Lara Croft and video game writer Rhianna Pratchett share more than a few traits. The hero of the Tomb Raider series and the writer of video game stories are both strong women with “daddy issues,” Pratchett jokes. Her father was Terry Pratchett, the author of 41 Discworld fantasy novels and the writer of 70 books that sold more than 85 million copies. That’s a heavy legacy to compete with.
Rhianna also picked up the ability to write, starting her career in video game journalism. She then shifted into writing scripts for games, starting with Beyond Divinity, a fantasy role-playing game from 2002. Her career took off when she wrote the story for Heavenly Sword, which starred the female character Nariko. She later moved on to the Overlord series and Mirror’s Edge. She was the lead writer on the widely acclaimed Tomb Raider reboot in 2013 and on the 2015 sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider. Rhianna also writes comic books (notably Mirror’s Edge for DC Comics and Tomb Raider for Dark Horse), film, and TV.
She has written scripts for companies such as Sony, Electronic Arts, Sega 2K Games, Ubisoft, Codemasters, and Square Enix. She’s also one of the most influential and recognized women in games. Pratchett is giving a talk at the DICE Summit, the elite game industry event in Las Vegas this week. We caught up with her for a preview of her talk and an in-depth interview on the subject of gaming’s strong female characters, which are increasingly getting center stage in titles such as the Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed, FIFA Soccer, The Last of Us, The Walking Dead, and even Call of Duty.
Pratchett grew up with strong women characters such as Sarah Connor (played by actress Linda Hamilton) of The Terminator film, Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) from the Alien series, and Alex in the Half-Life video game. She went on to create memorable characters such as Nariko in Heavenly Sword, Faith in Mirror’s Edge, and the reinvented Lara Croft, who Pratchett said felt like her “destiny.”
But as for diversity in games and the industry, she said, “We’re way behind our audience when it comes to diversity.” She added, “We are seeing more women characters, if last year’s E3 is anything to go by. But I don’t want the industry to stop there.”
Right now, she’s working on scribing duties for Warner Bros. and has several film projects and a TV series in the works. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How did your DICE talk come together? Did somebody seek you out?
Rhianna Pratchett: I was recommended by a few people, I think. One of which was Ken Wong, who is one of the heads of the studio at Ustwo, who did Monument Valley. Also Land’s End. A few people recommended me and they tried to get hold of me. I don’t really give that many talks.
It’s always a little difficult to narrow it down to what an audience would be interested to hear. I’ve been around so much and picked up so many things and worked on so many different projects that it’s difficult to isolate down to one particular thing. With this one, I couldn’t even isolate one particular thing. It’s kind of an overview of my work in the industry and what that’s taught me. It seemed like a good topic at this juncture, because I’ve been working for more than a decade and a half, doing games work, and so I felt like I had quite a lot to say about it.
It’s really about how the industry works with writers and how I believe that better engagement with writers can lead to better engagement with players. When I started out in the industry in 1998 as a journalist, I didn’t know any games writers. I knew some people out there were doing it, but they weren’t out in front of the press. They were kept in dark rooms, or they had another official job on the team. I never knew the job existed. I just made contacts as a journalist, and then I was asked if I wanted to be a story editor on Beyond Divinity.
GamesBeat: John Carmack told a joke a long time ago about how story in games is like story in pornography. You don’t really need it.
Pratchett: Yeah, I have heard that. Obviously that’s not true, as the popularity of story-driven games has certainly risen in the last decade or so. Over the time I’ve been in the industry I’ve seen so much happen in terms of narrative. It’s been focused on by developers, by the press, by gamers themselves. We’ve had great strong narratives coming out like The Last of Us or The Walking Dead, which is my personal favorite. You have things like Portal. We’re starting to grow our narrative abilities.
GamesBeat: Did you have any particular pull that took you into games? I recall that you started playing games when you were about 6 or so.
Pratchett: My dad introduced me to games on a Sinclair ZX81, a black and white machine. It was a game called Mazogs. He said I was quite scared of it at first, because I’d never seen anything like it. A little pixel man running around a little pixel maze with lots of pixel monsters chasing him. I found that scary until I found out the little pixel man could pick up a little pixel sword and fight back against the monsters. Something clicked inside me. That was the start of a long love affair.
I would play games with my dad, or sit next to him and draw the maps. If you were lucky sometimes you got maps in boxes, but you never got maps in the game. It was kind of fun, really. In the tiny Somerset village I grew up in I’d also play games with a girl who lived next door, because her dad worked at Hewlett-Packard and had access to the latest Games. We’d play adventure games together. When we were about nine we were playing Leisure Suit Larry, which we were a bit young to understand. At that point they judged whether you were 18 or not by asking questions about the American political process, so it was educational in that regard. We also learned what “prophylactic” means.
