Levelling Up the Story: Rhianna Pratchett on the changing world of writing for videogames

Historically, videogame stories have left a lot to be desired, but that’s slowly changing. We hear from the brilliant Rhianna Pratchett about the past, present and future of storytelling in videogames

Videogames have not traditionally been associated with quality storytelling. So often an afterthought to the action, game storylines are often schlocky, predictable and, in some cases, barely there at all.

But in the last decade and a half, the industry has witnessed a quiet revolution in its use of storytelling, ushering in richer narratives, more complex characters and genuinely compelling plots.

Rhianna Pratchett, the daughter of legendary fantasy author Terry Pratchett, is one of the writers at the heart of this transformation. Having written for games including the Tomb Raider reboot, Mirror’s Edge and the Overlord series, she has worked across the industry, on everything from fledgling indie titles to Triple-A blockbusters.

She’s also extremely funny, bright and passionate about the industry, so when I caught up with her at FutureFest, she had a lot to share about the role of writing in games.

State of play: the short history of professional writers

Although now an acclaimed videogame scriptwriter, Pratchett began her career as a videogame journalist, first in a freelance capacity from 1998, and then as a writer for PC Zone magazine from 2000. And back then, professional videogame writers were an extremely novel concept.

“At that time there weren’t really professional writers,” she says. “I mean there were people doing the writing, and sometimes it was really good, but they were usually designers, producers, whoever fancied a go or whoever had time, and it wasn’t seen as something that needed to be done by professionals.

There’s still a lot of teething problems around fitting writers into the industry

“Which is strange, because every other aspect of the game world is done by professionals in their field, but writing just went to anyone.”

However, as Pratchett has built her career as a scriptwriter, the industry has started to recognise the importance of professionals for scripts and storylines.

“In the last decade and a half the industry has gone ‘okay we’ll use professional writers’ and now it’s trying to go ‘okay, now how do we use them? Can we integrate them into a team? If they’re freelance, what communication loops need to be in place?’” she explains.

But with such a short history of using professional writers, the industry is still struggling to properly accommodate them in the game-making process.

Rhianna Pratchett speaking at Eurocon 2016. Image courtesy of CCCB - Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelo

Rhianna Pratchett speaking at Eurocon 2016. Image courtesy of CCCB – Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelo

“There’s still a lot of teething problems around fitting writers into the industry,” Pratchett says, adding that some changes to the roles involved in making games have improved the situation.

“Obviously there’s been the evolution of narrative designers, for example, which have been around for a little while but certainly are on the increase in the big studios like Ubisoft and Eidos Montreal.”

With, as Pratchett puts it, “one foot in the design camp and one foot in the writing camp”, narrative designers are bridging the gap between scriptwriters and gameplay.

“As a writer I usually work with a narrative designer – I have done narrative design in the past when there haven’t been narrative designers around – and you also get narrative directors now,” she adds.

Mercenary gunfighters: the reality of videogame scriptwriting

It would be easy to assume that videogame scriptwriters work on each project from the outset, but according to Pratchett, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“I work freelance, so that means I’m drafted in at a certain point to work on a game. It’s not usually at the start; it’s usually a year to two years into development,” she explains.

The exception to this is studios that use in-house writers, which have been growing in popularity over the last few years.

“A lot more studios have internal writing teams now; Bioware, Obsidian, anything that does RPGs or very story-heavy games, like Telltale for example has internal writers, but they might use freelance writers as backup,” says Pratchett.

“Most of the big studios tend to have some narrative designers on staff, sometimes a narrative director, maybe a writer, and then they will use freelance writers as backup or to take on certain segments of the game.”

I kind of parachute in like a mercenary gunfighter; other people plan the battle and then I fight it

However, freelance writers are often bought in after much of the initial concept development has happened, and have to cobble together a narrative from assorted assets and ideas that have often been developed with little regard for the overarching story.

“I always talk about a box of narrative body parts pushed across that’s like ‘this is where we are now’,” she explains. “You might get a bit of back story; you probably get some character images; you may get some bios; you may get some ideas for levels. Most developers will do some thinking about story in the early stages, but a lot of them won’t think about getting a writer in yet.”

