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Rebooting Lara: Rhianna Pratchett on Writing for Tomb Raider
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Rebooting Lara: Rhianna Pratchett on Writing for Tomb Raider

November 19, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3
 

Here's an example of how complicated writing for games can be. "Pacing and structure is actually one of the greatest challenges in games narrative," says Pratchett.

The fact that even a familiarity with linear media doesn't necessarily translate in what's best when it comes to creating narrative for games helps complicate things. "You're no longer writing a story to neatly fit into 90 to 120 pages, or an hour TV slot; you're supporting a narrative over 10-plus hours," she says.

Even talking about how to write games can be tough. "I guess it's somewhere between a TV series... and book chapters," says Pratchett. But even though you're "often constructing the central narrative in a linear fashion," there's no guarantee that the player will "always experience it that way."

"There are so many challenges in writing for games that it really is a truly unique medium to work in," she says. The good news is that games are actually a fantastic structure for leveraging narrative, argues Pratchett.

"Humans are storytelling/story-experiencing creatures -- we're always looking for the narrative. So being a games writer is about using all those facets to create a cohesive narrative logic to the world, giving the gameplay context and meaning and helping players actually care about what's happening in the game, not just understand it," says Pratchett.

She is not alone in this opinion. Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner recently told Gamasutra that "the best cinematic storytelling in a game happens during the gameplay itself. The most powerful moments in a game are the moments we're playing ourselves; that's what we remember."

Extend Mechner's thoughts, and you have Pratchett's philosophy: that writing can join every element of the game together into a cohesive whole. Pratchett just wants to see writers get their due, and get the chance to help shape games into true narrative experiences.

"The real challenge is working out which of those limits (such as limitations of tech, space, and gameplay) you have to work within, and which you need to push back against and seek to change -- such as the need for writers to be involved earlier on, or given more space, agency and respect," she says.

While she recognizes the problems the industry faces in better integrating writing into its creative processes, she does see some hope. "A larger section of the industry, press, and gamers themselves do seem to be embracing narrative as an integral part of the gaming experience. There are far more articles, books and blog posts discussing the craft of games writing -- when it goes right, when it goes wrong, and why."


Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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Comments


Prash Nelson-Smythe
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The appeal of Tomb Raider isn't the Lara Croft character. It's exploring varied and interesting environments, defeating its enemies and solving spatial puzzles in order to proceed. This seems too obvious and shallow a statement for the modern game industry. That is a fault of the modern game industry.

When an entusiastic Tomb Raider player recommends the game to a friend, they don't discuss Lara's emotional state or care about it. She is just an aesthetically pleasing avatar. Nothing wrong with that. They'll talk about the worlds they explored and the obstacles they've overcome. Their passion will stem from their exploration of the game world, not the motivations of the characters.

That's why I'd say that spending time and energy on a narrative isn't a great idea, especially considering most players just wait for cutscenes to end and don't remember the plot of a game 2 days after they completed it. It's even worse if it has any negative impact on the core game experience (exploration, combat, puzzles).

For an action/adventure series like Tomb Raider, I think game writers would be best used for world building activities, such as fleshing out the history of an environment and provide a context for it and the players actions, ensuring all aspects of the art direction respect this reality. Not actually writing out a narrative that occurs during the game. That's a job for the player.

Luis Guimaraes
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"The appeal of Tomb Raider isn't the Lara Croft character. It's exploring varied and interesting environments, defeating its enemies and solving spatial puzzles in order to proceed."

That's how I see Tomb Raider, too. The evolution of the game is easily available for everyone to follow: Prince Of Persia -> Tomb Raider -> Soul Reaver -> Prince Of Persia -> Assassin's Creed.

"I think game writers would be best used for world building activities, such as fleshing out the history of an environment and provide a context for it and the players actions, ensuring all aspects of the art direction respect this reality"

Agreed, that's the best use of game writers.

"Not actually writing out a narrative that occurs during the game. That's a job for the player."

Now I don't totally agree with that. But sure it's very, very rare to see done well.

Backwards as it sounds, this current reliance in content oriented development is what's holding game writing back.

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Luis Guimaraes
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I meant the fear of players not seing everything that was put in the game.

