We often use vague catchall words to describe careers in gaming: developer, designer, producer. But those words don’t tell much of a story. What’s Your Line? is an interview series designed to demystify the people who make their living in games.
Rhianna Pratchett started her writing career as a journalist at outlets like PC Magazine and Minx, but in the last decade, she made the jump to writing the games themselves, with titles like Mirror’s Edge, Heavenly Sword, and the Overlord series. These days she’s a Jack Of All Writing Trades, working on original films like Vigilia and screenplay adaptations of novels like Janet Paisley’s Warrior Daughter, while she continues to work as story creator and fixer in the games industry.
The Gameological Society: What’s the process for writing a video game? How does it start?
Rhianna Pratchett: It depends on when you’re brought on. If it’s early, then you might be doing things like fleshing out existing ideas, creating a narrative structure, world-bible, character bios—and helping dovetail gameplay and narrative. All that can happen before you’ve written a word of script. If you come in later, then you may well be expected to create a narrative around existing designs and levels, which may or may not have been created with narrative in mind. It’s a completely backwards way of working. If you come in very late, then all you might be doing is polishing up an existing script as best you can. I call this being a “narrative paramedic.” It’s so common that I even had a badge made with it on for fellow game writers. I also have a “story robot” one. Yeah, those two phrases pretty much sum up what it can be like sometimes.
The Gameological Society: How did you come to writing? Was writing always the plan even when you were a kid?
Pratchett: I resisted it for a while. I wanted to be a mermaid. If my parents had managed to find a rubber tail in the depths of rural Somerset, then things could have turned out very differently.
Gameological: How did working as a journalist change between when you started at Minx and when you started working primarily as a for-hire story doctor?
We don’t have enough experienced storytellers calling the shots in the industry.
Pratchett: It’s definitely got tougher. The pay rate nose-dived—and it was never that great in the first place—and competition rose. However, people started looking for more angles and consequently, coverage of subjects like narrative design and character creation increased. There was also more introspection about the ethics of games journalism and the responsibilities writers have towards players and developers. Every time I go onsite with a developer, a tiny part of me still feels like I’m on a press trip. I keep expecting to be ushered away to a small room away from the rest of the team and get talked at for hours on end. Actually, that pretty much still happens.
Gameological: How has the process of writing video games changed since you first entered the industry?
Pratchett: Companies are using professional writers a lot more. They aren’t always using them well, but that’s all part of the learning experience. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some hugely talented developers, and have had good experiences and bad, but I’m acutely aware of how the majority of writers get treated in the industry. For every one good story from the trenches, you’ll hear more than a dozen horrific, soul-crushing stories. Sometimes it feels that we took one step forward and two steps back.
I remember reading an interview with Chuck Beaver, Dead Space’s story producer. He was hammering Gears Of War for its writing, but also admitted that Dead Space could’ve done better too. He said: “We knew so little about story back then and overruled our writers on a lot.” I kept thinking, you’re a “story producer” and yet you allowed your writers to be constantly overruled? Well that’s probably where you went wrong, then!
There isn’t a great deal of understanding about what writers actually do, how they do it, and why. At the moment, we don’t have enough experienced storytellers calling the shots in the industry. Consequently, our narrative literacy is still low. Writers are treated as typists of other people’s ideas, rather than professionals with a specific set of skills, gained over many years of living and breathing stories. In fairness, this is a two-way street, and writers themselves need to be more proactive about the best way to utilize their skills and experience. They need to be prepared to fight for the space and agency they need to do their job.
Gameological: How flexible are game makers when it comes to changing a story? Novels can change dramatically halfway through writing or even during the editing process.
Story is always the first casualty.
Pratchett: Games narrative has a very long feedback loop. It takes time to craft a story, write it, record it, animate it, and get it placed in a game. That means by the time you get feedback that something isn’t working properly, it can be too late to do anything about it. Game writing, like any other part of development, should be iterative. Writing is rewriting. Developers are only too happy to hack away at a story, cutting out scenes, characters, and some times whole levels. But this has nothing to do with being flexible about the story and everything to do with the rigors of game development. Story is always the first casualty.
Gameological: What games tell good stories?
Pratchett: I enjoyed the Thief games, Planescape Torment, The Longest Journey, the Bioshocks, Psychonauts, and, most recently, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. All of them were great at creating a narrative world, as well as a strong central storyline. That’s what makes games good storytelling, or story-experiencing, vehicles. Sorry, I know that sounds like wanky-speak, but it’s true.
Gameological: Should every game tell a story?
Pratchett: Not every game needs a story. Tetris did just fine without one. But if a game has any kind of narrative, then getting a professional to handle it should be a standard part of the process, just as professionals are used to handle all other aspects of game development. Otherwise, it’s a bit like getting your vending machine repairman to do your programming.
Gameological: How were your experiences working with Ninja Theory on Heavenly Sword, DICE on Mirror’s Edge, and Triumph on Overlord different?
Pratchett: Game projects are like relationships: There are some which leave you warm and fuzzy while others you’d like to burn from your memory. The Ninja Theory guys were very committed to storytelling, which was wonderful. Also, the company was young enough at the time to not be too bashed about by the industry. DICE was an experienced gameplay studio but much less so when it came to narrative. That meant that much of Mirror’s Edge was designed before the narrative was thought about, which made it a very challenging project. Triumph has definitely been my favorite developer to work with. They gave me a lot of space, agency and trust, and I think that came through in the Overlord games. I had a lot of fun on those projects.
Gameological: It’s been years now since the Mirror’s Edge debacle, when EA cut out huge swaths of the dialogue and character work you’d done on the game. Would you work with EA again?
Pratchett: A debacle? I’d say it was more of a kerfuffle. I don’t think the narrative in Mirror’s Edge turned out the way anyone wanted. I was brought in late, which was severely limiting and then all the in-level dialogue was cut right at the end of the project, without my involvement. I also never saw any of the animations for the cutscenes, so I was as surprised as players were by the style. I chose to talk a little bit about the process, because I don’t think you ever change things by staying quiet. All I can say is that everyone learned from the experience and has gone on to do things in a better, smarter way, including myself. But somehow I doubt I’m on EA’s Christmas card list.
Gameological: Speaking of EA, there was a storm of Internet rage back in March over the way Mass Effect 3 ended, with people filing lawsuits against them for falsely advertising how personalized the story would be. Weirdly, EA and BioWare caved after the freak out and agreed to release expanded endings. What rights to a story do readers have? What responsibilities do authors have to readers?
Pratchett: It’s amazing that we have a medium where it’s even possible to do this. I don’t really think authors do have a responsibility towards readers, aside from just telling a good tale. And even that is incredibly subjective. However, when you create a world which spans three games and hundreds of hours of gameplay, then yes, you probably do have a responsibility to maintain the narrative logic of that world. Whether that responsibility should include actually altering your initial narrative vision, I don’t know. If it makes fans happy, then I guess it’s all good. But personally, from a creative standpoint, I hope it doesn’t become a trend!