I remember learning the word “falafel” from Conquest of Camelot. I lived in a tiny village and had no idea what falafel was, and it sounded like the most exotic thing in the world. It was a bit of a letdown when I had a falafel for the first time. I’d built it up in my mind.
GamesBeat: When you were getting into game writing at first, how did you deal with the issue of linearity versus interactivity?
Pratchett: It was very different to what dad did. I’m not sure he entirely understood why writers weren’t as valued, or didn’t have more power in the industry. We tend to be lower down the food chain, unless you’re Amy Hennig or Neil Druckmann or Ken Levine. I’d tell him about things that happened and he’d say, “But why don’t they just listen to you? You’re the writer!”
It’s very different from game to game. I’ve never worked on anything quite as branching as Beyond Divinity was. That kind of put me off working on role-playing games for a long time, until I worked on Risen with a team of writers. It’s so difficult jumbling everything and keeping hold of all the different storylines. It can be a real headache. I’ve worked on linear games, games with a linear core story and bits of narrative folded in on the sidelines. The Overlord games had some branches in them. Not as much as an RPG, but they’re there nonetheless.
A lot of it is understanding how games are put together – level design and gameplay mechanics and how they all interweave. That helps you ask the questions you need to fill in specific franchises. You end up working with level designers a lot, making sure you’re scripting properly for their level and the narrative they want to fit in. Usually you need a bigger team of writers to keep a branching narrative under control.
GamesBeat: Did writing fantasy come easier than any other genre for you?
Pratchett: I don’t know that it did. I like anything that has a little bit of a twist to it. Heavenly Sword, Tomb Raider, Overlord, they’re all different. Fantasy is a broad field. You could probably fit them all in fantasy. But none of them are the kind of Tolkienesque fantasy that some people might think of when you first say “fantasy.” Anything that moves me, I think I can sink my teeth into.
GamesBeat: When it comes to level design, how does your basic structure work? Do you start with one way into an open area and provide more than one way out?
Pratchett: Well, it’s never really “my” structure. That’s usually designed by the level designers and gameplay designers. They decide what kind of gameplay they want in their level and then you have to write to what they’re going to do. Games are not, by and large, story-led.
That’s not always the case. Heavenly Sword had a first draft script, which I then rewrote. But that was very unusual. Story is important, but games are gameplay-led, mechanics-led. Then story has to find way to work within that. Ideally story should fold into gameplay and level design in a way that feels seamless, rather than, “Oh, here’s the game and here’s a story sitting on top of it.”
GamesBeat: How much rewriting do you have to do? I visited Pixar once, and they explained how expensive it is to render their films. They have to get everything right on the story and dialogue ahead of time. After that, they can’t change anything.
Pratchett: Game scripts have to be very flexible. You never know what will happen with the gameplay and how that might change your script. I’ve had circumstances — Mirror’s Edge is infamous now for cutting a lot of its level dialogue, or pretty much all of it, very late in the day. They felt it wasn’t working so well from a first-person perspective. It was jarring to hear Faith’s disembodied voice coming out of nowhere – out of your head, basically. That was quite difficult to deal with, because a lot of the story and world and plot had been woven into the level dialogue. Losing that meant losing half the story.
I’ve also had situations where — in the first Tomb Raider, for example, I had to keep going back and killing characters off. I’d write one version of the script, one draft. I might deliver it in acts, or deliver a few sequences. Then I’d have to rewrite those. With the earlier drafts, I got to the end, and by the time Lara was toward the end stretch of the game, only one person had died. That was Roth. Then I had to go back and kill Alex and Grim in different drafts, because gameplay wanted that to happen. I had to remove them from scenes and rewrite the balance of the scenes.
As has been talked about, the original ending of Tomb Raider changed. Noah talked about that on the Crystal Habit podcast, I think. We had a different ending that was mocapped. I don’t think it was fully animated, but it had been mocapped. We had feedback from playtesting that suggested it was too much of a down ending because there was so much death in the game already. But when we originally did that ending, there wasn’t so much death in it! Then all the death came along in various drafts so it wound up being heavier and darker.
You just have to keep rolling with it. It’s like writing a movie while the movie is being shot at the same time. The sets are being rearranged and the actors are being cast and recast and you’re trying to work in the middle of that.
GamesBeat: There’s a thread of strong women in your games. How have you come to feel about that? It feels like you have some intention there, for all that you’re so often at the mercy of the people above you.