Plus the idea of making one-time play-through games (makes sense business-wise, but doesn't make very good games).

Edit:

I've been studying a semi-sandbox storytelling system in which stuff happens based on time schedule and A.I., not on spatial/clear state player-centered triggers.

That way players can't just witness everything in one play-through (then of course the game is meant to be short) and stuff won't require the players' presence to happen. So the player might need playing twice so see different events that happen at the same time in different places.

Added some simple A.I. heuristics in the math, the players doesn't only feels like he's actually in the middle of a true story instead of a theme park ride, but can affect the outcomes with his actions more than linear plots can ever try to pretend they're doing.

It is, NPC#1 can't kill NPC#2 and NPC#3 if the player already killed NPC#1 before he got to the murder spot, and by staying alive NPC#2 will do something else that's part of his schedule.

But stuff like this doesn't need to be completely scripted for all and every possible outcomes, leaving room for emergent possibilities to arrive.

You just create the agents and give them a schedule of what they're planning to do and some rules for how they can change that schedule if conditions don't fit their initial plan. Then the player can just stealth and witness everything and put the puzzle pieces together, or they can start working on the system to try to get a desired result from the plot.

Only possible if designers are willing to let the player figure out and find out stuff for themselves. Making the best use of such a system is then work of professional writer, of course.

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Luis Guimaraes
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@Joshua

No, I never played it actually. How is it done in GW2?

Rikard Peterson
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@Luis "Plus the idea of making one-time play-through games (makes sense business-wise, but doesn't make very good games)."

It may not make a kind of game that you like, but that's not the same thing as making a good game. Many of my favourite games are in that category. Grim Fandango, to name one masterpiece.

There's room for both story-games and sandbox-games. That you prefer one category over the other don't make it superior. (Feel free to argue that one approach suits TR better, but please try to avoid over-generalised statements like the one I quoted.)

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William Johnson
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I disagree, a bit. Of course, emergent gameplay is the bomb dot com of story telling. But I think having empathy for your character is also important.

For example, Spec Ops: The Line would not have been anywhere as good if they didn't have such an amazing narrative to tell. But Spec Ops is a lot different, because it was a deconstruction of the modern military shooter. It was designed to make us question our role as player on top of also to watch a man breaking from the events that he was taking place in.

But if it wasn't for Spec Ops narrative and gameplay feeding in to the story, it would not have been so successful creating so much discussion around the game. And I think the new Tomb Raider can do that. Or I really really hope so.

I think I'm actually setting myself up for disappointment, because I don't think anything will be as good as Spec Ops was, but eh...if they try at least, I guess that'd be better then to not. And if they're placing a lot of emphasis on story telling through gameplay, I think it'll work.

Luis Guimaraes
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@Rikard Peterson

Yep, let's not go down that spiral.

Edit:

Btw, most of my favorite games are the ones from around the Grim Fandango days too (there's more on that on my gama-blog). And from there is ask: aren't all play-throughs of all games, linear experiences anyway?

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Axel Cholewa
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@ Jay Anne: I only played the first Uncharted, but that's a cover shooter. Aside from the environments there are not that many similarities between it and Tomb Raider. For example, in (the first five hours of) Uncharted there was no real exploration (which is why I stopped playing). It was all about following a straight path and killing hundreds of people while your character complains about all the violence going on. While the latter is also true for Tomb Raider, there's much more exploration to be found there.

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Thomas Happ
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I'd be curious to know how much of the character bios, etc. she wrote in pre-production actually make it into the final product (as someone who writes pages and pages of backstory about characters that only speak a few lines in the game).

Christian Nutt
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I hope NONE. Not an insult to Rhianna, but more bafflement about why games so often infodump a bunch of this content on us. This is stuff for the developers, not the players. If the game relies on it to be comprehensible, the developers aren't doing their job.

Thomas Happ
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I didn't mean verbatim, I meant more in terms of how the characters behave and if it's consistent with the background she gave them.

For instance, did George Lucas write a bio for C3P0 and how he was built by Darth Vader, aka the Maker? I'm thinking not.

