Thursday, 17 February 2011

Interview: Rhianna Pratchett on Games Writing, Diablo Lust, & Not Entirely Hating David Cage

Rhianna Pratchett is probably the highest profile freelance narrative designer in the UK. Starting out at the hallowed PC Zone, she was invited to be the story editor on Beyond Divinity (2004), and has since worked on major titles like Heavenly Sword and Mirror's Edge, and defined the anarchic humour of the Overlord franchise. On a personal level, Rhianna was one of a posse of writers who took me under their wing in the early days, and have continued to be supportive influences in my career to date.

Alright Rhi. Before we start, let's make a pact not to talk about how writers need to be better integrated into teams earlier in development. We always complain about that. Deal?


The first time we met was at Develop 2007. I saw that you, Andy (Walsh) and Jim (Swallow) were giving a talk, and I dropped you an email to see if I could exchange booze for career advice. Then Starbreeze wined and dined us (emphasis on the former), I wound up wandering Brighton 'til 5am looking for a hostel, and I was late for my graduation in Southampton the next morning. You've never apologised for that, have you?

Oh button it, Jubert. It was summer! Plus you got a great introduction into the UK games writing scene *and* a free dinner. Think of how many beer-fuelled games writing rants that led on to.   Totally worth it.

Tell us a bit about the early, post-Divinity days of your career. Was it difficult finding work? How was the climate different to the one I entered eight years later?

I utilised some of the contacts I’d obtained working as a games reviewer on the late, great PC Zone magazine. A lot of it was just down to fortuitous timing. I ended up doing level dialogue work on a couple of small licensed games via a script and game design company called International Hobo. I met them through joining their forum after I’d greatly enjoyed one of their previous games – A very underrated titled called Ghostmaster. I then work on Stronghold Legends after I mailed the developers (Firefly) letting them know that I was setting out my stall a script-writer. I had good connections to them because I’d been a big fan of the Stronghold series and it just so happened they were in the market for a wordsmith. I guess it helped that I had quite eclectic tastes and I started small, so I wasn’t going knocking on the doors of Valve, Epic or any of the other big boys. 

My big break was definitely Heavenly Sword and again industry networking came into play. I’d met the Creative Director (Tameem Antoniades) at a screenwriting workshop, where I chatted to him a little about Heavenly Sword as it had just got some industry coverage. I then met him again at a London IGDA lecture where he was talking about the process of getting Heavenly Sword a publisher. We bonded over JD and a mutual dislike of the obnoxious fellow who ran the screenwriting course. Booze and hatred cements a lot of ties in this industry. Tameem talked to me about how Ninja Theory were about to enter their second round of writer testing as they’d been unable to secure one. I put myself forward; four months later got a test via Sony, then got an interview and the rest is history.

It’s difficult to make a call on whether it was easier back then. There weren’t really people like me around to ask for advice (well, there were, but they weren’t as visible as games writers are these days.) Consequently, I sort of had to make it up as I went along and learn on the job. So there’s a lot more information out there (books, interviews etc.) which is undoubtably helpful for wannabe games writers. However, the economic climate makes job searching hard for everyone. Belts have been tightened everywhere and some places still consider a writer a luxury, rather than a necessity.

Whenever we do talks and interviews I tend to differentiate myself from you guys as being very into indie - partly because I am, and partly because my AAA credits aren't nearly as impressive. Is it fair to do that? Are you into the whole art game scene, would you be keen to work for a smaller, more experimental developer, or is the big stuff what gets you going?

You also differentiate yourself from us with your varied collection of hats and facial hair! But I think we’re all in it together. Working with a small developer can be just as interesting and challenging as working with a much larger one. In fact I’ve had some of my most positive experiences working with small studios, such as Triumph who I did Overlord and Overlord II with. Larger companies can sometimes mean that there are more layers of people wandering into the narrative kitchen and fingering all the pies.

I’ve had some hugely diverse projects, which has been wonderful and I don’t regret any of them. Even when things don’t go the way you want, you always learn from it. The titles I choose to work on aren’t really about status, but about whether the project grabs me as both a writer and a gamer. I’m pretty open to whatever direction that comes from.

What interactive stories have excited you recently, and what are you looking forward to?

