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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 Previous Page 2 of 6 Next

The Overlord series is notable for its humorous approach. There's not a lot of (intentional) humor in games. What do you see as the barrier?

RP: I think the barrier comes about from not realizing that for humor in games to work well it needs to have a multilayered approach. For example, in Overlord the core gameplay and level design are inherently twisted and fun. I mean, you're an evil overlord with an army of sycophantic minions that rampage around the countryside, looting and pillaging at your command. What's not to love about that?

Plus you're also seeing the world from the baddy's point of view, which isn't one represented that often, making it inherently attractive. Look at how well something like Dexter has done (okay so he's sort of a bad guy and sort of isn't.) On top of that, we've always tried to make sure that the script and the gameplay are tightly woven and we use great voice actors who really "get" the spirit of the titles.

That's not to say being funny in the game-space (or in any space) is easy. Especially given that as a writer you don't really have complete control over the usual comedy tools, such as timing and context. Therefore you have to spend a lot of time working in-depth with designers at a micro-level to be able to compensate for that. It's quite an undertaking.

The games that I've personally found funny have all got this multilayered approach at heart. Particularly titles like Psychonauts, Destroy All Humans and Tales of Monkey Island (all the Monkey Island games, in fact.)

Certainly, working on the Overlord titles has made me realize how much gamers appreciate playing a game that makes them smile or laugh. Be it through a funny animation, or a line or a piece of gameplay. I don't want to get all Patch Adams about this, but comedy in general is often undervalued, yet it can be extremely powerful.


The genre question: do different genres of game, in your opinion, lend themselves better to storytelling or is it all in the approach the designers take?

RP: Considering that you can tell a story in six words, as Hemingway illustrated with "For sale: baby shoes, never worn", I firmly believe that most genres can become powerful storytelling vehicles. Largely it is down to the narrative sensibilities of the team and how seriously narrative is taken within the game-space.

Obviously RPGs and adventure games lend themselves well to traditional and more linear story telling methods, as do the slightly slower paced action-adventure games. But it's important to keep in mind that there's no "one size fits all" here. Not even close to it. The way you tell a story in an FPS needs to be very different to the way you tell a story in an RTS or a platformer.

I've come to the conclusion (through trial and error, mainly) that the faster-paced the action is in the game the more you have to plan the narrative in advance and properly structure it into the level design. If you don't then it's much more likely that the pace and delivery of your story will fall completely out of line with your gameplay.

Unfortunately, it's often these types of games where the narrative is the last element to be addressed. But the longer it's left on the back burner, the narrower the options for story delivery become. Often you can be left with some very linear (and usually very expensive) options.

What do you think of the necessity of overlap between design and writing -- i.e. do you feel a tight integration for true gameplay-based storytelling is required, BioWare approaches it?

RP: Writers definitely need to be more integrated into the development process, whether that's working in-house or on a freelance basis. I've always had the best results when I've worked closely with the designers. I think the industry has generally accepted that having professional storytellers onboard is a good thing.

But working out what to do with them once you've got them is proving to be much more of an ongoing challenge. There are still a lot of misconceptions about writing, particularly in regards to how long it takes. I've certainly come across the underlying assumption that crafting a story should require the length of time it takes to flap your hands at a keyboard and just write words. Any words.

I don't believe that it's essential for writers (particularly if they're freelance) to be present in a studio all the time in order to produce good results. Technology has made the world a much smaller place and things like instant messengers, Skype, SVN, Fogbugz and wikis are a godsend. It's mainly a question of developing clear and consistent communications and resource sharing channels.

Besides, most of us need to dive back into our own personal writing burrow and roll around in muse juice, from time to time.

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