Rhianna Pratchett is a veteran games writer, journalist, screenwriter, and comics writer. She is known for her work on
Heavenly Sword, Overlord, Mirror’s Edge, Tomb Raider, Rise of the Tomb Raider and
Lost Words. We chatted for, like, three hours, and covered a lot of ground.
On what she’s up to:
Alex: What are you in the middle of now? What do you do in a day?
Rhianna: I've come off a recent big deadline and that was guest preproduction work. Things like setting out the beats of the story and characters and level ideas. That was quite intensive. I've been catching up on other bits and pieces.
I don't know what it's been like for you during COVID, but I lost a couple of big [non-game] projects near the start. I've had more game projects since then and more probably more unusual projects like doing a story for Surgeon Simulator 2 and writing a fighting fantasy book and writing a tabletop role playing game and things like that.
I don't have a specific day. I'm not that good at setting my own deadlines. I'm fine if other people set deadlines, but I've sort of fallen into The Long Dark, which sounds like a euphemism for depression, but I'm just talking about the hinterlands game. I feel like I’ve moved on to expert level with it. And I don't think I've ever been expert level in a game.
In which we digress into The Long Dark and the eating of bears
Alex: How does that game make you feel? What is the experience?
Rhianna: My dad and I used to game a lot. I would sit next to him and watch him. Or I would draw the maps for him. But we never played wilderness survival games because back then they didn’t exist. But we used to walk around the Somerset countryside. Dad would show me all the plants that were edible. Funguses, berries, that sort of thing. And I always used to read a lot of books about kids being lost in the wilderness. I think I always slightly fantasized about getting lost in the woods and having to survive, and I had all this knowledge.
So we used to walk a lot and I’d be naming flowers and plants and all sorts of things. That's where I feel him most. Like I can hear his comments in my head, and I think, oh, Dad would have liked that moment. And so The Long Dark is something Dad would have enjoyed.
I like Among Trees as well. Don’t Starve, which is a very different vibe. The Forest, though it’s so much scarier than The Long Dark because it has screeching cannibals.
I'm now in a run in The Long Dark where I've survived for over a year [of game time] on the hardest difficulty and it’s become Zen. I’m so expert playing it I can listen to audiobooks. And at the moment, I'm just living in a cave, eating meat and passing time. I killed a bear just before this call, which I guess you don't get many of your interviewees saying. So I'm gonna harvest the bear a bit later and then I'll get a load of meat and I'll have to stay in the cave for longer just to eat the meat and make the days pass because I'm trying to see how long I can survive. I want to try and survive for 500 days.
Alex: It sounds like that's a fair amount of your day.
Rhianna: It has been a little bit at the moment, but it's more one of those I dive in and out of. I'm the kind of writer that likes have different things going on. So yeah, I'll start the day with a strategy game and that helps get my brain firing, 5 to 20 minutes while I'm having a coffee. Write for a bit, go through emails and then I'll play The Long Dark.
On whether writers avoid story games
Alex: Do you think a lot of game writers play everything but story games? Personally, I get sucked into 4X games – Total War, paint-the-map games. I'm the King of Bohemia and I'm going to take over Europe.
Rhianna: You don’t necessarily gravitate towards story games because it's your work.
Alex: You start thinking, “Well, I wouldn't have done it that way.”
Rhianna: Actually I did play the story mode of all the Long Dark episodes. I really enjoyed them. And I gravitate towards some of the areas where I spent a long time in this story mode.
On Rhianna’s many projects
I'm waiting for a personal project with my company Narrativia to be pitched, and that should be happening in the next couple of months. I own the multimedia rights to my dad’s work. And I don't know the form it's going to take, but that could dictate a lot of my time for the next up to 10 years.
In the meantime, I'm doing more consultancy work. Developers reaching out to writers in pre production, take a look at their story and character doc. I feel that's one area where I've got a lot to give. I've got some smaller games. Some comic work upcoming. I've got a little story in Women of Marvel with Shanna the She-Devil and Silver Sable, and that's been fun.
On Rhianna’s experience as a games journalist back in the day
Alex: Have you ever gone to a regular game job where you show up in an office?
Rhianna: No. Well, I used to work for PC Zone magazine. My first fortnight I played a 24-hour Cossacks tournament and then went to Dallas with the #1 and #2 British Quake 3 players. I spent a lot of time going around the world meeting developers and looking at how the sausage is made. And I think that was very good grounding.
