Writing for video games is a job like no other, according to writer and Inspirefest 2017 speaker Rhianna Pratchett.
Imagine being a writer but, at any given moment, your work could suddenly shift narrative dramatically, under intense time pressure.
That, according to veteran writer Rhianna Pratchett, is something you learn to accept when you dive headfirst into the world of video gaming.
In January of this year, Pratchett stood down as the lead writer of the rebooted Tomb Raider series after four years, having overseen Lara Croft’s transition from a gaming icon mostly famous for her looks, to a fully fledged character and inspiration for other women characters in video games.
It proved to be a successful few years for Pratchett as, during that time, Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider were nominated for a number of major awards.
Surely the highlight, at least from a personal perspective, was the latter being named the winner of the Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing award at the 2016 Writers Guild of America Awards.
Just the other day, Pratchett was awarded an honorary doctorate from Teesside University for her contribution to gaming.
Tomb Raider like working on a new title
Speaking with Siliconrepublic.com, Pratchett said she was delighted to take on the job of writing Croft for a new generation, saying it was “fertile country” for a writer.
“It was a little like having a new [game] in some ways because there was a reimagining of Lara but, at the same time, keeping a lot of the traits we associate with her, like bravery, tenacity, resourcefulness and intelligence,” she said.
Croft is the third major woman character Pratchett has written for and personally, it offered her the chance to redeem the icon from what she saw as the heavily gendered, male-oriented creation during her first iteration in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“It was a great challenge to take on and I was grateful to Crystal Dynamics for giving me that opportunity … as you can imagine, lots of people have lots of different opinions about Lara!”
The decade or so between the games also marked a key moment in the video game industry as it went from a niche market, to one that rivals Hollywood blockbusters in terms of revenue.
But what about writing for video games in general?
Can’t be too precious about your script
As alluded to earlier, building a story for a video game is not a simple process. When a writer is brought in to construct a story for a film, the process is usually pretty structured, starting with a pitch and ending with a final draft.
This is definitely not the case when it comes to writing for video games.
“With games, it’s like writing a movie script while shooting the movie at the same time,” Pratchett admitted.
“You could be losing levels, characters and things like that, so you need a flexible script and you have to be a very flexible writer, too, and not get too precious if it’s cut.”
This happened to her a few times during the writing process for Tomb Raider, with characters suddenly getting killed off that were not intended to, resulting in a number of rewrites.
That said, writing for a video game is much more than creating interesting characters, she explained, rather, it is about building the world around them in a way that takes a lot of time and effort, which many players may not spot at first.
“It’s about a lot of invisible stuff behind the scene, building the scene of the world and conveying narratives in other ways than words such as through sounds or music,” she said.
“Humans are storytelling creatures. We look for stories everywhere so even if it’s not obviously present, we’ll still be looking to understand the world [through video games].”
Much more than just writing a character
The example she gave was that of the BAFTA award-winning game Inside created by Playdead Games, which has no dialogue but tells a story through background details, mechanics and its overall theme.
In a market increasingly filled with major multiplayer titles such as Call of Duty and Overwatch, Pratchett believes that storytelling in video games will remain a key part of development in the years to come.
“I don’t think we’ll ever see the death of the single-player game. I think there’s a lot of players out there that enjoy them a lot and anyway, multiplayer games do not mean that there is a lack of narrative.”
This same changing narrative has been seen not only in the worlds created on screen, but in gaming companies that have only really embraced writing in the past 15 years.
When Pratchett began her entry into the gaming industry as a journalist in 1998, she said that writers were few and far between, so much so that many were never allowed to speak to the press.
“Writing was done by whoever had the time and inclination to do it, and it was probably why narrative in gaming was not highly regarded in the past, aside from narrative-driven genres like role-playing games.”
This has obviously changed quite a bit, with writers now just as revered in some cases as their lead designers, Pratchett being an obvious example. In addition, huge teams of writers and assistants are now becoming an essential part of many leading titles.
Still more work to do
But, while the teams may have grown, can the same be said for the amount of diversity within them, given that the average gamer is as likely to be a woman as a man?
As one of its leading lights, Pratchett has seen first-hand how the industry has gotten “kicked in the pants a lot” over its less-than-ideal attitude towards inclusion in the past, taking a “good, hard look at itself”as a result.
“That’s producing some interesting things, and developers are interested in creating more diverse teams [of writers], and are seeing how beneficial that can be while trying to reach out to more women and people of colour to come on board.”
She admits that this is by no means a total win at this early stage, as, despite meeting more and more women in the gaming industry, she can find it hard to tell sometimes as to whether that is just because she travels a lot in these circles.
“The industry has put a big tick under ‘yes’ [for inclusion], but they are still trying to figure out how to reach out to more diverse people,” she said.
“It’s similar to narrative, in that we’ve decided it is good to have more of it and now we’ve decided it is good to have more diversity, it’s just a matter of finding the best way to do it.”
Rhianna Pratchett will be speaking at Inspirefest, Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book now to join us from 6 to 8 July in Dublin.