sword. What Nariko does, she does for Kai. To give her a chance of a better life, of a future, something Nariko has been denied. But knowing that gives Nariko peace, even if she’s giving up her life for it.
IOR: That’s a classic theme, the sacrifice of the hero.
Well, setting aside narration, a few words about your views as a former video games journalist. Just briefly, how do you see video game journalism/critics in the days of the “media boom?”
RP: I think that it’s great we’re seeing more female journalists out there. When I started, there were hardly any in the UK. Now, I can name about a dozen. It’s a shame to see the decline of print press, which is where I come from. There’s something wonderful about seeing your word on the printed page. I like the fact that the press is encouraging a lot more debate about the tone and content of video games, the representation of characters, the importance of narrative and the role of marketing.
IOR: I wouldn’t like to end without talking a little about Discworld, if you don’t mind. Not everyone has a dad like Terry Pratchett! We’ve read that he introduced you to video games, giving you Mazogs as a present. Has he ever played any of your games? Would you say there’s any “Pratchett touch,” even a tiny bit, in your games? Maybe in Overlord’s sense of humor?
RP: He’s never played any of my games, as far as I know, mainly because he’s never been into consoles, but also because it’s hard for him to play these days. And yeah, I guess there’s a Pratchett-y way of looking at the world. [laughs]
RP: I think it’s much better to do a game set in Discworld, as with the previous games, than a game of a specific novel, because everyone would know what happens! I think a game with its own story works best, against the backdrop of Discworld.
IOR: So you like these “canonic iterations” of Discworld, then. I guess you’ve played the games. They were really challenging, by the way. Have you finished any of the past games? And you can’t avoid the question! [laughs]
RP: [Laughs] I finished the first two, I think.
IOR: I don’t have any more questions, but if you want to add something…
RP: Just that many games writers like myself are open to the challenge of indie games, no matter what we’ve written before. Okay, we are professionals who need to earn a living and should be treated as such. But we’re passionate about the medium we work in, and we gravitate towards that passion in others.
IOR: And I think that’s something we gamers search for… passionate narrators. So I wish you the best of luck, and I hope to see your name in indie game credits more frequently!
Many thanks for the chat. A pleasure and an honor for me.
RP: You’re very welcome. Thanks for the great interview!