Alex: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about your experience as a games journalist. How does it inform your writing?
Rhianna: As a journalist, I would tend to get the smaller games, like the guys would always be competing for the big first person shooters. So that left some of the smaller games for me. I ended up doing some of the more unusual games, always looking for little gems, things that would make me laugh, things that would make me think.
On A Tale in the Desert
I still bring up in conversation this MMO I played called A Tale in the Desert. I think a handful of people know about it. It's still going. And I originally covered it in PC Zone. You live and work in ancient Egypt, and you go from making bricks to building pyramids. And it was great, the way the players took to the game mechanics and created their own way of gaming the system. You could make meals in the game and every time you made a meal with new ingredients, you got perception points. Some very clever players created the Nile River Cafe which was a bunch of kitchens, all with a different meal. You brought them carrots, camel milk, honey, that sort of thing. And you all got your perception points up.
A lot of the challenges in the game were focused around the 7 Tests of Man. Every player is born into the game with their own acrobatic move. And every player has a teacher pupil relationship to each other. You could demonstrate your move to another player. And again, the players found masters in every single move, and they staggered them across the desert so you could run and do your move to every master and they would teach you a little bit. And it was so clever.
I've never seen anything like in in an MMO, it was so community focused and the players had made it that way.
Alex: Emergent gameplay.
Rhianna: Right. What was the original question?
Alex: How did your experience in games journalism inform your writing?
It’s the little things that give you creative freedom
Rhianna: I'd always be looking at the things that I thought were creative, would make me laugh. And so that's created a sense in me of what a reviewer might like.
Alex: So does that liberate you to just go off on a toot because you would have enjoyed a game that went off on a toot?
Rhianna: It depends on the flexibility I've got within the team. In more indie games I have more of a voice. Something like Lost Words, I was in very early and I helped develop the design side of as well as the narrative. I made it more of a personal story and drew upon my own experiences of loss of, particularly, grandparents. I could put my own anecdotes of life with my grandmother.
We've all had those situations, particularly when writing barks, when it's just a job. I like writing barks myself. But in smaller games you can bring more of yourself to the table.
With bigger games you tend to live around the edges more, particularly secondary narrative. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, 2015, I think we [writers] enjoyed the secondary narrative more than anything else. Because it didn't go through a committee. I incorporated my father's memory of the night I was born into a letter from Lara’s father, because it was a memory my dad said, in the interview, he didn't want to lose. So I kind of immortalized it.
We knew going into Tomb Raider how much time we had to tell the story. It’s working backwards, we had all the characters, but not the story, and only a limited amount of space to fold it into. But I think that if you can deliver a perfect little nugget of characterization, that really resonates with players, particularly because they may not be expecting it
There are moments in Tomb Raider where Lara is struggling with the truth of what she's discovering and the fact that she can't look to others to save her. She has to save herself. And a lot of what we were doing was diving into where the hero meets the human. What is it like to be the one that has to save everyone else and to take the blame if you can't save anyone? So some of the movements when Lara breaks down, I think resonated with a lot of players and when she pulls herself up again as well.
So it's landing little bits like that. And I still remember my favorite line that occasionally players mention, was just like a walk and talk with Whitman, who is the other archaeologist on the trip. And they're talking about the legend of Himiko and her powers. And Lara says, “a woman gets that much power, sooner or later, they call it witchcraft.” I had to fight to keep that one.
Alex: It's a great line.
Rhianna: Oh, some quarters thought it was too stridently feminist?
Alex: It defines her character very well.
Rhianna: That's living in the margins of AAA as a writer. Sometimes we get the line across you really like. A nice anecdote about my grandmother dropping yogurts in Waitrose that they merged into Lost Words.
But yeah, if you do a lot of secondary narrative, you get your voice across, but when you're a freelance writer and you're not embedded in the team it's somewhat of story by committee. On Rise [of the Tomb Raider], we opened up the script very early on to feedback and it was brutal, just the quantity of the feedback and all the different places it was coming from. From Microsoft, from Square Enix, from inside the team, from external consultants, and it was all contradictory and it was all based on an early draft and lots of people who didn't necessarily understand storytelling or couldn’t really look at a scene and envisage what that's gonna look like in the game.
Alex: Almost no one can read an outline except writers.
Rhianna: Even getting some people to read is quite difficult. I still pepper my documents with pictures just to break up the text to make it more friendly for people.