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Rhianna Pratchett Interview

The video game scene is thriving with creativity and new ideas. Although a lot of developers continually explore fresh concepts for different genres, we still feel that games nowadays have plenty of room for improvement, especially in the story department. However, writing an engaging and exciting narrative for a video game involves more work and imagination that you might think.

We've seen some great efforts in recent times when it comes to story-telling in games (Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the Mass Effect series etc.). We wanted to find out more about how video game writers work these days and what it takes to be part of a big-budget project.

We speak with Rhianna Pratchett, best known for her involvement with games like Heavenly Sword, Mirror's Edge, Overlord 1 & 2 and others.

Q: How long have you been working in the video game industry?

A: 14 years altogether. I originally started out as a games reviewer and then moved over to script development and narrative design about 9 years ago.

Q: While most developers typically concentrate on top-notch graphics and gameplay, leaving little room for a deep and involving narrative, it's safe to say there are still good game stories out there. Any favourites in that respect?

Rhianna PratchettA: I'm a big fan of Psychonauts, particularly the way it unutilized level design as story-telling. I also really enjoyed both Bioshock games, the Half Life series (including the episodes) Planescape Torment, The Longest Journey games, Portal 1 & 2 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Q: Unlike movies, novels or comic books, games can allow the player to shape the story and its outcome. What specific challenges does this involve for a writer?

A:: It's a case of holding on tight to lots of different narrative strings and making sure they weave in and out correctly, without being confusing. I've not worked on too many titles where the player has had the ability to truly shape the narrative. But, generally on those games, writers tend to work in teams with each one being responsible for several of the characters or class-specific storylines. It's a little more like the way TV writing works in the US.

Q: In your opinion, is it important to start writing on a game project in the early stage of development? Or is it better to weave a narrative around existing gameplay mechanics; or rather around a game project that's already underway (similarly to your experience with Mirror's Edge)?

A: With Mirror's Edge all the levels were designed before the narrative, so it was a case of developing the story backwards, with all the constraints that suggests. It's not an enviable position to be in for a writer, but it's certainly not uncommon in the games industry. However, I wouldn't say that writers need to be there at the genesis of a game's development (unless it's likely to be an extremely story-heavy title.) There needs to be some idea of the game-mechanics in place, and how the player will be navigating the world. Some character concepts and level ideas can be useful - as long as there's enough room for a writer to stretch their narrative legs.

Like all other aspects of a game's development, narrative needs space and agency to flourish. Most of the development cycle will be one long battle to retain those things.

Q: It must be difficult creating cool characters without resorting to tedious male and female archetypes. For games like Mirror's Edge, it's imperative to have compelling characters such as Faith. Where do you normally draw inspiration to create such characters?

A: Staying awake and breathing in and out, really. Just life. A writer should be a sponge for all kinds of narrative - film, TV, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, news-stories, travel, conversations with friends and family etc. I grew up during the 80s - a gloriously diverse and crazy decade. But through films like Alien(s), Terminator and Conan, I did that growing-up assuming that wielding swords or flame-throwers, fighting aliens or cyborgs from the future, was just something girls did. I'm also a big fan of Joss Whedon and certainly Buffy, Angel and Firefly are master-classes in character creation and evolution.

Q: What is it you like most about Faith?

A: I like the fact that she's found her own (literal) path in life, but she's still incomplete, she's still dealing with things. Her flight over fight instinct is something that is ingrained into her psyche since she first ran away from home. She's been running ever since. During the course of the game she learns what's really worth standing your ground and fighting for.

Q: If a new Mirror's Edge game ever sees the light of day, would you like to be part of that project? Where do you see the story going from ME1?

A: DICE was a great company to work with, but Mirror's Edge was a challenging project and an important learning experience for me. Unfortunately, because of the timing when I was brought in and a large amount of the script being cut (due to the late decision to remove level dialogue) the narrative wasn't what I would've liked it to be. Thankfully, I got the chance to remedy this a little bit in the Mirror's Edge comic series with DC. The story in those was much more along the lines of what I would've liked to have developed for the game.

Game development is chaotic at the best of times and narrative often suffers. It's no one's fault. We're all still learning. Stories being cut, restructured, pushed, pulled and generally poked about is one of the uncomfortable realities of the job. I've been quite candid about what happened with Mirror's Edge, because I know some players were disappointed with the narrative in the game. The upshot of that is that I've probably blotted my copy-book with DICE. I'd love the chance to do it again under the right circumstances, and I have plenty of ideas, but I doubt that's going to happen (Bloody shame too... - Ed. Vader).

Q: How would you describe a writer's role in a big video game project?

A: Traditionally games never used professional writers to create their narrative, so there's definitely a residual feeling that hiring a proper writer is somewhat of a luxury, rather than a necessity. Like a feng shui consultant. There's also the underlying feeling that writing must be easy, because it's all about putting letters together, right? That's only true in the same way that programming is all about putting numbers together.

Larger game teams are often a bit more experienced at working with writers, which is often a huge relief. However, it also means that there are more people wanting to wander around the narrative kitchen telling you how you should be making your story pies. There's always a lot of pressure with big projects and so as a writer you have to be robust and flexible, with a tough hide.

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