Pratchett: I grew up with strong women characters. I grew up with the likes of Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. I’ve always been attracted to that. But I never really set out saying, “I’m gonna work on women characters!” It just happened that way, through contacts I made and opportunities that came along.
Heavenly Sword, Mirror’s Edge, and Tomb Raider all found me through completely different ways. Mirror’s Edge, the contact who recommended me there grew up in the same tiny village I was talking about earlier. It’s 50 houses, and one of the young boys who grew up there was Ben Cousins. He was working at DICE at the time and recommended me. Our families were kind of linked, because we had tortoises and they had a tortoise. Their tortoise would escape from their garden and go up the lane and try to get into the greenhouse with our tortoises. Now Ben Cousins’ family tortoise and the Pratchett family tortoises live together with my mum. A tortoise romance, basically, got me Mirror’s Edge.
Heavenly Sword was through meeting [a contact] in the industry, and Tomb Raider came about through working with Square Enix on another project. I was recommended to it. So I never set out to do any of these. It was just fortuitous. I feel lucky to have gotten to work on such great titles.
GamesBeat: Strong women seem to have taken the lead in a lot of my favorite games. It seems like games that make a point of doing that turn out better as stories.
Pratchett: We don’t have the same range of women characters in games as we do of men. But the ones we do have in the industry are pretty damn good. We just don’t have that diversity. There have been some great women characters. Alex in the Half-Life games is a character I fell in love with. She was the first, I think, that really stuck with me.
I grew up playing a lot of strategy games, though, or building games, where characters didn’t come through as much. I did play a lot of adventure games as well, though. Ellen Marley in the Monkey Island games was a favorite. She was made up of about 10 pixels, though. Alex was the first one that really resonated, even though she wasn’t a protagonist.
GamesBeat: How did you get started on Tomb Raider? It feels like in some ways the character was pretty heavily written before you got there, in the movies and in so many games. What was it like having to take a fresh look at her?
Pratchett: Not that I completely believe in this sort of thing, but it did feel a little like destiny. Some kind of destiny, a very low-level destiny. Not the fate of the world. But when I worked on Faith—It felt like this was what I was moving towards. It was the right kind of challenge in my career. It was an exciting opportunity to reboot and reimagine one of the most famous, if not the most famous, icons in video games.
Crystal definitely had their own ideas about what they wanted to do with the character, but they fell in line with my ideas quite quickly. I added some bits, but we were very much on the same track early on.
GamesBeat: They seemed to know that they needed to do something different.
Pratchett: We had quite a bit of fan feedback saying that fans would be interested in exploring Lara before she became the tomb raider, or while she was on that path. They were considering that for a while. It was very exciting to me as a writer to deal with Lara at a stage where all the traits and strengths we associate with Lara Croft, Tomb Raider — she’s always been intelligent, all the way through. But strength, resourcefulness, tenacity, those kinds of tomb-raider-ey strengths were bubbling to the surface. They were being tested for the first time. She’d find out she was capable of things she didn’t think were possible, both good and bad, and have to deal with that.
She’s an intelligent, academic young woman, quite zestful. She starts out on her first big adventure. She’s 21 and she thinks she knows everything, like you do when you’re 21. Then the world gets its teeth into her. She has to reassess things and pull herself up by her bootstraps.
GamesBeat: I thought it was very well done, especially the beginning of the game. The part where she apologizes to the deer for killing it.
Pratchett: I find the deer-killing quite upsetting, too. I find animal-killing in games much more upsetting than human-killing. Which is probably because so many humans are killed in games.
GamesBeat: You’ve been asked before about the challenge of seeing that transformation happening, and then by the end of it she’s killing hundreds of people.
Pratchett: It’s also a video game. There are countless video games where the protagonist is killing hundreds of —
GamesBeat: The Uncharted series.
Pratchett: Not even just Uncharted. Pretty much every action-adventure with a gun in it, there’s usually quite a high body count. Many, many games have just as high a body count as Tomb Raider has. But we did get called on it a little bit, which is strange. To be fair, it was partly because the previous Tomb Raider games were a little more puzzling and had less emphasis on combat. But there was still plenty of combat. Lara has never shied away from meeting fire with fire.
That’s what writers have to deal with. They have to balance the needs of gameplay and the needs of narrative and the needs of the player to have an exciting experience. Those don’t always blend together. It’s a push and pull for each side to get what they want.
GamesBeat: Was there any trick to making that more seamless?
Pratchett: There’s no trick apart from talking to people. It’s about level design and narrative talking to one another and trying to find a way through. On something like Overlord, I would do that. I could directly interact with the level designers. They’d give me a brief about their level and I’d write a script for them and we’d go back and forth. They’d make space for the narrative and I’d make sure all their gameplay was supported.
