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Vital Game Narrative: A Conversation With Rhianna Pratchett
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Vital Game Narrative: A Conversation With Rhianna Pratchett

August 7, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

British-based narrative designer and scriptwriter Rhianna Pratchett has quickly become one of the few widely-known names in game writing. The Overlord series, for which she provides the dialogue and directs the voice work, has become known as one of the few genuinely humorous series in contemporary gaming. She has also written for the more adventurous and thematically challenging Mirror's Edge and Heavenly Sword.

Game writing is frequently maligned -- and frequently, understandably so. But there's a high level of complexity to the issue of getting good story into games. Here, Pratchett  -- who is the daughter of famed Discworld fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett -- delves into that complexity and examines the barriers that are currently erected; she also offers her thoughts on improving the craft throughout all levels of the game creation process.

On the projects you've worked on so far, how much of a driving force for the overall project vision and metafiction (i.e. backstory, setting, etc.) have you been? How important is that to you?

Rhianna Pratchett: It really varies from project to project, depending on when I'm brought on board and what state the game is in at the time. The Overlord series is probably where I've had most influence in this regard, as I've written, voice directed and helped craft the stories for four and a half titles over the last three years.

These include Overlord, the expansion Raising Hell and Overlord II with Triumph Studios in the Netherlands and Overlord: Dark Legend and Overlord: Minions with Climax Studios in the UK. It's hard to remember a time when I wasn't working on an Overlord game! It's an opportunity that not too many writers get in this industry. I've been very lucky.

I also worked on a great deal of the background and metafiction of Mirror's Edge. However, because it took DICE a while to find a writer, by the time I joined the team all the levels had been designed without any specific narrative in mind. This meant that there wasn't a huge amount of room for delivering that metafiction within the core game.

Certainly working on the Mirror's Edge comic series with DC (which was a prequel story to the game) helped me flesh out the world a lot more. During the series I could focus on the background of the characters and how the situation that the player finds themselves in actually came about. It was a great creative outlet and I'm sure we'll see more games venturing into the comic space.

It's very odd to hear that the story in Mirror's Edge was decided after the levels were built, given how strongly creative the game is and how the story is a big part of its overall image. Can you explain the process more? How much did DICE have when you were brought in, and how much freedom did you get?

RP: It's actually not that uncommon for writers (particularly freelance ones) to be brought on to a project where that is the case, or partly so. If you're not in near the start, then what often happens is that you're presented with is a task akin to writing a script for a film for which all the sets have already been built. It's a tricky to deal with, but certainly not impossible. In fact it makes the art of writing far more like an actual craft; where you're weaving, chiseling, sculpting and molding the story around and through the levels.

Sometimes you find yourself in the rather odd position of writing a story backwards. You're presented with the place the character needs to be and you have to create the path which took them there. It can be quite a fun challenge in a sort of masochistic way.

In Mirror's Edge, I think that nailing down the core gameplay mechanics (particularly as they were so innovative) was the primary focus, as was creating the right kind of levels to show them off. As I mentioned, it had taken DICE a while to find a writer (which in itself isn't always an easy business) and the team couldn't exactly sit around and wait for one.

I believe the game had been in development for a couple of years before I joined the project. At that point all the levels had been designed with no narrative through-line (again, understandable and not uncommon) and there were visuals for a few of the characters, such as Faith, Miller and Ropeburn.

So my task was really finding that through-line, filling in the gaps, building flesh and bones and breathing life. Games writing and narrative design is all a bit Frankenstein-esque. You gradually source and pull together the limbs of your story until it forms a whole body. Then you sew it up and send it out there... feverishly hoping it doesn't savage any small children along the way.

As far as freedom goes, there was a fair amount in terms of helping define the narrative vision that supported the world (which was done mainly by the Senior Producer, Owen O'Brien and myself) but it was within the tight boundaries of the level design. I'm still proud of the world we created¸ even if some of it got rather lost in translation.

How much background info is it essential that the writer create that doesn't (necessarily) fit into the final game -- things like character back stories and biographies, descriptions of organizations, cities, whatever. What and how much of that kind of stuff is essential?

RP: It's vital for a writer to establish all aspects of a game's narrative setup. Even if the audience only gets to see the tip of the iceberg, you still need to have a full understanding of everything under the surface that supports it. This gives your stories and characters much more of that all important truth and less of a feeling that they've been plucked out of the air and exist in a vacuum.