Christian Nutt
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Yes, let's consider the writing in the Star Wars prequels. That is useful. XD

Eric Pobirs
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Actually, one of the the things Lucas encouraged designers to do was have a bio for almost every character. Although I doubt he knew back in the 70s that Anakin Skywalker built C-3PO (or more importantly, would have thought it as bad an idea as everyone else) he was a strong believer in knowing why everyone was there and what they were up to, even if it was not conveyed to the audience. It was useful for the costume designers, prop designers, etc. to have a feel for a character so they were not just an amalgamation of crap lying around the workshop. It made the universe more 'alive' even if the information was only known to the production staff and not the audience.

The place where this detail was revealed was in the toys, where many characters who were anonymous onscreen were named and given some background on the packaging.

You can take such things too far. British comedian and musician Matt Berry (Douglas Reynholm on The IT Crowd) made a hilarious satire of Jesus Christ Superstar by picking an obscure character, the Innkeeper who turns away Mary and Joseph, and gives him an entire story of his own. This was caled AD/BC and can be found on YouTube.

Another example is Tom Stoppard's Guiderstern and Rosencranz Are Dead. This takes two minor characters from Hamlet and explores the universe's lack of interest in them when they aren't on stage.

Joshua Darlington
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"bafflement about why games so often infodump a bunch of this content on us"

Classic pen and paper RPGs depend a lot of naked exposition (the info dump). Like radio plays, classic RPGs provide much of the scene through the narrator (DM).

Naked exposition is taboo in screenwriting - its boring. While screenwriting depends on exposition to set the story off, it must be contained within meaningful conflict.

So if you get to a video game cut scene and some NPC downloads a paragraph of backstory... The game writer who dropped that on you is more of an RPG writer than a screenwriter, or they are being forced to do something against their will.

I'm not a Tomb Raider player but here is an obvious move (forgive me if they already did this). A way for them to hide exposition in a conflict would be to put Lara Croft against a rival tomb raider. They could have conflicting hypothesis, and could be fighting to collect evidence to support their work. The hypothesis could be updated by the player as they move along and used as a game arch puzzle.

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Joshua Darlington
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"The problem is video games, do this x100."

If you are designing for a distracted and chaotic audience, you might want to over-illuminate the main path.

Michael Rooney
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@Josh: I won't blanket disagree. A lot of games do, but games are getting continuously better at it. One problem I think developers have right now is that a bunch of them don't want to make the player have to deal with unknown consequences for their actions, so they tend to make sure the player has all the information they need to make the best decision rather than enough information to make a realistic decision.

I wish more developers hid the backstory so it was available for those that want it and kept the actual forced narrative more minimal. The first half of Deus Ex: Human Revolution I think did a good job of this; lots of computers with backstory to hack and overheard conversations that were easy to miss.

Joshua Darlington
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Realistic decisions are far from the problem. Without deep simulation, an ambiguous decision is still contrived but without exposing the game space to the player. I think giving the player information about game/decision consequences is a better pathway to providing a mysterious and exciting decision. It allows for suspense and gives the designers expectations to play with.

IMO the best way to feed the player information is through characterization rather than finding artifacts. Characters allow for dramatic conflict which can more engaging than hacking a terminal (depending on execution). Humans are social creatures and find social conflict to be highly engaging.

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Joshua Darlington
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"Isn't this an assumption though?"

Until machines get better at judging human intentionality, designers will need to work based on broad assumptions and testing. When people get stuck in games, they get frustrated and abandon. So I can see why designers would emphasize in favor of fail functional and fail safe.

Regarding schematic views of Christmas - go to church if you want a faith specific message. Your church leader should be able to make narrow assumptions about the message they should craft for you. Otherwise a general holiday greeting reaches a wide range of faiths. Xmas is really a popular Roman festival (Saturnalia) that was modded for followers of Jesus. So there are weird artifacts that can make for a chaotic message.

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Todd Williams
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I like the idea of making a character more real, or logical, especially on an emotional level. For once, I'd love to see a character freak out when they're being shot at, or break down crying when they've had to slit someone's throat. It sounds like this reboot is considering these things, and that excites me. However, there's a delicate balance that must be reached between on-screen emotions and allowing the player to experience his/her own emotions.

I also find that a lack of logic in the game environment has been frustrating me lately. As players, we're still expected to smash boxes and barrels that contain gold, weapons, meat... It's about time we move on from these overused relics. I hope this Tomb Raider aims for a more "I Am Alive" approach. That would be very refreshing.