On something like Tomb Raider there’s several layers of people between me and the level designers. There’s a narrative team at Crystal – Noah Hughes, the creative director, and John Stafford, who came in about a year after me. He was the senior narrative designer. John would work with the level design team. That was the same with Rise. We had a slightly bigger team. They’d straddle both camps, working on both design and narrative to make that more seamless.
But it is just down to people talking and shouting and pacing and fighting. Somehow it works. But there’s usually a lot of back and forth. I did lots of rewriting. On Rise, one of the early scenes got written about 47 times. I can’t even remember what it was like at the start.
GamesBeat: Which scene was that?
Pratchett: It might have been the one with Ana. This was the one where we needed to set out the goals, really – how Lara’s feeling, what she’s going to do, and her relationship with Ana. Those goals and motivations changed as we were working on it, as did the gameplay, as did her relationship with Ana. It just went through multiple rewrites with all of the writing team. All of us took different stabs at it. At the end it was a sort of amalgamation of everything.
GamesBeat: I do remember that Hemingway rewrote the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls dozens of times.
Pratchett: Writing is rewriting, as the saying goes. Nowhere is that more the case than in games. And it should be. You need to leave time in your production schedule for rewrites and restructuring and tweaking, just like you would in anything else. It needs to be poked and prodded and polished in the same way as level design or animation or art. You don’t just write something and record it and it fits. It takes a lot of hard work.
GamesBeat: Did Rise of the Tomb Raider come at all easier than the first game?
Pratchett: Partly? We learned a few things along the way. We could anticipate problems a little better. We could react faster. We were better at identifying problem areas or what players would respond to and not respond to later down the line, when it’s harder to change. We had playtesting feedback, both within the studio and from Microsoft. We were doing more table reads and things like that.
We divided things a bit differently. I was working more on the central spine of Rise – Lara’s arc particularly, all the cinematic scenes, a lot of the groundwork for those. John, on Tomb Raider, had done a lot of the level dialogue and secondary narrative, so Cam did a lot of that on Rise. I did some bits of that. I did all of Lara’s journals.
GamesBeat: Lara, in this game, isn’t transformed as much. She’s closer to who we originally knew her as.
Pratchett: She’s still wrestling with a few things. It’s a subtler arc than the first game. Unfortunately we didn’t have room for a lot of the diaries. I’m hoping all of those will get recorded at some point and put in as extras. I wrote all these diaries for a young Lara, part of which are a cross-diary Richard wrote to Lara when she was a kid. A consultant writer did Richard’s diary, his official work diary, but I also wrote these kid diaries for Lara which were her going back and forth with her dad, this interchange. She’d talk about how she was doing at school. I really loved doing those, but unfortunately none of it made it into the game.
GamesBeat: I would have liked to see more of that in there.
Pratchett: Yeah. We had problems as far as getting a young Lara voice, and placement in the world as well. They’re there and they could be slotted in at some point. They were fun to do. Anyway, we often divide the work. That’s more and more the case as narrative teams get bigger. On something like Overlord, I did all the writing down to weapon description text and level dialogue. On Tomb Raider, it’s divided out. I’m doing a lot of the cinematic stuff, Cameron’s doing a lot of the interactive stuff, and John oversees things.
GamesBeat: Are you happy with how it’s turned out?
Pratchett: I’m happy that we managed to follow up a good game with another good game. People seem to have responded to it really well. It’s always a battle, writing for games. There are always disappointments when you work on a game for three, four years of your life. You feel a bit shell-shocked afterward, just because you’ve gone through that long period. Then it’s great to have that relief when lots of people like it.
With the first game, we had that element of surprise. People didn’t know exactly what we were going to do, and we had some quite extreme reactions from both side.
GamesBeat: I’m playing through the game a second time with my 15-year-old daughter. She’s not much of a console gamer, not at all interested in most shooters, but I showed her a picture of the old Lara next to a picture of the new Lara. She says, “Well, her boobs aren’t as prominent.” Anyway, that was how I got her to try the game. She loved the hair. But I think the story is why she’s playing it now. She’s dealing with the difficulty of working with the controller because she wants to get through the story.
Pratchett: I loved the first Tomb Raider. It wasn’t so much of a surprise to me to see a woman protagonist, like I was saying, because of Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. I thought, “Okay, games are catching up with movies.” I kind of always project myself into my games anyway, regardless of whether I’m playing a man or a woman or a creature. It’s always me. It didn’t used to matter to me what gender they were. But as I got older I think I came to appreciate having a woman protagonist. Working with one has been very exciting.
