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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.