As a result, writers are often put in a position where they are fighting to construct a script rather than crafting it.

“I kind of parachute in like a mercenary gunfighter; other people plan the battle and then I fight it, more or less,” Pratchett explains.

Late to the game: the role of narrative paramedics

In some cases, writers are brought on so late that huge sections of the game have been completely developed before a storyline has been established, which was the case for Pratchett when she worked on the original Mirror’s Edge game.

“With Mirror’s Edge all the game had been designed with no narrative in mind when I came on board,” she says, likening the situation to being presented with a bunch of movie sets and being asked to write the script from them.

“Some games can be like that – have a lot of elements in place that are cool and are going to demonstrate the gameplay mechanics, but no one thought about why they are there,” she explains. “And a lot of what the writer does is answer the why questions: why does this place look like this? Why does this character move to the world? Why should we care about them, what are their motivations?

Image courtesy of Electronic Arts

Image courtesy of Electronic Arts

“That’s what I had to do with Mirror’s Edge: work backwards and fold a story around the existing structure.”

In extreme cases, writers can be drafted in to take on the role of what Pratchett calls a narrative paramedic.

“I sort of coined the term narrative paramedic a long time ago when I first joined the industry, and that’s the idea that writers are often parachuted in a lot later than a year into development, so it might be a year before ship, six months before ship, and they’re basically like ‘this is the script: sort it out’.

“No professional writer has looked at it and you’re just thinking ‘oh God’ – there’s so much stuff you could have done if you’d been hired earlier, but you’re just trying to patch the story up and stop it bleeding, and ultimately dying in the game,” she says, laughing.

Change needed: the recipe for improving storytelling in games

While videogames have undoubtedly come a long way, there is still much the industry can do to allow games to reach their narrative potential. Perhaps most importantly, Pratchett and many of her contemporaries believe that writers should be incorporated into the process at a far earlier stage.

“Most writers in games will always bang on about the fact that writers are not hired early enough,” she says. “There’s a lot we can do with world building, a lot that has nothing to do with the word bits and it’s just building the world for the game and thinking about how mechanics can convey narrative and level design can convey narrative, and all that can be thought about early on. But most of the time writers aren’t brought in that early unless they are already part of the team.”

Everyone wants to have their ideas heard, everyone wants to be a writer

Pratchett attributes this slightly bizarre attitude towards writers to the history of the industry when it comes to narrative.

“I think there’s still quite a bit of fallout from the fact that anyone did writing in the past so I think writers are almost seen as a bit of a luxury, like they’re the ones that do the words but really anyone can write,” she explains with a heavy note of sarcasm. “So then it’s almost like they’ve just drawn the short straw and they’re the ones who actually have to do it in the game.”

Then there’s the issue that every man and his dog working on the game wants to have input on the story.

“There’s a lot of everyone piling in; everyone wants to have their ideas heard, everyone wants to be a writer,” she says. “There can be a lot of cooks in the kitchen on a project and the bigger the project, the bigger the kitchen, the more cooks there are,” she explains.

This was a particular issue during Pratchett’s work on the Tomb Raider reboot, for which she wrote the script for both Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Image courtesy of Square Enix

Image courtesy of Square Enix

“Certainly with Rise, for example, it was a complete headwind of feedback all the time. Imagine trying to write a script, and for a screenplay you would usually write a script and you wouldn’t have your audience standing behind you commenting on what you are writing for every single scene, but that’s kind of how it can happen in big games,” says Pratchett.

“Constant headwind feedback, constant iteration, and we opened up the script for Rise a lot earlier than we did in Tomb Raider; we playtested it a lot. That was mainly to try and avoid some problems we’d had with the first script where playtesters hadn’t liked certain aspects of it that happened to change things, and it was to kind of avoid that 11th hour problem. But that’s quite draining from a writing point of view.”

Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is the fact that, as Pratchett puts it, “writers don’t really have hard power in the industry”.