I’ve just got a PS3 so I’m stacking up a fair few games to play on that, including Enslaved and the original Uncharted. I’ve just started on Batman: Arkham Asylum (yes, I know I’m a little behind.) It took a little while for the gameplay to ramp up, but the story telling and performance capture is fantastic. Hats off to Rocksteady.

I’m really looking forward to Diablo III, not especially for the story, but because I’m searching for that obsessive *need* to play a game, that I felt with the first two titles. I nearly lost a boyfriend due to my excessive Diablo playing. In retrospect I should’ve ditched him and stuck with the game.

We have a love/hate relationship with David Cage (it's tempting to say I love him, you hate him, but I know it's more complex than that). He suggests, however, one future for game narratives is for the designer to be closer to a stage setter, with characters and stories behaving dynamically according to rule sets rather than a script. I think that's a long way off, but I do believe in the idea. Even if we have to simplify our dramas, ala The Marriage, it seems like the only way to really deliver on what games as a fiction medium can do. It's incredibly hard to fool a player into thinking he has freedom with traditional branching / linear narrative. Do you feel there's mileage in the idea behind procedural story?

I don’t hate Mr. Cage, I’m very glad that games like Heavy Rain and Fahrenheit exist, although I find the preoccupation with sex and ‘titillation’ scenes in his games verging on creepy. The differences in how Ethan’s shower scene is depicted (in Heavy Rain) versus the way Madison’s show scene is depicted, is a good example of this.

I’m certainly interested in his suggestion for the future, but like you I think that’s quite a long way off. Is he suggesting that designers become writers? I think it’s probably more the case that writers should become designers, since being a game writer is about so much more than the ‘word bits.’ It’s about creating a world, atmosphere, tone and narrative logic. It’s like being part writer, director, cinematographer and set designer all rolled into one.

Finally, can you either give me a controversial sound bite I can take out of context and use as a header, or give me any juicy details on something you're working on now?

I’m pretty sure that you’ll find a controversial sound bite somewhere in this! Sadly I can’t give any juicy details about what I’m working on now, otherwise bad men will come and kill my pets. The best I can come up with is that they are both great projects, both franchise games (which is rare for me) but I don’t think people are going to be too surprised about my involvement. 

Right, "Playing Diablo nearly lost me my boyfriend" it is. Cheers Rhi.

You can find Rhi's official website right here.


  1. I really enjoy being able to publish these interviews - in promoting more public discussion of story in games with the people who know about it.

    I have some fantastic people lined up, so watch out for them over the coming months.

    Do you enjoy reading these? Are there other lines of questioning you'd like to see?

  2. Always good to read an interview with Rhianna.

  3. I met Rhi about a year after you, Tom, and she is just as sweet and engaging as she comes across in this interview. Great work and the best of luck to both of you!

  4. I must admit I was hoping to read something about her experiences on Mirror's Edge alluded to in the guest post last week.

    "Judging by their accounts, both Rhianna Pratchett and Andrew Walsh had a hard time with Mirror’s Edge and the latest Harry Potter game respectively, both having substantial parts of their scripts annihilated without their approval"

    Has this been written about anywhere else? I'm massively curious about it. I enjoyed Mirror's Edge, but always felt the story left a lot to be desired in all manner of ways, which seemed uncharacteristic of Rhianna Pratchett to me, so if there is an article somewhere about this, I would love to read it.

    Outside of my own selfish desires, I really enjoyed this interview, and look forward to any future ones.

  5. Yeah, we made a promise not to complain too much in this interview. I'm not aware of any public write up, it's more one of those anecdotes that pops up when we do talks and things. Plus I suspect I'm the only games writer idealistic (read foolish) enough to do something like publically bitch about an ex-employer in writing.

    But perhaps Rhi can enlighten us if she wanders over here...

  6. Cheers for putting this up, Tom and thanks to Steve, Drew, Mathmos and Walrus for your kind comments.

    Walrus - I touched on the whole Mirror's Edge thing in this interview with Gamasutra. Certainly the fact that the game had been fully designed with no narrative in mind by the time I joined the project. This actually happens a lot and it's a big problem for games writers.

    And in this interview with Critical Gamer I talk a little about the cuts that were made to the script at the 11th hour.

    These were substantial. About 50%, so I'm led to believe. It was painful and a great deal was lost. Sadly, such brutality towards narrative is not uncommon in this industry.