Video Games

Interview: Rhianna Pratchett

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Answering our questions all the way from sunny Mexico (not pictured), we speak to the prolific writer behind Mirror’s Edge,Tomb Raider and Heavenly Sword.

(Words: Michael O’Connell-Davidson, Research: Michael O’Connell-Davidson & Rhian Carruthers)

“You do know I’m on Holiday, right? ;)” Rhianna Pratchett has sent us her responses while holidaying Mexico, after e-mailing them to her far later than we’d initially intended. The excited feeling I get knowing that she’s responded to us in time to hit the printers is quickly replaced by the growing feeling that we’ve done a very bad thing emailing her so late.

Pratchett began her career writing for the “late, great” PC Zone. “I spent a few years at the coalface of British games journalism before leaving to go freelance. I was offered a gig as a story-editor for a hard-core RPG called Beyond Divinity, and it all kicked off from there.” Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve played something Rhianna was involved in; she was the writer for, among other projects, Heavenly Sword, the Tomb Raider reboot and Mirror’s Edge.

It’s a very different medium to write for, both in terms of the practicalities and the way the audience interacts with the text. “The role that the player undertakes in a game, and the relationship they have with the narrative, is very different from that of a regular viewer or reader. They absorb the narrative in an active, rather than passive way. They don’t just watch or read the story, they are the story. It is an experience, an adventure, a journey.”

Yet despite the complicated player-narrative relationship, “the industry is still getting used to the idea of using professional writers, let alone using them correctly.” She describes writers in the games industry as being in the “square-peg-in-round-hole” phase.

Despite the dystopian narrative being one of most memorable aspects of the original Mirror’s Edge, Pratchett entered into the development process towards the end of production. “Unless they are already part of the development team, a writer will often be brought in a year or more into the development process and they will have to create a story around existing assets. It’s a bit like writing a movie at the same time that it’s being filmed.”

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“You are a cog in a machine, trying to turn well with the other cogs, all of which have their own needs and agendas. You can still do great things, but you have to be very lucky with your team and working environment.”

Despite that, though, things are only getting better. Director-writers like Ken Levine and Tim Schafer are becoming more common, and there are many more games writers in business than there were even five years ago. “The press and players are taking narrative more seriously and there’s much more discussion and advice out there about it. We’re still fighting a hard battle, but we have a few more soldiers in the trenches.”

Even so, this increased prominence of narrative in video games has not come without controversy. We speak about Zoe Quinn’s seminal Depression Quest, which provides a unique insight into the mind of a someone suffering from the titular condition. “The abuse Zoe received over Depression Quest was utterly disgusting.”

Much of the criticism leveraged against her came from the fact that the game was text-based, but, as Pratchett notes, “Text-based games have a long and proud history in the industry.”

“Really that’s where the genesis of so many games stemmed from. The notion of ‘what is a game?’ absolutely needs to be challenged. Games that explore deeply personal subjects and shed light on experiences that many people are unaware of are something weneed more of. Games can just be for sheer entertainment, but as a community and an industry it’s vital that we make room for games with something to say.”

The games industry – and its associated community – has received a lot of negative media attention in recent years. Blurred Lines: The Battle of the Sexes, a recent BBC2 documentary, painted a picture of the gaming community (and, indeed, the internet at large) as a virulent place for women, and the #1reasonwhy was described as the hashtag that “exposed games industry sexism” by The Guardian.

But Pratchett – who has been a gamer since she was a young child – thinks it’s more complex than that. “[It’s] not fair in the least. Characterizing any industry in just one light is unlikely to be accurate or show the full picture.”

“The wider media tends to be wildly behind the times, and has a history of depicting games in a negative light. This is partly due to the fact that society likes to have its scapegoats (the waltz, rock’n’roll, video nasties etc.) and partly due to the fact that so many people (parents in particular) are ill-informed about the content of games, or the sheer variety available.”

Indeed, Pratchett started a counterpart hashtag to #1reasonwhy, #1reasontobe. “I wanted to show that although it’s important to shine light into the dark corners of this world and show the battles being fought, it’s also important to show what’s worth fighting for.”

She admits that her experience has been largely positive. “I haven’t felt particularly maligned or abused because of my gender. There’s always the trolls, but they are pretty much a given if you’re in the public eye and online [but] there’s no denying that some women have had very negative experiences and that is awful. Hopefully more people are becoming aware of the problems and doing more to alleviate them. It might seem like the trolls are winning sometimes, but I have found that there’s also a great deal of support out there.”

