Shockingly Short Interview: Rhianna Pratchett

Shockingly Short Interview: Rhianna Pratchett

If you don’t know who Rhianna Pratchett is, you haven’t been paying attention. Riding high on the wave of critical acclaim for last year’s Tomb Raider reboot, she’s also responsible for the writing on games ranging from Mirror’s Edge to Overlord. But games aren’t her only medium; you can check out her comics work in the epic Legends of Red Sonja series, where she solves a mystery that has haunted sword-and-sorcery fans for decades. Without any further ado, then, here is Rhianna explaining the benefits of liquor-drenched corners in the writing process, how writing games is like playing with a rubber ducky, and the finer points of British Accents For Video Games.

Who the heck are you? (Not that people shouldn’t already know, but…)

I am a dedicated tea drinker, cat cuddler and Moomin enthusiast. In between all that, I put words together in a pleasing order (or a displeasing order, depending on how you view my work). I’ve smooshed those words into videogames, comics (for DC, Dark Horse and Dynamite) short stories, non-fiction, and most recently, film and TV projects. I am a prolific pie poker.

Shockingly Short Interview: Rhianna Pratchett

Career-wise, you made the jump from games journalism to game development. What drove the switch, and what were the hardest parts about making the transition?

Fear, frustration and the voices in my head. Well, that, along with the fact that I actually got offered a job working as a story editor for a RPG called Beyond Divinity. At the time I’d just gone freelance from my staff writing job at PC Zone, and wasn’t really aware that writing for games was a career option. It wasn’t talked about and dissected in the way it is now.

There’s always more to learn and more ways to improve

Writers, if they were used at all, were kept very much behind the scenes, usually in some dark, liquor-drenched corner.

I guess the hardest part is the slow realization that writing for games is much, much harder that it looks from the outside. There are a lot of boundaries and limitations foisted on games writers which vary from project to project. Plus, you sometimes have to deal with a residual feeling amongst your co-workers (due to the fact that, professionally speaking, we’re occupying a relatively new development role) that writers are just folks that put a fancy title on something that anyone can do.

Many of the games you have written for – Mirror’s Edge, the latest Tomb Raider, Heavenly Sword – have featured strong female protagonists. And then there’s the Overlord series, which is all about…tiny cackling minions. How do you get in the head of an evil minion to give him a distinctive voice?

Remember the liquor drenching I mentioned earlier? It involves some of that. Actually, writing slightly twisted, evil enhanced comedy came quite naturally to me. I really, really wish there were more games that embraced humor in the way the Overlord games did. They were definitely as much fun to write and voice direct as they are to play, which is a rare thing.

With Mirror’s Edge, you got the chance to take a character you’d written for in-game and translate her into a graphic novel setting. How does the experience of writing Faith in that medium compare to writing her in a game setting?

You don’t get a huge amount of space to work with in a game world. Of course, this depends on the genre of game you’re working on, the team’s attitude towards narrative and how far the game is into development when you’re brought on board – freelance writers are usually employed 1-2 years into a development cycle.

Shockingly Short Interview: Rhianna Pratchett

Creatively, it can be a bit like splashing around in a bath. If you’re fortunate, you get a good soak and maybe a bit of a play with the rubber ducky. If not, then we’re talking tepid water and serious loofa chafing. Either way you’re confined by your environment. You can still do great things within a restricted space, but you will always be bobbing up against the needs of gameplay and level design, which don’t always run in line with the needs of narrative.

Writing for comics is a bit like being plopped into a small swimming pool. Sure, you’re still confined by your environment, in this case the needs of panel construction and page length, but there’s more space for you to splash your creative legs.

So that’s a long way of saying that I could put more into the comics than I could into the game. Partly that was due to the fact that I was hired quite late in the game’s development cycle, so there just wasn’t the time, space and budget to do what I would have liked. The comics proved to be very cathartic in that regard.

Do you have any advice for a new writer?

Honestly, I’m still learning myself. And that’s the thing about writing really: there’s always more to learn and more ways to improve. You shouldn’t ever find yourself hitting ‘Level 12 Writer’ and just putting your feet up and going, Well, that’s me done!

Writing for games is much, much harder that it looks from the outside

Keep writing, that’s the key. Keep practicing the art. Eventually, even imperceptibly at first, you will get better. You’ll start to learn the shape of stories and character in the same way that a carpenter can see the shape of a chair in a block of wood. Read too; study the craft, but also drink up as much fiction, non-fiction and news as you can get. Be a sponge for stories of people and the crazy ways they make it through life.

And when it comes to writing for games… Well, thankfully these days writers are occasionally allowed out of their liquor-drenched corners to speak about what they do and how they do it. Sometimes they are even allowed to commit this to paper. The IGDA Writers’ Special Interest Group has written several books (here, here and here) on the craft of games writing, and it’s all really good stuff. Go to conferences like GDC, Develop and Gamescom and meet developers for yourself. ‘Network’ might be a horrible word, especially to writers, but it really is the best way to find a paying gig. Also, if you see me at events, I generally operate on an advice-for-cake policy. [Editor’s note: This is true. Ask Jay Posey.]

Shockingly Short Interview: Rhianna Pratchett

British accents in video games: Acceptable, or just good enough to fool Americans who grew up on Dr. Who and Monty Python?

Basically I think we’re just so happy to hear British accents in games that we don’t care too much about how accurate they are. Although a lot tend to vary between posh totty Nigella Lawson/Julie Andrews types and ‘Lundun’ Ray Winston style cockneys. But it is a fabulous country for comedy regional accents. We tried to push the net a bit wider with Overlord (since we were using British actors) and even had a few brummie and West Country accents in the mix. I think the British accent is much harder to muster if you’re not from UK, or don’t have at least a decade or two of serious tea drinking under your belt. And we’re back to tea. I’m a walking cliché. I even have a small collection of teapots. Good grief…

For Richard Dansky’s writing advice columns, check out these posts:

Talk the Talk

The Things They Don’t Teach You In Game Writer School

On Becoming a Game Writer

Tips for Writers

The Author

Perhaps best known for his brief stint as the world’s leading authority on Denebian Slime Devils, Richard Dansky has been with Red Storm/Ubisoft since 1999. His first game was Shadow Watch and his most recent one is Splinter Cell Blacklist. In between he’s served on the advisory board for GDC’s Game Narrative Summit, helped found and develop the IGDA Game Writing SIG, and appeared on Gamasutra’s list of the top 20 game writers in 2009. He has also published six novels, one short fiction collection and a ton of tabletop RPG sourcebooks, which is why you should never tell him about your character. For a tantalizing taste of Dansky's inimitable insights, read his recurring column on the UbiBlog ("The Write Stuff") and follow him on Twitter: @RDansky