I’d always paid more attention to the women characters in role-playing games and things like that. I want to elicit that feeling in this generation, what I felt when I watched Aliens for the first time. I watched Aliens before Alien, so I didn’t get the really great impact of the first movie. I got the bombastic impact of the second one. Which is a weird way to watch it. But I want gamers, be they men or women, to feel the way I did about those characters. There’s something special for me about doing women characters. I love any great character, but sometimes, when you’re a woman, seeing a really great woman character brings that extra percentage of joy to it.
GamesBeat: You’re having an impact on the industry at large, I think. Is there anywhere you’d like to see the industry go from where it is now?
Pratchett: I’m interested to see what VR is going to offer storytelling. That has some very powerful storytelling potential. I’d like the industry to embrace storytelling in that format more.
It’s interesting to see how episodic gaming has grown in the last five years. I can’t remember what it was called, but I remember a preview of a game that was supposed to be episodic around 1999 or 2000, in my early PC Zone days. It was some kind of Arabian Nights-style game and it looked really interesting from a storytelling point of view, with a structure more like a TV show. It would be a real challenge to writers. But I don’t know how they were going to get it out to people. The internet wasn’t what it is today. And it didn’t even come out. It’s a bit like how VR came around the first time. It was like, “This is it! This is going to happen!” And then it all went quiet.
I’ve really enjoyed what Telltale has been doing with episodic gaming. It’s good to see the likes of the guys who do Life is Strange picking up the baton and running with it as well. I remember thinking, “Telltale’s doing it, now where is everyone else?” I think we’ll see more of that.
GamesBeat: I liked Until Dawn as well, where it has that sort of butterfly effect. The narrative can branch in so many more ways than is traditional.
Pratchett: That’s really interesting. I played a demo of that. I’ve been playing a lot of Shadows of Mordor. I like the way the Uruk society shapes itself around your actions. That’s quite clever, an extra level of enjoyment. Various developers are trying systemic narrative, narrative that shapes itself more around the player. It’s not so much that the player is going down a path as the narrative is growing around them.
GamesBeat: Sort of like the old days, where it felt like you were making the story in the game yourself.
Pratchett: I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily appealing to everyone. I think it’s going to be interesting to see more experiments in that space. Some people just want to be told a great story. There’s always lots of debate about cutscenes and games and whether we should use them and whether it’s a crutch. I remember watching the cutscenes in Diablo. Blizzard does some really fine cutscene work. If they’re timed and paced and they’re not interfering, they can be really effective in drawing you in the world and making you feel part of something. They’re one tool in the narrative toolbox. They shouldn’t be overused, but they shouldn’t be chucked out either.
Some people want a linear game. They want to play through a good story, be taken on a journey. They don’t necessarily want lots of branching and a huge time investment. But that kind of systemic narrative, narrative that evolves more with the player’s actions, is going to be in the forefront more, as well as VR and episodic games.
GamesBeat: How do you feel about the ongoing discussion of diversity in the industry – diversity of characters, but also diversity in the people who make games?
Pratchett: I don’t know too much about the makeup of the industry, but it seems that our audience is far more diverse than the industry or the characters in our games. We’re way behind our audience when it comes to diversity.
I think the industry is slowly getting the message. I’d like the industry to realize that the message isn’t just about women, though. It’s not about, “Just put women in games!” Racial minorities in games, different ages in games, sexual orientations, diversity of thought — there’s so much more to diversity than just putting women in it. I’d like the industry to embrace that.
We are seeing more women characters, if last year’s E3 is anything to go by. But I don’t want the industry to stop there. There’s not just one tick-box for diversity. We want more diversity from the men in games as well. In eastern development it seems like they’re not as afraid to get away from the round head, gravelly voice, Indiana Jones or Mal from Firefly man. We went through a phase where they were just being cut and pasted. Men, I’m sure, would like to see diversity in male characters as well.
It just reflects the world around us. I live in London, which I think has more dialects spoken than any other city in the world, or at least in Europe. The industry is becoming more aware of that. That’s the first step. We’re seeing so many new women characters out there. I’m excited to play some of the games I saw at E3.
GamesBeat: It seems like narrative and story are now appreciated a bit more, compared to the early days of gaming. People see what’s possible. It seems like there are exciting opportunities.
Pratchett: This is really what the DICE talk is going to focus on. There’s been such a sea change in the industry since I was a journalist. We’ve gone from no game writers out there talking about it, not really thinking about narrative that much, nobody really writing about it, to where we are today. You have awards for narrative – the writer’s guild, the BAFTAs. We have these great narrative-heavy games out there. We’re doing episodic narratives. Conferences have tracks devoted to narrative in games. It’s exciting to have been part of that and still be part of that.