“On a big game I’m a kind of cog in a machine – I have a bit of a say, and certainly within my department, but it is one department of many and they’re all fighting their battles,” she says. “On smaller games you can get more of a voice; there are smaller teams, and there’s often a little more trust there, because there kind of has to be.”

Writing done right: the best in videogame storytelling

Given the many narrative pitfalls that developers can succumb to, which games does Pratchett think have reached their potential in terms of storytelling?

“I’m a big fan of the first Bioshock – although that’s a long time ago – I think that worked really well, and particularly in environmental storytelling I think that really pushed the bar up,” she says.

She is also a fan of episodic storytelling, particularly Telltale Games’ The Wolf Among Us.

“Telltale have been making great strides in episodic gaming, and I’m really glad to see that take off,” she enthuses. “I worked with Telltale when they were still cutting their teeth on episodic gaming, when they were doing CSI games and Law and Order games and no one really knew about them.

Pratchett (left) and Chris Ramsey (far right) with Telltale Games, the winners of the 2013 Story BAFTA for the Walking Dead. Image courtesy of BAFTA

Pratchett (left) and Chris Ramsey (far right) with Telltale Games, the winners of the 2013 Story BAFTA for the Walking Dead. Image courtesy of BAFTA

“I worked on one of their CSI games and they were sort of testing out the idea of having different writers writing multiple episodes and then an overarching story like a TV series, so that’s how your Walking Dead and your Wolf Among Us kind of emerged from that. They have a team of I think about 19 writers or something like that, so that’s really great to see.

“It’s also good to see that other studios like Dontnod, who did Life is Strange, choosing episodic content.”

However, a love of episodic games doesn’t stop Pratchett enjoying the Triple-A classics.

“I still like a good epic action game like Shadow of Mordor, or Far Cry 4 or something like that,” she says with a grin. “I kind of go between smaller games like Wolf Among Us to epic sprawlers, but the trouble with epic sprawlers is that life gets in the way and you end up forgetting where you are.

“I keep going back to No Man’s Sky, like I play it for a bit and it’s really peaceful and I get addicted for a couple of days and then I forget what I’m doing – it’s an easy game to forget, you can just spend your time mining, you think ‘oh, this is nice’: mining, getting a bigger ship to fill with things I’ve mined, to go and do more mining.”

Emotive future: what lies ahead for videogame storytelling

When it comes to increasing the presence of emotive games in the future, however, Pratchett believes indie games are going to be the driving force.

It would be good to see some mum stories in there, and more female protagonists

“I think the emotional complexity is sort of coming up from the indie games, so things like That Dragon Cancer, and I think we’re seeing a lot more personal stories coming through,” she explains. “I’m going to be interested to see how that flows upwards towards Triple-A, and also the middle ground as well, which has been a little bit of a wasteland for a while.”

She has reservations, though, about whether personal stories can ever be effectively told with massive blockbuster teams.

“I can’t imagine in a Triple-A game there being enough faith to rely on one person with a personal story to allow them to kind of carry that through all by themselves. Possibly someone like Ken Levine, maybe, but then he’s got bosses and whole teams to run so I think it’s difficult with the huge – we’re talking 300, 400 people teams – it’s very difficult to get a personal story,” she says with a laugh.

However, she does envisage a greater variety of subjects for stories in video games, which can only be good news for an industry that until recently seemed to overwhelmingly feature young white men with shaved heads.

“I think the story landscape is changing, there are a lot more dad stories, for example, as people have pointed out as developers are growing up there thinking about the world from a different perspective and that’s nice to see,” she says. “It would be good to see some mum stories in there, and more female protagonists.”

ftr_1611_feature-footerBut despite her concerns, Pratchett is immensely positive about the future development of the industry.

“I think the Triple-A and the blockbuster game space is changing, but it’s a lot slower; I think indie games, they can react faster to things,” she says.

“But I do think Triple-A games pay attention to what’s happening in indie games, and what’s particularly popular, so I do think it is helping and I’m hoping that there will be more games that try and take the creativity and the innovation from indie games, and a little bit of the budget of the top tier, and start creating some really interesting middle ground games.”

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