Rhianna Pratchett
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Many thanks for the article and comments.

Prash - "For an action/adventure series like Tomb Raider, I think game writers would be best used for world building activities, such as fleshing out the history of an environment and provide a context for it and the players actions, ensuring all aspects of the art direction respect this reality"

Actually, we do this too (at least when we're being used correctly.) Game writers do far more than just the bits that seem the most ‘writerly.’ The real challenge in writing for games is often everything that surrounds the writing.

"Not actually writing out a narrative that occurs during the game. That's a job for the player."

The player isn't telling themselves a narrative in a vacuum. It’s drawn out through the environment, the gameplay mechanics, established narrative, music, A.I. etc. Developers think about these things, you know. They craft the building blocks of these moments, and the players assemble them. Just because you’re not watching a cut-scene, doesn’t mean that someone hasn’t thought long and hard about the narrative impact of what the player is potentially experiencing at any given moment.

Thomas - “I'd be curious to know how much of the character bios, etc. she wrote in pre-production actually make it into the final product (as someone who writes pages and pages of backstory about characters that only speak a few lines in the game).”

There are no in-game bios in TR. It’s not that kind of game. As I say in the interview, all the bio writing, bibles, world-building etc. is creating the main body of the iceberg i.e. the bit that’s unseen. The tip is what the player experiences, but it needs that body to hold it up.

Rhi

Ozzie Smith
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"the best cinematic storytelling in a game happens during the gameplay itself. The most powerful moments in a game are the moments we're playing ourselves; that's what we remember."

I really love the sentiment of this quote but I feel so many game developers go the wrong way with it. If you have a strong cinematic moment and the player gets to "control" it by tilting the analog stick forward (such as the opening scene in Arkham Asylum or every quick-time event ever), that's not gameplay. The strongest moments in games come from players utilizing the game mechanics, not from essentially holding down a play button during a cut-scene. I wish more game devs would strive for more meaningful game mechanics than just making "interactive" cut-scenes (not that I'm saying this is what Tomb Raider is going to be, just sort of ranting about game industry in general).

Sun Moon Hwang
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Simply put, if the narrative doesn't hurt the gameplay, it's all good. :)

Fred Marcoux
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Maybe it's just me, but as I grow older (as a person and as a gamer) I tend to gravitate towards games with stronger narrative and gameplay than just pure gameplay. I grow weary of the mindless shooters, combat games and other similar games that don't support any narrative. So I strongly support what the TR team is trying to achieve.

For me, TR has always been about Lara IN the settings described above by some (puzzles, exploration etc). I agree with Jay, take out Lara and is still a TR game? I don't think so. I love that they are working hard on creating a cohesive character because as much as I LOVE the Uncharted series, I can't help but wonder how come Drake can be such a nice guy, funny, loveable, witty and yet not be impacted with killing hundreds of enemies. Maybe it's why I enjoyed Games like GoW (or Enslaved) because Kratos is coherent. He's mad and want's revenge, it's very simple but he doesn't deviate from that.

Anyways, don't know if I my comments are clear or not, it's such a hard subject to tackle

Roger Tober
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Lara Croft suffers from the total avatar control that was popular back a while but has changed. We tend to want to manage characters more now, rather than control their every movement. Either that, or we want to be in first person. Lara is something in-between, and feels a little arcane. I remember how thrilling it was scaling cliffs with Lara, but in later series, it just became kind of dull.

Luis Guimaraes
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For a while already I've been believing this kind of game will see a huge leap in mainstream adoption once AI and voice recognition are advanced enough that people can simply yell at the screen and have the character follow their instructions, the way some people do in movies.

Roger Tober
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"I've been believing this kind of game will see a huge leap in mainstream adoption once AI and voice recognition are advanced enough that people can simply yell at the screen and have the character follow their instructions, the way some people do in movies."

Ha ha. We can finally be the back seat drivers we've all really wanted to be. "You idiot, turn left!!!"

Katie Chironis
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This is so refreshing. Rhianna should've just done all the story-relevant interviews from the start. Then we would have never had that "protect Lara from rape like the manly gamer you are" fiasco.


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