Biographies help you get to know your character; peel back the layers and find out who they really are. Defining things like background, goals, relationships, attitudes, flaws, traits and even language is not only essential for the writer, but also extremely helpful for animators, casting directors and voice actors.

Likewise, knowing the background story can be incredibly handy for level designers and artists, especially when they come to define a visual meaning for the world and a sense of place and purpose. For Mirror's Edge I even ended up creating lists of products used in the world and advertising slogans. Games writing can occasionally lead to crazy levels of diversity.

Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

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Michael Blanchard
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Thanks for this article, Christian. I always love to read up on game writers and their perspective. Maybe one day I'll be on the other end of an article. :)

It was interesting to read about the different kinds of work, and levels, that go into writing for a game. I honestly had no idea that writers can sometimes be brought in after the mechanics of a game are fleshed out. I always thought the script came first. This was a very eye-opening piece.

Tom Newman
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Very eye opening indeed, and explains why many game's narratives seem like an afterthought. I still feel CG is the absolute laziest way of driving a narrative, and has nothing to do with gameplay. I can't think of one game where I wouldn't rather have the narrative built into the gameplay itself.

John Mawhorter
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"Often games seem to have an odd disconnect between the player character and the action which they're performing. So I often try to start with the central premises of the gameplay and work out what kind of character would be engaging in such activities, where would they have come from, what might have happened to them and what impact would that have on their mental state."

This is my favorite quote and one of the reasons I argue so strongly against the game-cinematic disconnect that often happens (I would argue as a result of not being able to make gameplay itself narrative enough).

Wonderful article all around and good interview questions. It basically is the ultimate game writer interview in that it sums up nearly every other interview I've read but having better responses.

jin choung
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she should dump chris brown.

Maurício Gomes
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I don't think that cut-scenes are bad idea... Specially when you are limited somehow...

I am for example doing a game that is viewed from top-down and the screen can't scroll in any way, and also no characters can be added after the round started... There are no way to make a in-game cut-scene there...

Also people forget that some actual "gameplay cut-scenes" are not gameplay at all, Half-Life series has some of it, like being inside the tram on the first game, you can walk around, jump and whatnot, but you can not skip it, don't see it, or make it happen in other way, it happens no matter what, and you watch (from diffrent angles maybe, you are still watching).

But that does not mean that in-game cut-scenes suck... Cinematic platformers for example are awesome, I still think that Mechner should get some award for inventing them...

Edward Kuehnel
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Maurício Gomes
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Rob Schatz
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First, I disagree with Rhianna on the issue of "sameness" in character development. Yes, they have their differences, but if any indication of human history and how we tell our stories is correct, then it's far more similar and less so than we think. I'm sure everyone here has read Vogler's "The Writer's Journey" as well as "Mask Of A Thousand Faces" by Joseph Campbell and how there are archetypes that, while, they have different names and costumes, are nearly identical. Take a look at the stories in various cultures around the world and you'll see what I'm talking about.

I do agree with Rhianna regarding using cut-scenes (or as they were called in the days of the NES, "cinema scenes"). One genre that does this wonderfully is the graphic-novel style game. Cut-scenes are built into how the story gets told. Without them, it's just a graphic novel. Let's take Max Payne, which I believe to be the gold standard (kudos Remedy!). The story progresses in chapters (don't they all?) and they way it gets from one to the next is through cut-scenes with comic book-style panes, and the word bubbles are read by the voice actor(s).

All in all, I think graphic novels get a bad rap as "not real literature," but to those who would make such a claim I say look at the Watchmen's Hugo Award. :) I'm also developing a graphic novel-style game and have researched player motivations in depth, which I write about in my blog here:

Thanks for reading.

---Rob Schatz

Michael Blanchard
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I agree with Tom. Narratives should happen while the game is being played. A great example of this is the first 2 Thief games, where over half the game's narrative and storytelling happened while you were actively sneaking around.

Maurício Gomes
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But doing that require a specific gameplay.... If we decide to never use cut-scenes, some genres will get stuck or without story or not made...

How do you place story in a racing game? One on one fighting game? Vertical scrolling shooter? Tetris-like games?