Gender representation in video games is very complex, and has been the subject of much critical debate by academics and games writers. Pratchett, who worked closely with developers on the Tomb Raider reboot, was involved in shaping the representation of arguably the most iconic woman in video games.

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What was that like? “It really was a once in a life time opportunity. I mean it’s Lara Croft, right? Even my mum knows who she is. It was a real honour to get to work on a character as iconic as Lara and a team as hugely talented as Crystal Dynamics. It also felt that it was the right time in my career to take on such a challenge. It’s really wonderful to see how warmly she’s been received. I’m delighted to have been a part of that.” Pratchett is still involved with the Tomb Raider project, and is currently working on companion comics with Dark Horse.

But have representations of women in games changed for the better? “It’s hard to tell because so few AAA games have female protagonists. There were only three in 2013 (Tomb Raider, Beyond: Two Souls and Remember Me). However, I think we have seen some really interesting female secondary characters emerging in recent years such as Ellie in The Last of Us and Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite. You do get more female led titles in smaller, indie games, which unfortunately don’t always get the recognition they deserve, although I was pleased to see Gone Home get so many plaudits.

“I think the marketing of female characters is going through a shift at the moment. The previous Tomb Raiders were often marketed in a very sexualised, just-for-the-guys way. Not only did it not really reflect the games themselves, but I think that was rather off putting for some female gamers, myself included, and probably some male ones too. Now that way of portraying a female character seems positively archaic. Lara is for everyone.”

Another strong female representation Pratchett authored was Mirror’s Edge protagonist, Faith, who was designed to resemble real women more closely – a deviation from the women of Soul Calibur, Dead or Alive, and even the original Tomb Raider.

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With a sequel set before the events of the original game in the works, I asked Pratchett how she felt about the project; despite writing the original (as well as working with DC on a series of comics), EA have begun development without her.

Does this feel like an undoing of her legacy? “I wrote the prequel story in the comics, so I guess they’re completely rewriting that for the next game. They own the IP, so it’s absolutely their right to do so.”

She notes her first clue was that nobody contacted her by the time of the announcement. “No one I worked with on Mirror’s Edge is even at the studio anymore, let alone working on the next game. I know as much about it as the average gamer. The first project was very hard for all concerned. However, it would’ve been nice for them to have checked in with me to see if I was even interested in working on the next one, as I’d spent more time expanding the world, stories and characters than anyone else on the team. I think there would have to be a very different attitude towards the narrative this time around for me to be interested in working on a sequel.”

It’s not all bad news, though: “considering I went on to work on Tomb Raider and helped reimagine Lara Croft, partly because of Mirror’s Edge and Heavenly Sword, I don’t really have anything to complain about. Karma has a way of sorting things out…eventually!”

We spoke briefly about her father, Terry Pratchett. Did having such a famous author as a father influence her at all? “I’m not sure how much he influenced me to go into writing. He certainly didn’t actively encourage it. I guess it was just in the blood.”

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Indeed, the relationship between Rhianna and her father is much more complex than a literary dynasty: “I’m immensely proud of what my father has achieved in his career, but I see him as being my dad first and foremost, not ‘Terry Pratchett’ [the] famous author. He’s the man who built me Moomin Valley out of papier-mâché, taught me how to milk goats and who took me out of bed in the middle of the night to see glow worms and Halley’s comet.”

In an interview with New Statesman in 2012, Terry Pratchett declared that Discworld was “safe” in Rhianna’s hands. “That interview had many people jumping to the conclusion that I’d be continuing to write the books. I don’t have any intention of doing that. When it comes to Discworld I consider myself more of a caretaker, or a narrative gardener, than a successor – keeping things in line with what I feel my father would’ve wanted.”

“However, I will be involved with things like adaptations (I’m adapting Wee Free Men into a screenplay at the moment) and I am part of the creative team behind Terry Pratchett’s The Watch spin-off TV series. That’s where I feel my strengths lie. The books are sacred to dad.”

Concluding, I ask her what a typical working day is for her. As with many media professionals, she notes she doesn’t really have a typical day. “Typical tends to make me a little bored. I usually try and spend a few hours solid writing and then the rest of the time is spent researching, reading, answering emails and interviews, and polishing my Hearthstone skills.

“Alongside my game projects (which I can’t talk about) I’m currently finishing the first draft of Wee Free Men and also working on the Tomb Raider comics with Gail. My first screenplay, an adaptation of Janet Paisley’s novel Warrior Daughter (which I developed with funding from the BFI and Creative Scotland) is going out to directors at the moment. Exciting times!”

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